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Take a Break: Huntley and Palmers in Huyton

KNOWSLEY ARK: BRINGING HISTORY ALIVE

There’s nothing better than curling up in a comfortable chair with a hot steaming mug of something comforting and a good book to get lost in. We all know that a hot drink is too wet without a biscuit, but can the Archive serve up a decent accompaniment? 

Delving into the collections in Knowsley’s Archive reveals a biscuit connoisseur’s treasure trove in the form of a small group of records relating to Huntley and Palmers. 

Huntley and Palmers was founded in 1822 as J Huntley & Son, a biscuit and confectionery shop on London Street, Reading, Berkshire. In the following century the company began developing some very strong ties to the Huyton area, and there’s more about that a little later. 

The Reading confectionery shop was operated by Joseph Huntley and his oldest son, Thomas and was situated opposite a coach house, The Crown Inn. Huntley’s biscuits became popular with travellers stopping at The Crown as they were cleverly packaged in tins to prevent them from breaking in transit whilst keeping them fresh. 

The tins, which became a factor in the company’s success, were made by Thomas’s brother, also Joseph, who was an ironmonger who founded Huntley, Boorne and Stevens, making high quality, decorative tins for the safe transportation of biscuits and cakes.

Joseph Huntley senior retired due to ill health in 1838, leaving Thomas to run the business and in1841, Thomas joined forces with a cousin, George Palmer. 
Huntley and Palmers was born. 

Joseph passed away in 1857, but George - aided by his brothers William Isaac and Samuel - continued to grow the enterprise and by 1900, the company employed 5,000 people and was recognised as the world’s largest biscuit firm. Huntley and Palmers even supported Scott’s doomed British Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole with supplies, and produced both biscuits and artillery shell cases for the Great War effort.         
What was the secret to the success of Huntley and Palmers? There were a number of factors at play, from the wide range of popular biscuit varieties on offer (400 types were available by 1903) and the mass production techniques used to produce them, to the keen price point of each product and the export reach of what was one of the first global brands: at its peak, the company traded in some137 countries.

Another feature was the clever marketing of the brand and the popularity of the attractive, collectible and very practical biscuit tins which, once empty of biscuits, could be reused. 

As already mentioned, although the company was established in Reading, it has some very strong ties to the Huyton area: in November 1955, Huntley and Palmers Ltd. opened their factory on Wilson Road, Huyton. 

The factory was an important employer in the town and this was highlighted when the Duchess of Kent visited the plant as part of her tour of Huyton, at the invitation of Huyton Urban District Council.

The visit took place on Tuesday 22nd July 1958. The Duchess was given an insight into the workings of the factory by Mr Reginald Palmer and Mr William Palmer, who explained the Vicars Quality Creaming method, demonstrated how the equipment worked and showed her various processes carried out in the production of the biscuits and packaging. 

The Duchess also met with groups of employees as she toured the factory.  

In 1970, Huntley and Palmers amalgamated with Jacob’s and Peek Frean to form Associated Biscuits, continuing to produce their famous brands in Huyton even after production ceased at the Reading factory in 1976.  Nabisco acquired the Associated Biscuits group in 1982, sounding the death knell for the Huyton factory which closed the following year. 

Despite efforts by the General and Municipal Workers’ Union to fight the closure, it went ahead with the loss of 900 jobs, in addition to a further 2000 jobs lost to rivals United Biscuits across Merseyside. 

That year saw many job losses in the Borough, with local newspaper, the Prescot Reporter, relaying on 24th June 1983 that at the same time as Huntley and Palmers, the Kraft factory in Kirkby and toolmakers Cross International were also announcing redundancies.  

In 1989, Nabisco would eventually sell its rights to the Huntley and Palmer biscuit brands to the French food group, BSN/Danone, but the biscuits created by Huntley and Palmer remain firm favourites. 

The fascinating sample wrappers and price labels in the Archive collection evoke a myriad of memories: who remembers buying biscuits loose by weight – and picking up a bargain with the broken biscuits?

The volume held in the Archive contains many examples of wrappers for biscuits and snacks that will be familiar to many, from lemon puffs to Nice biscuits, garibaldi and bourbon creams and of course, the Family Circle selection, a staple of any Sunday treat or Christmas celebration.

One draft wrapper, for chocolate wheatmeal biscuits, is dated 28th August 1959 and there are examples of products dating from the 1950s to as late as the 1980s, including a flat pack box for a 1960s biscuit promoted at the time as a slimming aid.

Sold in packs of 12, the cheese ‘n’ celery flavoured ‘minibisks’ were promoted as ‘an aid to slimming diets’ and were ‘the slimmer’s meal in a biscuit’- according to the packaging. 

Of great interest are the shelf labels and price tickets, recalling a time pre-decimalisation, when the currency of the day was pounds, shillings and pence and supermarkets were a new phenomenon. Prices were set either by weight or by pack (or tin) and the tickets, which were supplied by Huntley and Palmers to the retailer, would be clearly displayed on the shelf edge.  

The volume of wrappers and related documents was deposited in the Archive in October 1986, and although Huntley and Palmers company archive is held at Reading Museum, with the business archive at Reading University, Knowsley’s Archive can still offer us a tempting glimpse into the tea time treats of the past and a world famous brand’s links with Huyton. 

 

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