The war years

Life in the factory changed dramatically during the years 1914 -1918. By December 1914, 515 men, one in seven of the male employees, were in the forces. The number of women workers doubled and for the first time men and women worked side-by-side in the engineering department. Working until 11pm was common as Huntley & Palmers kept the armed forces, military hospitals and people on the home front supplied with biscuits and cakes.

Huntley & Palmers recorded its contribution towards the war effort during the First World War in this booklet. (REDMG : 1997.82.523)

Making munitions

Alfred Palmer agreed to make shell cases for the war effort and before long the men and women working in the manufacturing department were turning out 900 a week. Of the 60,000 delivered, less than one hundred were substandard. ‘Every Huntley and Palmers’ shell is like a piece of jewellery’, one tester eagerly reported.

As pressure increased from the Home Office to release more male workers to the armed forces, women were transferred from biscuit packing to the Engineering Department and were trained on the spot. (REDMG : 1996.197.11)

Loss of employees

In total almost 40% of all male employees, namely 1,833, went away on active service. 145 of those were never to return having been killed whilst on active service. One of the early wartime casualties was Ronald Poulton Palmer, George William's nephew and adopted son. He had entered the business as an apprentice in 1912 and was due to join the engineering department in the autumn of 1914. Sadly he was killed in action in 1915.

These plaques commemorate Huntley & Palmers Foreign Office employees who were killed in action. (REDMG : 1997.130.463)

The inter-war years

In the immediate aftermath of the war the Reading factory continued to be busy as restocking took place and a new cake factory was built. In November 1918 the 48 hour week was introduced. In preparation for this, employees who had served continuously since 1914 were allowed to vote on whether the dinner hour should be an hour or an hour and a quarter. They eventually decided on an hour and a quarter. In July 1919 the company paid an extra weeks wages to commemorate the signature of the peace treaty along with one weeks paid holiday.

After an initial post-war boom, the high costs of goods and the strength of the pound led to a fall in production. Despite the decline in the number of employees from a post-war peak of 5,000 in September 1919 to 3,500 two years later, from August 1920 onwards the company had to reduce the working week to 31 hours with a complete shut-down on Saturdays and Mondays.

The FA Cup was shown at the Biscuit Factory during Reading Football Club's cup run of 1926-7. Huntley & Palmers issued an FA Cup tin to celebrate. The Biscuitmen lost in the semi-final. (REDMG : 1997.130.616)

World War II

In the months prior to the Second World War, some changes were taking place in the biscuit industry as a whole. This included the proposal to introduce minimum wages, which due to war breaking out, were not implemented until 1942. The level was set as 70s [£3.50] a week for men and 43s [£2.15] for women.

Huntley & Palmers staff prepare for war by doing a gas raid drill in gas masks at the factory. (REDMG : 1997.130.423)

Preparations for war

Huntley & Palmers went ahead with its own preparations for war including building air-raid shelters and fitting dimmed lights in case of a black out. It also reintroduced the principle of supplementing employees pay while they were on National Service.

The ARP (Air Raid Precautions) services plan of May 1940, showing the factory's first aid posts and equipment, sand dumps, fire brigade posts and air raid shelters. (REDMG : 1997.162.76.1)

In May 1940 Huntley & Palmers accepted an urgent army contract for biscuits, which involved the entire use of the auto plants 24 hours a day, seven days a week until it was completed. The rush meant postponing all holidays for factory and office staff alike.

Women's War Work Week in August 1941 aimed to recruit women for wartime work. These Huntley & Palmers employees were part of the food section. During the war the number of women employees rose to equal the men for the first time. (REDMG : 1996.197.84)

After a direct hit on Peek Frean's Bermondsey factory in May 1941, some Peek Frean workers came to Reading where four varieties of their biscuits were being produced. Some of the employees were sent to work in munitions factories in Burghfield, but they still received their bags of broken biscuits.

Learn more about life after 1945 at Huntley & Palmers in the next section.