For as long as I can remember, Twiglets have been in my life. I have been sufficiently greedy with them in my time for a box of Twiglets – in the days when there were boxes, and not bags – and in the days when they were made by Peek Frean’s, and not Jacob’s as an offshoot of United Biscuits. They used to come in a blue box, and there was no hermetic seal, so there were was only one solution: eat the box’s entire contents.
My conscience is clean on this one, by the way, because I didn’t eat sweets in any kind of quantity when I was a child, probably why I still have any teeth in my head. The boarding school to which I was despatched at the age of eight allowed each boy to debit an account – real money was not allowed – by 6d (six pennies) on a Wednesday, and 8d on a Sunday. Uniquely, I think, I got through several terms without spending any of this account on sweets. My childhood memories are not sweetened by memories of particular bars of chocolate, or recherche strings of licorice (I’m not fond of anything with an aniseedy taste, including pastis). But when it comes to crisps and savoury biscuits, I am your man.
I’ve just discovered that, come the run up to Christmas-time – let’s say early December – it will be the eightieth anniversary of the launch of Twiglets this year. They were invented for Peek and Frean by a biscuit-maker allegedly called J. Rondalin, a French biscuit-maker who was experimenting with Vitawheat, for the 1929 Christmas season. My grandfather caught the bug badly, and even instructed his housekeeper to counterfeit the things when the war unaccountably stopped their production for a bit. Peek Frean has a history going back to 1857, by the way, when Mr. Peek and Mr. Frean started up in business, and starting, in the 1860s, a factory in Bermondsey which gave the area the nickname ‘Biscuit Town’ – there is even a blue plaque to commemorate the factory (which also invented both the Garibaldi and the Bourbon).
I can’t resist adding to the info available (any excuse for family history). George Hender Frean was born in 1824 in Plymouth, and married (I think for the second time, after his first wife’s death) in Kingsbridge in 1853 to Sarah Ann Polloxfen Pearce – known as Hannah – so he was a Devonian, and I will have to pay a pilgrimage to his place of birth – perhaps Drake’s Place, where he was living in 1841, as the eldest of eleven siblings, with every sign that there were more to follow. He died in 1903 in Woolwich, although he was living in London in Deptford in 1861, with four children, and in Lewisham in 1881, in a large house called The Orchard, with at least three more children. There was money in biscuits, even if he didn’t live to see his finest creation.
As for the Peeks (two brothers, Charles and Edward), they dropped out very early in the game, and were replaced by a biscuit maker called John Carr. Charles was born in 1839, Edward some time later. Their father, a prosperous tea merchant, is to be found in a house in Finsbury Square, aged about 40, in 1841. What a fluke of history that Peek still exists (as it does in America) as a brand name – a memento of two brothers who had no more interest in biscuits, when it came down to it, than tea. Shame on them.
Here is an image of a special edition tin of Twiglets. I can taste that strange, Marmitey taste as I type …