Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The Garibaldi biscuit was first produced in 1861 and John Carr invented a new biscuit, the Pearl biscuit, which was softer though still crisp than biscuits had been previously. To accommodate production of this new range, larger premises were required and in 1866 10 acres of land, formerly market gardens, were purchased in the triangle formed by the Drummond Road, Clements Road and the railway. The factory in Dockhead still maintained production until a huge fire destroyed it in 1873.
The Peek Frean biscuit factory was the focus for a community for over a hundred years and employed generations of families living in Bermondsey. The area became known as ‘Biscuit Town’ and the factory infused its surroundings with sweet smells that varied with the type of biscuit that was being baked. When the factory closed in 1989 it was a great loss to the area and a blow to the local community.
The company was founded in 1857 by James Peek who with his brothers had founded a very successful wholesale tea brokers business, Peek Brothers and Co. His sons, Charles and Edward, showed no inclination to follow their father into the tea trade so James set about starting up another business to set them up in. He decided on a factory producing biscuits (the perfect accompaniment to a nice cup of tea) and wrote to his niece’s husband George Hender Frean, a miller and biscuit maker based in Devon, offering him the position of manager and a partnership in the new venture. Peek Frean was founded but, in the event, neither of James’ sons was interested in a career in biscuit manufacture: Charles returned to Devon where he died shortly afterwards and Edward entered the church. Nevertheless, Messrs Peek and Frean continued and very soon the new company was flourishing.
The original factory was a former sugar refinery in Dockhead, Bermondsey and comprised a small baking room and a smaller packing room. As the anticipated input into the management of the company from James Peek’s sons had not materialised, in 1860 George Frean contacted an old school friend, John Carr. John Carr was a member of the Carr biscuit company in Scotland and had served an apprenticeship there. He wasn’t happy there so when he received George’s Frean’s offer he moved to London and joined Peek Frean. James Peek stepped down from the firm in 1866 and his son-in-law Thomas Stone took his place.
Peek Frean factory, Drummond Road in 1951. Courtesy of Britain from Above.
One early order the company received was from the French Government in 1870 to feed those besieged in Paris during the Franco Prussian War. The deal was brokered by the Rothschild family and in total two hundred and twenty million biscuits, each about six inches square and half an inch thick were sent to Paris. More than sixty years later, a party from Paris visited the factory including two survivors of the Siege of Paris who well remembered the arrival of the life-saving biscuits. Over the years, Peek Frean introduced more appetising biscuits including Marie, Bourbon, Custard Creams and Chocolate Tables (the first chocolate coated biscuit), and later in the 1930s savoury biscuits including Twiglets and Cheeselets. In 1902 the company produced the first shortbread, named Pat-a-Cake, at a price the general public could afford.
A complete “Biscuit Town” was created in Drummond Road comprising not only vast bakehouses and packing rooms but also its own package making shops and label printing department, its own tailoring department, a steam laundry, its own staff of builders, carpenters and engineers, its own fire brigade and, by the 1930s, it own electric power house.
The company were benevolent employers and very soon after the company was founded provided free medical and dental care for employees. A cricket club was founded in 1868 and later musical and dramatic societies were set up. After the first world war, a week’s paid holiday, a pension fund and tea breaks were introduced which came about through the introduction of worker participation in Advisory Committees. Peek Frean’s stated aim was that their workforce, which at its height numbered 4,000, should be healthy, comfortable and contented, and those who worked for the company in the later years look back on their time with the company with nostalgia.
George Frean retired from the company in 1887, and Francis Hedley Peek, James’ great-nephew and first chairman after the firm became a limited company, died in 1904, which ended the involvement with the company from members of both the Peek or Frean families though members of John Carr’s family were to continue their involvement for a few more generations. In 1987, Nabisco acquired Peek Frean and two years later Peek Frean’s UK operations were acquired by Danone. The factory closed for good on 26 May 1989, a very sad day. Though biscuits are still sold under the brand name Peek Frean in the US, Canada and other countries, the Peek Frean brand is no longer available in the UK.
There is an amazing short film on YouTube shot in 1906 that shows the daily activities in all departments within the factory, from the stoking of the fires in the ovens, through the delivery of raw materials, the mixing, the baking, the packing and the loading and transport of tins of biscuits loaded high on horse-drawn vehicles. There is a scene where the workforce is shown leaving the factory for lunch and the parade of workers goes on for ever – and check out the elaborate hats worn by many of the women!
After remaining empty for some years, the old factory buildings have been rebranded and called The Biscuit Factory. It forms a part of the Tower Bridge Business Complex which offers light industrial units and studios and has a varied range of tenants. Planning permission was granted in 2013 for demolition of the buildings and the construction of 800 new homes, including affordable housing, alongside commercial floor space.