Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The Pearce Duff brand has largely disappeared today and the only product available bearing the name Pearce Duff is blancmange, available in packets containing strawberry, raspberry, chocolate and vanilla flavours. The popularity of blancmange has declined but was regularly served up as a pudding to children before the increasing popularity of yogurt, mousse and other sweet treats. Other products made by Pearce Duff included baking powder, dried egg products, jellies and custard powder.
The Pearce Duff factory stood on the corner of Spa Road and Rouel Road in Bermondsey and is marked on the 1936/52 Ordnance Survey map as ‘Custard and Baking Powder Works’. The company had a long history and was started by William Pearce and William Henry Duff in 1847 from a private house in Long Lane.
Their company was initially described as a drysalters, a description they maintained until the First World War. The terms drysalters isn’t used much these days but referred to manufacturers and dealers of a range of chemical products that included glue. This latter commodity may point to why Pearce and Duff established their business in Bermondsey, centre of the tanning industry in London in the 19th century. Glue was manufactured from boiling animal feet, cartilage or bones, those parts of a carcass surplus to the meat and tanning industries. Similarly, baking powder needed potash which at that time was also extracted from bones. Jelly was manufactured from gelatine also made from the waste products of a carcass which was used to thicken blancmange (though cornflour is used today) and in many other food products. It’s probable that Pearce Duff acquired the waste products from the local tanneries as their basic ingredients.
Pearce Duff continued as a family business and in 1914 the directors included Daniel Duff, Elizabeth Jane Duff (grand-daughter of William Pearce) and Daniel Duff Jnr. The company had moved “by successive steps” from the private house in Long Lane via premises at 118 Weston Street to the factory in Rouel Road which had formerly been a tannery.
In 1914 Pearce Duff employed 500 people and was to say nearly 50 years later that “throughout the years, the company has been served by a wonderful staff, many members of whom today have long service records. Every opportunity is given for promotion and courses are provided for trainees throughout the various departments.”
The company was proud of its heritage as a family business and in the 1960 Bermondsey Guide wrote:
“There can be very few housewives, young or old, who have never used one of the many Pearce Duff grocery products. Pearce Duff have much in common with the small privately-owned grocers’ shop, for Pearce Duff is still very much the family business.
“It is often said today that “the family business is fast dying out”, and although that is an exaggeration, it is true that family grocers on both sides of the trade have their work cut out to keep pace with the development.
“On one side of the ‘multiples’, and on the other of the ‘take-over’ giants bolstered with public capital. Too often the demands of death duties are the last blow to a manufacturing grocery business.
“In circumstances where such a business was faced with the double blow of such taxation within two years, one would have thought that independent survival was out of the question. It does seem therefore that the achievement of the Pearce Duff Company in the nineteen fifties of surviving such an experience is quite remarkable.
“It is encouraging to see an independent family business that remains 100% British controlled with such a faith in its future.”
Pearce Duff embarked on its own expansion programme and acquired a New York based pickles and sauces company in 1973 but in doing so lost 40% of the company. The Bermondsey factory was closed in 1974, and although some jobs were relocated to the new factory at Dunstable, most jobs were lost. The company was sold in 1984 to Gill & Dufus and later the brand of Pearce Duff was the subject of further takeovers. It is now owned by Kerry Foods who manufacture Pearce Duff blancmange in Rotherham. Apartments have now been built on the former site of the factory in Rouel Road.
For further information on the company visit http://letslookagain.com/2016/08/pearce-duff/
This photo of the factory in Rouel Road, probably decorated to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, was kindly sent to Exploring Southwark by Hilary Cook. Her maternal grandfather, Alfred Charles Bramble (known as Charles), worked at Pearce Duff for over 50 years. Born in 1883 in Peckham, he joined Pearce Duff in 1898 as an office boy. By the age of 28 he had become a Clerk and in time became the Head Clerk of the company. He enlisted to serve in the First World War in 1915 and returned to work at Pearce Duff at the end of hostilities and married Beatrice Eden, who was also a Clerk at Pearce Duff, in 1922 at East Dulwich. The company celebrated its centenary in 1947 and the following year there was a Centenary Outing to Margate. One of the speeches made at the occasion noted that Charles had now celebrated 50 years with the firm and had been a consistent performer in the musical entertainments presented at the firm's Annual Dinners from 1903 to 1914. He died in 1976 in Sussex. Hilary also provided a booklet of the speeches made at the Centenary Outing in Margate which can be seen here.