I WAS driving down Acton Lane when a large painted sign on a gable (above) caught my eye. It reads ‘Spratts Dog Poultry Cage Bird Foods’ (you can also just make out a faded ‘Guinness’ painted on top of it).
Spratts was the very first maker of dog food, setting up a factory in High Holborn in 1860. James Spratt, though from English family (an Admiral James Spratt fought at Trafalgar), was born in Ohio. He worked as an electrician and came back to England to sell his patented lightning rods.
A dog-lover, Spratt was struck by the packs of half-starved dogs that hung around the docks to be fed on ship’s spoiled hard tack biscuits. He soon patented a ‘Meat-Fibrine dog cake’, shaped like a bone and made of wheat, vegetables and beef blood. However, he encouraged the idea that his biscuits used buffalo meat by putting up adverts showing American ‘Indians’ hunting bison – the first use of billboards in London.
His factory thrived, expanding into America in the 1870s (though Spratt died in 1878) and building a new factory in Poplar in 1897 – ‘The Biggest Dog Biscuit Factory in the World’. As it grew, it diversified into feeds for other animals, as the gable wall advert shows, veterinary medicine and other products for pets, such as kennels and collars etc. The company was bought over by Spillers in 1960, who still make dog-shaped ‘Bonio’ biscuits, and the trademark survives.
His most famous employee was a certain Charles Cruft who seems to have been a born salesman. He targeted the hunting packs at country estates but soon realised that was a limited market. His brainwave was to encourage the breeding of pedigree dogs, betting that their owners would pamper them with a special diet. And so Crufts Dog Show was born in 1891. Cruft never owned a dog himself.
He also gave Spratt his trademark – an ‘X’ – which Cruft used to distinguish trade from retail customers on the accounts. He also made a showcard from an engraving of a pointer by Sir Edwin Landseer RA, now better known for his horse portraits – and for the lions in Trafalgar Square.
The Poplar factory closed after the imposition of purchase tax on pet food in 1969. It is now converted into flats, being ‘within easy reach of the vibrant shops and bars of Canary Wharf’. Here is a picture of the interior of one:
Acton Lane advert: