Early Biscuits Manufacturers

Pyott Ltd

Some of the information which follows was taken from the book ‘John Pyott 1862-1947' by JS Bennie.

Photograph on the left : John Pyott 1862 - 1947

Pyott Ltd was founded by John Pyott.   He was born on 9th May 1862 in Dundee, Scotland and at the age of 10 years was apprenticed as a baker.  It is interesting to note that all biscuit manufacturers were originally bakers.   He was not in the best of health and on the advice of Mr Grant (of Grants Oatmeal fame) decided to emigrate to South Africa.  He landed in Cape Town and after a short time there moved on to Port Elizabeth (1880).  There he started making sweets, cakes, jams and later bread and biscuits.  Initially his premises were 6/8 Princes Street, after which he moved to Elizabeth Street.

Map on the left : John Pyott's home town of Dundee, Scotland.

When gold fever struck South Africa John Pyott decided to examine the possibilities and there is an interesting story in Bennie’s book which reads as follows:

“Soon after their marriage South Africa was gripped by Gold Fever, Pyott not the least.  He decided to go to the Witwatersrand to see whether there was any future for him there.  First he travelled to Durban by sea and then bought a horse which he intended riding to the Gold Fields.  Shortly after had set out he came across a Cape Cart with one very lame horse.   As always, quick to seize his chance, Pyott offered the Dutch gentleman the use of his horse in return for a ride in the cart.  With alacrity this was accepted and John Pyott’s companion turned out to be none other than Paul Kruger!   On reaching their destination Pyott went north to Barberton but found that the diggers were already moving to Johannesburg.  He rode with them and was in fact offered land which is today the centre of the city.  However, when he realised how rough the life was, he decided that it was no place for a woman and small baby and returned to Port Elizabeth.

He continued operating his business as the Port Elizabeth Steam Confectionery Works and added a flour mill to his enterprise, finally converting to a registered company Pyott Ltd in 1882. 

John Pyott was a man of strong character and was highly respected in the community. He was active in public life.   He 1899 he was elected to the Port Elizabeth Town Council and later to the Legislative Council which was an Upper House of Review of the Cape Parliament.  In 1923 he was elected to the Board of Directors of the Reserve Bank and served on the Board until his retirement in 1941 due to ill health.  In 1907 he moved to a new factory to be built in Broad Street where he already had his flour mill operating.

John Pyott started making biscuits in a small shop in 1885, but it was not until 1902 that he acquired biscuit making machinery.  He was initially offered a small plant but did not buy this but preferred to explore the biscuit manufacturing equipment available elsewhere .  He purchased the newest available machine which he operated until 1903, at which time the factory was destroyed by fire.   It was then that he moved to Broad Street.

1905 saw the installation of further plant and the next year he opened up  sales in Johannesburg.  John Pyott extended his biscuit manufacturing operations to Cape Town where he built a factory in 1914.  Six years later he established a factory in Durban as a separate concern known as Pyott (Durban) Ltd, making both biscuits and bread.

My uncle, Albert Baumann, told me that John Pyott had opened the factory in Durban in retaliation for William Baumann starting a biscuit factory in Cape Town.

It was round about 1946 that new mass production type of machinery became available.  Pyott decided to close his Cape Town and Durban factories and consolidate production into a brand new factory in Darling Street, Port Elizabeth, and from then on he concentrated purely on biscuits.

John Pyott died on 24th July 1947 aged 85.   He was succeeded as Chairman by his son Robert.

A Mr MacDonald, who was the Chief Accountant of Pyott, was made Managing Director but died a few months later.  Mr Bob Pyott then appointed another executive, a Mr McGregor as Managing Director.   My uncle Albert states that “this rapid promotion must have affected him” to such an extent that within a few months he issued an ultimatum to the family of Pyott stating that two of the Pyotts must be ‘retired’!   The family of Pyott accepted Mr McGregor’s resignation.

I did not at any time meet any of the Pyott family and when I began attending biscuit conferences Pyott Ltd was represented by their Managing Director, Mr Randall Thomson.  He had married one of John Pyott’s daughters, and obviously had entered the business.

In due course when Randall Thomson retired he was succeeded by Alec Shirras who had been his right-hand man and mainly concerned with the production side.   Later Alec Shirras retired and was succeeded by his son Sholto Shirras.

At this point I could record the comments that were made by his son Robert Pyott at John Pyott’s funeral. 

He said “before proceeding further it is my sad duty to record the death in July last year of our esteemed Chairman, Mr John Pyott.  His life was devoted to the building up of this business which stands today as a wonderful monument to his great ability, steadfastness of purpose and untiring energy.  To the end of a long life of 85 years his main interest was the well-being of this company and its employees, and we will all miss his cheerful presence and wise council which guided our destinies over such a long period”.

We always found that the Pyott company and Pyott people were good people to deal with.  They had a high ethical attitude to business and were reliable people.  Of all the biscuit manufacturers I came closer to Randall Thomson than to any of the others.

It could be mentioned here that Pyott used the trademark on all their packets of a little pixie.  It was quite charming.  Premier used the symbol of three rings, as mentioned earlier, Baumanns developed a ‘flash’ with the word Baumanns in it, while Bakers Ltd used the picture of a grocery man.

Pyott's well-known lines were Salticrax, Romany Creams, and Iced Zoo.

All biscuit manufacturers made wooden stands to hold the biscuit tins, as shown in the picture of the stand supplied by Pyott.  The biscuits were loose in the tins (there were no packets yet) and by keeping the glass lids closed they were protected from the moist air.  When a customer wanted to buy biscuits that customer would ask the grocer “please give me half a pound of biscuits” or whatever quantity was required.  The grocer would lift up the hinged glass lid, take out half a pound of biscuits, put the biscuits into a brown paper packet and then close the lid quickly to keep the moisture out.

Photograph on the left : Pyott's biscuit display case.

The Pyott family eventually decided to dispose of their biscuit business.  It was bought by the National Biscuit Company of America in about 1970, who were the biggest biscuit manufacturers in the world.  Mr Randall Thomson carried on as Managing Director for a few more years and on his retirement Mr Alec Shirras was promoted to this position.

Mr Alec Shirras was well-respected by members of the Biscuit Association and he was unanimously elected as Chairman for a period until his retirement from business.

In 1978 the National Biscuit Company decided to withdraw from South Africa and sold the company to The Premier Milling Group which, as already noted, already owned The Premier Biscuit Company (Pty) Ltd (3-Rings) and Weston’s Ltd at Springs, Transvaal.