Fox’s Biscuits employs 2,000 people. An extensive own-label producer, it is best known for the Rocky and Party Rings biscuits.
Michael Spedding establishes the business
Michael Spedding (1834 – 1927) was born to a humble family in Marsh, Huddersfield, Yorkshire. He received just three months of formal education, supplemented with some Sunday school teaching.
Spedding worked at a cotton mill in nearby Meltham by the age of 13. His grandfather encouraged him to relocate to Batley to find work. Spedding was poor, and made the 15-mile journey on foot. His economic position was such that on some nights he would sleep in barns.
Spedding married Susan Fox (1834 – 1895), the daughter of a bone-setter, in 1854.
Spedding established himself as a food seller from 1863. He began to concentrate on the confectionery trade, with an initial focus on brandy snap biscuits.
In addition to his confectionery business, Spedding took over the bone-setting business of his father-in-law from 1877.
Spedding had been joined in business by his daughter Hannah and his son-in-law Fred Ellis Fox (1871 – 1938) by 1891.
The firm began to trade as F E Fox & Co from 1897, and Spedding retired in 1900. Brandy snaps continued to be the major product.
F E Fox & Son
F E Fox was joined by his son, Michael Spedding Fox (1896 – 1963), and the firm began to trade as F E Fox & Son.
F E Fox & Son relocated to a new site at Batley from 1927.
Michael Spedding died as one of the oldest men in his district in 1927.
F E Fox & Son was best known for brandy snaps and ginger biscuits by 1929.
F E Fox & Son was incorporated as a private company in 1938. The business was still a regional concern at this time.
F E Fox died in 1938 and left an estate valued at £19,243. Michael Spedding Fox became managing director of the company.
Michael Spedding Fox expands the business
The Batley factory was expanded and modernised in the post-war period. F E Fox & Son Ltd had around 500 employees by 1955.
F E Fox & Son won a valuable contract to produce biscuits for Marks & Spencer in 1958. The contract accounted for half of all production.
F E Fox & Son required capital to fulfil its ambitions of becoming a nationally recognised company. The business went public in 1960 as Fox’s Biscuits with an authorised share capital of £400,000. There were around 950 employees.
Parkinson’s Biscuits of Kirkham, Preston was acquired in 1966.
J Lyons & Co acquired a 25 percent stake in Fox’s Biscuits in 1972.
Acquisition by Northern Foods
Fox’s Biscuits was acquired by Northern Foods in 1977. Following the merger of their interests, Northern Foods supplied Marks & Spencer with around 40 percent of its cake and biscuits.
Alfred Henry Fox died in 1977 with an estate valued at £124,375.
Fox’s Biscuits had emerged as one of the strongest brands at Northern Foods by the 1980s.
Fox’s Biscuits was one of the largest biscuit manufacturers in Britain by 1986. Around 2,500 people were employed.
Elkes Biscuits of Uttoxeter was acquired in 1987.
Northern Foods invested £20 million to increase production at Fox’s biscuits in 1987.
Fox’s Biscuits was best known for its Rocky and Party Rings biscuits by the 1990s.
2 Sisters Food Group
Northern Foods was acquired by 2 Sisters Food Group in 2011.
The non-core Fox’s Biscuits business was identified as a potential divestment for 2 Sisters in 2016, with an estimated sale price of £250 million.
There are three Fox’s Biscuits factories as of 2019, located at Uttoxeter, Batley and Kirkham near Preston. The division employs 2,000 people. The company has a large contract and own-label business, producing Farley’s Rusks for Heinz, for example.
The Elkes brand is still used by Fox’s to market its budget range of biscuits.
Before being absorbed into United Biscuits, Crawford’s was the longest-established biscuit manufacturer in Britain. The brand continues today as the economy sister brand to McVitie’s.
Origins and early growth
Ship biscuits were first produced at 31 Shore, a public house in Leith, Edinburgh, from 1813. Robert Mathie (1790 – 1863) took over the business from 1817. He employed five men by 1851.
Mathie retired and sold the business to William Crawford (1818 – 1889) in 1856. Crawford immediately opened an outlet on 14 Leith Street, Edinburgh to extend his customer base.
Crawford was a master baker employing six men and one boy by 1861. He relocated his Edinburgh outlet to 2 Princes Street from 1866.
Crawford employed five men and one boy in 1871.
Crawford established a custom-built factory at Elbe Street, Leith in 1879. The business traded as William Crawford & Sons from 1880. The wheat meal biscuit, similar to a digestive, had replaced the ship biscuit as the leading product by this time.
William Crawford died as a well-respected figure in Leith and Edinburgh in 1889. He was succeeded as principal of the firm by his son, William Crawford (1858 – 1926), a man of a retiring disposition. It would be due to the efforts of the son that the family firm would grow to national scale.
The Elbe Street factory was described as “large” by 1891.
Establishment of a Liverpool factory
William Crawford sent two of his brothers, Archibald Inglis Crawford (1869 – 1940) and James Shields Russell Crawford (1863 – 1927), to establish a subsidiary in Australia in 1897. The brothers were due to set sail from Liverpool, but instead decided to stay put, and established the Fairfield Works on Binns Road in the city.
Crawford products around this time included wheat meal, shortbread, currant and rich tea biscuits, as well as cream crackers.
William Crawford & Sons had established national distribution by 1900.
William Crawford & Sons of Leith was registered as a limited liability company with a capital of £251,000 in 1906. The Crawford family controlled the company.
The Leith factory was largely rebuilt in 1906, and covered a quarter of an acre. The factory employed 150 men and boys by 1911.
