It’s hard to imagine that the humble biscuit could be an intrinsic part of our nation’s imperialist past but, in fact, the 19th-century expansion of the British Empire owes much to Huntley & Palmers’ Ginger Nuts and Bath Olivers. Many famous expeditions were fuelled by such delicacies: Henry Stanley set off in search of Dr Livingstone with supplies of them, and Captain Scott’s hut at Cape Evans on Ross Island still contains tins of Huntley & Palmers biscuits, specially developed for the expedition, that were left there in 1911.
‘Fancy’ biscuits, as opposed to those eaten for health purposes, were first produced commercially in Britain in the early 19th century. Peek Frean, McVitie’s and Jacob’s all became household names but, certainly in terms of collecting, it is Huntley & Palmers that stands out today.
The company’s first premises were opened by a Quaker, Joseph Huntley, in London Street, Reading, in 1822. As the business expanded, he was joined by his cousin, George Palmer, in 1841. The firm acquired a site on King’s Road in Reading five years later and by 1860 had expanded into the biggest biscuit and cake manufacturer in the world, turning out 3,200 tons of biscuits a year. By 1900, there were so many Macaroons, Pic Nics and Osbornes (named after Queen Victoria’s favourite palace) being made, that there were over 5,000 employees and Reading was known as ‘Biscuit Town’. Thanks to some superb marketing, the export trade was enormous too, with biscuits distributed across the globe. Ten per cent of total production went to India alone, presumably so that the Governor of Bengal and his chums could enjoy a good Thin Abernethy (‘made from the Choicest Materials’) with their tea.
Recognising the importance of advertising the brand and keeping the fragile biscuits fresh and intact, Huntley & Palmers pioneered the use of metal tins and opted for increasingly inventive designs. The first handmade containers appeared in 1832 and were manufactured by Joseph Huntley’s son, who founded Huntley, Boorne & Stevens in an ironmongers opposite the bakery. These were large square 7lb or 10lb tins for retailers with glass inset tops. When tins (without the glass insets) were subsequently manufactured for biscuit lovers, they were an instant hit, and the tins were of such good quality they were rarely discarded and often reused.
In 1861, the Licensed Grocer’s Act heralded the arrival of individually packaged goods and, by the end of the decade, cheaper manufacturing processes and larger disposable incomes led to the increasing popularity of decorative ‘gift tins’. With the advent of offset lithography in 1877, printing on more complicated metal shapes became possible and by the 1890s it was possible to make tins in almost any shape imaginable. Windmills, cars, locomotives, bags, baskets, globes, tables and postboxes abounded – all snapped up as much for their decorative qualities as their contents. Between 1868 and the outbreak of World War II, Huntley & Palmers issued around 400 tin designs with a considerable number of decorative variants on some of the shapes. Little wonder that in 1914, Huntley, Boorne & Stevens could quickly adapt to manufacture 536,000 water canteens required for the war effort.
Some of the most ornate shapes appear after 1900, and the 1920s-30s were the heyday for innovative tins. Indeed, by this time, the name Huntley & Palmers was so synonymous with a quality product and innovative selling that the brand was usually relegated to the base or the inside of the lid, giving designers free reign over the decoration of the exterior – which could resemble anything from a country cottage to a Chinese vase.
It is generally these shaped novelty tins that are most admired by collectors today. Condition is naturally of paramount importance. Lithographed metal tins suffer badly when poorly stored (damp conditions are particularly problematic), and many a good tin is rendered valueless by the dreaded ‘tin worm’. These thin strands of rust travel under the printed surface and there is nothing that can be done to arrest the deterioration. Many also become worn or dented, giving the novice collector an opportunity to acquire interesting examples relatively cheaply.]
For the serious enthusiast there are other criteria. Huntley & Palmers book-shaped tins are a prime example: there were no less then 10 variations produced between 1900 and 1924, totalling an amazing 650,000 tins. A worn ‘Waverley’ tin (which refers to the series of novels by Sir Walter Scott) from 1903 can cost as little as £10, whereas a rarer ‘Literature’ tin from 1901 (featuring The Pickwick Papers, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels) in excellent condition can cost £200 at auction. Both were made to the same pattern.
My personal favourites include the ‘Garden Roller’ of 1913 and the intricate Grandfather Clock’ of 1929, complete with its chinoiserie decorated case and moving hands. The tin frequently realises in excess of £200 at auction and I’ve seen versions cleverly adapted and used as actual timepieces.
Thrill of the chase
Strangely enough, it is not an antique or vintage tin that has become the most highly sought-after among Huntley & Palmers collectors. In the late 1970s an apparently unhappy employee decided to exact his revenge after learning of his imminent dismissal. He took a design known as the ‘Kate Greenaway’ tin, which featured an apparently idyllic garden scene on the lid, and embellished it with some rather lewd ‘goings on’ in the flowers beds! Withdrawn soon after, this rarity is now a favourite among collectors and can realise over £200 at auction.
The thrill of the chase is everything when it comes to collecting, and hunting down biscuit tins will invariably lead you from auctions and car boot fairs to specialist dealers. Auctioneers frequently sell tins in mixed lots and you might find an interesting job lot for sale with a selection of tins from different companies.
Look out too for the annual Christmas catalogues which illustrated new gift tins and are now as collectable as the tins themselves. You can pick and choose which tins to keep and ‘trade up’ as your knowledge and eye improves. The Huntley & Palmers collection has an excellent website (see Find Out More) that allows you to search for information on a particular design. As always, buy the best you can afford – better to have one good tin than half-a-dozen rusty ones!
Sadly, Huntley & Palmers ceased biscuit production at their Reading premises in 1976 and Huntley, Boorne & Stevens also fell into decline. However, the iconic biscuit brand was relaunched in 2004 in Suffolk with a remit to continue the traditions of quality and packaging for which it was once so famous. Who knows what status a new generation of tins will acquire?
Some objects, whatever genre they fit into, have a strong crossover appeal. This is often the case with transport-related items such as aircraft, locomotives and shipping. The classic 1923 Huntley & Palmers delivery van, with brown livery, gold lettering and a hinged roof to allow access to the biscuit compartment, is a must for tin plate collectors. Good examples of such tins – essentially no different from their tin-plate toy counterparts – are usually reserved for specialist auctions and can fetch over £1,000. This Crawford’s aeroplane from 1929 is valued at £1,750.