Tag Archives: Huntley & Palmer history

Biscuit empire: Huntley & Palmers (Part II)

This article continues from Part I. Part II chronicles the decline of Huntley & Palmers from its position as the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world.

Registered as a company
Huntley & Palmers was registered as a private limited company in 1898.

Huntley & Palmers was the 38th largest British industrial company in 1905, with a capital of £2.4 million (c. £255 million in 2014). Nearly 7,000 people were employed.

Iced gems were introduced in 1910.

As late as 1910, Huntley & Palmers largely eschewed advertising.

Huntley & Palmers employed 8,000 people by 1913.

George William Palmer died with an estate valued at £765,676 in 1913.

A 1923 advertisement

Huntley & Palmers was the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world. Almost half of production was exported by 1914, with 50 percent destined for the Far East and Africa.

Between 1865 and 1914 over 900,000 tonnes of biscuits were sold.

Huntley & Palmers supplied the British army with hard tack biscuits during the First World War.

The export trade was slow to rebuild after the First World War: only 25 percent of output was exported in 1924. Meanwhile, domestic sales declined as Huntley & Palmers failed to introduce new products or update existing ones. Marketing was poor, with inadequate advertising, fewer salesman than other firms and no depots outside Reading.

It has been argued that Huntley & Palmers had too many product lines to produce efficiently, and that the Palmer family paid themselves overly generous dividends and salaries, funds which might otherwise have been reinvested into the business.

The Reading factory site covered 24 acres, and included 36 acres of floorspace by 1920. The Osborne (similar to a digestive) was the most popular biscuit, followed by the Marie (rich tea) and the Ginger Nut.

Associated Biscuit Manufacturers
High income tax and death duties persuaded Huntley & Palmers to merge with Peek Frean of Bermondsey, under a holding company called Associated Biscuit Manufacturers (ABM), in 1921. Individual production and marketing strategies were maintained by the two companies.

By neglecting the commodity category of the biscuit market, ABM’s domestic market share had declined to 15 percent.

William Howard Palmer died in 1923 with an estate valued at £536,794.

A factory was opened near Paris in 1923. At the time it was decried in Britain as the transfer of jobs overseas.

80 percent of the 6,000 strong workforce at the Reading factory went on strike in 1924. The dispute, regarding worker efficiency, was settled within three days after Huntley & Palmers agreed to recognise the workers union.

Peek Frean turnover and profits had exceeded those of Huntley & Palmers by 1927. Peek Frean installed automated biscuit plants in the early 1930s, but Huntley & Palmers did not do so until 1938.

ABM employed 7,245 people in 1935.

Two large rivals emerged: the value biscuit manufacturer George Weston had established production volumes that equalled ABM by 1938. In 1948 the Scottish firms McVitie & Price and MacFarlane Lang merged to form United Biscuits, with 3,350 employees.

Huntley & Palmers in Reading (1945)

Factories were opened in Canada, the United States and Australia in 1949. The Reading factory employed 3,000 people in 1954.

A new factory was opened in Huyton, Liverpool in 1955.

The Cornish Wafer was the highest-selling biscuit by 1954. Associated Biscuits concentrated on cream, savoury and assorted biscuits. The Lemon Puff was introduced from 1958.

Around 15 to 20 percent of production was exported in 1959.

Jacob’s joins Associated Biscuit Manufacturers
Jacob’s, the third largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain, was acquired by ABM in 1960. The purchase was motivated by a need to build scale in order to better compete with United Biscuits.

Huntley & Palmers employed 2,000 people across its two factories by 1968. The range of biscuits produced by Huntley & Palmers was streamlined in the mid to late 1960s in order to focus on the most profitable lines.

ABM was reorganised as Associated Biscuits in 1969.

Associated Biscuits employed 9,856 people in 1972. The company dedicated the vast majority of its advertising spend to the Jacob’s brand from 1972. One third of sales came from overseas, with factories in Australia, Canada and India.

Associated Biscuits had an 18 percent share of the British biscuit market in 1976. It was behind United Biscuits with 40 percent.

The Reading factory was closed in 1976. Associated Biscuits claimed that the 21-acre site was “surplus to requirements”, and production was relocated to Liverpool and Bermondsey. The valuable real estate was sold for £4 million in 1979.

Overseas production was dedicated to British-style biscuits. Digestives and shortcakes were popular in Canada, whilst the Indian market preferred cream crackers and Thin Arrowroot.

Associated Biscuits employed over 14,000 people in Britain by 1982, and a further 3,100 people overseas.

Acquisition by Nabisco
Nabisco, the American manufacturer of Shredded Wheat and Ritz crackers, acquired Associated Biscuits for £83.8 million in 1982. Nabisco was interested in the Huntley & Palmers brand, as well as its worldwide distribution network, particularly in Singapore, Canada, France and Germany.

The five Associated Biscuits factories in Britain were operating at half to two thirds capacity, and the business became loss-making. The Huyton factory was closed with the loss of 770 jobs in 1984, and production was relocated to Aintree, Liverpool.

The Aintree site was modernised at a cost of £25 million in 1986.

Huntley & Palmers was positioned as the Associated Biscuits premium sweet biscuit brand. However it accounted for just five percent of company production by weight by 1988.

Nabisco did not successfully manage their British biscuit operations. Their market share in biscuits had declined to 11.7 percent by 1988, and they were forced to reverse their decision to discontinue production of Bath Oliver biscuits following popular protest.

High overheads and traffic congestion saw the Peek Frean factory at Bermondsey closed with the loss of 1,022 jobs in 1989. Production was transferred to Aintree and Leicestershire.

Takeover by BSN
Associated Biscuits was acquired by BSN of France for $2.5 billion in 1989.

The Huntley & Palmers brand was phased out in favour of the Jacob’s name in 1990. It made sense to concentrate resources behind a single brand, and the Jacob’s name was better known, and believed to have a more contemporary image than the Huntley & Palmers brand. Huntley & Palmers products subjected to a re-branding included Romany, Crumbles, Lemon Puffs and Cornish Wafers.

The head office was relocated from Reading to Liverpool in 1996.

Sale to United Biscuits
BSN (now called Danone) sold its UK and Irish biscuit operations to United Biscuits for £200 million in 2004.

Huntley & Palmers Cornish Wafers are still sold under the Jacob’s brand, and McVitie’s continue to manufacture Thin Arrowroots. Huntley & Palmers biscuits are still produced in New Zealand.

In around 2018 the Huntley & Palmers brand was acquired by Freemans Confectionery, a Walsall-based confectionery wholesaler, who use the brand to market own-label products such as cakes.

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.