Alexander Hunter Crawford (1865 – 1945), a leading Edinburgh architect, joined the company from around 1920.
William Crawford & Sons employed hundreds of people at its factories at Leith and Liverpool by 1923. By this time the company claimed to be “the oldest of the biscuit manufacturers”.
Company capital was increased to £700,000 in 1924.
William Crawford died with an estate valued at £876,211 in 1926.
Archibald Inglis Crawford died in 1940 with an estate valued at £1,015,886.
Douglas Inglis Crawford (1904 – 1981), son of Archibald, became company chairman from 1946. His father had instilled in him the values of honesty and integrity.
Takeover by United Biscuits
William Crawford & Sons was the largest privately-owned biscuit manufacturer in Britain by 1962. Its best known product was shortbread. The business employed 3,000 people in Liverpool, and 1,000 in Leith.
The company was still largely in Crawford family hands when it was acquired in a friendly takeover by United Biscuits for £6.25 million in 1962. Douglas Crawford was appointed vice chairman of United Biscuits.
United Biscuits closed the Leith factory in 1970, with the loss of 703 jobs. Meanwhile an investment of £2 million saw production increased by 50 percent at the Liverpool plant.
The Crawford factory in Liverpool was the longest-established and largest of all United Biscuits factories. It was also the most progressive in terms of employee relations. The site covered seventeen acres and employed 4,000 people by 1977. The Tuc biscuit and Tartan shortbread were its leading products.
Douglas Crawford died with a net estate of £252,431 in 1981.
United Biscuits wound-down manufacturing operations at Liverpool between 1984 and 1987. 934 full time and over 1,000 part time jobs were lost. Some administrative functions are maintained at the site.
The Crawford name was repositioned as an economy brand from 2014. The Crawford’s (formerly Peek Frean) Family Circle was rebranded under the McVitie’s name.
United Biscuits produces McVitie’s Digestives, Jaffa Cakes, Jacob’s cream crackers and Carr’s water biscuits.
Two Scottish biscuit manufacturers, McVitie & Price and Macfarlane Lang merged in 1948 to form United Biscuits, with a capital of £3.5 million. The businesses continued to trade under their respective names.
The Harlesden, North London, facility became the first fully-automated biscuit factory in the world in 1948, increasing output by 1000 percent.
McVitie & Price produced around 450 different products in 1939. This had been streamlined to about twelve major lines, with corresponding cost efficiencies, by 1959.
United Biscuits held nearly 70 percent of the digestive biscuit market by 1959. It was also a leader in the sale of Rich Tea biscuits.
United Biscuits was the largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain by 1962.
William Crawford & Sons, the largest privately-owned biscuit manufacturer in the United Kingdom, was acquired in 1962 in a mostly share-based transaction which valued the company at £5.9 million.
United Biscuits increased its capital from £9 million to £13 million in 1963. Hector Laing (1923 -2010) became managing director of United Biscuits in 1964.
United Biscuits entered the packaged cake market in 1964. The company had taken a 14 percent share of the market by 1968, winning market share from J Lyons.
William Macdonald & Sons of Glasgow was acquired in 1965 for £2.8 million in cash and shares. The firm had introduced the Penguin chocolate-coated biscuit in 1932. It was experiencing strong growth, and held almost 20 percent of British chocolate biscuit exports.
The United Biscuits subsidiaries were absorbed into a single operating company in 1965. The company announced plans to close four of its nine factories, and to greatly increase production at Glasgow and Liverpool in 1966.
The McVitie & Price factory in Edinburgh was closed in 1967 with the loss of 541 jobs. The Macdonald factory at North Cardonald, Glasgow was closed with the loss of 497 jobs. The Crawford factory in Leith was closed in 1970 with the loss of 703 jobs, and the Macdonald factory at Hillington, Glasgow was closed with the loss of 497 jobs. The factories that were closed had no room for expansion, and it made economic sense to rationalise production at a smaller number of larger sites.
The Macfarlane Lang factory at Tollcross, Glasgow was doubled in size at a cost of £2.3 million in 1969. The labour force was increased from 250 to 1,350. The factory would supply the Scotland, Northern Ireland and North of England markets.
The Crawford factory at Liverpool increased capacity by 50 percent following a £2 million investment in the 1970.
Sales of the McVitie’s brand doubled between 1962 and 1967, and McVitie’s had by far the most brand recognition in its category. The McVitie’s Chocolate Home Wheat (a chocolate digestive) was its highest seller.
Meredith & Drew was acquired in 1967. Following the acquisition, United Biscuits produced over one third of all biscuits consumed in Britain.
Kenyon, Son & Craven, with the KP salted peanuts brand, was acquired in 1968 in a share exchange which valued the private company at £3.5 million.
United Biscuits was the largest biscuit manufacturing company in Europe by 1969.
Hector Laing became company chairman in 1972. That year, United Biscuits took over the biscuit interests of Cavenham, which included Carr’s of Carlisle and Wright’s of South Shields for £4 million in cash.
The South Shields factory was closed in 1973 with the loss of 823 jobs.
A total of four factories and four offices were closed in the early 1970s in a spate of rationalisation. The McVitie, Crawford and Macfarlane sales teams were merged in the early 1970s.
United Biscuits acquired Keebler, the second largest US biscuit manufacturer, in 1974.
United Biscuits employed 36,000 people in 1976. Its products were sold in 92 countries. The company controlled 41.6 percent of the British biscuit market, and boasted eight out of the ten highest selling products.
