In 1865, Dr. George Wander, a Swiss chemist based in Berne, established the high nutritional value of barley malt. He then began to manufacture malt extract and launched the food drink, ‘Ovomaltine’. In 1900 his son, Albert, took over the business and in 1909 established the British company A. Wander Ltd. The name Ovomaltine was changed to Ovaltine for the British market and became very popular with doctors as a health product.
Courtesy of Nigel Cox Geograph
Rear of Ovaltine conveniently situated by the Grand Union Canal
In 1913 a small factory was built to manufacture Ovaltine in Kings Langley. The factory opened with an original workforce of just thirteen. The business expanded rapidly throughout the 1920s and by the end of the decade the factory was extended to almost its present size.
The company purchased two farms in 1930 on which they established the Ovaltine Dairy and Poultry farms. They were to set the standard for farm produce in barley, milk and eggs, the main ingredients in Ovaltine. In their day they were acknowledged to be probably the best in the world of their type. Nowadays, if restored to and maintained to their former glory, they would be viewed as far too expensive an indulgence, but they certainly served their purpose in building the Ovaltine brand as synonymous with healthy country goodness. This was also symbolised with the use of the Ovaltine Dairy Maid, first used in the 1920s before the farms were even built. She appeared in many advertising campaigns but did not appear on the front of Ovaltine products until 1974!
The Kings Langley site was well chosen as the location of the Ovaltine factory. The surrounding farms could produce many of the ingredients, water was available, there was a good rail network and a ready supply of local labour. One of the major factors in choosing the site must have been the close proximity to the Grand Union Canal. It meant that coal needed to fire the boilers could be delivered by narrow boats from the Warwickshire collieries. In 1925 Wander decided to introduce it’s own boats to handle the transportation of coal. The first pair, the motor Albert and the butty, Georgette, entered service in January 1926. By 1954 the fleet was reduced to 3 pairs and contractors were increasingly delivering coal. Eventually the company switched from coal to oil.
In December 1988 Albert’s sad wreckage was noticed lying at the bottom of a canal near Nottingham. Chris Collins and Tim Woodbridge saved the craft and using near forgotten traditional skills re-built Albert. Albert was triumphantly re-launched back onto the Grand Union Canal in 1990, with the blessing of Dr. Albert Wander, after whose Grandfather the boat was named.
In the early 1920s Saward Baker & Co. Ltd, the appointed advertising agents for Ovaltine introduced Horace Bury to Wander. He went on to create Ovaltine advertisements for the next 40 years incorporating slogans for health, country, family, quality and sleep. The most famous Ovaltine marketing came with ‘The Ovaltineys Show’, with one of the best-remembered radio jingles of all time. The Ovaltineys was a secret club for children that started in 1935. Every Sunday there was a special broadcast on the radio especially for children that contained singing, secret codes, puzzles and stories. The club was very popular and by 1939 there were 5 million members. Children applied for membership using forms found inside Ovaltine tins, they were then sent a badge, rule book, secret code and signals and a list of the special rules that all members must abide by.
In 1967 Wander Ltd merged with a Swiss firm, Sandoz Ltd. After this, business remained the same for Wander, but in 1996 Sandoz merged with CIBA and the new firm became known as Novartis. In 1997 the Ovaltine factory had to change from Wander to Novartis.
At the Ovaltine factory, as well as Ovaltine, Options hot chocolate was made. The Company became the largest liquid malt extract producer in the world, not only is it used in Ovaltine but the inside of Maltesers and many other well known biscuits and sweets.
In 1913 the number of employees at Kings Langley was just 7, rising to 1400 in 1950 before automation greatly reduced the workforce. By 1990 the number of people employed had shrunk to 350 nevertheless still a major local business until its demise in 2002.
Dacorum Heritage Trust preserves the historic Ovaltine artifact collection for KLLH&MS