Peek Bros - 19th Century Tea Brokers

11 November 2008

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This short history of the Peeks and their association with the village of Loddiswell was written by Miss Christian Michell who taught at Loddiswell School between 1935 and 1972.

After a year of supply teaching I came to Loddiswell, a Domesday Parish. Its early name was Loddevilla which means Lods Spring. There are wells all over the village; the butcher had a well under the floor of his "front room". Older inhabitants say that piped water is not nearly so sparkling and clear as the water from the well in Well Street.

When I came to Loddiswell Junior School, as it was then called, there were two classrooms. This was in 1934 when the seniors had recently moved off to Kingsbridge Secondary Modern School. Woodleigh had closed, and, Woodleigh juniors came to Loddiswell.

The village school at Loddiswell was founded by Richard Peek a 19th century tea merchant. The Parish registers record his baptism in 1782, he died at the ripe age of 84 years. He worked for a time in a grocer's shop in Plymouth and gained experience in commerce. In 1807 this tall, slim, young man left Devon and walked to London, where he hoped to find employment. He happened to meet a Quaker whom he had seen earlier in Kingsbridge. Evidently the Quaker had a good opinion of him. for he recommended him to a tea merchant. He was offered a place in the warehouse of Sanderson and Barklay, the offices of which were in Old Jewry. Here he worked for 7 years and was then promoted. He became a traveller and was succeeded by his brother William in the warehouse. His youngest brother James aged 12 also came up to London and received his training with the firm.

It became obvious that the Peek brothers had a flair for business and they determined to branch out on their own. William was the first to go. A London Directory names Wm. Peek, Tea merchant, in 1818. The others followed him, and in 1823 Peek brothers & Co. were firmly established at 27 Coleman Street.

London was the head quarters of the tea auctions, so they were in a good position for trading. They offered grocers reduced prices if accounts were settled in cash within one month of delivery. This meant a quick turn over and sure profits, the business prospered and expanded.

Liverpool merchants were bitterly complaining about the East India Company's monopoly of the tea trade in their area. They campaigned against it for many years. The monopoly lasted until 1835.When it was in the process of being abolished, London tea brokers began to set up business branches in Liverpool in anticipation. .In 1834 Peek Bros. set up at 9 Temple Court, Liverpool as wholesale tea and coffee dealers. Later this firm became known as Peek Bros. & Winch and traded under that name until 1958.The Peeks have been described by one of the Brooke Bond Tea family as, "The leading firm of tea brokers in the middle of the 19th Century. Arthur Brooke, founder of Brooke Bond & Co. Ltd., was taken as a pupil in the Liverpool branch of Peek Bros. in 1865, and later was transferred to a London branch at £1 per week. So it could be said that the Brooke Bond firm owed its existence to the Loddiswell Peeks. In 1925 Brooke Bond bought Francis Peek & Co., an offshoot of Peek Bros & Winch. This gave them the use of lucrative Anglo Dutch plantations in Java. Richard Peek showed himself to be a man of integrity. A great business had been built up since he walked to London in 1807, and hard work and fair dealing had made him prosperous. His portrait has been hanging in the Portrait Gallery, amongst an anti slavery group of people. He became a member of the Corporation of London in 1829 and was unanimously elected Sheriff of London in 1832. Later he retired to Hazelwood in Loddiswell, devoting his time to duties as Magistrate and to many philanthropic activities.

James, the youngest Peek brother, had remarkable ability for the financial side of the business, and worked ceaselessly in the counting house. He shouldered the great responsibility of the business with William after Richard retired. In 1857 James Peek branched out into biscuit making. He brought into the business George Frean who was married to his niece. The Frean family were millers from Plymouth, the name can be seen in trade directories, and in Charles Parish Registers. So with the union of Peeks and Freans, the Peek Frean biscuit firm was born.

Richard Peek was instrumental in building schools and nonconformist churches in the South Hams. In his own village of Loddiswell he built the British School, in 1853, for the sum of £1500, and endowed it for £30 per annum. The earliest admission register dates from 1855, in which payments were made for certain poor children to be educated. The building is still used as a Primary School. It is very right and proper that Capt. W.G. Peek the great, great grandson of James Peek should be Chairman of the School Managers.