Not every venture was a success however, and United Biscuits was prepared to admit defeat when appropriate; in 1977 the company withdrew from the packaged cakes market.
By 1978 United Biscuits sold 75 million biscuits every day.
In 1980 it was announced that the former Macfarlane Lang factory at Osterley, West London would be closed with the loss of 2,000 jobs.
The Hobnob biscuit was introduced in 1985.
In an admission of defeat in the American snacks market, Keebler was divested for $500 million in 1995.
United Biscuits employed 22,500 people in 22 countries in 1999.
Jacob’s, a Liverpool biscuit manufacturer, was acquired from Danone of France for £200 million in 2004.
United Biscuits was acquired by private equity firms Blackstone and PAI Partners for £1.6 billion in 2006.
In 2012 the snacks division of United Biscuits, including Hula Hoops crisps and KP nuts, was sold to Intersnack of Germany, manufacturer of Pom-Bear crisps and Penn State pretzels, for £504 million.
In 2013 United Biscuits was sold to Yildiz Holding of Istanbul for over £2 billion to create the third largest biscuit manufacturer in the world, behind Mondelez and Kellogg.
From 2014 United Biscuits rebranded all of its sweet biscuits under the McVitie’s name, and all of its savoury biscuits under the Jacob’s name. McVitie’s gained the Club, Fig Rolls, BN and Iced Gems products from Jacob’s, whilst Jacob’s gained the Cheddars snacks products. The Crawford’s name was repositioned as a value brand, and products such as Family Circle were rebranded as McVitie’s.
As of 2017 the Harlesden site is the largest biscuit factory in Europe. The facility employs 580 workers. 22 different lines are produced, including Digestives, Hob Nobs and Mini Cheddars.
This article continues from Part I. Part II chronicles the decline of Huntley & Palmers from its position as the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world.
Registered as a company
George Palmer (1818 – 1897), the driving force behind the firm, died in 1897 and the following year Huntley & Palmers was registered as a private limited company. The company had 4,000 employees in 1899.
Huntley & Palmers was the 38th largest British industrial company in 1905, with a capital of £2.4 million (c. £255 million in 2014). It had 6,500 employees.
Iced gems were introduced in 1910.
As late as 1910, Huntley & Palmers largely eschewed advertising.
Huntley & Palmers had a regular staff of 7,000 by 1911, plus additional staff during peak times. That year the company was accused of dismissing without notice workers who were affiliated with trade unions, although company officials denied the accusation.
Huntley & Palmers was the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world. By 1914 almost half of production was exported, 50 percent of which was destined for the Far East and Africa.
The company supplied the British army with hard tack biscuits during the First World War.
The export trade was slow to rebuild after the First World War; in 1924 only 25 percent of output was exported. Meanwhile, domestic sales declined as H&P failed to introduce new products or update existing ones. Marketing was poor, with inadequate advertising, fewer salesman than other firms and no depots outside Reading.
It has been argued that Huntley & Palmers had too many product lines to produce efficiently, and that the Palmer family paid themselves overly generous dividends and salaries, funds which might otherwise have been reinvested into the business.
By 1920 Huntley & Palmers operated 24 acres of factories across 36 acres of floorspace. 90 percent of the thousands of tons of flour used annually was grown and milled in the area around Reading. The Osborne (similar to a digestive) was their most popular biscuit, followed by the Marie (rich tea) and the Ginger Nut.
Associated Biscuit Manufacturers
High income tax and death duties persuaded H&P to merge with Peek Frean of Bermondsey, under a holding company called Associated Biscuit Manufacturers, in 1921. Individual production and marketing strategies were maintained by the two companies.
By neglecting the commodity category of the biscuit market, ABM’s domestic market share had declined to 15 percent.
William Howard Palmer died in 1923 with an estate valued at £536,794.
A factory was opened near Paris in 1923. At the time it was decried in Britain as the transfer of jobs overseas.
80 percent of the 6,000 strong workforce at the Reading factory went on strike in 1924. The dispute, regarding worker efficiency, was settled within three days after Huntley & Palmers agreed to recognise the worker’s union.
Peek Frean turnover and profits had exceeded those of Huntley & Palmers by 1927. Peek Frean installed automated biscuit plants in the early 1930s, but H&P did not do so until 1938.
ABM employed 7,245 people in 1935.
Two large rivals emerged: the value biscuit manufacturer George Weston had established production volumes that equalled ABM by 1938. In 1948 the Scottish firms McVitie & Price and MacFarlane Lang merged to form United Biscuits, with 3,350 employees.
Factories were opened in Canada, the United States and Australia in 1949. The Reading factory employed 3,000 people in 1954. A new factory was opened in Huyton, Liverpool in 1955.
The Cornish Wafer was H&P’s highest selling biscuit by 1954. Associated Biscuits concentrated on cream, savoury and assorted biscuits. Around 15 to 20 percent of production was exported in 1959.
Jacob’s joins Associated Biscuit Manufacturers Jacob’s, the third largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain, was acquired by ABM in 1960.
The range of biscuits produced by Huntley & Palmers was streamlined in the mid to late 1960s in order to focus on the most profitable lines.
ABM was reorganised as Associated Biscuits in 1969.
AB employed 9,856 people in 1972. From 1972 the company dedicated the vast majority of its advertising spend to the Jacob’s brand. One third of sales came from overseas, with factories in Australia, Canada and India.
Associated Biscuits had an 18 percent share of the British biscuit market in 1976. It was behind United Biscuits with 40 percent.
