Biscuits. Beer & Bulbs - Reading's old company records

From the December 1999 issue of the Berkshire Family Historian

by Tony Corley

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Reading was predominantly an agricultural town with few major industries; yet by the end of the century, while farming still played an important role in the town's activities, Reading had established itself as a major employer with companies producing beer, biscuits and seeds.

Reading was the largest centre for brewing in the county. There were five brewers in the 1830s, but Simonds established itself as the single largest brewery in the town. The magnitude of the growth of Simonds can be understood when we see that in 1860 beer output was 19,000 barrels a year, while by 1890 it had increased to ill,ooo barrels a year. Meanwhile, another Reading company - Huntley and Palmers - was achieving significant growth. In the 1850s the flour required for a nine-month period cost just under £25,000: by 1873-4 the company's annual intake of flour was more than 10,000 tons, costing just over £195,000. Between 1874 and 1894 biscuit production alone increased by 38.6 per cent.

Between 1851 and lgol the population of Reading increased from 22,000 to 72,000. Migration was playing an increasing role in the growth of the town, attracted by the new industries. Reading had expanded its boundaries in 1887 absorbing Newtown, the Wokingham Road area beyond Cemetery Junction, and part of Tilehurst. It had the largest population of all the towns in the county and was the only one big enough to achieve county borough status in 1889.

To understand the social background and employment of individuals at this time we have to rely on the decennial census returns. The official Census Report every ten years gives a breakdown of the population between men and women, and in the various age groups, and also the numbers in the principal trades and professions.

The transcription and indexing of the 1851 census for Berkshire has given us a snapshot in time of the age, family background and life in Berkshire's largest town.

The 1881 index on CDROM, and that for 1901 (when it becomes available), will enable us to trace the working life of individuals over a period of time.

To take at random a not uncommon Reading name, the 1851 Census records George Shackleford, tinman, 55 and his two sons, Thomas, 27, foundry labourer, and Charles, 24, tin plate worker. It would enrich the Shacklefords' family history to know that one was employed in what became the Reading Iron Works and the other two at the future Huntley Boorne and Stevens. In fact, Charles became the foreman and inspector at the tin plate works, his son (also Charles) was a tin plate worker, and another son, Samuel, was a clerk at the biscuit factory. It would also add to our knowledge of this family if additional information were available, such as the dates of their employment and wage rates.

So as not to raise expectations unduly, it has to be said at the outset that surviving company archives in Reading yield very patchy data on individual employees. Yet that information is still well worth exploring. To provide some background for those interested, let us see how patterns of employment in the town changed between 1851 and 1901. Here are some of the changes in occupations that took place, according to the Census Reports:

1851 1901
Professional people, including teachers 430 1,600
Construction workers 680 3,000
Engineers 60 990
Railway workers 160 980
Gardeners 190 475
Road transport workers(coachmen, carters etc.) 100 920

Table 1 Occupation changes

These figures are only rough guides, as they depend on the skills of the Census enumerators in finding out what some people - say clerks, labourers or smiths - actually did. Also some categories changed between Censuses. Yet they help to sketch in the town's infrastructure, or the activities of those behind the scenes in Reading's dramatic period of industrial boom. At heart this was still a market town, with weekly markets, a Corn Exchange, regular fairs and agricultural shows. But by lgol Reading had an enviable reputation far and wide for its industrial products, internationally as well as at home. The Three B's Bar, near the Old Town Hall and Reading Museum, recalls the fame of biscuits, beer and bulbs (or seeds), to which we may add (tin) boxes. In an article in the Berkshire Family History Society magazine (Spring 1980), I wrote about 'Reading's Nineteenth-Century Industrial

Families: An Enquiry'. The principal families were:

Founded Employees
1851 1901
Simonds Beer 1785 32 250
Cocks Sauce 1789 11 30
Sutton Seeds 1806 12 500
Barrett Exall and Andrewes Iron works 1817 250 (closed 1887)
Huntley & Palmers Biscuits & cakes 1822 143 5000
Huntley Boorne and Stevens Tins 1832 12 850

Table 2 Reading's nineteenth century industrial families

All six of these firms manufactured products out of agricultural materials, such as wheat and barley, often bought in from the countryside that still surrounded the town, or else undertook ancilliary business: Huntley Boorne & Stevens supplied Huntley & Palmers with tins, while the Iron Works made agricultural machinery. The founders of the firms had usually been born elsewhere, but were impelled to move to the town by its good communications with the rest of England, whether by road, canal, or rail (and now motorways). The spectacular increase in the workforce of most of these firms shows how their business leaders took full advantage of the commercial opportunities in this era.

