Quaker Connections discovered in suburban Melbourne

Séamus Ó Maitiú: W & R Jacob: Celebrating 150 years of Irish Biscuit Making. Woodfield Press, Dublin, 2001.

Séamus Ó Maitiú: W & R Jacob: Celebrating 150 years of Irish Biscuit Making. Woodfield Press, Dublin, 2001.

It’s difficult to recall exactly why and how the conversation went in the particular direction it did but out of a group of eight people, four had Dublin Quaker connections.  Suddenly the evening, on the verge of winding down, took on a whole new dynamic, as the respective Quaker origins were investigated and compared. Whilst no family links emerged between the group, a link of a different sort came to light through Jacob’s Biscuits, of all things!   For the uninitiated, not only were Jacob’s Biscuits famous the length and breadth of Ireland, they also rate a mention in James Joyce’s Ulysses .  More of that later.

Let’s have a quick look at the origins of Quakerism, the family name of Jacob in Ireland, and Jacob’s Biscuits and see what got everyone so excited at this dinner party in suburban Melbourne. To begin at the beginning, in 17th century England the  Quakers believed that spirituality was a personal matter not dependent on sacraments or other external forms of worship.  However, this perceived rejection of the established church led to their maltreatment and drove them to find succour elsewhere.  Ireland was one of the places which welcomed them – perhaps because they did not pose a threat, did not appropriate land/property in the way the other English had done, and they showed sympathy for fellow sufferers at the hands of the English. Quakerism was not imposed on the Irish. In 1674-5 Quakers, Richard and Joan Jacob of the Jacob’s Biscuits story, took refuge in Ireland along with their family of six children. Richard and Joan were the progenitors of a large number of descendants who excelled in manufacture, trades and finance amongst other businesses. In general, while matters of spirituality took precedence, Quakers had a highly developed industrial ethos incorporating an insistence on accuracy and honest dealing in business affairs.   This business model obviously worked if the list of successful businesses in both England and Ireland is anything to go by.  For example, Barclay’s, Lloyd’s, Price Waterhouse, Clarks’ Shoes, Wedgwood and Cadbury all have Quaker origins in the UK.  In Ireland, Jacobs and Bewleys would be two of the most high profile names from this group.

What is so remarkable about this is that Quakers numbered less than two percent of the population in both countries at any time. Moving down a few generations to 1850 and to Co Waterford, the beginning of the Jacob’s biscuit manufacture and trade can be found.  By 1853, according to Thom’s Directory, ‘the steam biscuit factory’ of William and Robert Jacob was operating out of premises in Peter’s Row, on the edge of the Liberties, Dublin. The Liberties provided a huge cheap labour force at that time and in the following years, and correspondingly the factory represented good work opportunities for impoverished families from the Liberties.

Which brings us back to the dinner party.  What we discovered was that the mother of one guest had worked for Jacob’s and the grandfather and two uncles of another guest had also worked in the factory in Peter’s Row. It is highly likely that they would have all worked there in the same years.  Secondly, the descendant of the grandfather and two uncles is also connected to the Jacob name through her paternal side. The old adage, ‘Six degrees of separation’,  never ceases to amaze. Among many of the products that Jacob’s Biscuits were famous for were their fancy biscuit tins which brings us to Ulysses . The first reference to biscuits can be found in the Circe chapter when Father Coffey ‘yawns, then chants with a hoarse croak: Namine. Jacobs Vobicuits. Amen.’ Perhaps his mind was not on higher things! The second reference, to tins, appears in the Cyclops chapter:

‘A large and appreciative gathering of friends……the gift of a silver casket tastefully executed in the style of ancient Celtic ornament, a work which reflects every credit on the makers, Messrs Jacob agus [and] Jacob.’

This is the tin, which, hurled with force at Bloom, ejects a Jew who claims to be an Irishman from Barney Kiernan’s, an irony of sorts, when one knows the immigration history of Quakers. Having started out on this article by saying that it’s difficult to recall exactly how the conversation went in the particular direction it did, it’s clearer how it went off on another tangent with the question – was the name Jacob a Jewish name as is sometimes thought? That question opened up a whole other conversation on when and why the Jews arrived in Ireland. And that’s a whole other article!

 Deirdre Gillespie (née Jacob)