The Reading factory was closed in 1976. Associated Biscuits claimed that the 21-acre site was “surplus to requirements”, and production was relocated to Liverpool and Bermondsey. The Reading site was sold for £4 million in 1979.
Overseas production was dedicated to British-style biscuits. Digestives and shortcakes were popular in Canada, whilst the Indian market preferred cream crackers and Thin Arrowroot.
In 1982 Associated Biscuits employed over 14,000 people in Britain, and 3,100 overseas.
Acquisition by Nabisco
Nabisco, the American manufacturer of Shredded Wheat and Ritz crackers, acquired Associated Biscuits in 1982. Nabisco was interested in the Huntley & Palmers brand, as well as its worldwide distribution network, particularly in Singapore, Canada, France and Germany.
The five Associated Biscuits factories in Britain were operating at half to two thirds capacity, and the business became loss-making. The Huyton factory was closed with the loss of 770 jobs in 1984, and production was relocated to Aintree, Liverpool.
The Aintree site was modernised at a cost of £25 million in 1986.
Huntley & Palmers was positioned as the Associated Biscuits premium sweet biscuit brand. However it accounted for just five percent of company production by weight by 1988.
Nabisco did not successfully manage their British biscuit operations. Their market share in biscuits had declined to 11.7 percent by 1988, and they were forced to reverse their decision to discontinue production of Bath Oliver biscuits following popular protest.
High overheads and traffic congestion saw the Peek Frean factory at Bermondsey closed with the loss of 1,022 jobs in 1989. Production was transferred to Aintree and Leicestershire.
Takeover by BSN
Associated Biscuits was acquired by BSN of France in 1989.
The Huntley & Palmers brand was phased out in favour of the Jacob’s name in 1990. It made sense to concentrate resources behind a single brand, and the Jacob’s name was better known, and believed to have a more contemporary image than the Huntley & Palmers brand. Huntley & Palmers products subjected to a re-branding included Romany and Crumbles.
The head office was relocated from Reading to Liverpool in 1996.
Sale to United Biscuits
BSN (now called Danone) sold its UK and Irish biscuit operations to United Biscuits for £200 million in 2004.
Former Huntley & Palmers products such as Lemon Puffs and Cornish Wafers are still sold under the Jacob’s brand, and Thin Arrowroots under the McVitie’s name.
Huntley & Palmers biscuits are still produced in New Zealand.
Since around 2018 the Huntley & Palmers brand in the United Kingdom appears to have been acquired by Freemans Confectionery, a Walsall-based confectionery wholesaler, who use the brand to market own-label products such as cakes.
Carr’s are best known for their Table Water biscuits. Their factory in Carlisle is the oldest continually-operating biscuit factory in the world.
Establishment and development
Jonathan Dodgson Carr (1806 – 1884) was the son of a grocer from Kendal in the North West of England. Carr served an apprenticeship to a baker, and then commenced business as a miller and baker on Castle Street, Carlisle, from 1831.
Carr began to sell biscuits in tins in order to preserve product freshness. He became the first person to use steam-powered machinery to manufacture biscuits.
Sales soon grew, and Carr opened a factory on Caldewgate, Carlisle, from 1834.
A committed Quaker, Carr was a gentle, kind and modest man. An enlightened employer, he had established a library for his workforce by 1841.
With assistance from Philip Henry Howard (1801 – 1883), the Member of Parliament for Carlisle, Carr was appointed biscuit maker to Queen Victoria in 1841. He was at this point the sole manufacturer of machine-made biscuits in the United Kingdom. At this stage only four varieties of biscuit were produced.
The Royal Warrant was to prove a boon to sales, and 400 tons of biscuits were produced in 1846, with a staff of 90.
After the death of J D Carr in 1884, he was formally succeeded by his three sons, Henry (1834 -1904), James (1838 – 1901) and Thomas (1840 – 1895). As the eldest, Henry Carr was the chairman.
A deeply spiritual man, Henry Carr had a greater inclination towards religion than business. However, he was determined to show that he was worthy of the legacy left him by his father. He ventured upon an ambitious expansion of the biscuit factory, almost doubling its productive capacity in 1891.
Just under 1,000 people were employed by 1891. Nearly 300 different varieties of biscuit were produced. 18,000 Derby biscuits could be produced in one hour. 200,000 Midget biscuits could be cut in an hour.
Overexpansion saw Carr & Co capital run short, and the firm’s bank forced the business to make a public offering of shares in 1894.
A Royal Warrant to supply King Edward VII was issued from 1903.
The factory covered several acres by 1904, and 300 varieties of biscuit were produced.
Henry died in 1904, and was succeeded as chairman by Theodore (1866 – 1931), the son of Thomas Carr.
Theodore Carr was a hands-on employer. In 1890 he had developed the Table Water biscuit, which soon became the company’s signature product. It was a variant of the Captain’s Thin, a Victorian staple which was itself derived from the ship biscuit. The Table Water biscuit was thinner and crisper than any biscuit before it, and paired particularly well with cheese.
The unprofitable flour milling division was divested as Carr’s Flour Mills in 1908.
The biscuit factory employed 4,000 people by 1919.
Carr & Co had a capital of £600,000 in 1927.
Theodore Carr died in 1931, and he was succeeded by his brother, Harold Carr (1880 – 1937).
Carr & Co granted its workers a five day working week from 1934, and reduced hours from 47 to 45 with no reduction in pay.
Carr & Co was one of the largest biscuit manufacturers in Britain by 1939, producing 14,500 tons a year. The biscuit factory was one of the largest in the world.