Sadly, all but one of the above firms has now disappeared from Reading. Only Simonds'brewery remains. In 1960 it amalgamated with Courage and Barclay of London, and later moved from its original site in Seven Bridges (now Bridge Street) to the southern edge of the town, as the headquarters of Courage Ltd.'s Central Region. Its ultra-modern building, completed in 1980, overlooks the M4 motorway at Worton Grange. Before the many changes had taken place, I examined its archives, and found no wages documents. I discuss the other five firms in turn below.


This firm closed in 1962, and the last chairman handed me the remaining papers, comprising mainly books of labels and the like. The name of William Biggs, manager of the Reading sauce warehouse in the mid-1860s, survives because he was Grand Secretary of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire freemasons from 1869 to 1877. We know about Luey Dore, 36, of 4 Vine Court, because in the 1851 Census she described herself as a labourer at the sauce makers; I did not note her in my trawl through the 1861 Census.

Huntley Boorne & Stevens

Again, there were very few surviving records of this kind. George William Brown had been chief engineer in the Reading Iron Works, but when it closed in 1887, he moved to an identical post in the tin factory. In 1873 Charles Shackleford (whom we met earlier) was appointed Inspector of Work, in his mid-40s. A printed notice warned the hands of his duties: 'To prevent waste of Time, Tin-plate, Gas, Solder, Solution, Iron, Varnish, Turpentine, Coke, Rosin, Cotton Waste, or any other materials'. He must have been a thoroughly detested work study man-cum-progress chaser. A tradition handed down to my time recalled an employee - his name now lost - who had suffered a nasal accident and was given a tin nose. The only nominal list, with wages between 21 and 27 shillings weekly, was unfortunately undated but is clearly a twentieth-century one. It contains 107 names, of No. 1-5 shops. Some pencilled comments include 'poor hand', 'very old' and 'bad eyesight'.

Reading Iron Works

The Reading Iron Works Ltd., as it became in 1864, then had about 350 employees. I managed to identify 158 names in the 1861 Census. This revealed that 33 per cent had been born in Berkshire; one came from France and one from Germany. In the Berkshire Family History Society magazine (Summer 1981), I discussed two'Addresses'from the workmen (no women then) to the partner Charles James Andrewes in 1858 and to Alfred Barrett in 1863, both on the occasion of their marriages. The former 'Address' contained 267 signatures, 18 marked with an X because of illiteracy (someone else filling in their name). In 1863, there were 331 signatures; six pencilled names are perhaps of those unable to sign, but some others are clearly the efforts of those still trying to master the art of writing. One of those in the 1858 list was Stephen Gyngell (1832-1904), a former apprentice there, who two years later was the founder of the Reading Co-operative Society. He obviously left to work full-time in the co-op as he does not appear in the 1863 'Address'. A fellow-committee member was Charles Henry Cheer, foreman of the boiler shop, who signed both. One would like to know more about the splendidly named Rockeliff Greenaway (1863), who had some Greenaway relatives there.

The firm closed in 1887, owing to a lengthy agricultural and general depression. That was made worse by Andrewes' poor commercial judgement in a very cut-throat market for the agricultural machinery and steam engines on which it had achieved such a strong reputation.

Sutton & Sons

The man who built up the seed firm from an insignificant flour and meal business to international fame was Martin Hope Sutton (1815-1901). The most gifted of all Reading's nineteenth-century entrepreneurs, he spent his life making out lists of one kind or another. He kept three separate diaries, on personal, business and religious matters respectively. Fifteen 'Labour lists' for the 1860s and 1870s have survived, all on separate pieces of paper in his handwriting. His first comprehensive schedule dates from 1869, and contains 110 names by department, with weekly wage rates, most in the range of 14-16 shillings, with five shillings for juveniles. As by then it was a mail order firm, fulfilling orders from their annual catalogues, 33 of the employees worked in the offices. The final list was for 1878-9, with office staff numbering 69 out of the 243 employees. Martin's younger brother was a committed evangelist; a note reads 'A book given to each by Alfred Sutton' - almost certainly a religious one.1

