Jobs in the factory

The opening of the new factory in 1846 led to a dramatic increase in the number of employees. The majority of workers - men and boys - came from the local area, though by 1861 one or two came from as far away as Australia.

Making the biscuits

The manufacture of biscuits was the main job available for men and over half the workforce attended the machines and ovens. Once the biscuits were cooked they were packed and sorted. In 1857 ninety male employees - mainly boys - carried out this task.

Mixing the dough was tough and physical work even though the company had introduced mixing machines in the 1840s. Only men were allowed to carry out this heavy work. (REDMG : 1997.130.208)

Female employees

As the factory grew in size unmarried women were taken on by the firm to pack and sort biscuits. Until the mid-twentieth century the company would not employ married women. By the 1870s the female workers were given an afternoon cup of tea as it was thought that it would help them to work more effectively.

The number of female employees steadily increased until the First World War when women were employed for the first time by the engineering and manufacturing departments to replace men who had joined the armed forces. (REDMG : 1997.130.538.15)

In addition to the manufacturing and packing workers, there were tin washers and platers in the tin department; box carpenters and coopers in the carpenters’ department; fitters, smiths and pattern makers in the engineering department; painters, plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters in the building department; together with yard-men, engine drivers, shunters and oilmen for the railway sidings.

Factory guides

Factory guides were employed from 1919 to show visitors around the factory. The guides were well-educated women who would carry out secretarial tasks when they were not showing visitors around.

Factory guides were originally known as 'Lady Guides' and were chosen if they were 'Women of intelligence and good education'. (REDMG : 1997.111.26.1)

Office workers

As the firm grew more office staff were employed to cope with administration and finance. The firm sought to build up a structure that afforded reasonable pay and prospects for the office staff and it attracted many men of good background.


Employees were chosen not only for their skill or dexterity, but also for their size. Small boys were required to pack tins into empty 4ft square water tanks ready for export. The boys would be lowered through a 14 inch opening into the tank and would then be passed tins of biscuits to pack securely into the tank.

In the 1950s a newspaper told the story of this 'Thin boy', Peter Durbridge from Arborfield Cross. Fifteen-year-old Peter got the job by answering an advertisement for a 'Thin boy who does not like biscuits.' (REDMG : 1997.130.538.10)

Fire brigade

Each department of the factory had a member of the company’s own fire brigade which numbered 150 by 1900. Every precaution was taken to protect the immense factory from fire with extinguishers, sprinklers and hydrants available. Telephones connected the factory with the home of every fireman and in seconds an alarm would summon each man to his post if a fire broke out at night.

This photograph shows the fire brigade in the 1900s. The members of the fire brigade were all volunteers whose services were at the disposal of the Corporation of Reading in case of fire in the town. (REDMG : 1997.82.508)

The hydraulically powered Merryweather fireboat was the first of its kind in the world. The boat was propelled by water jets from the pumps and could throw jets of water over 80 feet. (REDMG : 1997.130.306)

Fires in the factory

Every quarter a full drill of the whole brigade took place, although it was rarely called into action for fires within the factory. The only widely publicised fire at the factory was on 27 July 1885 when a store was destroyed and the help of other local brigades had to be sought. The last fire attended by the Huntley & Palmers brigade was in July 1928 when a billiard hall, shops and timber yard in Kings Road caught alight.

In July 1904 the Huntley & Palmers fire brigade attended a major fire at Serpell's biscuit factory in South Street. Despite their best efforts, according to the Berkshire Chronicle, the rival factory was "almost completely destroyed". (1997.130.447)

In the next section, learn more about the pay and conditions in the Huntley & Palmers factory.