After a four-year research project by Dublin City Archive, the archives of W&R Jacob were recently made public, illustrating the major significance the company and its factories had to Dublin throughout the 20th century. Doug Whelan visited the archive to take a closer look
22 April 2016
Back in 2012, more than 330 boxes of documents, photos, ledgers and other artefacts dating all the way back to the late 1800s were donated to Dublin City Council by Valeo Foods, parent company of Jacob’s Biscuits. Hidden in these boxes were thousands of artefacts relating to the biscuit manufacturer’s history since 1851 when William and Robert Jacob rented a premises on Bishop Street and Peter Row in the heart of Dublin city. The collection, which was recently unveiled by the Dublin City Archive following an exhaustive cataloguing project, shows how closely linked the company was and is with the city’s history.
The building itself was one of the strongholds seized and occupied by Irish Volunteers during Easter week of 1916, while Jacob’s was also involved in significant events like the 1913 lockout and wider world events including the World Wars and more.
All through this time, thousands of Dubliners were employed by Jacob’s, and the collection provides intimate portraits of these people, their working and social lives and what conditions were like inside and outside the factory over more than one hundred years.
Corporate records, recipes, advertisements and photographs make up just a part of this treasure trove, so this month we visited the Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street to explore the archive.
How the original Jacob’s factory looked on the corner of Bishop Street and Peter Row in the heart of Dublin city, a stone’s throw from St. Stephen’s Green. When visiting the archive, one of the staff noticed what we were working on, and told us how he grew up not far from the factory. “They used to deliver the chocolate as liquid in trucks,” he said, “and pump it in to the factory through valves in the wall. We would hang about and grab handfuls as it got hard around the edge of the pump. Later on we’d be sick as dogs!”
Some of the authentic brochures and booklets in the archive, in which originated the biscuits that would become household names like Kimberly, Mikado, Coconut Cream and many more.
Hundreds of ledgers like this one exist in the archive, outlining the company’s history through staffing numbers and policies, wage payments and other operational material. Interestingly, data protection regulations of our era mean that some parts of this section of the archive, which outline wage amounts and other personal information of Jacob’s employees, are off-limits without the permission of the individuals mentioned, or their family members.
Thousands of photographs like these can be found in the Jacob’s Archive, showing what everyday life was like in the factory. These two we chose from an album of more than one hundred black and white images of the vast machines and kitchens, delivery and dispatch areas, recreational and education rooms and, as we see here, the boxing and packaging processes. These tasks that were done by hand are carried out by automated process today. Exhausting, repetitive work, yes, but don’t they look in good form?
Insight into the production process can be gleaned from the countless hand-written recipes, which were constantly revised and experimented with over the years. Note the date on this Fig Rolls recipe, at the top left of the page – January 1894.
Just one example of the thousands of recipes in the archive’s Manufacturing section. Dated 8th November 1929, this one outlines the recipe for bulk baking of Custard Creams. Some of the items are difficult to make out, but honey, water, soda and lots of eggs are included, and one can clearly make out the approval signatures below, including one member of the Jacob family.
One of the most fascinating and exhilarating items we found in the archive was this hand-written letter by James Larkin to Jacob’s management requesting a wage increase for workers. Dated July 22nd 1913, the letter reads: “Dear Sirs, I am directed by the workers engaged to forward you the accompanying claim for increased remuneration. The workers engaged in the bakehouse and mixing [ineligible] to participate in the general advance of 2/= per week given to the workers employed in the lofts. The oven firemen to be paid the same rate as ordinary [ineligible] men + firemen; time-and-a-half to be paid them for overtime and double time for Sundays. Taking into account the arduous nature of their work, I feel sure you will recognise the justice of their claim. Yours truly, James Larkin, Secretary.” Just a month later, 20,000 workers took to the streets in the Dublin Lockout; a statue of Larkin now resides on O’Connell Street.
Skipping on some decades, another fun part of the archive are the well-kept recollections of the Jacob’s TV and Radio Awards, which were given between 1962 and 1992. Unsurprisingly, Gay Byrne holds the record, having won six awards between 1963 and 1981.
A major exhibition entitled “W&R Jacob’s and the 1916 Rising” takes place in the Business Information Centre at the Central Library, Ilac Centre, Dublin 1, between 12 April and 27 May. For more information contact email@example.com or phone 01-873-3996.
Images reproduced courtesy of Dublin City Archive/Valeo Foods. Special thanks to Ellen Murphy and the staff of Dublin City Library and Archive, Pearse Street, Dublin 2, for their kind assistance.