In Clements Road, Bermondsey SE16 lies a multi-purpose business complex known today as the Biscuit Factory. Amongst it’s many resident organisations there are plumbers, arts and dance organisations, production companies and publishers; the TriSpace Bar and Gallery and the Bridge Cafe are both found there too. Run by Workspace and part of the wider Tower Bridge Business Complex, the Biscuit Factory is a range of Victorian buildings now converted to suit modern tastes in office and business premises. In 2012, planning permission was granted for a mixed use development of 800 new homes on the site with 30,000sqm of commercial floor space and ancillary retail / restaurant floor space. As in the past, so in the future, this site alongside the railway arches will have a huge impact on Bermondsey life.
The Biscuit Factory was until 1989 the site of the Peek Frean factory where many famous biscuits were made and hundreds of Bermondsey families worked for generations. James Peek and George Hender Frean founded the company at Dockhead in 1857 but in 1866 moved to Clements Road where they built their factory on market gardens. When the Dockhead factory burnt down in 1873, all production moved to Drummond Road and the title of Bermondsey as ‘Biscuit Town’ was established. Peek Frean was a huge undertaking employing in the 1940s over 4,000 people directly. Being close to Surrey Docks and the railway line, the factory was perfectly located to bring the best ingredients from across the world such as English wheat flour, pineapples from Australia, chocolate from Ghana, fresh oranges from Spain, ginger from Jamaica and Empire sugar. Of course they grew in return by exporting biscuits to all parts of the British Empire
The factory was very successful inventing many of the famous lines we still know today: Garibaldi in 1861, Marie in 1875, Chocolate Table – the first chocolate coated biscuit – in 1899, Shortcake (Pat a Cake) in 1902 and Bourbon in 1910. In the First World War, parcels of biscuits were sent to Peek Frean staff on active service. The company was very well loved by its employees pioneering the supply of medical, dental and optical services to their staff as well as founding clubs ranging from athletics and cricket to music and drama. in the 1920s, the company invented both Twiglets and Cheeslets to cater for the arrival of the cocktail party amongst the well-off. The factory was vital to the war effort as they already had a fine tin works producing the iconic biscuit tins loved the world over. Such skills and equipment could be turned to serve the pressing need for gas detectors, ammunition boxes and tank components. Thankfully the factory never faced a direct hit but provided shelters for the area under the factory’s railway arches.
After the war, the transformation of international trade, the slow decline of the docks and the rising cost of raw materials led to Peek Frean diversifying and opening factories on other continents. In 1989, United Biscuits took over the business and decided to close the factory. Many Bermondsey families faced redundancy and a fundamental change in the local economy was triggered. The site was left unused for some years until being revitalised as a business complex. Today many of the former employees of the great Biscuit Factory look back on those days with nostalgia. Indeed a small collection of memorabelia has been brought back to the site and a museum created showing something of the glories that were Peek Frean. And now the site faces another future, one with demolition and rebuild at its heart. In a generation, all memory of the Peek Frean contribution to Bermondsey will have passed away.
See this excellent video of the Peek Frean reminiscence collection at the Lavender Pumphouse in Rotherhithe.