Kitty Williams, a former employee at the Bermondsey factory. Courtesy Pumphouse Educational Museum.
There can’t be many out there who haven’t sampled the delights of a Bourbon or reached for a Garibaldi as the tea tray is passed round. But there’ll be few who are aware of the heritage of these tasty treats.
However, following an announcement of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a south London museum is set to change all that.
Thanks to the £33,300 grant, the Pumphouse Educational Museum in Rotherhithe is to create a permanent exhibition that tells the story of Peek Frean & Company’s biscuit factory.
"Everyone loves a good biscuit or cake with their cup of tea; some would say it is a British institution which people have enjoyed for generations," said Sue Bowers, HLF Regional Manager for London.
"HLF is delighted to be supporting a project which will remind us how this most tasty of traditions began. Peek Frean & Co. played a crucial role in developing Southwark’s unique character; this project will ensure everyone can celebrate that inheritance."
The famous Peek Frean & Co logo. Courtesy Pumphouse Educational Museum.
Based in Bermondsey from 1866 until 1989, Peek Frean & Company was the first mass producer of biscuits and invented household favourites such as the Garibaldi, and Bourbon. In more recent times the company created such loved snacks as Cheeselets and Twiglets, not to mention Queen Elizabeth II’s almost two-metre tall (six feet) wedding cake.
The HLF grant will enable the Pumphouse Educational Museum based in Rotherhithe to create an exhibition of their collection of Peek Frean artefacts, ephemera and photographs.
Some items were given to the museum in 1989 when the factory was closed, but the curator at the time was also able to save a number of artefacts from a skip as the company cleared out. Over the last four years, the Pumphouse’s Caroline Marais has been applying to various funding bodies to try and get enough money to create a lasting legacy.
Speaking to the 24 Hour Museum, she explained that the news of the HLF grant came in December and described it as "a wonderful Christmas present," adding: "It has been a long struggle and I’m just really pleased that it has happened."
Many of the company’s former employees still live locally and, as Caroline explained, the exhibition will provide them with a real connection to their past: "Anybody that comes in," she said, "will say 'I knew somebody who worked in the factory' or 'I worked in the factory'."
The huge wedding cake made by Peek Frean & Co for HRH Queen Elizabeth II's wedding. Courtesy Pumphouse Educational Museum.
The fact that many former employees are now rather elderly, added Caroline, makes it important that any lasting tribute should be created in their neighbourhood.
"You’re looking at people that are now around 90 years old, if not older, and because it was a local firm it is important to have it in their locality."
As well as displaying artefacts, photographs dating back to 1900 and textual information, the exhibition will include recorded interviews with former employees and even a 'smell pod' to evoke more sensory memories of the factory: "People always tell me it smelt of custard creams!" said Caroline.
It is hoped the exhibition will be ready in time for a launch event in September when local people, community groups and former factory workers will be invited along to celebrate together.
To ensure everyone can discover this rich heritage, educational worksheets for schools and a booklet providing an in-depth view on the social history of the factory will be produced.