Baking history: William Crawford & Sons

Crawford’s was the fourth largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain, and the longest-established. The brand continues today as the economy sister brand to McVitie’s.

Origins and early growth
Ship biscuits were first produced at 31 Shore, a public house in Leith, Edinburgh, from 1813. Robert Mathie (1789 – 1863) took over the business from 1817. The bakery business was to prosper under Mathie, and he employed five men by 1851.

Mathie retired in 1856 and sold the business to William Crawford (1818 – 1889). Crawford immediately opened an outlet on 14 Leith Street, Edinburgh, in order to extend his customer base.

Crawford was a master baker employing six men and one boy by 1861. He relocated his Edinburgh outlet to 2 Princes Street from 1866.

Crawford employed five men and one boy in 1871.

Crawford established a custom-built factory at Elbe Street, Leith in 1879. The business traded as William Crawford & Sons from 1880. The wheatmeal biscuit, similar to a digestive, had replaced the ship biscuit as the leading product by this time.

William Crawford died in 1889 as a well-respected figure in Leith and Edinburgh. He was succeeded as principal of the firm by his son, William Crawford (1858 – 1926), a man of a retiring disposition. It would be due to the efforts of the son that the family firm would grow to national scale.

Establishment of a Liverpool factory
William Crawford sent two of his brothers, Archibald Inglis Crawford (1869 – 1940) and James Shields Russell Crawford (1863 – 1927), to establish a subsidiary in Australia in 1897. The brothers were due to set sail from Liverpool, but instead decided to stay put, and established the Fairfield Works on Binns Road in the city.

The Fairfield Works, Binns Road, Liverpool (2013)

Crawford products around this time included wheatmeal, shortbread, currant and rich tea biscuits, as well as cream crackers.

William Crawford & Sons had established national distribution by 1900.

William Crawford & Sons of Leith was registered as a limited liability company with a capital of £251,000 in 1906. The Crawford family continued to control the business.

The Leith factory was largely rebuilt in 1906, and covered a quarter of an acre. The factory employed 150 men and boys by 1911.

Alexander Hunter Crawford (1865 – 1945), a leading Edinburgh architect, joined the company from around 1920.

William Crawford & Sons employed hundreds of people at its factories at Leith and Liverpool by 1923. By this time the company claimed to be “the oldest of the biscuit manufacturers”.

Company capital was increased to £700,000 in 1924.

William Crawford died with an estate valued at £876,211 in 1926.

William Crawford & Sons ranked among the largest British biscuit manufacturers by 1929. It was the fourth largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain in 1939, with a market share by volume of 14 percent.

Archibald Inglis Crawford died in 1940 with an estate valued at £1,015,886.

Douglas Inglis Crawford (1904 – 1981), son of Archibald, became company chairman from 1946. His father had instilled in him the values of honesty and integrity.

Douglas Inglis Crawford (1904 – 1981)

Sale to United Biscuits
William Crawford & Sons was the largest privately-owned biscuit manufacturer in Britain by 1962. Its best known product was shortbread. The business employed 3,000 people in Liverpool, and 1,000 in Leith.

The company was still largely in Crawford family hands when it was acquired in a friendly takeover by United Biscuits for £6.25 million in 1962. Douglas Crawford was appointed vice chairman of United Biscuits.

United Biscuits closed the Leith factory in 1970, with the loss of 703 jobs. Meanwhile an investment of £2 million saw production increased by 50 percent at the Liverpool plant.

The McVitie’s, Crawford and Macfarlane sales teams were merged in the 1970s.

Douglas Crawford retired in 1974.

The Crawford factory in Liverpool was the longest-established and largest of all United Biscuits factories. It was also the most progressive in terms of employee relations. The site covered seventeen acres and employed 4,000 people by 1977. The Tuc biscuit and Tartan shortbread were its leading products.

Douglas Crawford died with a net estate valued at £252,431 in 1981.

United Biscuits wound-down manufacturing operations at Liverpool between 1984 and 1987. 934 full time and over 1,000 part time jobs were lost. Some administrative functions are maintained at the site.

The Crawford name was repositioned as an economy brand from 2014. The Crawford’s (formerly Peek Frean) Family Circle was rebranded under the McVitie’s name.

12 thoughts on “Baking history: William Crawford & Sons”

  1. my grandmother, Agnes McLean, went into service at Crawfords bakery when she was ten years old. this would have been 1887.
    My mother and all her sisters were all brought up on Mrs. Crawford. They all said that is where my grandmother got her
    grand ways. I was also brought up listening to stories of how nice
    Mrs. Crawford was to her. My grandmother married Hamilton Smith on January 1, 1900. They came to America in 1910. I would love to know if you have anymore information. Thanks

    1. An interesting story Ruth, thanks for sharing. I certainly get the impression that the Crawfords were nice people. The appear to have treated their employees well and remained down to earth.

    1. Thank you Victoria and that’s very interesting. Do you have any family stories and the like that have been passed down? I’d love to hear them 🙂

      1. Hi
        My Mother Mary MacDonald Walker Wood worked in
        Elbe Street premises for many years!I remember her
        enjoying her September Week end visit to Blackpool !
        Chocolate Viennas my favourite biscuit!
        Bertie Tough the only workmate I remember!
        You could set your watch by our Dog Billy going to his
        chair by the window ,when she came home from the
        Evening shift !

  2. Hi
    Our parents worked for one of the daughters of Crawford biscuits, she married a member of the Colls dynasty and they had a country house in Yateley Hampshire, could anyone give me her Christian name .
    Many thanks

  3. Mum worked for Crawfords Liverpool in the 1960’s she would get boxes of broken bicuits mostly bandits which we loved but my favourite was their Harlequin cake which there seems no written record of? It would go down really well now but have never seen them since then. Great story thanks.

  4. My aunt Helen (Nellie) Gray worked in the offices at Leith for 46 years from leaving school until she had to retire in 1963. Every day she walked from Easter Road across Leith Links to work and back.
    As a young boy I looked forward to Friday afternoon when she would often bring home a large bag of broken biscuits which were sold to employees. I can still remember the excitement at finding chocolate ones – bourbon bond and chocolate digestives.
    I have her long service certificate from William Crawford & Sons Ltd on my study wall which I am looking at. Do you know if there is a museum or anything that might want it as my children aren’t interested.
    Thanks for history, it’s interesting.

  5. My grandmother was the daughter of owner in Liverpool and was disowned for marrying my grandfather who was of a different religion. They had eight children

  6. My mum Belle Usher was the first female plans manager in the Liverpool branch on Binns road, she started as a part time packer, then rose through the ranks as a half blue, full blue supervisor etc eventually becoming a plant manager, she told us some funny stories about things that happened, one I remember, a lady that worked packing “TUC” crackers and when the line finished, the wrappers were replaced with Mark’s and Spencer’s wrappers, the lady used to go into the staff shop to buy the Mark’s ones because she was sure they tasted better than TUC, even though she was wrapping the same ones!

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