"They tried to do a shrimp flavoured Twiglet and it lasted less than one hour. People were physically sick with the smell."
The Experimental Board at the Peek Freans biscuit factory in Bermondsey had its ups and downs. While misfires included those seafood Twiglets and a peculiar Cream of Tomato biscuit, there were some major hits too. This was the place that dreamt up the custard cream, bourbon, Garibaldi, and — revelation and revelations — the chocolate coated biscuit.
More than that, Peek Freans upgraded billions of wet British afternoons sat in front of Countdown with a cuppa.
Started by tea importer James Peek in 1857, in a former sugar refinery on Bermondsey's Mill Street, the company soon acquired Peek's nephew-by-marriage George Hender Frean, then brought aboard John Carr (the same Carr of those well-known water biscuits).
Until this time, biscuits were a grisly necessity; weevil-infested hunks of sawdust loaded onto ships for onerous ocean voyages. But When Peek Freans dreamed up the Pearl in 1865 — a light, sweet confection — it sparked a renaissance; biscuits could be delicious after all. The Pearl was followed by the Marie, named for an Austrian princess, and the shortbread-based Pat-A-Cake. Soon the public were hooked on these novel sugary treats. Bermondsey earned the nickname 'Biscuit Town'.
Then there was a huge fire.
"There were reports of flaming biscuits dropping out of the sky in Peckham and Camberwell," says Gary Magold, curator at the Peek Freans Museum. The Prince of Wales is said to have ridden out on a horse-drawn water pump to witness the conflagration. The factory was destroyed, and Peek Freans relocated to nearby Drummond Road. Here, it found itself sandwiched between a manure company and a tripe boiling works. Peek Freans' answer to getting rid of the stench? Buying both companies out. It's just as well they did; the biscuit factory remained here until 1989, after which much of it was demolished.
Secreted away in a surviving block of the complex (which now homes offices, artists' studios and a gym) is the Peek Freans Museum, a treasure trove of biscuit heritage. Colourfully decorated tins glitter in cabinets. There are old advertisements, images of employees in flour-caked aprons, special Twiglet-cutting blades — even antique biscuits still in their packaging, decades past their best-before. Holding court in the centre of the room is a replica of a wedding cake gifted by Peek Freans to the then-Princess Elizabeth, when she married in 1947. A towering Haversham-esque thing, it even features iced battleships — a nod to her husband's naval links.
The museum's star attractions, though, are Gary Magold, a life-long fan of biscuits, and Frank "Taffy" Turner, who worked at Peek Freans for almost three decades.
"Everyone knew someone that worked in Peeks."
Magold grew up in Bermondsey and became entranced by the Wonkaesque alchemy happening on his doorstep. "You'd walk past the factory on the way to school and you'd see the lorries coming in and out," recalls Magold, "you'd see the smoke rising from the factory.
"They had a shop on site where you could buy broken biscuits. They used to sell them in a white, crunchy paper."
His grandparents lived in flats directly opposite the factory, bringing him even closer to the magic. "Everyone knew someone that worked in Peeks."
The thrill of sugary sorcery didn't necessarily translate to working at the factory. A video from 1906 shows a young lad sticking his hands into the whirring machinery to clean it; back then, kids and their limbs were fair collateral game in the endeavour for biscuit perfection. Magold's nan wasn't a fan of factory life: "She worked at Peek Freans for one afternoon only, she hated it," he laughs.
Someone who loved working at Peek Freans is Frank "Taffy" Turner. He was employed here for 29 years, starting out as a works policeman, then moving onto the factory's fire brigade — keeping its many coal fires under control — and rising through the ranks to become chief officer.
In all that time, Turner claims he didn't touch a single biscuit, although admits that since retiring he's fallen off the wagon. Turner is billed the museum's 'living exhibit', brimming with trivia and stories from his time here. Between him and Magold, the Peek Freans Biscuit Museum is a wonderfully personal, personable archive that every Londoner and every biscuit fan should visit.
"We like to talk to people when they come in," says Magold, who set up the museum after the closure of the Pumphouse Education Museum in Rotherhithe. Part of this museum had been a small display on Peek Freans, and he made it his job to salvage it.
"I thought I can't have another bit of Bermondsey disappearing, it's just ridiculous," says Magold, who is something of a historian of the surrounding area.
Though it started out small, the collection is swelling all the time. Aside from Magold's inability to stop buying up bits and pieces, donations from former Peek Freans employees and their families keep on coming. As we arrive, someone is dropping off a retirement clock that belonged to her grandfather — a joy for Magold, who is also an avid clock collector, and has already filled his own home with ticking timepieces.
