Welcome to the Biscuit Capital of the World

Would anyone passing through Reading on the Great Western Railway have thought that Reading was once world famous for biscuits? I certainly wouldn’t have, but in the 1930s it was. Here’s the card for Reading from The Counties of England card game made by John Jaques & Son Ltd.

Reading - from The Counties of England card game by John Jaques
Reading – from The Counties of England card game by John Jaques

Huntley & Palmers was founded in 1822 and, during the next 150 years, came to be “The Most Famous Biscuit Company in the World.” As global trade and travel expanded during the industrial revolution and Britain developed the largest Empire the world had ever known, so did this famous company grow, until it became world-renowned for being “Number One in Biscuits and Second-to-None in Cakes.”

Founded by Quakers, the firm started selling biscuits from baskets to hungry coach travellers and then opened a tiny shop selling biscuits and confectionery on the London to Bath road. Business boomed with all the passing trade so Huntley and Palmers opened a factory in an old silk mill to the East of Reading to produce biscuits on an industrial scale. They installed steam-powered biscuit pressing machines with a conveyer-belt fed by armies of young boys collecting and stacking biscuits. The firm built their own railway sidings to connect to three main railway lines to London and bought a couple of 20 ton locomotives. Eventually there were seven and a half miles of track and 15,000 wagons a year using the lines. Huntley and Palmers exported throughout the Empire because of their innovative use of tin boxes with clever advertising. Huntley and Palmers biscuits would arrive on the other side of the world unbroken.

Huntley and Palmers Cocktail Biscuits
Huntley and Palmers Cocktail Biscuits

By 1860 Huntley & Palmers was already the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world.

The poet and playwright Oscar Wilde visited the factory on 22 September 1892 and left his signature on the signing-in book. Three years later he returned to Reading as a prisoner at the gaol, known as the ‘biscuit factory’ by inmates.

The factory had real problems running in the 1940s and 1950s because of rationing of ingredients and lack of men available to employ after all the deaths and injuries during the Second World War. Huntley and Palmers finally discontinued biscuit production at Reading in 1976 after years of being slowly run down. Lack of investment and innovation meant the factory was inefficient compared to modern buildings. In 1975 the factory had a final fling as the location for the bar scenes in the movie ‘Bugsy Malone’ with Jodie Foster and Scott Baio.

By 1982 Huntley & Palmers was part of Associated Biscuits and was bought by the North American multi-national Nabisco. The last members of the Palmer family left the board of directors and the Reading factory was gradually demolished and redeveloped. The 1930s offices were the last to be demolished in the early 1990s. Only one building remains of the most famous biscuit factory in the world; the Recreation Club building which is now social housing. Source

Reading is now a commuter town with BG Group, ING Direct, Microsoft, Oracle and Hibu headquarters in the town. Because International Computers Limited (ICL) started in Reading, there are now significant technology companies like Cisco, Ericsson, Nvidia and Symantec. It’s a long way from biscuits.

I’m in Reading. This is the view out of my hotel window last night.

The Oracle Car Park at Night
The Oracle Car Park at Night

This is the view out of my hotel window this morning.
The Oracle Car Park in the Morning
The Oracle Car Park in the Morning

It’s The Oracle Car Park, the car park for a major shopping centre. In my hotel there are no biscuits next to the tea bags and coffee sachets. How times have changed.

“Number One in Biscuits and Second-to-None in Cakes.”

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