Ovaltine became something of a national institution in Britain towards the middle of the twentieth century with the Ovaltinies radio broadcasts extolling the health-giving benefits of the drink. Yet Ovaltine is of Swiss origin and did not arrive in the UK until the early 1900s. It was created in the 1860s by Dr George Wander, a Swiss chemist wishing to promote the nutritional value of barley malt. George's son Albert, who had succeeded his father in 1900, developed export markets for the drink and formed a British company to sell and manufacture Ovaltine in England. A factory was built at Kings Langley, on the Three Rivers bank of the Grand Union Canal, and production began here in 1913. So successful was the business that a much larger factory [see below] was built on the site between 1924-29.
Wander was concerned that his suppliers might not be able to keep pace with the company's demand for barley, eggs and milk so, to ensure that this did not restrict the company's growth, in 1929 he bought two farms close to the factory, Numbers Farm at Kings Langley and Parsonage Farm at Abbots Langley, totalling around 450 acres. As well as being farmed commercially to provide the natural ingredients for Ovaltine, they became an important part of the company's marketing strategy. Known as the Model Poultry and Dairy Farm, they were rebuilt in precise imitation of the farm the French King Louis XVI built for Queen Marie Antoinette and featured regularly in the company's advertising to promote the drink's wholesome qualities.
By the mid-20th Century, the company was employing close to 1500 people at Kings Langley. But as agricultural methods improved and advertising techniques changed, the farms became less important to the company. The availability of ingredients in sufficient quantity was no longer a concern, and larger farms could produce them more cheaply, while the wholesome image projected by the farm buildings began to look rather dated. The company also began to diversify into other product lines such as Options chocolate-flavoured drinks, in which the Ovaltine name featured less prominently.
The farm buildings, now unused, began to deteriorate and eventually the company decided to sell. In the early 1990s, the buildings of Parsonage Farm (the dairy farm), situated just off the Bedmond Road in the centre of Abbots Langley, were converted to residential use and are now known as Antoinette Court. The buildings of the egg farm, slightly less conveniently located close to the M25 and main line railway from Euston to Birmingham and the North West, had to wait a little longer but, in the first years of the 21st Century, they too were adapted to become the head office of a renewable energy company. To advertise their presence, a wind turbine (above right) now towers over the farm buildings, a stark contrast with the low-tech associations of their prime. Meanwhile, the company's factory beside the canal continues to supply the nation with bedtime nourishment.
(The company's canal-side location provided a convenient means of transportation direct to the factory and between the mid-1920s and 1960, the company maintained a small fleet of narrow boats, at one time totalling seven working pairs, to bring coal and other essentials to the factory. At that time, however, canals had less salubrious associations than today and it is only in recent years, with the restoration of its first boat Albert, that this aspect of the company s operations has attracted favourable interest.)