THE HISTORY OF PRESTAT (by way of a short story) – Prestat Chocolates

By Bill Keeling, Former Owner and Managing Director of Prestat from 1998 to 2019

It was in mid-1999, nine months after my half-brother Nick Crean and I had acquired Prestat, that I discovered the secret room. Some of the bulbs in the Piccadilly shop’s chandelier needed replacing and I was bemoaning the lack of any steps to Peggy Cramer, the manageress who had worked for Prestat for more than three decades.

‘But we have steps,’ said Peggy. ‘They’re in the basement store-room.’

‘No, Peggy,’ I replied. ‘The steps we use are borrowed from Maureen next door. I know that basement store-room backwards and there aren’t any steps down there.’

‘Yes, there are. Not in the room you first go into but the one behind.’

I frankly thought Peggy was losing her marbles. The store-room for Princes Arcade is a rabbit-warren of a space under Princes House. It would have direct access to the neighbouring Tramps nightclub were it not for the connecting doors being locked.

‘That’s the nightclub, Peggy. The door’s locked.’

‘I know the door’s locked,’ she confirmed patiently. ‘There was a flood in there a few years ago so we locked the door. But it’s our space alright. There’s all sorts in there, old packaging and the like.’

‘Old packaging!’ I cried excitedly.

‘Oh, yes, chocolate boxes that go way back. And piles of paper. That’s where the steps are. Do you want the key? And you’d better take the torch.’

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A secret room – at least to me – full of unknown treasures. I took the key and went down to the store-room and then across to the door which for nine months I had mistakenly assumed led to the nightclub. I thought back over the past year. I was sure that I’d heard noises emanating from behind the door: the tinkling of champagne flutes; the soft laughter of party-goers; the drifting sound of music. I turned on the torch and slipped the key into the lock...


While Prestat had the reputation of having a fine history, there was in fact almost no physical evidence by way of an archive to support it. When we acquired the company in October, 1998, we were expecting to receive boxes of old documents, pictures and packaging but there was almost nothing. The paperwork went back no more than five years, there were absolutely no pictures of the past and the oldest packaging, albeit it dating back about ten years, was that currently in use in the shop.

This was a distinctly unsatisfactory situation. We wanted to market and promote Prestat and we didn’t even know the origin of its name! Over the past nine years we have slowly accumulated our knowledge, in part through extensive conversations with Peggy Cramer and the sadly late Dilys Wilson, who together had worked for Prestat a combined 70 years. We have also been kindly contacted by former members of staff and relatives of the company’s previous owners but there is plenty we don’t know.

The ‘official’ history of Prestat has, therefore, been a work-in-progress and is subject to the occasional revision as new facts come to light. We now, however, have a small archive of pictures, documents and packaging, although if anyone out there has any historic Prestat items or information please contact us!


Prestat Recorded In The BT Phonebox 1924
Prestat Recorded In The British Telephone Phonebook 1924

Our initial research involved reading any book on the history of chocolate and these identified 1902 as the year in which French émigré Antoine Dufour established Prestat. This is the date we have on all the Prestat boxes. We have since been given copies of some of Antoine Dufour’s papers including notes on employees which show that he started recruiting as early as July, 1891, when he took on a Monsieur Urech from Switzerland to make pralines. Of his first 16 employees hired up to Christmas 1894, five were French, three Swiss, two Belgian, two from Alsace (now part of France), one Italian, one Spanish and an Alexandre Huch who has no recorded nationality. It was, therefore, a thoroughly European enterprise. We don’t know whether Antoine opened the Prestat shop at this earlier date or whether he began by making chocolates and patisseries for other businesses (although we do know that he was the representative in London of a Swiss chocolate firm at this time). We have decided, therefore, to keep 1902 as the official date of Prestat’s establishment unless further evidence comes to light.

There is no doubt, however, that Antoine was a highly proficient confectioner and chocolatier. Crystallising fruits was very much in vogue and he lovingly recorded his purchases of raspberries, strawberries, cherries, grapes and blackcurrants. We have his recipes for chocolate caramels, coffee caramels, Turkish delight, chocolate fudge, violet fondant, rose fondant and, of course, chocolate truffles.