An altogether more valuable document is an A3 -sized volume, a 'List of Employees', started at the beginning of lgio but clearly kept in use up to 1939. As it has separate alphabetical sections, names can be found relatively quickly within each letter. Of the 1,524 names, B is the most used letter (164), followed by S, W and H (140, 135 and 132 respectively); there are only six Y's and 2 Q'S. For each employee the book gives name, address, wages, department, when came, when left and'remarks'. An extra bonus for family historians is that relationships (sons, daughters, mothers, sisters) are noted; the first lady clerks were employed, in the Despatch Office, in 1916.2 Other registers are those of sales ledger and invoice clerks from 1872 to 1905 and annual lists of ledger office staff between 1899 and 1914.3

Huntley & Palmers

The most noteworthy company in Reading, by reputation and as the largest employer of labour, was Huntley & Palmers, which departed from the town in the 1970s. The co-founder, George Palmer, had in 1846 invented the first continuously-running biscuit machinery in the world. Although his biscuits were expensive, their quality was of the highest. The goodwill he built up was helped by well-developed marketing skills.

In the full-length history of the firm 1 wrote in 1972, 1 gave the number of employees and average wage rates from 1844 to 1914. Over these seven decades, the total workforce rose from 17 (all men) to 5,000 directly employed, of whom 1,200 were females. In 1914, average wages for unskilled men were 21 shillings; women (all unmarried) had to be content with 11 shillings. Of the 143 employees in 1851, I found 99 in that year's Census, 66 of whom had been born in Berkshire.

During my time researching the book, the company received a number of letters each month, asking about an ancestor or two believed to have worked for the company. It was then impossible to answer particular queries of that kind. However, after my book was published, Lord Palmer was kind enough to present to the University of Reading (which had received many benefactions from the Palmer family) all the company records. These are now available, in the Archives Office in the University Library, to all researchers giving prior notice. Only a few very recent documents are at present closed. Some of the employment records are of specific interest: 23 names of those working in No. 4 shop in 1891, loo names of staff between 1916 and 1931, and salaries Of 46 office workers together with wages Of 27 skilled operatives such as engineers, a chemist, photo artist, binder, stamp-maker and ink grinder, between 1912 and 1923.4

Another relevant document is the minute and account book of the firm's Sick Fund from its establishment in 1849 until 1855. All employees who wished (some belonged to other benefit societies) could, after vetting, join the scheme. They contributed sixpence a week, and received 12 shillings a week benefit during illness. The fund employed a doctor at £25 a year; his services, which included ,cupping, bleeding, tooth drawing and leeches' were very heavily used until a refundable shilling fee was charged for each consultation. A list for 1855 has 98 names (including first names), showing the amounts paid in and paid out and in credit to each member.5

Other H & P records have their own family history value. The 39 Visitors' Books cover the period from 1869 to 1973. Many signers, of course, gave addresses outside the borough, but during that century most inhabitants of the town, especially schoolchildren, must have done the factory tour escorted by lady guides. A separate book shows signatures of British royalty and overseas dignitaries such as the ex-US president Ulysses S. Grant and the Empress Eugenie. In 1892, Oscar Wilde came with some theatrical friends and signed the ordinary book. He was a friend of Sir Walter Palmer, who dropped him when Wilde was tried and then imprisoned in nearby Reading Gaol three years later.6

The company had its team of fire-fighters, with its own launch to tackle any blaze with water-jets from the canal: mercifully, seldom needed for real. The Fire Brigade Report Book, covering 1881 to 1948, recorded the names - over 100 in a separate list for lgog and all the drills carried out.7 A further document, with signatures, was described in the Berkshire Family History Society magazine in 1981 in conjunction with the Iron Works' Addresses. This was an illuminated Address given to George Palmer's eldest son George William on his marriage in 1879. No fewer than lio of the firm's reading-room committee and members signed the Address, to accompany the presentation of a silver epergne, or dinner-table ornament.

Although covering only the period 1857-1868, for family historians the most generally useful source will be five books measuring 25cms by 20CMS - recording names and wage rates. The first volume, bound in black, runs from 1857 to 1859. It contains 517 names (surnames only, except to differentiate those with a like surname), 286 in the manufacturing department, 134 Plus 17 girls - in packing, 45 carpenters and coopers, 42 smiths and engineers, and lo shop and general workers. Unskilled hands were paid 4d. an hour, or 3s.4d. a day of 10 hours; they worked from 6.30am to 6.30Pm, with 40 minutes for breakfast and an hour for dinner. Their weekly wage was then 20 shillings for six days, closing at 2pm on Saturdays. As each employee left, a new name was inserted; that creates a moving picture of activity in the firm rather than a snapshot at one moment of time.8

The four succeeding books are all red-bound. Like the previous black one, the book covering 186o-3 lists all departments with a total of 65o names, 299 in manufacturing and 200 (plus 16 females) in packing. The smiths and engineers, still 42 in number, remind us how the factory relied on steam engines by then. Bearing in mind the labour turnover, the 'snapshot' number of employees in 1861 was 535.9 As this total increased to 920 by 1867, all departments could no longer be included in one volume, and the last three books are divided.