Three nonconformist churches were erected in the parish with the backing of the Peek family. Other churches including Ugborough, Kingsbridge, Ford, (Stokenham), Modbury, Lupridge and also Anglican churches received Peek bounty.

For over a quarter of a century Richard Peek was in the habit of inviting Sunday School children to spend an afternoon at Hazelwood. This was usually in the week following Kingsbridge Fair, and the children looked forward to it with joyous anticipation. On that day he opened his house and grounds to the public. The children were given tea, but adults paid one shilling per head. All the money gained was given to any neighbouring church which needed help, irrespective of sect. Independents, Methodists and Bible Christians all received a share. The organization of such a day must have been considerable. In 1864 there were 400 adults who took tea, and between 300 and 400 children. Visitors came from Salcombe and Stokenham on one side of Loddiswell and from Brent, Ugborough, and Modbury on the other, also from all hamlets and villages between. They came in a variety of conveyances. As a Sunday School party arrived, each child was given a bun and was told to go off to play in the grounds, then the next party moved in. At tea time a horn was blown and the children assembled for tea, and sat on benches on the green. After tea, the lawn, the woods, and grounds were the children's playground. The adults had their tea in a decorated loft, and the house was open to the visitors. It was usual for Mr Balkwill, manager of a Kingsbridge Bank to address the assembly. He had a stentorian voice, well adapted for open air speaking. In 1862 he announced that Mr Peek did not expect many times, if ever, to meet them again. He then announced the hymn,” We shall meet beyond the river": One feels that Richard Peek must have gained much satisfaction from the fact that he was there again in person the following year and did not "cross the river" for several more years: The children received another bun as they left for home. Sometimes when carts, carriages, horses, donkeys, and walkers were trying to negotiate those narrow lanes it was like a "miniature London block”. The procession of vehicles extended over a mile.

William Peek who was described in local newspapers as,” Founder of the well known firm Peek Brothers, the largest tea dealers of the city of London, never lost interest in the South Hams. He subscribed to the "Kingsbridge Gazette and contributed towards the welfare of the inhabitants. In 1862 he wrote a letter to the Gazette entitled, "The greatest want of all”. He pointed out that there was no hospital in Kingsbridge, and the nearest hospital was Plymouth. He suggested that a hospital could be obtained by the “wealth and benevolence of the locality; and signed the letter a non resident invalid. Unfortunately this wealth and benevolence was not forthcoming. Nothing daunted, William Peek set up an Invalids trust in 1863. He gave £500 and added another £100 later.  He induced a relative to add a reversion of a further sum of £800. Thus in 1876 when deaths had freed the reversion money there was £1400 ready to be applied to the acquisition of a hospital for Kingsbridge.

Meanwhile the interest on the money of the Invalids Fund was used to help poor invalids who tried to keep themselves independent and free of parochial help. In 1869 twenty four people were helped. Three went to inland places for a change of air. One was assisted to go to hospital. It must be remembered that there was no National Health at that time. The remainder had grants to enable them to obtain air at the sea side. Some of these found the rest beneficial to their health. Two received no 'benefit” and four were perfectly restored to health. All this through the thought and generosity of the founder William Peek. He was a man who did not let his left hand know what his right hand was doing. In the Trust Deed his name did not appear, and he was recorded as "A person known to the solicitor". Incidentally Major Brian Peek of Sidney Australia, a direct descendant of William Peek came to Loddiswell in 1978 to see the parish from which his family came.

James Peek the youngest brother contributed very generously to the needs of health in the South Hams. There was an "Incurable Invalids Trust" set up to which he contributed £1000. This trust gave 32 shillings per month to 2 incurable invalids, which must have been for them a great blessing.

There is a Peek Trust to help blind people living within 20 miles of Hazelwood. This now helps both the poor and the blind. People living in Loddiswell are still getting a small income from this Trust and the equivalent of one cwt. of coal at Christmas.

