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Crumbs! Biscuit king turns 200. Mark Palmer salutes his ancestors, who founded Huntley & Palmers

Blog | By Mark Palmer | Apr 07, 2023

Silly, really, but whenever someone asked where I grew up, it was with some embarrassment that I’d reply, ‘Reading’.

I always harboured affection for the place, despite being aware of its shortcomings.

Much of the architecture was grim. Progress in the 1960s and ’70s was measured by how many shopping centres and one-way systems the town planners could get away with.

Joseph Huntley (1775-1857)
George Palmer (1818-97)

But I was invited back there recently to celebrate ‘Reading – Biscuit Town’ in the company of the Mayor, the Vice-Chancellor of Reading University and other local dignitaries.

We were marking the 200th anniversary of Huntley & Palmers. The Palmers arrived on the scene in 1841, and in 1822 Joseph Huntley opened his first baker’s shop at 72 London Street, Reading.

There are bicentenary lectures about the company’s former 25-acre site opposite Reading Gaol. You can take a Huntley & Palmers audio trail ‘through the world of biscuits’. Do visit the 300-odd biscuit-tin collection in the town hall – or pay a fiver to join one of Terry Dixon’s ‘Biscuit Crumb’ walks.

Top: On the Upper Congo River – Huntley & Palmers biscuits by the funnel, 1890
Below: Reading factory, opened in 1846. By 1900, it was the biggest biscuit-maker in the world

Terry’s mother worked in the factory in the 1950s and ’60s, first as a ‘picker’ – removing any damaged or sub-standard biscuits from the conveyor belt – and then in the firm’s Recreation Club.

‘I’m Berkshire born, Berkshire bred; strong in the arm, thick in the head,’ he says when we meet outside what’s left of the original 1860 railway station, from where you could smell the ginger nuts being roasted in the factory 400 yards or so away.

The factory has long gone. Once Associated Biscuits (Huntley & Palmers, Jacob’s, Peek Freans) was gobbled up in 1982 by Nabisco, the magnificent, late art-deco headquarters of what was once the most famous biscuit company in the world was replaced by a hideous Prudential Insurance building in a savage act of legal vandalism.

‘But the legacy of Huntley & Palmers lives on and its influence on the town cannot be overstated,’ says not-in-the-slightest-bit-thick-in-the-head Terry, producing from his rucksack a small H&P tin made for the Queen’s Coronation, with a dozen or so Iced Gems inside. ‘Biscuits put Reading on the map.’

This is not strictly true. It was on the map in 1121 when Henry I founded Reading Abbey, thought to be bigger than either Winchester Cathedral or Westminster Abbey. The abbey was closed by Henry VIII in 1539 and then almost razed to the ground during the Civil War on the orders of Charles I, who feared it would become a parliamentary stronghold.

Still, by the beginning of the First World War the Huntley & Palmers factory employed more than 6,000 people – over a quarter of the working population of the entire town – and was exporting to 134 countries. It held the Royal Warrant of every royal household in the world.

Edwardian biscuit tin

It was the ‘first name you thought of in biscuits, second to none in cakes’ – at least, that was what the advertising slogan said. ‘Huntley & Palmers make ’em like biscuits ought to be’ was the jaunty television commercial I remember the best.

My father, the last chairman, spent all his working life at Huntley & Palmers – as did my grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather. It was my great-great-uncle, George Palmer, who forged the alliance with his Quaker cousin, Thomas Huntley, in 1841.

Huntley took care of the baking, while Palmer developed the first continuously running machine for biscuit-manufacturing.

In some countries, tins of H&P biscuits achieved an exalted status. In 1890, two were discovered being used as ornaments on an altar in a Catholic church in Ceylon. A Mongolian chieftainess was said to have grown garlic heads in one as an ‘upward and visible sign of her high position’. In Uganda, Bibles were kept safe from destructive white ants in biscuit tins. In 1904, when Sir Francis Younghusband became the first European to visit the holy city of Lhasa, in the Forbidden Kingdom of Tibet, he was welcomed by a stack of biscuit tins to assure him the locals were in touch with civilisation.

The biccies may have been good, but they weren’t works of art – unlike the tins, which were fashioned into handbags, binocular cases, suitcases, rows of books, buses and post boxes.

Henry Stanley took some with him on his trek across Africa in search of Dr Livingstone and made peace with a potentially violent tribe in Tanzania by offering them a few smart-looking tins.

Captain Scott took Huntley & Palmers biscuits to the South Pole; a packet was found alongside his frozen body. One of those, wrapped in greaseproof paper, fetched £4,000 at a Christie’s auction in 1999.

In the late 1960s, I used to take friends from school on tours given by a formidable woman called Mary Cottrell. The highlight was when we were shown into a special room where we produced our penknives and hacked away at the massive blocks of chocolate. And I always backed Reading Football Club – the Biscuit Men.

Reading Gaol, designed by George Gilbert Scott, stands between the former site of the factory and the ruins of the abbey. It ceased being a prison in 2014 and is rumoured to cost £250,000 a year to maintain while the Ministry of Justice and Reading Borough Council argue over what should be done with it.

Many people think it should be turned into an arts centre, with a theatre, hotel, restaurants and bars – but the dreaded ‘luxury apartments’ solution inevitably will win the day.

Oscar Wilde visited the factory in September 1892, three years before he took up residency in the prison for two years. Terry thinks the Palmers may have had some influence on how he was treated during his confinement, but there is no evidence of this.

Terry is worried that the younger generation in Reading have little idea about the Huntley & Palmers biscuit legacy. Perhaps, rightly, they are more concerned about the influence of the newly opened Elizabeth Line and how it might affect house prices.

But I doubt there will ever be a bigger benefactor to Reading than Great-Great-Uncle George and his family. Much of the site of Reading University was donated by the Palmers, as was 49-acre Palmer Park, handed over to the Mayor of Reading on 4th November 1891.

George was Liberal MP for Reading from 1878 to ’85, but turned down the offer of a baronetcy from the Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury because he regarded it as ostentatious. He was given the freedom of Reading, and a statue of him was unveiled on Broad Street. Designed by George Simmonds, it depicts him holding a top hat and umbrella – the only statue in Britain showing a man holding an unfolded brolly.

The statue has gone now. But I’m thinking of starting a campaign to bring the statue back to Broad Street. That would help keep the biscuit flame burning in a town of which I should never have been embarrassed.