Carlisle Cracker Packers


As the city counts down to the unveiling of the new statue, an exhibition is set to celebrate the spirit of the Carlisle ‘Cracker Packers’.

Known fondly as the ‘Cracker Packers’ the female workforce of the Carr’s Biscuit Factory (more latterly the McVities and pladis) and indeed, the biscuit factory itself, have a special place at the heart of Carlisle’s story.

In 1831 Jonathan Dodgson Carr, son of a Quaker grocer walked from his home in Kendal 60 miles to Carlisle and established Carr and Company in a shop in the city centre. Six years later Mr Carr bought a plot of land in Caldewgate, built his factory and began making biscuits. It would eventually become a global brand, and the Carr’s Factory has been a landmark feature of Caldewgate ever since.

At its height Carr’s employed 3,000 workers, the majority of whom were women who began work in the factory at the age of just 14. Often the factory would be the place of work for many generations of the same family, with women dedicating their entire working lives to Carr’s crackers. It is this unwavering pride and loyalty which has inspired the commissioning of a statue and an accompanying exhibition. Drawn together with the support of Tullie House and the University of Cumbria, ‘The Spirit of the Cracker Packers’ will go on display at the Old Fire Station on Thursday 8 March (International Women’s Day) before moving to Tullie House and then touring a number of venues around the county.

Claire Sleightholm, Assistant Curator at Tullie House, agreed: “The pride and loyalty of the workers is and has been tangible throughout the history of the Factory. Based on the working relationships and friendships made, the long length of service is evidence that the Biscuit Factory has a special place in the heart of the people of Carlisle.”

The upcoming display will explore their working lives and how these, along with the city of Carlisle, has changed over generations. It will bring to life the ‘Spirit of the Cracker Packers’ by sharing the stories of the workers across generations, stories that have inspired Hunter Davies’ novel ‘The Biscuit Girls’, and the bronze sculpture which will soon reside at Paddy’s Market.

The privately funded, partly by Hunter himself, bronze statue is set to depict two biscuit factory women workers – one from past times and one from the modern day – dressed in their respective factory uniforms. The unveiling of the sculpture has been purposely linked to International Women’s Day 2018 in order to celebrate the women factory workers through commissioning a significant public art by a female artist. It will also tie in with the county-wide project ‘Celebrating Women of Cumbria’ which marks the centenary of women (aged 30 and over) first being given the right to vote,

Margaret Robson, Head Forewoman of No 1 Packing Room and Covering Section, about 1930s

Award-winning artist and an elected member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors, Hazel Reeves has been working with current and former Cracker Packers to develop the statue, with the support of Carlisle City Council, pladis and Cumbria County Council Archives. She said: “I have been inspired by the warm and vibrant stories of the Cracker Packers, past and present. Such stories of working women’s lives rarely make it into formal history yet need to be celebrated and shared with future generations.”

The finished sculpture will depict two Cracker Packers, standing on a bronze Carr’s Table Water biscuit, with the distinctive Carr’s signature logo embossed into it.

Tullie House has also worked in partnership with women currently employed at the pladis/McVitie’s Factory, as well as the pensioners group to develop the exhibition. It is set to be a real celebration of the female workforce of both then and now and their tremendous contribution to the city of Carlisle.

The Topper Off. Advertising image, 1915. Copyright Beamish Museum. The Topper Off was the (usually female) worker who finally inspected the content of a tin before the lid went on and the product was dispatched. This job also gave its name to the in-house magazine The Topper Off. Produced first in 1928 until 1964 the periodical was named after he magazine was aimed to lift moral with reports of clubs and staff event and the prizes won for biscuits.

Claire added: “Many local people recall family connections to the Cracker Packers and we are keen to celebrate the local origins of what is now a major global company.”

An extended exhibition including more collections material will be at Tullie House Special Exhibitions Gallery from Saturday 10 March until Sunday 15 April 2018. Touring venues are to be confirmed from April 2018 until the end of the year.

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