Home baking has enjoyed a popular resurgence in recent years and here we remember one of the unsung heroes of the domestic kitchen – Mr Kenneth Maynard Wood – who died 23 years ago today.
For while his name might not be as well-known to ‘Great British Bake Off’ fans as that of Mary Berry or Paul Hollywood, generations of home bakers came to treasure and depend on his greatest invention – the Kenwood Chef.
Appearing in British kitchens from the 1950s, the Kenwood Chef food mixer is an iconic and much-copied classic, regularly revised and updated and now sold around the world. Renowned for their reliability and durability, some original 1950s and '60s models are still in use, while the trend for retro has seen new models released which mimic the classic look.
Born in October 1916, Ken Wood was the grandson of confectionery manufacturer Charles Riley Maynard, founder of another long-lived brand, Maynards, famous for its wine gums and other sweets. Growing up in Chelsfield, Kent, on the south-easterly fringe of London, Wood was educated at Bromley County School, but left both school and home at the age of 14 to join the Merchant Navy.
After five years’ service, and still not yet 20, he left the Navy and began to study electrical engineering and accountancy at night school. Those studies were the foundation for his first business, Dickson and Wood, set up with a friend in 1936 to install and repair radios and the new televisions sets.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Wood felt his duty lay elsewhere so he sold the business and joined up, this time in the RAF. He was able to put his skills to good use, working as an engineer developing radar and electronic controls. With the war won, the demobbed Wood revived his business ambitions, founding Woodlau Industries with a wartime colleague, Roger Laurence.
Spotting a market for new kitchen gadgets, their first product was a turnover toaster, followed by a prototype food mixer. Unhappy with the prototype, Ken completely redesigned it, launching the Kenwood Electric Chef at the Ideal Home Exhibition in London in March 1950. More than just a basic food mixer, it had several other functions and attachments and sold for £19 10s. 10d. (£19.54).
One of its trademark features right from the start was the “K-Beater”, the attachment for standard mixing which incorporated a large letter 'K' in its design. Other attachments for the original and later models included a dough hook, whisk, cream maker, liquidiser, slicer and shredder, tin opener and coffee grinder, making the Kenwood the first real multifunction kitchen gadget.
The Chef sold well and soon became the core product of the business, which was renamed the Kenwood Manufacturing Company Ltd after the departure of Roger Laurence. Continued growth prompted a move from the original Woking base to much larger premises in Havant, Hampshire, in 1961, by which time the company employed around 700 people.
Wood continued designing new devices, sticking closely to the principle that attractive machines to do the jobs which gave housewives the most work would always sell well. Within a few years of setting up the business he was one of the UK’s youngest millionaires.
Unfortunately, in 1968 he was forced to part company with the business that bore his name following a hostile takeover by Thorn Electrical Industries, but he maintained an interest in the business until his death. In 1972 he was granted the Freedom of the City of London and between 1972 and 1980 was chairman and managing director of the Dawson-Keith Group of Companies, which mostly manufactured generators.
Various other business interests kept him busy, as well as founding a health farm and investing in a golf and country club near his Hampshire home together with TV golfing commentator Peter Alliss. He died on October 19th, 1997, at the age of 81 following a short illness, but his name lives on in the enduring popularity of his much-loved Kenwood Chef.