I can’t stand cooking. Instead of a kitchen I’d prefer a vending machine where you just type in a number and the food you fancy appears through a hatch instantly. You’d never have to use a pan or kettle ever again. I’d prefer if I never had to enter a kitchen ever again and I cut corners to minimise time spent in there. I use gravy and curry mixes where you just add boiling water. So long as food is of average quality I’m happy (it’s only tomorrow’s pooh anyway.)
I love custard and occasionally I’ll have a slab of cake in a dish with instant custard poured over it. I can still recall the distinctive red, yellow and blue Bird’s Custard powder mix which is still going strong today. The Custard King was invented Alfred Bird and I went to look for his grave in a cemetery in Hockley on the outskirts of Birmingham.
The cemetery is surrounded by roads, huge industrial buildings and a railway platform - all which seem to be bearing down on the place with threats of extinction. Burials no longer happy here, only one grave had fresh flowers on it and there was not one living soul there for the half an hour I strolled around gormlessly. A building developer would probably make use of the land that was once Birmingham’s main cemetery. It’s the resting place for many of its prominent citizens.
I was expecting to find Alfred buried along a corridor of mammoth headstones where affluent mill owners tried to out-do one another even in death. However most of the headstones were of the same height and nature. I found Alfred’s resting place, a horizontal thing without prominence or pretensions. There was nothing fancy here to show the owner’s legacy.
Alfred was an English food manufacturer and chemist. He was born in Gloucestershire but grew up not far from this grave in Birmingham. He was the inventor of a series of food products which made him rich, most notably egg-free custard and baking powder. It all started from small acorns. Alfred was a pharmacist and chemist and was aged 26 when he invented egg-free custard in 1837. He invented it as his wife Elizabeth was allergic to egg and yeast. When they had friends round for tea they served real custard but when Alfred fed them egg-free custard (using cornflower instead) instead they liked it just the same. Shortly after they set up “Alfred Bird and Sons Ltd” with their two sons.
Alfred was running a chemist’s shop but in the evenings was using his knowledge to test and invented new things. The magical powders he invented only needed milk adding to them and then warming up and stirring. The nation and world would go on to consume mega tons of the powder. British troops fighting in The Crimean War in 1855 and in the First World War lived off the stuff. He also supplied hospital with baking powder, fresh bread, light cakes and puddings for the sick and wounded.
The product went on to become a household staple across the UK and “The Custard Factory” in Digbeth got bigger and bigger - as did Alfred’s fortunes. He wasn’t money-minded though and away from the business was interested in physics and meteorology. He constructed a water barometer and invented of several useful appliances.
Alfred passed on the business to his son (who became an MP) and died aged 81 in 1922 leaving an estate worth £653,000 (about £26 million in today’s money.) These businesses rarely stay in the family do they? After the Second World War the company was purchased by the General Foods Corporation and merged into Kraft Foods. In 2004 Kraft Foods sold the Bird’s Custard brand to UK firm Premier Foods.
It all sprang from Alfred who lies under this stone. Even now millions of people who have a yeast allergy use the products he invented. Well done Alfred.
The Custard Factory…