"These were the days when you could say 'biscuits are good for your children!'"
The old Pumphouse Museum had a nostalgic effect on its visitors; people with dementia would light up at the sight of an old television or wireless set they remembered from decades gone.
Biscuits have a similar sentimental effect. "We'll get people saying 'Do you remember Nib Nobs?'" says Magold (It turns out at one time they were the leading biscuit type in Pakistan — Peek Freans also had offshoot factories in India, Canada and Australia.)
Another man called up to tell Magold he vaguely remembered a biscuit with a camel and a palm tree on it. "I went looking into the salesman's books," says Magold, "and I found it, took a photograph of it, emailed it back to him, said 'There you go, that's what it was called, this is what it tasted like'".
Leaf upon shiny leaf of these salesman's books depict biscuits that were huge in their time, then crumbled into obscurity: the Toy Cracknel, the Golden Puff, the Oranges & Lemons.
Then there's what Magold calls 'The Harry Potter magic spells book'. An ancient, leather-bound tome, compiled by the Office Mixing Board in the 1960s, it lists the names of biscuits, and ingredients and measurements. On the page we open it up at, ingredients include brandy and rum.
"These were the days when you could literally say 'give your children biscuits because it's good for your health!'" says Magold, showing us pictures of teddy bear shaped biscuits, and others colourfully iced with alluring patterns of pink, puce, red and gold.
In its heyday, Peek Freans' marketing department was in overdrive; biscuit tins became an art form — and many doubled up as things like pencil tins and mirrors, to give customers extra bang for their buck. One tin in the collection is disguised as a set of leather-bound books; another is a round tin that comes with a pair of drumsticks: a combined treat and toy for kids. You have to admire the resourcefulness of it all.
Magold — something of a relentless magpie — shows us a picture of an elaborate design he's eager to get his hands on; it's comprised of four biscuit tins that slot together to form a castle, but is selling online for one and a half thousand dollars. It'll have to wait for now.
"Gauzy as a summer morning mist"
By the early 20th century, Peek Freans was churning out some 400 million Pat-A-Cake biscuits a year, alongside some other 250 biscuit varieties. Despite its sweeping global success, the company appears to have had a healthy, community-minded relationship with its employees.
Though not a live-in 'model village' in the same way Saltaire in Yorkshire or Bournville in the Midlands were, Peek Freans had its own doctor, dentist, amateur dramatics society and sports teams (Turner himself played hockey for Peak Freans).
In 1880, Peek Freans' became the first factory in London to be supplied by electricity. Even Henry Mayhew — the philanthropist notorious for recording dismal Victorian working conditions — lauded the factory's atmosphere as "gauzy as a summer morning mist".
The forward-thinking nature of the company is reflected in the trophies for women's swimming and cricket teams. As early as 1908, the staff magazine had a column entitled 'Feminine Matters'.
Magold shows us another company newsletter from 1969, and a story in which Peek Freans invited a group of its retirees back for lunch; their combined service was 11,000 years. Such sense of family was passed down the generations. Arthur Carr, who became chairman and managing director in 1904, was a popular figure who knew workers by name, and built a 'joy slide' for local Bermondsey children.
Frank Turner himself remembers an episode in the 1970s when he took a parcel for then-chairman Richard Carr down to his car. The next day, Turner was presented with a brown envelope. "In those days a brown envelope meant the sack," says Turner, "I'm literally shaking... opened the envelope up... 10 shilling note in it!'
Peek Freans knew how to charm customers, too. There's a framed letter on the wall from the company replying to an agitated customer, apologising that her tin of biscuits was stale and offering a replacement. The letter also gently points out that next time she should perhaps avoid buying tins of biscuits that are six years out of date.
In 1987, Peek Freans was taken over by American RJR Nabisco. They, in turn were bought out by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, who started selling off bits of the company. The (wagon)wheels of demise were set in motion, and — like those biscuits in white, crunchy paper, the company was broken up.
"They weren't interested in biscuit making," says Turner of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, "They were interested in the site." Eventually it was sold off altogether, for a million pounds an acre, and on 26 May 1989, Bermondsey made its last biscuit.
What the Peak Freans Biscuit Museum does is to beautifully piece this incredible legacy back together again.
"When people come over Tower Bridge, why do they automatically turn right and not left?" muses Magold, who will happily brew visitors a cup of tea when they call in. Who knows, they might even offer you a custard cream.
To visit Peek Freans Biscuit Museum, drop them an email, suggesting a couple of dates you're able to visit. Entry is free.