Alison Sofield, Volunteer Collections
Most of us enjoy a biccy or two with our cuppa. Today’s find at the Whangārei Museum is a circular tin that once contained fancy biscuits made by what used to be known as the “Rolls Royce” of biscuit companies- Peek Freans.
The three Peek brothers began their business enterprises by importing tea. In 1857, they opened a biscuit making factory in Bermondsey, England. In 1860, a relative, George Frean joined the company, and at that time there were only eight employees. The company grew rapidly and a year later they were exporting biscuits to Australia. In 1865, Peek Freans introduced a popular, smaller lighter and sweeter biscuit known as the “Pearl.”
As demand for these little delights grew, the company produced 220,000,000 biscuits for France during the Franco Prussian War in 1870. Orders like this meant there was a much expanded work force, now numbering 200 men and boys. By 1866, numbers grew to 700. Because the founders were all religious non conformists, they adopted a paternalistic attitude to their workers, providing them with free health and dental services, which was unusual for the times. Peek Frean’s soon became the largest biscuit producer in Europe. In 1900, the firm held a Royal Warrant to supply biscuits to the, then, Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII.
The company gave their biscuit varieties interesting names such as Garibaldi, Pat a cake, Custard crème, Marie, and Jersey Cream. Pat a cake was a shortbread biscuit launched in 1902. It was to prove a major success for Peek Freans, in fact in the first week over 12 tons were sold. That’s a lot of biscuits.
Employee numbers had now risen 2500. To introduce chocolate to the mix the company opened their own chocolate factory in 1913 and as well new styles of biscuits were being introduced all the time, with the more familiar names of digestive, milk, arrowroot and gingernut. In all, 250 different varieties were being made.
Income tax and death duties began to impact on Peek Frean and in 1921 they accepted a merger with Huntly and Palmer, though still operating under the brand name of Peek Frean. By the 1930s Peak Frean’s were making their own biscuit tins, about 3 million a year. Many of these tins are now collectors’ items, with colorful patterns and shapes.
In 1947, Peak Freans made one of the wedding cakes for our present Queen. This cake was six tiers high and weighing 600 lbs. Peek Frean’s had set up a subsidiary in Australia after World War II but it was not a great success and in 1975 it was sold to the Australian company of Arnotts, which is still going strong today. By 1991, the Peak Frean brand was being phased out after various takeover bids and Mergers. However biscuits bearing this brand name can still be found in Canada and Pakistan, now owned by Mondelez who recently acquired Cadbury N. Z.
The tin pictured is from their ‘Bouquet “series, made in the 1930s. The label on the side proclaims “Peek Frean’s Famous Biscuits”. On the base of the tin is a sample picture of the contents, assortments including Jersey Crème and Pat a Cake. This tin was donated by E. Hay; the tin sadly no longer containing its tasty contents.