Category Archives: Biscuits & cakes

Taking the biscuit: a history of Peek Frean (Part I)

Peek Frean pioneered the modern British biscuit. The business introduced the Bourbon, Custard Cream, Marie and Garibaldi biscuit varieties.

Peek Frean pioneer the modern biscuit
James Peek (1800 – 1879) was a nonconformist from Devon. He became a partner in Peek Brothers, one of the largest tea merchants in Victorian Britain.

James Peek established a biscuit factory at Mill Street, Dockhead, Bermondsey from 1857.

George Hender Frean (1824 – 1903), was a biscuit maker from Plymouth. A Baptist and a relation by marriage to James Peek, he was invited to become managing partner of the biscuit business. Initially ship’s biscuits were produced with a staff of eight. Ship’s biscuits were a bread substitute for long journeys overseas, similar to water biscuits or matzo crackers.

Peek Frean acquired a licence from Dr John Dauglish (1824 – 1866), the inventor of bread aerated without yeast, to manufacture his product from 1859. Aerated bread could be produced more quickly than regular bread, and was believed to be more hygienic. However Peek Frean struggled to make a profit from the invention, and production ended in 1861.

John Carr (1824 – 1912), a Quaker who had learned the biscuit-making trade with his brother, Jonathan Dodgson Carr (1806 – 1884), joined the business as partner from 1860.

Around 200 men and boys were employed by 1860.

Peek Frean introduced the Garibaldi biscuit from 1861.

The Pearl biscuit, introduced from 1865, helped to establish the reputation of the business. 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.

Exports had commenced by 1866.

About 700 people were employed at Peek Frean by 1866. The founders were all religious non-conformists, and this background informed a paternalistic attitude towards their workforce. Medical care was provided for sick employees. The firm introduced nine hour working days and was among the first to introduce a half day on Saturdays.

James Peek divested his stake in Peek Frean to his son-in-law, Thomas Stone (1827 – 1893), a silk manufacturer, in 1866.

Peek Frean becomes the largest biscuit manufacturer in Europe
With no further space for expansion at Mill Street, a new factory was opened on Drummond Road, Bermondsey from 1867. The site had previously been occupied by market gardens and open fields.

The French government placed an order for 60 million Peek Frean ship biscuits, totalling nearly 4,500 tons, following the end of the Siege of Paris in 1871.

Arthur Carr (1855 – 1947), son of John Carr, joined Peek Frean as an apprentice in 1872.

The Marie biscuit, similar to the Rich Tea, was introduced from 1875. It was named after the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia, who had married the Duke of Edinburgh in 1874. The product was to prove successful, and Marie biscuits are now sold across the world by various manufacturers, with particular popularity in Spain.

A fire destroyed the Dockhead premises in 1876.

Peek Frean employed 1,000 to 1,500 people by the mid-1870s.

Arthur Carr was made a partner from 1877.

Peek Frean became the first business in London to be supplied with electricity from 1880.

After much quarrelling with Thomas Stone, Frean entered into retirement from 1887. Stone was joined in partnership by his two sons, Huntington Stone (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, Ellis Carr (1852 – 1930), Arthur Carr and Huntington Stone.

The firm held a Royal Warrant to supply biscuits to the Prince of Wales by 1900.

You can read Part II of this history here.

Biscuit empire: Huntley & Palmers (Part I)

Huntley & Palmers became the largest manufacturer of biscuits in the world.

George Palmer (1818 – 1897) was born to a Quaker farming family in Somerset. His mother was a cousin of Cyrus and James Clark, founders of the well-known shoe manufacturing business.

George Palmer (1818 – 1897)

George Palmer was apprenticed to an uncle as a miller and confectioner in 1832. In 1841 he entered into a partnership with a cousin by marriage, Thomas Huntley (1802 – 1857), who owned a firm in Reading, founded in 1822, which sold high quality biscuits across much of southern England.

Huntley and Palmer took over a disused silk factory on the bank of the Kennet & Avon canal in 1843. Palmer introduced steam power and mechanisation to the business. With engineer William Exall, Palmer introduced the first continuously-running biscuit machinery in the world in 1846.

Huntley & Palmer employed 500 people by 1850. Sixteen tons of biscuits were produced every week by 1851, with distribution across England.

When Huntley died in 1857, annual turnover of the firm was £125,000 (around £12.5 million in 2014). George Palmer bought out Huntley’s son and took into partnership his brothers, Samuel and William Isaac Palmer, the former managing the London office and the latter running the factory.

Huntley & Palmers was producing thousands of tons of biscuits every year by 1865. Ship’s biscuit was a major product. The firm responded quickly to consumer demand: following the success of the Pearl biscuit introduced by rival Peek Frean of Bermondsey, Huntley & Palmers introduced their own version within a matter of months.

800 men and boys were employed by 1865. By this time Huntley & Palmers had introduced a compulsory employee sick fund, and provided a reading room at a small cost to subscribing workers.

Huntley & Palmers employed nearly 1,000 people by 1867.

The second generation of the Palmer family took over the management of the business from 1867-8. By now the business was easily the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world. Around 25 percent of production was exported. Sales grew as afternoon tea became a middle class tradition.

Nearly 2,500 people were employed by 1872.

The Thin Arrowroot biscuit was introduced from 1884. The Breakfast biscuit, an unsweetened alternative to toast, was introduced from around 1892.

Nearly 400 varieties of biscuit and cake were produced by 1892. Leading product lines included the Ginger Nut, Milk, Empire and Colonial biscuits. During peak periods, close to 5,000 men and women were employed.

Joseph Hatton (1837 – 1907), the editor of the Sunday Times, suggested that George Palmer could be described as the “father of modern Reading”. The huge population growth of the town was largely due to the biscuit industry.

By the 1890s the Huntley & Palmer name was one of the best known brands in the world.

George Palmer died in 1897. That year the firm produced 23,000 tons of biscuits and recorded a turnover of over £1.25 million (c. £142 million in 2014).

You can read Part II of this history here.