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Baking history: Carr’s of Carlisle

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.

Jonathan Dodgson Carr
Jonathan Dodgson Carr (1806 – 1884)

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.

An 1896 advertisement for Carr & Co

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 view of the Carlisle factory in 2008

A fully automated biscuit-making plant was installed in 1960.

Cavenham acquisition
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.

Present day
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.