Smelly Stuff

Hungry? Well, you are standing in Biscuit Town

Bermondsey used to be called Biscuit Town, because of the Peek Frean Biscuit Company which was based here from 1857 – 1989. Peak Frean made some delicious biscuits (which made the area smell nice) and dog food (which made it smell horrible).

Nobody eats biscuits any more...

The story of Peek Frean begins in 1857 with James Peek who ran a successful tea business.
He decided to open another business – making and selling biscuits.

In 1865 the Pearl Biscuit was launched. Usually biscuits were rock hard but the Pearl was soft, crisp and crumbly.

To make the new style of biscuit Peek Freans needed a bigger building so the company bought up ten acres of what were then market gardens in the middle of Bermondsey.

The old factory was destroyed by a spectacular fire that brought the Prince of Wales out on a fire engine to watch. Flour, eggs and sugar reportedly gushed out of the windows, covered the road and were baked hard in parts by the heat of the flames.

In the new factory brilliant new biscuits were created. Chocolate Table – the first chocolate coated biscuit – in 1899; the Golden Puff in 1909; the Bourbon in 1910; the Shortcake in 1912; Cheeselets and Twiglets between the wars. Yum. Yum. Yum.

On Wednesday 26th May 1989, after 126 years in the business, Peek Freans closed. “No one eats biscuits anymore,” said the general manager. We don’t think that’s true…

Is this the worst job in the world?

Tanneries were places where leather was made.

In Victorian times children used to collect dog poo from the streets and sell this to the tanneries to earn a few pennies. Yuck! The work history of the area can still be seen today in its street names such as Tanner Street and Leathermarket Gardens. Why not have a look on a map and see if you can find any others?

Tanners would get their hides (animal skins) from local butchers. The hides were so fresh they still smelled of blood. These were placed in a sickeningly sweet-smelling lime pit for several weeks to loosen the hair and soften the flesh. Now the really bad part of the job began. The de-haired, scraped hide had to be soaked in pits of “bate” which was disgusting gravy made of water and dog poo. Imagine the stink of the lime pits and the horrible fumes from the bate.

All aboard the Hopper Special!

Before World War Two trains called “hopper specials” used to leave London Bridge heading for Kent, where hops were grown. Hops are a female flower, used to flavour beer. Whole families would leave London for a working holiday setting up home in huts and working in the hop fields until the hops were all collected.

Families were packed so tightly in night-trains that children were stowed in the luggage racks.

People still remember those days. According to Margie Locke from Shadwell:

“It was a lovely life but my children and grandchildren would never accept the conditions – no hot water, hardly any light in the huts. The toilets consisted of a shed with a long wooden seat with holes, some big, some small. Lime was put down to disguise the smell.”

George Orwell went hop picking in 1931 and you can read about his experiences.

What makes fish and chips even tastier?

Vinegar, of course! The Sarson vinegar factory was built in Tanner Street in Bermondsey. On the southern approach to Tower Bridge you could smell vinegar. The factory opened in 1794 and closed in the 1990s, but some of the building was turned into houses and businesses.

6 million litres of Sarson’s vinegar are sold every year. That’s a lot of bottles. If you are visiting England you must try fish and chips. It’s delicious!

Crosse & Blackwell – friends forever

In 1819 two young people working at a grocery company started a friendship that would last their entire lives. In 1829 they bought out the grocery company, renamed it Crosse & Blackwell, and got busy buying new recipes from chefs.

The friends bought a canning company in Bermondsey, in 1850, to make their own tins. They became famous for potted meats and anchovy paste. You’ve probably tasted some of the other products the company sells like soups, mayonnaise and pickles.

Imagine if beer was better for you than water

Southwark and Bermondsey were brilliant for brewing. There was water from the Thames, hops coming from Kent, lots of people who needed work, and places which made barrels and beer bottles.

By the early 19th Century, the largest brewery in the world was The Anchor Brewery in Southwark and Londoners regularly enjoyed a pint or two there, as written in one of Chaucer’s famous tales.

“If the words get muddled in my tale, just put it down to too much Southwark ale.”
Miller, in The Canterbury Tales

John Courage started the business, which cost him £774 – a lot of money in those days. Courage beer is still sold in pubs – look out for a cockerel by the hanging pub sign, which is usually painted gold. Have you spotted any in this area?