A simple Victorian office block on Eastcheap has, high up on the corner elevation, the name ‘Peek House’ and underneath, an attractive stone relief carving of a man resolutely leading three camels. Could this have anything to do, I wondered, with the Peek Frean company? A company that, in my childhood, was known as the maker of Twiglets and Cheeselets – staple Christmas-time treats in my family home.
It turns out that yes, it could, in a roundabout sort of way.
The building was the HQ, from its construction c.1885, of Peek & Co., a tea importer. The company had been established in 1821 by the three brothers Peek – William, Richard and James. Two sons of James wanted nothing to do with the family tea business and founded – on their father’s advice – a biscuit company. Presumably Pa saw the benefits of starting an enterprise in a related industry.
However, the sons quickly lost interest in biscuits to such an extent that one of them died and the other entered the church. To keep the biscuit company going, James Peek roped in his nephew-by-marriage – and, coincidentally, ship’s biscuit maker – George Frean. Thus Peak, Frean & Co. was born. The Carr family, of water biscuit fame, also got involved. The company hit pay-dirt when it won a contract to supply 11 million biscuits to the French Government in celebration of the lifting of the 1870-71 siege of Paris; it was also responsible for inventing the Garibaldi and Bourbon. The Peak Frean name was emblazoned on biscuit tins and packets for more than a century.
Sadly, it was eventually bought out and broken up, and the name has long since disappeared from UK supermarket shelves. Even the company’s Indian biscuit factory, in the charmingly named city of Dum Dum in West Bengal (after which the somewhat less charming dumdum bullets are named, due to a British armaments factory being located there), bought by Peek Frean in 1924, is now independent and operates under the Britannia brand. Today, you must go to Pakistan (the former Peek Freans Pakistan now known as English Biscuit Manufacturers) or to Canada (Mondelēz International) to buy Peek Frean-branded products.
← Peek Frean also created the Meltis confectionery company, responsible for the loathsome sugary abominations that are New Berry Fruits. In my opinion, this should have condemned the entire company to hell and damnation but apparently it didn’t.
It’s curious that they chose not to illustrate the pineapple flavour. I suspect that Pineapple, as a rather hard, nobbly fruit with a less than soft-and-cuddly rosette would, visually, not promote the ‘lovely liquid centre’ strapline.
Enough of biscuits and Canada, what of tea and camels? Well, the Peek tea importation business prospered and branched out into coffee, sugar, spices and tinned goods. Confusingly, two competing companies were formed by other members of the Peek family, under the names Peek Brothers and Winch and Francis Peek, Winch & Co., but a three way merger united the family tea interests in 1895 and the merged company continued trading at Peek House (20 Eastcheap) as Peek Brothers and Winch, until another merger created Peek, Winch & Tod in 1962 and the company relocated to Newhaven, before the Peek name disappeared entirely in a blizzard of corporate consolidations.
And that sculpture adorning Peek House? It has pedigree. The artist was William Theed the Younger (1804-91), whose work was popular with royalty. As the always-interesting IanVisits blog points out, the bones of a dead camel are just visible in the sand beneath the middle camel of the three. The loads on the camels are meant to represent the three main goods traded by Peek – tea, coffee and spices. Peek’s tea was sold under the ‘Camel’ brand, and the company later used the three camels as a logo on stationary.
← Is it my imagination, or is the middle camel, carrying tea chests, a bactrian whereas the others are dromedaries?
The camel bones in the sand are just discernible, bottom centre.
You can see a clearer illustration of Theed’s abilities when it comes to camels if you take a stroll to the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens: The ‘Africa’ group is his work.
← The dromedary is magnificent, but the ‘Africa’ group at the Albert Memorial seems to typify the British view of Africa in the 1860s: three of the four human figures are stylishly and nobly adorned in North African and Egyptian dress. Only the fourth figure to the right, in a state of heathen undress, is allowed to represent Sub-Saharan Africa.
Richard Peek, one of the three brothers was, incidentally, rather a splendid chap. He became a Sheriff of the City of London in 1832, campaigned vociferously against both capital punishment and slavery, and after retirement was much given to making charitable donations.
Peek House, which is not listed, is pleasant enough but if it wasn’t for the camel relief I doubt that many people would notice it. Besides, playing ‘hunt-the-mice’ on 23 Eastcheap, almost opposite, is always going to be more fun – see my earlier post titled ‘All Creatures Great and Small’.
Peek House is now home to Eastcheap Records; according to its website, this company offers live music, cocktails and good times. However good, they cannot possibly compare with sitting down as a child on Christmas Eve and consuming the slightly bizarre combination of twiglets and a glass of cherryade. Harry Davies, the great-great-great-great-nephew of James Peek, bought back the UK rights to the Peek Freans name in 2017, but plans to begin production of Peek Freans biscuits in the UK appear not to have reached fruition quite yet.
← Strangely, no mention of Cherryade as an accompaniment to twiglets in this 1932 advertisement – I can’t help feeling Peek Frean missed a trick there. The cartoon chef is a caricature of the inventor, M. Rondalin
I’ll stop there, as my stomach is telling me to go to Sainsbury’s to see if they have any twiglets, now produced under the Jacob’s brand. This is what comes of spotting a camel bas relief on an office block.
- 20 Eastcheap: Monument
- Albert Memorial: Knightsbridge, High Street Kensington, Gloucester Road
- Lythgoe, D. (Date Unknown), The History and Traditions of the Peek Family, available online at the peek-of-hazelwood website
- Mansfield, I. (2020), Camels in the City of London, Available online at the IanVisits website
- Matlach, M. (2020), Peek Brothers & Co. / Peek Brothers & Winch Ltd., available online at the Commercial Overprints website
- ‘RamblingWombat’, (2019), See a Camel Caravan on Eastcheap, available online at the RamblingWombat website