Written by Anna Jones, Programme Manager of Museums Partnership Reading
'If you're trying to create a company, it's like baking. You have to have all the ingredients in the right proportion'.
Tech entrepreneur and space cadet Elon Musk could have sourced his business analogy from Reading's history. For in 1822, Joseph Huntley literally and metaphorically mixed ingredients and cooked up one of the most famous names in baking history: Huntley & Palmers.
After receiving an inheritance following the death of his wife, Joseph Huntley, a Quaker schoolmaster from Oxfordshire, established a small baker’s shop at 72 London Street, Reading. His son Thomas joined as a partner in 1829, and the firm became known as Joseph Huntley & Son. In 1841, this partnership grew to include George Palmer, a fellow Reading Quaker and later MP for Reading, and the burgeoning biscuit business was renamed Huntley & Palmers. The rest, as they say, is history. And biscuits. And lots of them.
In 1846, Huntley & Palmers opened a large factory on Kings Road, Reading. Palmer scaled and transformed the business, developing the first continuously running machine for making biscuits, which proved pivotal to the company's successes, as it soon became the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world.
Within forty years, the company that created the Nice biscuit, Gingernut and the Bath Oliver, was exporting its goods across the globe, employing more than 5,000 workers, and enjoying a prestigious and elite reputation among the forty most important industrial companies in Britain.
As Huntley & Palmers became one of the first global brands selling the ‘Number One in Biscuits and Second-to-None in Cakes’ to 137 countries at its peak, so too did Reading become known as the Biscuit Town.
Success and innovation went beyond what was consumed. The brand’s tins, originally created for practical airtight storage, ensuring produce stayed oven-fresh and unbroken, became iconic in their own right.
Award-winning designs, including the first hinged and printed biscuit tins, became as highly prized as the goodies they contained. Huntley & Palmers’ Reading factory stopped manufacturing in 1972, and today the tins are collectors’ items.
Below, take a look at two Huntley & Palmers tins newly uploaded in full 3D to the Reading Museum Sketchfab account.
The astonishing collection of objects and ephemera in the Huntley & Palmers Gallery at Reading Museum features almost 300 decorative biscuit tins, including the rude ‘Kate Greenaway’ biscuit tin that embarrassed the biscuit company in 1980. We'll be highlighting the story of this tin on our blog very soon.
This year, we are marking the special anniversary of 200 years of Reading's biscuit heritage through another Reading creative partnership; albeit one based not in the kitchen or the tin, but in museum objects, galleries, and the joy of learning about our shared past.
Museums Partnership Reading is a joint programme of events, exhibitions and activities from The MERL and Reading Museum, funded by Arts Council England. For Biscuit Town 200, we will be running a special exhibition (Biscuit Town: 200 Years of Huntley & Palmers in Reading, displayed at The MERL), guided tours, themed family events, and afternoon teas (complete, of course, with biscuits), all exploring this special biscuit history at the heart of our town.
Needless to say: Elon would be a smart cookie to swap the stratosphere for Reading for his travels this year.
Biscuit Town 200 is made possible through the generous support of a range of local and regional partners, including Arts Council England and the Great Western Railway, our Official Travel Partner. Find out more about the full programme taking place across Reading in this Visit Reading news post.
With thanks to the University of Reading's Special Collections for supplying the header image of this post (object number HP/55).
Anna Jones is Programme Manager for Museums Partnership Reading, and Cultural Activities Facilitator for Reading's High Street Heritage Action Zone.