A fully automated biscuit-making plant was installed in 1960.
Carr & Co was a mid-sized British biscuit producer by the 1960s, and suffered from increasing competition from the larger manufacturers.
Cavenham, controlled by James Goldsmith (1933 – 1997), acquired Carr & Co in 1964, beating a £1.2 million bid by J Lyons. Carr & Co was around 30 percent family-owned, and the Carr family supported the takeover.
Capital-saving measures were introduced, including the sale of the freehold of the Carlisle factory for £600,000, which was then leased back for £63,000 a year.
Goldsmith rationalised the Carr product range. He had tripled the sales of Carr’s Table Water biscuits, the leading product of the company, by 1966, to take around three percent of the British biscuit market.
Ian Carr (1929 – 2004), a company director, claimed that Goldsmith had planned to build a biscuit empire by acquiring Associated Biscuits. This never transpired however, and Carr & Co was sold to United Biscuits in 1972.
United Biscuits immediately transferred some Carlisle production to a factory in Liverpool, with the loss of 80 jobs. However the Carlisle factory escaped closure, in part, due to its excellent labour relations, which were in themselves a valuable asset.
United Biscuits factory rationalisation, as well as increasing sales of bourbon and custard cream biscuits, saw the factory operating times increased from five to seven days a week from 1990. To accommodate the increased production, 250 new staff were hired, to take the total employed to 2,050.
The Carlisle factory employed over 600 people in 2016, and produced McVitie’s products such as the Gold bar, as well as Carr’s Water Biscuits. It is the oldest continually-operating biscuit factory in the world.
United Biscuits rebranded all of its savoury biscuits under the Jacob’s name from 2014. Jacob’s gained the Mini Cheddars product, but lines such as Club, Fig Rolls, BN and Iced Gems were rebranded as McVitie’s.
The Aintree site produced over 55,000 tonnes of products in 2014. 900 people were employed at the factory.
It was announced that the Aintree site would receive an investment of £10 million in 2015. The site is the centre of United Biscuits savoury snack production, and brands manufactured include Twiglets, Mini Cheddars and Club, as well as Jacob’s.
Jacob’s holds 25 percent of the British savoury biscuit market as of 2015.
Meredith & Drew was the largest biscuit manufacturer in Europe.
William Meredith (1803 – 1868), originally from Bristol, established a bakery at Shadwell, East London from 1830. William George Drew (1813 – 1867) was his principal assistant.
Little is known of this early period, but following a quarrel between the two men, Drew left to establish his own biscuit business nearby from 1852.
Meredith hired Frederick Collier (1838 – 1903) from 1853. Meredith focused on the public house trade for his biscuits, pound cakes and Banbury cakes. He operated a steam-powered factory on Commerical Road East, and traded as Meredith & Son by 1856.
Drew & Sons
Drew had also established a steam-powered factory by 1856, located on Shadwell High Street. Like Meredith, he focused on supplying the public house and hotel trade with biscuits. He employed 30 men by 1861.
Drew died from a heart attack in 1867, and his obituary hailed him as “a man of remarkable energy and enterprise”, remembered for his charitable interests. He was succeeded in his business by his wife Barbara, and his only son, Lear James Drew (1840 – 1917), a genial man.
Drew & Sons produced over 100 different varieties of biscuit by 1877.
Meredith & Drew
Frederick Meredith and Lear James Drew merged their interests as Meredith & Drew in 1891, with a capital of £107,000.
Meredith & Drew received its first Royal Warrant, from Queen Victoria, in 1894.
The Meredith & Drew factory at Shadwell was extended in 1896. Production was still concentrated on the manufacture of biscuits for the catering industry, particularly public houses and hotels.
Meredith & Drew developed a reputation for fair treatment of its customers and workforce.
Meredith & Drew was one of the best known East End of London businesses by 1897. Lear Drew was chairman, and he was supported by a strong management team including H D Rawlings (1837 – 1904) as vice chairman and Frederick Collier as managing director.
The Wright stuff
Meredith & Drew merged with Wright & Son of Shadwell through an exchange of shares in 1905. Thomas Reuben Wright (1868 – 1923) became managing director of the company.
Lear J Drew died in 1917 with an estate valued at £30,986.
Thomas Reuben Wright died in 1923 with an estate valued at £73,530.
A factory was acquired in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire in 1927.
Meredith & Drew launched the Betta Biscuit, a cut-price product, from 1931. Largely due to the success of the product, the company was the largest biscuit manufacturer in Europe by 1934.
Meredith & Drew had six factories across England by 1939. The London site, which was also the largest, was destroyed during the Blitz in 1940, and production was permanently relocated to plants at Oldham, Brighouse and High Wycombe. Company headquarters were relocated to Ashby-de-la-Zouch.
Meredith & Drew lost its position as the largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain following the formation of United Biscuits in 1948. It remained the longest-established biscuit manufacturer in England. At this time 29 different biscuits were produced, and among the most popular were shortcake, currant shortcake, Nice, Bourbon, custard cream and ginger nut.
Meredith & Drew had an authorised share capital of £1 million, and 2,500 employees by 1951. Geoffrey Anthony Edward Drew Wright (born 1908), son of T R Wright, was managing director by this time.
A new factory at Hollyhill Wood, Cinderford, Gloucestershire, with a focus on cream cracker production, went online from 1951, with 300 staff, including 150 women.
Meredith & Drew divested its Brighouse factory in 1954. The company reduced seven factories to three throughout the 1950s, with production centralised at Halifax, Cinderford and Ashby-de-la-Zouch.
