Huntley & Palmers and the MERL shop

Claire Smith, Visitor Services Assistant, looks at MERL’s links with biscuit company, Huntley & Palmers, and the development of new related products for the MERL shop

MERL has very strong links with Huntley & Palmers. Not only do we look after their archives, we’re based in Alfred Palmer’s former home!

The University of Reading Special Collections Services and the Museum of English Rural Life are housed in a Grade II listed building, which was originally known as East Thorpe, the home of Sir Alfred Palmer of the Huntley and Palmers biscuit company.

East Thorpe was designed and built by the architect Alfred Waterhouse between 1880–1882. Many original aspects remain, such as the beautiful stained glass in the Staircase Hall and Reading Room.

East ThorpeThe building was given to the University in 1911, when it became St Andrew’s Hall. MERL has been based here since 2005. More information is available in the online exhibition on our website .

The records of Huntley & Palmers  cover the period 1837-1995, the collections consists of documentary materials from all areas of the business, including financial records, correspondence, sales records, promotional material, production records, packaging designs and specimens, photographs, published material and audio visual items. The recipes in the archives inspired our Biscuit Bake-off competition launched earlier this yearThe archives are accessible to the public, via the Special Collections reading room.

Some of the artwork for the Huntley & Palmers packaging is absolutely beautiful and it is such a shame that it is hidden in the archives stores. Last year we were delighted to be able to use some of the stunning images to create items which we now stock in the MERL shop, such as notecards, invitations, mirrors and wrapping paper. Read more in a previous post Some of these are now available in the MERL online store

H&P thank you

We have recently extended the Huntley & Palmers range to include  striking biscuit tins, also based on original designs. We also have packets of biscuits currently made by the company, now based in Suffolk, some of which are based on century-old recipes. 

H&P shop latest

We are currently working with Reading Museum on an Arts Council funded project entitled Reading Engaged, part of which will focus on new products for both museums’ shops. Huntley & Palmers seemed like a natural place to start, as both the University of Reading’s Special Collections and Reading Museum have such extensive collections. We will also be investigating other shared ground, for example our Waterhouse-designed buildings, and other local companies such as Suttons Seeds. The aim of the retail-focussed part of the project is to pool our resources to develop new bespoke product ranges which compliment both museums.

Biscuit recipe of the week: 1940s jam biscuits

By Shira Kilgallon, UoR History Student and MERL Library Volunteer

This week’s biscuit recipe comes from Ministry of Food pamphlets found in the MERL Library collections; two pamphlets have been used to give you a recipe with a twist (and a bit of a challenge!!).

This particular twist is definitely for the more experimental among both biscuit enthusiasts and beginners, as the recipe not only gives a fairly conventional and simple biscuit recipe, but also instructs how to make the jam from scratch. The recipe itself is fairly straightforward, but a little more complicated than previous weeks.

Both pamphlets are from the late 1940s post-war era. They thus contain, as you may find in any recipe books or pamphlets of the time, some rather misogynistic top tips for the ‘contemporary housewife’, which I’m sure you’ll be pleased to see have not been forgotten below! It is also interesting to note that the biscuit recipe was written with the intention of, as the title suggests, ‘Making the most of sugar’ when it was scarcely available due to rationing.

We hope this week’s biscuit recipe will inspire you through its challenging nature – or even its simplicity if you choose to just buy a jar of jam…

Making the most of the sugar

(from Ministry of Food Leaflet No. 21, Dec. 1946, MERL Library Pamphlets 7060 BOX 2/04)

The best way of stretching the sugar ration is by making full use of other sweetenings such as saccharin, honey, syrup or treacle, jam, marmalade, sweetened condensed milk and dried fruit.

Using Jam and Marmalade
Rinse empty jam jars with a little hot water and use this in sauces or for mixing puddings and cakes.


Jam Biscuits
3 oz. fat                              8 oz. flour            2 tablespoons milk           3 tablespoons jam
Rub fat into flour till the consistency of breadcrumbs. Mix together the milk and the jam. Add this to the fat and flour, knead well. Roll out very thinly, cut in shapes and bake in a moderate oven for 15 minutes.

(All spoons are level and all recipes for four.)

maff-jamJam Making

(from Ministry of Food Leaflet No. 28, 1946, MERL Library Pamphlets 7060 BOX 2/31)

Housewives who have saved sugar to make home-made jam are advised to follow very carefully the instructions given below.

  1. Fruit should be fresh and firm-ripe. Over-ripe fruit should NOT be used.
  2. Before the sugar is added, the fruit should be cooked slowly until it is quite tender, with just sufficient water to prevent it burning. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
  3. SUGAR is stirred into the softened fruit until dissolved and the jam then boiled rapidly until setting point is reached. Do not have the pan too full or the jam will boil over at this stage. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
  4. Removing Scum. Do this only when boiling has finished. Constant skimming is wasteful and unnecessary.
  5. Testing for setting point. Begin to test after about 10 minutes of rapid boiling (after sugar has been added). Remove pan from heat during testing.

To test: place a little jam on a cold plate; if setting point has been reached, the jam will wrinkle when pushed with a finger.

