It was the decision of Peek Frean & Co., biscuit manufacturers, from Bermondsey, London, to expand the confectionery side of their successful biscuit manufacturing business which led to the establishment of Meltis Limited, one of Bedford’s best known employers. As early as 1908 they had registered ‘Meltis’ as a trading name. Their business was expanding rapidly, and the company began to look for a suitable site for a new factory.
In 1913 Peek Frean & Co. purchased land in what was then very rural surroundings off Elstow Road, Bedford, previously worked as a market garden by Messrs Hall and Potter. The factory was built by Messrs. Moss of Loughborough and covered one acre of a twenty one acre site. The local press reported on the progress of the construction avidly, with the BedfordshireTimes & Independent enthusing, ‘…we have little doubt that Messrs. Peek Frean & Co., with their excellent reputation to back them up , will make a flourishing success of their Bedford factory, and help to extend the good name and fame of the town of Bedford.’ Thirty employees transferred from the London factory, and one hundred people were recruited locally. The first works manager was Lawrence E H Roberts, assisted by John Carr and Col. C V Jones. The training of the new workforce was in the hands of Messrs A G & H Whipp, F Noble, H Wright and the reputedly formidable Miss Freeman.
Production started with Mitcham Peppermints and a range of ‘non – sticky’ confectionery, quickly followed by crystallised and glacé fruits. Biscuit covering also commenced, using the ‘Champion Dipper’ to produce the Supreme range of biscuits. Chocolate covering by hand started and the production of penny bars was also introduced. However, production there were manufacturing problems to be overcome, such as training the inexperienced labour force and dealing with the walls and floors of the building itself, which were prone to condensation.
Working hours were 7am to 6pm with a 5pm finish on Fridays, and 7am to 12 noon on Saturdays. The concessionary hours on Fridays and Saturdays were not normally granted by other firms, and the wages, paid on Friday, were higher than most obtained locally for both men and women. However, there was no overtime paid and very long hours were often worked. There was no canteen, so employees brought in their own meals, and tea was brewed in cans in the boiler room.
The outbreak of the First World War meant an immediate embargo on the use of sugar and consequently there was a total interruption of production. When the embargo was partially lifted the factory confined itself to the production of chocolate, packaged in brown wrappers, and destined for the troops. Fifty six staff from Meltis fought in the war.
After the war there were improvements in working conditions. Working hours were reduced and there was one week’s paid holiday a year. The Social and Sports Club was formed, with the sports pavilion opening in 1925. The company had many sports teams, including bowls, netball, cricket and football. At this time all employees still walked or cycled to work, including the directors and managers. There was a bicycle kept at Bedford Station for when directors visited from London. At this time a Sick and Benevolent Fund and a Pension Fund were also introduced. The factory also had its own fire brigade.
It was in 1923 that the factory became Meltis Limited, as a subsidiary company of Peek Frean, and continued to produce a whole range of confectionery and develop new lines. A series of experiment books survive and show the painstaking trials which led to the final recipes used. In 1931 a gooseberry liqueur sweet was developed which was a huge success. This led to the introduction of New Berry Fruits, one of Meltis’ most enduring brand names, registered as a trademark the following year. At this time Meltis also became involved with the manufacture of Suchard Chocolate, an alliance which lasted for more than 50 years. Improvements to working conditions continued and 1937 saw the introduction of ‘music while you work’. The factory was successfully exporting to markets world-wide. Products catered for all budgets , from quarter pound boxes to lavish selections of chocolates and confectionery in elaborate packaging. In 1933 the Duchess of York range of assorted chocolates was available in a 1/4 lb carton for 10 1/2d and the top of the range 4lbs de-luxe box of Assorted Superfine Chocolates was 17/6d.