The Cinderford factory was closed with the loss of 346 jobs in 1962. Production was transferred to the Halifax and Ashby-de-la-Zouch plants, which were extended and modernised.
Meredith & Drew held around five percent of the British crisps market by 1963, with own-label production for Marks & Spencer and a strong presence in the licensed trade.
Crisps contributed an increasing share of turnover, and the Ashby-de-la-Zouch facility began to struggle to meet demand. A new crisp factory with a staff of 280 was acquired in Lanarkshire in 1963.
Meredith & Drew was strong in own-label production, savoury biscuits, the catering trade and potato crisps in 1967.
United Biscuits era
Meredith & Drew, with four percent of the British biscuit market, was acquired by United Biscuits for £2 million in a cash and share offer in 1967.
The Meredith & Drew biscuit factory in Halifax employed hundreds of workers in 1968.
United Biscuits acquired Kenyon, Son & Craven, the manufacturer of KP nuts for £3.5 million in 1968. Kenyon, Son & Craven was merged into Meredith & Drew.
Brand rationalisation saw the Meredith & Drew name retired by some point after 1980.
The Halifax site was closed with the loss of 990 jobs in 1989, and production was relocated to Ashby-de-la-Zouch.
The Meredith & Drew brand was reintroduced from 2018 as a United Biscuits premium biscuit brand with a focus on the catering trade.
United Biscuits produces McVitie’s Digestives, Jaffa Cakes, Jacob’s cream crackers and Carr’s water biscuits.
James Lang established a bakery business at Gallowgate, Glasgow from 1817. His products included Scotch bread and shortbread.
John Macfarlane (1824 – 1908), nephew to John Lang, joined the firm from 1841 and the business traded as Macfarlane Lang. An energetic and progressive manager, Macfarlane eventually assumed control of the business.
John Macfarlane was a pioneer in the introduction of machine-made bread to Scotland.
John’s son, James Macfarlane (1857 – 1944), joined Macfarlane Lang & Co in 1878. He was joined by his two brothers, George William Macfarlane (1865 – 1938) and John Lang Macfarlane (died 1912).
A large new factory, the Victoria Works, was established in Glasgow in 1880.
Macfarlane Lang began to manufacture biscuits from 1885.
Sales expanded in the South of England, and a London factory was established on the banks of the River Thames on Townmead Road, Fulham from 1903.
Macfarlane Lang became a limited liability company from 1904, but remained a family business.
James Macfarlane became chairman from 1908.
Macfarlane Lang succeeded due to a strong commitment to quality and a wide variety of biscuits. The company supplied Osborne biscuits to the King by 1909.
John Lang Macfarlane died in 1912 with a personal estate valued at £284,563.
Macfarlane Lang was one of the largest manufacturers of biscuits in Britain by 1914. The factory in Glasgow covered four acres, and the Fulham site covered five acres, employing a total of 2,500 workers. Success was based upon high quality which stemmed from experienced management, skilled labour and strong investment in machinery.
After numerous extensions, the Fulham site lacked space for further expansion, and London production was relocated to a sixty-acre site at Osterley, West London, from around 1932. The new plant was one of the most modern biscuit factories in the world.
George William Macfarlane, deputy chairman of Macfarlane Lang, died in 1938 with a personal estate valued at £415,479.
Sir James Macfarlane died in 1944, and left a personal estate of £172,180.
McVitie & Price
Robert McVitie (1809 – 1883) was advertising himself as a baker and confectioner in Edinburgh by 1856. He was a master baker employing six men, four boys and three women by 1871.
The firm was inherited by his son, Robert McVitie (1845 – 1910) in 1883. Charles Edward Price (died 1934), a former salesman for Cadbury, joined him in partnership in 1888 to form McVitie & Price.
McVitie & Price began to produce their version of the digestive biscuit from 1892. The firm did not invent the digestive, but it is generally agreed that they did produce an improved version. By 1908 their digestive biscuit was supplied to the Royal Household and the Houses of Parliament.
Burton’s Biscuits introduced the Wagon Wheel and Jammie Dodgers product lines and became the second-largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain.
George Weston (1864 – 1924) established a bakery business in Toronto, Canada in the late nineteenth century. He was latterly assisted by his son, Willard Garfield Weston (1898 – 1978).
W G Weston enlisted in the Canadian Army during the First World War, and served in France. He was fascinated by business, and during his periods of leave he toured English biscuit factories. Weston appreciated the quality of British biscuits, but determined that production methods were inefficient.
W G Weston returned from the war in 1919 and persuaded his father to import $1 million of machinery in order to manufacture English-style biscuits. The business soon began to flourish. W G Weston assumed full control of the business following the death of his father in 1924.
Weston enters the British market
Weston commissioned a report on the British biscuit industry in 1929, with an eye to making his first foreign acquisition. The report determined that, with 120 manufacturers, the British market was saturated, and ought to be avoided. Weston reached a different conclusion, instead identifying a fragmented industry that was ripe for consolidation. Furthermore, the Great Depression meant that solid businesses could be acquired at a discounted price.
Weston acquired the loss-making biscuit business of Mitchell & Muil in Aberdeen in 1933, with financial backing from a Wall Street trader. Weston streamlined the product range of 150 biscuits to 50, and the business had re-entered into profitability within just one month.
Weston closed the antiquated Aberdeen factory in 1934 and established a new, fully-automated plant on Slateford Road, Edinburgh, which reduced production costs.
Weston soon acquired other loss-making British biscuit manufacturers. British technical expertise in biscuit-making was used to improve manufacturing methods in North America.