  1. Filling the Jars. To prevent fruit rising in the jars, the jam should be allowed to cool slightly in the pan.
    Put on wax disks while hot, and press down over the surface.

From the various types of jam recipes outlined in the recipe leaflet, we chose:

Raspberry Jam
6lb. raspberries                 6lb. sugar
Put the fruit in the pan and cook slowly until some juice has come out of the fruit. Add the sugar, stir until it is dissolved, and boil rapidly until setting point is reached.

Please try out the recipes and don’t forget to enter the MERL Village Fete Biscuit Bake-Off on 31 May!

Biscuit recipe of the week: Anzac biscuits

Since the recent launch of our Village Fete Biscuit Bake-off , we have started publishing a biscuit recipe each week to inspire you to practise baking biscuits and to enter the competition at the Fete on May. Our Librarians and archivists are digging out some interesting recipes from the MERL collections, and we’d also welcome suggestions of favourite recipes from our readers, but for today there’s one perfect biscuit…

At the launch event, one Toddler was very proud to show us his biscuits, and with a little prompting from mum, he was able to tell us confidently that they were Anzac Biscuits. Although I was familiar with the term ‘Anzac’, I’d never heard of the biscuits, but a little research revealed that they were originally made to send to the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) serving in Gallipoli.  Apparently they were sent by wives to soldiers abroad because the ingredients did not spoil easily and the biscuits kept well during naval transportation. This, along with the general scarcity in wartime, is why there are no eggs in these biscuits.

Anzac Day is celebrated on April 25th, and marks the anniversary of the landing in Gallipoli in 1915, a campaign which led to major casualties for Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.

Andrew Palmer & Leo with his Anzac biscuits

Andrew Palmer and Leo with his Anzac biscuits at the launch event

Anzac Biscuit Recipe

This particular recipe is taken from the BBC Good Food website. You can also try for some alternatives


  • 85g porridge oats
  • 85g desiccated coconut
  • 100g plain flour
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 100g butter, plus extra butter for greasing
  • 1 tbsp golden syrup
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda


  1. Heat oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Put the oats, coconut, flour and sugar in a bowl. Melt the butter in a small pan and stir in the golden syrup. Add the bicarbonate of soda to 2 tbsp boiling water, then stir into the golden syrup and butter mixture.
  2. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in the butter and golden syrup mixture. Stir gently to incorporate the dry ingredients.
  3. Put dessertspoonfuls of the mixture on to buttered baking sheets, about 2.5cm/1in apart to allow room for spreading. Bake in batches for 8-10 mins until golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Give it a try and let us know how you get on! If you enjoy these biscuits, why not enter them into the Biscuit Bake-off at the MERL Village Fete on May 31st?!

MERL Village Fete: MERL Toddlers take the biscuit!

This is the first of a series of posts from the Village Fete team on the run-up to this year’s event, by Alison Hilton, MERL Marketing Officer.

Preparations for the 2014 MERL Village Fete are well underway and it’s exciting to be able to start sharing some of the new features of the event, which will focus on food this year!

Last Friday, the Village Fete team hijacked the regular Friday Toddler Time session to launch the ‘MERL Biscuit Bake-off’ which will be judged at the Fete on May 31st.  One of Reading’s famous 3Bs, biscuits are part of the town’s – and MERL’s – heritage. Our beautiful Victorian building is the former family home of the Palmer family of Huntley & Palmer’s, and we hold their archive in the University’s Special Collections. Introducing a ‘Biscuit Bake-off’ competition to the Fete seems the perfect way to encourage the people of Reading to get baking biscuits!

 MERL toddlers take the biscuit group

Regular Toddler Time attendees were invited to bring in their favourite homemade biscuits to be tasted by long-term MERL supporter and descendant of the Palmer family, Andrew Palmer and his wife Davina. Despite the chaos as families arrived armed with plates of biscuits, Andrew and Davina had a great time trying out everyone’s delicious offerings!

Andrew Palmer & Leo

Andrew Palmer trying Anzac biscuits baked by Leo

Everyone was also very interested to try the biscuits baked by Deiniol Pritchard, a Food Science student at the University. These were inspired by a recipe for ‘University Rusks’ from the records of ‘Huntley & Palmers’.


Deiniol with his biscuits, the Huntley & Palmer recipe for University Rusks and an image from the archive of Tea Rusks.

After a photo session (look out for pictures in the local press!) and the usual sing-along on the carpet, the toddlers enjoyed the rest of the session decorating biscuits in the Studio, where they were joined not only by the Palmers, but also by the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Sir David Bell, who happened to be at the Museum for a meeting, and called in to investigate the commotion!

VC & toddler 1

The University’s Vice-Chancellor, Sir David Bell, joined in the biscuit-decorating activity

Everyone is welcome to enter the ‘Biscuit Bake-off’ at the Fete. There will be ‘traditional’ and ‘freestyle’ categories, and several age groups – from Under 5s to adults! Just bring your favourite homemade biscuits to the event on the day. You can find details of how to enter on our website.

In the meantime, we’re going to be posting a different biscuit recipe on the blog each week, so watch this space for inspiration and start practising!