When the Second World War broke out production was again interrupted. Pobjoy Airmotors and Aircraft Limited took over part of the factory and many staff were moved to war work, making aeroplane parts and helping with the Admiralty Stores. Various adaptations were made to the factory buildings, including additional offices and a first aid room. Production was subject to strict rationing and ingredients had to be purchased from specific suppliers. Meltis was also licensed to produce vitaminised chocolate for prisoners of war.
After the war the labour force became more cosmopolitan, reflecting the influx of people from Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe to the town, particularly those from Italy. Meltis continued to develop new products, and the 1950s saw the introduction of chocolate liqueurs, which were to become a leading product line in the following two decades. Investment in the factory itself also continued in order to keep up with demand, and in 1961 a new plant to manufacture chocolate was installed at a cost of £75,000, which could produce 100 tonnes of liquid chocolate per week.
By 1966 the workforce had increased to 1300 workers, 900 of whom were women. There were seven different shifts available, and Meltis promoted itself in the local press as being a desirable place to work. There was a ‘team work’ spirit, and cash rewards were offered as an incentive to those who volunteered for the works committee and took part in the suggestions scheme.
The factory buildings now covered five acres. Meltis was the largest producer of Turkish Delight and Crystallised Fruit in Britain, and the second largest producer of liqueur chocolates. This was a lot of wholesale sweets that were being produced by Meltis, but they continued to produce New Berry Fruits, fondants, marzipan, jellies, caramels and chocolate in huge quantities. By this time, manufacture was a truly international concern.
The ingredients store was situated at the northern end of the factory, with 25,000 square feet of space. Vast quantities of cocoa beans were imported from West Africa, and ginger from China. Sugar, milk, butter, glucose, nuts , flavourings and other ingredients were stored on pallets mechanically handled by fork lift trucks in strict stock rotation. It was in the ingredients store that the cocoa beans were prepared and roasted and all ingredients were tested for quality in the laboratory next door.
On the first of January 1967 Meltis merged with Chocolat-Tobler to become Chocolat Tobler Meltis Limited. The company operated from the same site and progressively undertook the manufacture of all Chocolat Tobler products for UK sale. There were also interests in Associated Biscuits and Nestlé.
The 1970s and 1980s saw a series of mergers and take-overs of the company, beginning in 1975 when Interfood, the owners of Suchard, took over Tobler Meltis. By 1976 Meltis products were manufactured and marketed by Tobler Suchard. Jacobs purchased Interfood in 1982 and Jacob Suchard was formed, the Miller Road factory being given a facelift to reflect the new company identity.
In 1990 Meltis Plc was formed as an independent British Company in a management buy out led by Mervyn Weedon and Paul Mustoe. Meltis purchased the original production site from Jacobs Suchard, including the recreation ground. The manufacture of old favourites such as New Berry Fruits continued alongside the development of new products for both Meltis and other brand names. In 1994 Meltis sold a controlling interest to Grand Central Investment Holdings Plc, a company based in the Far East. Meltis recruited nearly 100 extra staff to cope with the increasing demand Product development continued, with work on recipies for chocolate to prevent it from melting too quickly in the warmer climate of its new Far Eastern export market. The company also manufactured private label products for Boots, Woolworth’s, Sainsbury and Tesco, and co-manufactured other products with Cadburys, Mars, Nestlé and Searle.
The Meltis newsletter predicted a bright future for the firm as a truly international business, but in the following two years the company became increasingly dependent on co-manufacturing with other firms, and did not develop its own brands further. As a result of this manufacturing and labour costs increased while profit margins declined. The loss of several major contracts led to severe financial pressure on the company, and on 16 April 1996 the receivers were called in. It was decided that production could not be continued. The factory and its machinery were sold off in a two day auction in October, but the name ‘Meltis’ lives on, as the trade name was purchased by Hosta UK Limited of Oxfordshire, who became Hosta Meltis Limited.
Although many people have tried over the past 3 decades, nobody has managed to replicate this finest of fruit jellies and Newberry Fruits remain the only original liquid filled jelly on the market.