A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEARCYS
Searcys began with humble beginnings. Founder, John Searcy, began his journey as an apprentice pastry chef where he honed his craftsmanship for which Searcys has become well known today. Let’s take you back to the 19th century where this story begins…
John Searcy was born on January 13, 1813, in Middlesex St Georges, which is part of present-day London.
At the age of 21, John became an apprentice as a baker and confectioner under his uncle Robert in Northumberland where he spent 3 years building up his expertise.
By the time John was 24, his skill, artistry and exceptional talent became well known to the Duchess of Northumberland. Impatiently, she soon employed him as their private confectioner at the Alnwick Castle where she and the third Duke of Northumberland lived, the same year Queen Victoria ascended to the throne.
10 years later, the Duke of Northumberland passed away. The 34-year-old John was saddened by this as he had not only lost his first patron but also a great friend.
Soon after, the Duke was succeeded by his brother, Lord Algernon Percy.
During John’s service at Alnwick Castle, he realised how sought after he really was for his flair for confections. John spoke with the new Duke and Duchess about starting his very own catering company. After 10 years of service, he wanted his skills and confections to be enjoyed by others outside of Alnwick.
The Duke and Duchess both agreed and even loaned him money to help start his venture. John packed up his mixing bowls and whisks and left for London in December 1847.
In September 12, 1848, the 35-year-old master confectioner set us his business in Tyburnia known as present-day Paddington.
It wasn’t long until he gained esteemed clientele all eager to savour his confections.
John married Ann Martin and had children – Arthur, Algernon, Maude Anne, Edith Rebecca and William.
By the 1860s, John Searcy’s reputation had spread beyond London. The aristocracy and nobility from various distances would flock into the capital to host lavish balls and parties to be catered by John himself. John was particularly famed for his elaborately decorated wedding cakes that impressed brides and wedding guests alike with his exceptional artistry.
London Society and the county families always had an excuse for celebrations – Coming of Age, Christening, First Return Home After Marriage, etc. When occasions ran out, there was always the Church Fête, Garden Party, Picnic, School Treat, Flower Show and so on.
With the help of ball furnishers such as George Tansley to erect temporary rooms and marquees, John Searcy’s service expanded until it was limited by the number of waiters he could employ, the extent of this stock of cutlery and glassware and the health of his stable of horses which pulled cumbersome furniture removal vans to high society households in London and to nobility throughout the country.
Through these operations, John Searcy also became officially recognised as a ‘rout furnisher’ the first term coined for an events caterer, meaning he supplied equipment as well as his confections.
John Searcy received a Royal Warrant and with it the title ‘John Searcy, confectioner to the HRH the Prince of Wales and wine merchant.’ This made him the top caterer, or rout furnisher, in his industry.
When his sons became of age, John adopted a new name for his business and traded as John Searcy & Sons.
As Royal Warrant holders to the Prince of Wales, John Searcy & Sons’ position as leading caterers to the elite was now undisputed. By the 1880s, John’s services were increasingly in high demand. The amount of equipment they had to transport was enormous and the entries for it all were over 74 pages-worth and included: pots, jugs, kettles, lamps, bowls, candelabras, small and large plates, cutlery, teapots and so on.
John Searcy retired and entrusted the business to his General Manager and good friend Henry Hobbs who had worked alongside Searcy as a pastry chef for over 30 years.
As Royal Warrant holders to the Prince of Wales, John Searcy & Sons had naturally been commissioned to make Princess Maud’s (the youngest daughter of Edward VII) wedding cake.
Not long before the royal wedding, the business’s Chief Confectioner fell ill. John’s sons had planned to send a sincere note of apology to the palace that they could not fulfil their duties.
When this news reached John, he told his sons to ‘dismiss all idea of cancellation’ and came out of retirement to bake the wedding cake himself at his own home. Within days, John had created a magnificent five-tiered cake ‘fit for a princess’. The evening before the wedding, he delivered the masterpiece personally to his royal client.
On 22 July 1896, Princess Maud married Prince Carl of Denmark, in the private chapel at Buckingham Palace.
A new fashion in wedding cakes was introduced by the one provided for Princess Maud of Wales. Instead of the pure white decorations which were traditional, almond paste, caramel and other delicate tints were introduced in the wreaths and monograms adorning the cake. Each tier was encircled with white satin ribbons, bordered with pearls, and ornamented with bridal buds and true lovers’ knots, and topped with a god of love holding a nautilus shell, from which fell in long lines silver bullion and sea mosses. The shell held roses and starry bridal flowers; and around the base, richly embellished with the royal arms, was a wreath of the same flowers.
On June 12, 1898, John Searcy passed away at 85 years old, just within a few months of his business’s golden jubilee
John Searcy & Sons soon amalgamated with George Tansley, ‘Ball and Concert Furnishers’, to become Searcys, Tansley and Company. This merger made them the largest catering company of their kind in Britain.
SEARCYS DURING WORLD WAR II
In summer 1939, one of Searcys directors wrote to the Ministry of Works and asked whether he should stop catering for events in view of the ‘luxury’ nature of the trade. But he was told to do nothing of the sort, there was a place for outdoor catering on the home front even in a war. Searcyswas also asked to open a restaurant for war workers on the first floor of 19 Sloane Street.
Most of Searcys staff went to join the forces. One of the managers, H.G. Knill, went into the Royal Air Force to become a squadron leader. The company directors joined the Air Raid Precautions Service from its formation and remained until the end of the war.
As war became imminent, Searcys stocks of Champagne, were all but depleted. Instead, partygoers used their rations of gin, and Searcys supplied bottles of cider. The mixture of the two became a heady ‘champagne substitute’. Weddings were celebrated in the most modest ways, as the times demanded. Brides spent their rations on currants and brought them to Searcys to decorate their wedding cake. Sugar was in even shorter supply. There was never enough to put on the sides as well as the top, so fancy paper was wrapped around the sides for decoration.
It is a little-known fact that Searcys also took part in a morale-boosting daily lunch concert held at the National Gallery throughout the war. These were the idea of the pianist Myra Hess who launched the scheme with a recital and planned all the programmes. Myra Hess was an accomplished pianist of international fame. She referred to the National Gallery concerts as her ‘national service’. She believed passionately in their symbolic importance, seeing them as a way of satisfying the ‘hunger of the spirit’ she sensed all around her in the early months of the war. Admission was a low flat price – a shilling, and an equally cheap packed lunch was available – supplied by Searcys.
Present Day – John Searcy’s legacy continues
Today, Searcys is in residence at some of UK’s most iconic venues including Blenheim Palace, The Pump Room in Bath, The Gherkin, St Pancras International and many more which can be seen below.
Described in his time as ‘gentle, courteous and masterful’, John Searcy’s traits inspired undying loyalty in his household and business staff, repaying his confidence with lifelong service. His legacy lives on in Searcys’ business today.
‘With the advance of the Nation’ prosperity and culture entertaining has not only become more general but almost one of the necessities of social life’ – Introduction to Searcy’s catalogue, 1896.