The Weston interests in the United Kingdom became independent of the North American business from 1936.
Weston maintained scrupulous cost control. A visitor to a Weston plant in Slough in 1937 noted a jet of air that was thinning the chocolate coating on the production line biscuits. The visitor commented, “that’s blowing the chocolate off”, and Weston replied, “No, it’s blowing the profit on”.
Weston Foods Ltd was formed in 1938 to acquire the four Weston biscuit companies as well as a number of bakery and confectionery firms. Weston was one of the wealthiest men in the British foods industry by this time.
Weston Foods was acquired by Allied Bakeries, also controlled by the Weston family, in 1939.
W G Weston donated £100,000 to the British government to acquire RAF aircraft during the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Weston Biscuits claimed to be the largest biscuit manufacturer in the British Empire by 1943.
Post war: new products and acquisitions
Garry Weston (1927 – 2002), the son of W G Weston, invented the Wagon Wheel biscuit in 1948.
The Llantarnam factory in Wales employed 1,000 people by 1949.
Burtons Gold Medal Biscuits of Blackpool was acquired in 1949, followed by the Caledonian Oat Cake Baking Company in 1953.
The Jammie Dodger, a shortbread biscuit with a jam filling, had been introduced by 1966.
Garry Weston succeeded his father as chairman of the business from 1967. He was an unassuming and down-to-earth man.
Weston Biscuits had assumed the name of Burton’s Biscuits by 1973.
Viscount mint chocolate biscuits had been introduced by 1978.
Burton’s Biscuits was the third largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain by 1982, with a twelve percent market share. 3,530 people were employed.
The Slough factory lacked sufficient space to be suitable for modernisation, and was closed with the loss of 440 jobs in 1982.
By this time the leading lines were Wagon Wheels, Jammie Dodgers, Viscount mint biscuits and Edinburgh shortbread.
Wagon Wheels were among the most popular biscuits imported into Russia by 1994.
Sale to private equity
Associated British Foods (controlled by the Weston family) sold their British biscuit operations to private equity firm Hicks Muse Tate & Furst for £130 million in 2000. The company had sales of £171 million and 2,500 employees. Hicks Muse already owned Maryland Cookies and the licence to produce Cadbury biscuits, and the merged entity controlled 20 percent of the British biscuit market.
The Burton’s Biscuits board of directors was ousted by its new owners in 2003.
Burton’s Biscuits was the second largest biscuit producer in Britain by 2011.
New owners, present day
Burton’s Biscuits was sold to the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan for £350 million in 2013. There were over 2,200 employees, and manufacturing plants at Llantarnam, Edinburgh and Blackpool, and a chocolate refinery at Moreton, Merseyside.
Burton’s Biscuits sold the rights to Cadbury biscuits to Mondelez for nearly £200 million in 2016. The following year, the licence to produce Mars biscuits was acquired.
Burton’s Biscuits sold its chocolate plant at Moreton to Barry Callebaut in 2018.
Peek Frean pioneered the modern British biscuit, and introduced the Bourbon, Custard Cream and Garibaldi varieties.
James Peek (1800 – 1879) was a wealthy tea merchant from Devon. He was from a nonconformist religious background. Peek established a biscuit factory at Mill Street, Dockhead in Bermondsey in 1857.
George Hender Frean (1824 – 1903), a relation by marriage, was invited to become managing partner. Frean was a Baptist from Plymouth who traded as a miller. Initially there were eight employees.
Peek Frean acquired a licence from Dr John Dauglish (1824 – 1866), the inventor of bread aerated without yeast, to manufacture his product from 1858. Aerated bread could be produced more quickly than regular bread, and was believed to be more hygienic. The aerated bread and biscuit factory employed nearly 200 men by 1859. However Peek Frean struggled to make a profit from aerated bread, and they ceased to produce it from 1861.
Peek Frean introduced the Garibaldi biscuit in 1861. However the biscuit which made the firm’s reputation was the Pearl, introduced in 1865. Small, round and sweet, it was softer than any previously mass produced British biscuit. It dispensed with the “docker holes” used to prevent biscuits rising in the oven, and was the pioneer of the modern biscuit.
James Peek divested his stake to his son-in-law, Thomas Stone (1827 – 1893), a silk manufacturer, in 1866.
A new factory was opened on Drummond Road, Bermondsey in 1867. It was claimed that Peek Frean was the largest biscuit manufacturer in Europe by 1869.
The French government placed an order for 460 tons of biscuits in 1871.
The Marie biscuit was introduced in 1875.
Arthur Carr (1855 – 1947) joined Peek Frean as an apprentice in 1872. A Quaker, Carr was a member of the biscuit-making family of Carlisle.
A fire destroyed the Dockhead premises in 1876.
Arthur Carr was made partner from 1877.
Peek Frean became the first business in London to be supplied with electricity from 1880.
After much quarrelling with Stone, Frean entered into retirement from 1887. Stone was joined in partnership by his two sons, Huntington (1857 – 1916) and Ralph Erskine Stone (1861 – 1897).
Peek Frean workers joined the London Dock strike in 1889.
Depots were established across Britain from around 1890.
Thomas Stone died in 1893 with a personal estate valued at £340,000. R S Stone died in 1897 with an estate valued at £228,944.
By 1899 the partners were John Carr (died 1924), Ellis Carr (died 1930), Arthur Carr and Huntington Stone. Profits for the year were £47,619.
The firm held a Royal Warrant to supply biscuits to the Prince of Wales by 1900.