Sir Henry Peek, son of James Peek was member of Parliament for East Surrey. He lived in Wimbledon House, the former home of Capt. Marryatt. There Peek cultivated exotic plants, and built a miniature zoological gardens. He kept splendid beasts and curious wildfowl. His gardens were open to the public, and his lake was used for skating Sir Henry Peek built a country mansion in his native Devon, at Rousdon, near Axminster. True to the Peek tradition, he was a philanthropic man, and appears to have had his priorities right. First he rebuilt Rousdon Church which was in a ruinous condition. He then built a National School and arranged with the architect to incorporate a school kitchen in the building.  After Church and school were finished he built his own house. Sir .Henry made use of the cargo of Italian marble which had been wrecked below Rousdon. Donkeys toiled up from the wreck to above 500 ft. above sea level with a slab of marble fastened on each side. The marble was used for the splendid principal staircase and other parts of the house. The late Hon Mrs. Joan Peek of Loddiswell always spoke of Rousdon with affection. It was on the balcony of the banqueting Hall that she stood, on her honeymoon, when she sang to the assembled estate workers. Her marriage did not last long, for her husband; Capt. Roger Peek was killed in action in Ireland two years later in 1921.

Rousdon school with its purpose built kitchen was in its day something of a phenomenon, for it was possibly the first school where school dinners were actually cooked on the premises. Children trudged in from a radius of three or four miles, come of them poorly clad and ill fed. Peek knew that a cooked meal would help them to make the best use of their education. From 1876 school dinners were served at one penny, if there were two in a family the cost was nine pence per week, and a family of three could be fed for one shilling per week. The schoolmaster's family assisted by the older girls cooked the dinners. The boys provided the vegetables from the school garden. So it was that cooking and gardening became of prime importance, for there was an end-product in sight. Incidentally the schoolmaster earned for himself the gratitude of the whole parish in which he served so willingly.

An inspector made his report of the school in 1883 which reached the National Press, and was received with much interest. He said, “I believe Sir Henry Peek's experiment has turned out to be a very great success. What strikes one at once on coming into the school is the healthy vigorous look of the children, and that this vigour is not merely bodily but comes out in the course of examination. There is a marked contrast between their appearance and their work on the day of inspection as those of children in many of the neighbouring schools." People came from far and wide to see what was happening in that little school down in Devon. Rousdon was quoted as an example to the nation. Gladstone spoke of it publicly and a committee for promoting self supporting penny dinners was formed, with Sir Henry Peek as one of the sponsors. Visitors were welcomed at the school, it was noticed that the account books had been kept with meticulous care, and that this was a workable scheme. During the next seven years over forty centres were opened up in .London alone.

In 1891 the Devon and Exeter Gazette reported that an Inspector had remarked that, "Rousdon is the only place in the Exeter district where there is a cookery class. Here through the efforts of Sir Henry Peek, the children are taught this useful branch of knowledge, and a certain number of girls are told off every day to cook the school dinners”. It was now 15 years since the kitchen has been built and 8 years since that first report from H.M. Inspector which had moved so many people to action in other parts of England. So, underfed children received nourishing meals, thanks to the pioneer of school meals Sir Henry Peek. This was about 70 years before the new Education Act placed the responsibility of school meals on the local Authority. The Peeks were fortunate in their timing; they came into the tea broking business when the tea drinking habit was rapidly expanding. Smuggling had helped give all classes a taste for tea. There was also the Temperance movement which encouraged tea drinking and the Peeks encouraged the Temperance movement. In the eighties Snellings were putting hops in their tea, at Maidstone. People joyfully accepted two drinks in one: thus increasing trade for the Snelling firm. Sir Henry Peek put an end to this unfair competition by quoting the Adulteration Act in a Court of Law, so that practice was stopped.

Henry Peek founded a Prize scheme for Biblical Proficiency in London schools, as did James Peek in Devon. Many Bibles, books and Certificates have been won and proudly kept, not only by Loddiswell school children, but by children all over the South Hams, and in Plymouth.

Richard Peek's home, Hazelwood House still stands in beautiful surroundings, with the River Avon meandering past the estate. It is the residence of Capt W.G. Peek a direct descendant of James Peek, so the South Hams has a close link with those early tea brokers; Peek Bros. Capt. Peek became High Sheriff of Devon in 1980 as did his uncle Sir Wilfred Peek in 1912.


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