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Baking history: Carr’s of Carlisle

Carr’s are best known for their Table Water biscuits.

Establishment and development
Jonathan Dodgson Carr (1806 – 1884) was the son of a Quaker grocer from Kendal. After serving an apprenticeship to a baker, Carr commenced business as a miller and baker on Castle Street, Carlisle, from 1831.

Jonathan Dodgson Carr
Jonathan Dodgson Carr (1806 – 1884)

In order to preserve freshness, Carr began to sell biscuits in tins. He became the first person to use steam-powered machinery to manufacture biscuits. Sales soon grew, and Carr had to relocate to a factory on Caldewgate, Carlisle, from 1834.

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. 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 by 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.

Unfortunately, funds soon ran short, and the firm’s bank forced the firm to make a public offering of shares in 1894.

Henry died in 1904, and was succeeded by Theodore (1866 – 1931), the son of Thomas Carr.

Theodore Carr was a hands-on employer. In 1890 he had developed the company’s signature product, the Table Water biscuit, as 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.

Carr & Co employed 3,000 people in Carlisle by 1926. The company 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.

Cavenham acquisition
Carr & Co was a mid-sized British biscuit producer, and suffered from increasing competition from the larger manufacturers.

Carr & Co was acquired by Cavenham, controlled by James Goldsmith (1933 – 1997), in 1964, beating a £1.175 million bid by J Lyons. Carr & Co was around 30 percent family-owned, and the Carr family supported the takeover.

Goldsmith sold the freehold of the Carlisle factory for £600,000, and leased it back for £63,000 a year.

Goldsmith 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.

According to Ian Carr, one of the company directors, Goldsmith planned to build a biscuit empire by acquiring Associated Biscuits. This never transpired however, and Carr & Co was sold to United Biscuits in 1972.

The Carlisle factory escaped closure, in part, due to its excellent labour relations, which were in themselves a valuable asset.

Present day
As of 2016 the Carlisle factory employs over 600 people, and produces McVitie’s products such as the Gold bar, as well as Carr’s Water Biscuits.