Huntley & Palmer 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 first cousin to Cyrus and James Clark, founders of the well-known shoe manufacturer.
George Palmer was apprenticed to an uncle as a miller and confectioner in 1832. In 1841 he entered 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 & 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.
The company employed 500 people in 1850. Sixteen tons of biscuits were produced every week by 1851, with distribution across England.
When Huntley died in 1857, annual turnover of the company 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.
The firm 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 & Palmer introduced their own version within a matter of months.
800 men and boys were employed by 1865. By this time Huntley & Palmer had introduced a compulsory employee sick fund, and provided a reading room at a small cost to subscribing workers.
By 1867 the number employed was 1,000.
The second generation of the Palmer family took over the management of the business in 1867-8. By now the company 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 in 1884. The Breakfast biscuit was introduced 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.
In 1897 the turnover of the company was over £1.25 million (c. £142 million in 2014) and 23,000 tons of biscuits were produced.
You can read Part II of this history here.