The Manufacturing Department book partly duplicates the earlier one, starting in August 186o and running through to April 1869. It contains 602 names, as against the previous 299. Pasted in the front are the 'Rules and Regulations, for the purpose of preserving good order', which laid down fines for offences such as swearing, bringing in liquor and having hands and faces unwashed. The fines went into the Sick Fund box; no one was dismissed except for a criminal act.10

The Packing Department book runs from 1865 to 1868. Numbers were up from 200 to 395, but there were only eight females listed instead of 16. The final book, of 'Fitters, Carpenters, Bricklayers, etc.' is for 1862-9, but a note reads, 'Transferred, March 1865'. It lists 49 box carpenters (tins for overseas were packed up in bulk wooden boxes) as against 20 previously, 32 smiths and engineers - formerly 42 - 16 tinmen, 29 bricklayers, 13 shop boys and lo miscellaneous.11

Those were all the wages books I could find, but 1 remember seeing some large wages ledgers for the 1870s. These were not kept in strong rooms but were stacked in open shelves. No doubt they were discarded when the premises in Kings Road were cleared before being demolished. If we must regret their destruction, it is a matter of satisfaction that all the documents in safes and strong rooms were secure, and are now available to be studied by researchers at the University.


This is a preliminary attempt to bring together, from the sources known to me, all the surviving information by name about employment in Reading industries before 1914. This information does seem to be a little thin, with very large gaps in what the firms concerned apparently felt to be worth preserving. More extensive searches, or (as sometimes happens) an unexpected reference in another document or catalogue of archives, may help to broaden our knowledge about those who worked in the town and are nowadays almost entirely forgotten, except by those family historians who are helping to bring their memories alive again after so many decades.

My thanks are due to Michael Bott, Archivist, University of Reading, and to Professor E J T Collins, of the University's Rural History Centre.


1 University of Reading, Rural History Centre, TR SUT AD 3/4-18
2 ibid TR SUT AD 3/45
3 ibid TR SUT AD 3/24 and 28-44
4 University of Reading, Huntley & Palmers' Archives HP 95,24,259
5 ibid HP 135
6 ibid HP 212
7 ibid HP 210
8 ibid HP 187
9 ibid HP 45
10 ibid HP67
11 ibid HP 140/1 and 2


The author, as T.A.B.Corley, has written the following articles in the Berkshire Archaeological Journal. The volume number is given before the date.

66 1971-2, 'The Earliest Reading Bank: Marsh, Deane & Co., 1788-1815, pp 121-8

67 1973-4, 'Barrett Exall & Andrewes' Iron Works at Reading. The Partnership Era 1818-64', PP. 79-87

68 1975-6, 'Simonds' Brewery at Reading 1760-1960', pp 77-88

69 1977-8, 'A Small Berkshire Enterprise: J. Dymore Brown & Son 1831-1944', pp. 73-80

70 1979-80, 'The Celebrated Reading Sauce: Charles Cocks & Co. Ltd. 1789-1962', pp 97-106

71 1981-2, 'The Old Breweries of Berkshire, 1741-1984', pp 79-88

72 1983-5, 'Huntley Boorne & Stevens and Tin Box Manufacturing in Berkshire 1832-1985', pp. 59-67

74 1991-3, 'The Making of a Berkshire Entrepreneur: Martin Hope Sutton of Reading 1815-40', pp 135-43

75 1994-7, 'A Berkshire Entrepreneur Makes Good: Martin Hope Sutton of Reading, 1840-71' pp. 103-110

76 2000 (forthcoming), 'The Last Years of Mar-tin Hope Sutton, Seedsman of Reading, 1871-1901'.

He also wrote Quaker. Enterprise in Biscuits, Huntley & Palmers of Reading 182 -1972 (London: Hutchinson, 1972). This is now out of print.

Additional information