The demise of the first generation

From the late 1840s George Palmer devoted more time to public service. He became a councillor in 1850 and argued for better sanitation and public recreation grounds for the people of Reading. In 1857 he was elected Mayor for the town. On the day after his election over-enthusiastic supporters fired off the old cannon that stood on the mound in Reading's Forbury Gardens, blowing out most of the windows in the vicinity!

George Palmer in later life. (REDMG : 1997.130.207)

In 1878 George Palmer became a Member of Parliament for the Liberal party. He was nicknamed the ‘silent member’, although he did make a few contributions to debates. In his maiden speech he supported a bill to grant women the right to vote – however, seven years later, for reasons which are unknown, he had changed his mind on this issue! George died in 1897 just before his eightieth birthday. London Road was lined with 5,000 employees as the funeral cortege passed by.

The simple Quaker gravestone is for George Palmer, founder of Huntley & Palmers, and his wife Elizabeth. They are buried in the Quaker Burial Ground behind the Reading Meeting House in Church Street. (REDMG : 1997.82.515)

William Isaac and Samuel Palmer

George's younger brother, William Isaac, died in 1893. During his lifetime he had donated much time and money to good causes and, on his death, his benefactions and promises of funds were found to exceed his assets. His brothers therefore had to help out from their own resources. In 1887 Samuel Palmer fell sick and never really resumed work. He officially retired in 1898 and died in 1903 aged 82.

The three Palmer brothers who led the firm after Thomas Huntley's death in 1857. From top clockwise: George, Samuel and William Isaac. (REDMG : 1997.130.561)

A new generation

From the late 1860s, the new generation of Palmers were admitted into the factory. The first were George Palmer’s eldest sons, George William and Alfred, who joined as unpaid clerks at the age of sixteen. They were given a thorough grounding in all aspects of the factory before becoming partners in 1874. George William was responsible for the Reading offices and Alfred was in charge of the engineering department.

George William Palmer was Mayor of Reading from 1889 to 1890. In 1892 he became MP for Reading and remained a MP until 1904, apart from a break between 1895 and 1898. (REDMG : 1997.82.502)

Over the next decade they were joined by Walter Palmer, the son of George William Palmer, and four of Samuel Palmers sons - Howard, Albert, Ernest and Charles. Walter Palmer was given the task of inventing new biscuits, Howard was in charge of manufacturing and packing and Albert was responsible for the tins and their labels. Ernest and Charles went to the London office which was now based at 162 Fenchurch St.

Out of the eight Huntley & Palmers directors in 1900, only one - William B. Williams, was not a Palmer. The other seven - Ernest, Walter, George William, Charles, Albert, Alfred and Howard, were all sons of George or Samuel Palmer. (REDMG : 1997.130.560)

A new lifestyle for the directors

During the course of the nineteenth century the first generation of Palmers had acquired great wealth. In spite of this, George Palmer continued to live a modest life. In 1865 he purchased a permanent home, The Acacias in London Road - a fairly modest villa of Bath stone - which many felt did not suit his position as a prominent factory owner. In the 1870s he purchased a country estate but he never really assumed the position of landed gentry.

George Palmer purchased the Marlston estate of 1,170 acres near Newbury in 1880. He spent little time there and in 1896 transferred it to his eldest son, George William Palmer (seated centrally under the canopy). (REDMG : 1997.130.211)

For the second and third generations of Palmers, life was considerably different. Whereas George and his brothers had been educated at traditional Quaker schools with a focus on commerce, their sons attended middle-class schools and their grandsons were sent to Eton or Harrow. All the second generation Palmer children joined the Church of England and – except for George William Palmer – became Conservatives.

The Directors' dividends

The Directors Share Dividend Book from 1898-1930 shows the large sums that the directors were earning from their shares at the turn of the century. In 1911 Alfred and George William Palmer earned over £55,000 each from payment of dividends on their shares. The average pay for factory workers at the time was £52 per year for men and £26 per year for women.

Learn more about worker's strikes and grievances at Huntley & Palmers in the next section.

This group photograph of the Huntley & Palmers directors was taken to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to the Reading Biscuit Factory on 12 March 1918. (REDMG : 1997.162.54)