The firm became a limited company, Peek Frean & Co Ltd, in 1901 with a share capital of £500,000. The firm sold through 45,000 outlets.
The shortbread-based Pat-A-Cake biscuit was launched in 1902. The first biscuit marketed at an affordable price, it was to prove a major success for the company. First week sales totalled over twelve tons.
Nearly 400 million Pat-A-Cake biscuits weighing a total of 6.5 million lbs were sold in 1906. Annual sales for this single type of biscuit amounted to £160,000. As well as the Pat-A-Cake, 250 different varieties of biscuit were sold.
Arthur Carr became chairman and managing director of Peek Frean from 1904. Carr massively increased the company’s advertising budget.
The company employed 1,200 to 1,300 men, 900 to 1,000 girls, and 250 office staff by 1907.
Production of the Pearl biscuit ended in 1907. The Bourbon, a cocoa-flavoured cream sandwich biscuit, was introduced in 1910.
Peek Frean was an enlightened employer for the period. Staff received in-house medical and dentistry care (to which the company paid £3,000 a year in 1911), and a staff canteen which the company subsidised to the level of hundreds of pounds a year. By 1911 a third of company profits were spent on employee welfare, and wages were among the highest in London.
A Bermondsey carman’s strike closed down the Peek Frean factory in 1911. 2,500 employees were temporarily thrown out of work.
A Bermondsey women’s strike in August 1911 saw 1,200 employees refuse to work. The strikers wanted higher pay and the abolition of short shifts. However Peek Frean management countered that strikers had intimidated non-striking staff and that their wages were higher than the Bermondsey average.
Peek Frean produced nearly 100 million shortbread biscuits in just three months in 1912. This was understood to constitute a record for the sale of biscuits.
Peek Frean established the Meltis chocolate factory in Bedford in 1913. 130 people were employed there.
Peek Frean introduced the Custard Cream biscuit in 1913.
Between 1900 and 1913, sales doubled and profits almost quadrupled.
Huntington Stone died in 1916 and left a gross estate valued at £239,580. He bequeathed around £200,000 to Christian missionary charities.
In 1920 Peek Frean claimed that Pat-A-Cake was the most popular biscuit ever produced.
High income tax and death duties convinced Huntley & Palmers of Reading to accept Peek Frean’s invitation to merge in 1921. A holding company, Associated Biscuit Manufacturers, with a capital of £2.5 million, was formed.
John Carr died in 1924 and left an estate valued at £152,859.
Peek Frean acquired Britannia Biscuits of India, with a factory in Mumbai, in 1924.
Peek Frean had introduced Vita-Wheat, the first British wheat crispbread, by 1927. Twiglets, the savoury snack, were introduced in 1930.
Ellis Carr left a personal estate of over £1 million in 1930.
Peek Frean acquired the English subsidiary of Suchards of Switzerland, based at Bedford, in 1932.
Peek Frean had established an Australian subsidiary by 1934.
The Peek Frean site covered twelve acres by 1939, and employed over 4,000 workers. Over 300 different varieties of biscuit were produced. The company manufactured its own biscuit tins; some three million a year.
Arthur Carr died in 1947 with an estate valued at £630,206.
Peek Frean established a factory in Ontario, Canada from 1950. The factory covered seven acres, and supplied the Canadian and the North Eastern United States markets. Manufacturing in America allowed Peek Frean to reduce its wholesale prices by 25 percent.
The Bermondsey factory employed 3,700 people by 1954.
Peek Frean acquired the Ashley Vale Biscuit Company Ltd, with a factory at Avonmouth, Bristol in 1955.
There were 1,750 employees at Bermondsey in 1964.
Peek Frean closed the factory in Bristol in 1965 and relocated production to Bermondsey. 350 to 400 employees were made redundant.
The Meltis confectionery site at Bedford employed 1,300 people by 1966. The factory had extended to cover five acres, and Meltis was the largest producer of Turkish Delight in Britain, and the second largest producer of liqueur chocolates.
Meltis merged with Chocolat Tobler to form Tobler Meltis in 1967. Interfood, the owner of Suchard, acquired Tobler Meltis in 1975.
Peek Frean (Australia) held around seven percent of the Australian market, but became loss-making, and was sold to rival Arnotts in 1975.
Nabisco of America acquired Associated Biscuits for £84 million in 1982.
Peek Frean was the largest manufacturer of Christmas puddings in Britain by 1984. This was due to the fact that they were relatively low-priced, as they did not contain alcohol.
The Peek Frean brand had become primarily associated with commodity and children’s biscuits by the mid-1980s.
Associated Biscuits was acquired by BSN of France in 1989.
The Bermondsey factory was closed with the loss of 1,022 jobs in 1989. The factory had high overheads due to its inner-city location and age, and was operating at just 50 percent capacity. Meanwhile, the biscuit market had been in decline. Production was transferred to Aintree and Leicestershire.
The India and Pakistan subsidiaries were divested for $44 million in 1989. Britannia was the largest biscuit manufacturer in India, and English Biscuit Manufacturers was the largest biscuit manufacturer in Pakistan.
All advertising support for Peek Frean branded products in the UK ended from 1990, and the brand began to be phased out from 1991.
BSN (now called Danone) sold its UK and Irish biscuit operations to United Biscuits for £200 million in 2004.
Although no longer in use in Britain, Peek Frean branded products continue to be manufactured in Canada and Pakistan.
The Peek Frean Family Circle biscuit assortment is still sold. It was initially rebranded as Crawford’s, and latterly as McVitie’s.