Although we like to think of Wagon Wheels as a classic Australian treat, they were actually invented in England and didn’t make it to Australia until the Weston Biscuit Company began manufacturing here in 1951. According to Wikipedia, the concept was developed by the British food technologist William Peschardt. He sold the rights to Garry Weston, of the Canadian biscuit dynasty. Wagon Wheels were first produced in England in 1948. They consisted of two Marie biscuits sandwiched together with marshmallow and coated with chocolate.
The Westons business traced its history back to the 1890s in Toronto, Canada, where George Weston started his bread-baking company. The company branched out into biscuits and, on George’s death in 1924, his son Garfield took over. Under his leadership, George Weston Limited expanded internationally, becoming Britain’s biggest biscuit baker by the mid-1940s.
Garry Weston was one of Garfield’s three sons and, according to his obituary in The Guardian, chafed under the autocratic leadership of his father. The paper wrote of him:
Born in Canada, Weston was brought up in the UK and lived here all his life except for a 14-year stint in Australia, where he went to escape his tyrannical father. “I don’t want to blame my father for anything,” he once said of his escape from England, “but it was the first time I woke up in the morning and wanted to get out of bed.”
When Garry Weston took charge of establishing an Australian operation for Weston Biscuit Company, he bought a factory on Parramatta Road in the Sydney suburb of Camperdown. It’s likely that he brought the Wagon Wheel process with him, although it’s not clear exactly when the first Wagon Wheel rolled off the local production line.
We do know that the Camperdown factory produced its last Wagon Wheel in February 2004. That was when Weston’s Australian operation sold off its biscuit brands to concentrate on other businesses – brands including Tip Top Bread and Don Smallgoods. Many of the biscuit brands were bought by Queensland-based Paradise Foods but several, including Wagon Wheels, were acquired by Arnott’s.
Perhaps the most famous Australian advertising campaign for Wagon Wheels was a series of television commercials produced in 1989. The campaign compared Wagon Wheels to popular but unusual snacks in other countries, including fried grasshoppers (Thailand), pickled herrings (Scandinavia) and garlic snails (France). The announcer’s voice asks, “Which would you prefer?” In each case, the exotic snack comes to life, pleading “Eat the Wagon Wheel”.
Wagon Wheels are still sold in Britain, as well as in Canada, New Zealand, India and other (mainly Commonwealth) countries. The size and format vary from country to country. In Australia, the standard Wagon Wheel has a layer of jam as well as the marshmallow filling. The Aussie version is reported to be larger than its English cousin, although Arnott’s also has what they call the “Original Mini” that comes in a multi-pack. Their “Original” Wagon Wheel is a 48g number in its individual packaging.
There is debate on both sides of the world about whether Wagon Wheels have shrunk in size since their heyday. The question remains unresolved.