Next month an art gallery in Bermondsey is holding a ‘reminiscence’, exhibiting rare archive film and photography of Peek Freans, to jog the memories of anyone living or working in the area. This week, Will Pavia looks at the history of the vanished Biscuit Town.
Years after Peek Freans closed down, you could still smell the biscuits.
Long after the last bourbon cream left the ovens, the smell remained, stored in the brick work of what became the Tower Bridge Business Complex and surrounding streets.
The firm had gone the way of so many great British manufacturing enterprises. Its closure was first announced in 1987, by owners RJR Nabisco. Overheads were too high, the biscuit market was flat, there were transport problems. A thousand jobs would go. MP Simon Hughes, then no’but lad, called it a ‘body blow’ for Bermondsey.
What sealed the fate of the factory fits the model of nice British company sunk on the craggy rocks of Thatcher’s free market.
A firm by the name of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts borrowed the money to buy RJR Nabisco, then sold off the assets for a profit; precisely the sort of manoeuvre, in other words, that nasty characters from eighties films would pull off before they were reformed by the love of a woman or eaten by sharks.
Peek Freans was bought by a French firm, which then sold the premises.
The shell for a while lay vacant. Then a tribe of smaller companies (creative businesses, TV production companies, a newspaper called the Southwark News) all these children of the new so-called knowledge economy, moved in.
And just outside the business centre, beside the boarded up New Concord pub, another new creative business is attempting to recapture Peek Freans, its smells, its sounds, its biscuits.
From June 2 the Coleman Project Space is staging a ‘reminiscence’ week, exhibiting pictures and films of Peek Freans and gathering together memories of the factory from anyone who lived or worked in the area.
The story of Peek Freans begins in 1857 with a successful business man, one Mr Peek. Mr Peek had a tea business. He also had two sons, who, to his great disappointment, showed no interest in tea at all.
Clearly they needed something to do; he cast his tea-trading mind over the possibilities and bingo! That was it! Biscuits.
He wrote to George Frean, a miller and ship’s biscuit maker in the west country, who had married one of Mr Peek’s nieces. Come to London, he wrote. Manage my sons’ new biscuit factory. I’ll finance it. We’ll make a packet.
Everyone was happy with this plan except his two sons, who, spurning from the hand that fed them, left their father and suffered the fate of all who go against their parents. One went to the provinces and died. The other joined the church.
In need of more management, Frean wrote to a school friend, John Carr. Carr had been involved in his brother’s biscuit factory, and disliked the experience, but while he was considering the offer, Frean’s letter tucked in his pocket, he was granted a sign.
Over breakfast a Quaker lady who was staying with him and his wife, a propos of nothing said: “You have a letter from London in your pocket that will turn out for your good.”
So off he went, to manage Peek and Frean’s bakery, then in Dockhead, and comprising a disused sugar refinery and a steam engine. John Carr would shape the fortune of their firm and pass on the running of the biscuit factory to his children and grandchildren.
In 1865 Carr produced the Pearl Biscuit. This was a great leap forward for biscuit making: where biscuits had been rock hard, the Pearl was soft, crisp and crumbly, and without “docker-holes” – the pin holes punched in the biscuit to stop it blowing up like a football in the oven.
To make the new biscuit, Carr wanted bigger premises, and bought up ten acres of what were then market gardens in the middle of Bermondsey. Friends and relatives thought he was mad, and said so.
Carr knew better. The first major order came in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war. Paris was under siege and Parisiens were, if you will excuse the nasty pun, dying for a biscuit. Anticipating the end of the siege the French Government ordered eleven million biscuits. Peek Freans baked them, payment was delivered through Rothschildes. Carr actually went to collect the cash himself: Baron Rothschilde opened the door to him, smiled and joked “Well, Peeky Weeky Freany”. You probably had to be there.
The new factory really came on song when the old Dockhead premises were destroyed by fire. A spectacular fire that destroyed entire streets, and brought the Prince of Wales out on a fire engine to watch. Flour eggs and sugar reportedly cascaded from the windows, covered the road to the level of the pavement and was baked hard in parts by the heat of the flames.
Production was upped at the new factory, and the company’s alchemists forged a huge range of new biccies. Chocolate Table – the first chocolate coated biscuit, in 1899, the Golden Puff in 1909, the first cream sandwich biscuit, the Bourbon, in 1910, the Shortcake in 1912, Cheeselets and Twiglets in the inter war years.
Visiting journalists gave glowing accounts of the factory, that was becoming a mini-town, with its own fire brigade, medics, dentists and post service. “In the packing department,” wrote one, “ I found innumerable remarkably pretty girls in spotless white overalls.”
What of the workers? Were they happy? In the early days they worked 68 hour weeks, 6am till 5:30 Monday to Friday and 6 till 2pm on Saturday. Boys in the workforce were described as troublesome in 1864, girls introduced shortly afterwards, were “much better behaved.”
In 1872 the management reduced the hours without reducing the pay. This was hailed in the press as a model for other factory managers, and the way to avoid strikes, that were happening elsewhere.
The partners felt it was a good thing too, provided the workers spend their extra hours in virtuous pursuits, for “if their leisure was used in frivolous occupancy, then the shortening of their hours might prove a curse to them.”
In 1918 the directors set up a tribunal to be elected by the workers, to report their problems and requests. Through this body came such liberal reforms as a week’s paid holiday – previously only granted to employees that had served over thirty years, a pension fund, and (after all those years packing biscuits) tea breaks.
Through the twentieth century Peek Freans put Bermondsey at the front of Britain’s biscuit trade. Factories were set up in India, Australia and Canada – the latter factory is approached on the specially named Bermondsey Road.
Gordon Marshall, who joined the firm at 14, had a hand in the making of cakes for the Queen’s wedding in 1947, and for that of Charles and Diana in 1981. He was one of the last of a generation in Bermondsey who could say their lives had been looked after by the biscuit trade.
For on Wednesday 26 May 1989, after 126 years in the business, Peek Freans closed. “No one eats biscuits anymore,” said the general manager.
But Peek Freans innovative biscuits are still baked under different companies, in different countries.