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.


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