The chocolate truffle is recorded as first being created in Chambery, France, in December 1895 by a Louis Dufour. The Dufour name is quite common and the  relationship between Antoine and Louis is uncertain. [Thanks to a family tree, we now know they were brothers and came up with the recipe together.] What is known is that Antoine, who was born in Saint Berain sous Savignes, crossed the Channel to London bringing with him the new creation in order to take advantage of the growing popularity for fine chocolate in England.

Prestat quickly became famous for its cocoa-dusted truffles, which Antoine Dufour introduced to England and named ‘Napoleon III’ after the 19th Century gourmand French emperor who spent several periods of exile in London with his loyal chef. On one occasion, the rotund emperor had lived in Carlton House off Pall Mall, now the official residence of the Foreign Secretary, and on another in a town house on King Street, a stone’s throw from the location of Prestat’s current shop in Princes Arcade.

While we knew all about Napoleon III, for several years Nick and I were actually ignorant of how Prestat came about its own name. At first, we thought it was derived not from a person but from a Latin motto on a Prestat ‘shield’ that once adorned truffle cartons.

A cousin’s wife, Camilla Keeling, then produced from her cupboard a pre-Second World War Prestat box in which she kept her needles and thread – by far the oldest we have seen – that had the name P Prestat printed on it. It seemed that the business was indeed named after a person but not its founder.

We now know that Antoine married a lady named Amelia Bonaba (who is rumoured to have worked at rival chocolatiers Charbonnel et Walker in Bond Street). Her aunt Pauline married a certain Henri Prestat and one of their four children was named Pierre (who was born in 1888). Amelia adored her little cousin Pierre. On deciding to open his own chocolate shop, Antoine was unable to open it under his own name given his role as the London representative of the Swiss chocolate firm. He decided, therefore, to name it in honour of young Pierre and to call his new enterprise P. Prestat (with Prestat pronounced with a silent final 't').

We know that Pierre visited his British cousins shortly after the shop was opened. He was a very sporting young man and his football club, Parisian Racing Club of France, enjoyed a British tour. He also visited London to engage in a bicycle track competition on behalf of Velo Club de La Valois.

The first Prestat shop was opened at 24 South Molton Street and the business clearly thrived. Antoine soon opened a more eye-catching store a few hundred yards away at 405 Oxford Street and we suspect the South Molton premises were principally used for manufacturing. It’s now one of London’s more fashionable shopping streets and the days of manufacturing in central London have long since gone. Antoine also opened a store in the City of London at 28 & 29 St Swithin’s Lane to satisfy the gluttonous financial community.

We have pictures of Antoine, who was completely bald, beautifully dressed in starched collar and dress shirt with a neatly trimmed beard and a magnificent moustache. He was a striking and elegant man.

Antoine and Amelia had five children (Tony, Jeanette, Winifred (aka Lesley), Doris and Warwick) and groomed their eldest Tony to take over the business. We don’t have a date at which Tony assumed control but we know that he ran the business through until the end of the 1950s. The pictures we have of him are of a handsome young man in military uniform and as a much older gentleman in morning coat with a glass of champagne in his hand.

Tony, however, had two misfortunes in life, one of which was to contract tuberculosis (although we have also heard it was polio), which affected his health throughout his life, and the second was having to manage the business through the Second World War. When it came to light that there had been a Prestat shop at 405 Oxford Street – we already knew about 24 South Molton Street – I went for a walk, eager to find the building and look back at the past. The building, however, no longer exists.

It seems probable that it was destroyed during the war – our own grandfather’s office in nearby Brooke Street was flattened by a bomb – and that was the end of Prestat’s Oxford Street presence. It might have closed regardless of the Luftwaffe as running a high-class chocolate business during the conflict must have been close to impossible. The St Swithin’s Lane shop had also closed by the time the war was concluded.

As a result, the South Molton Street site reverted to being the sole Prestat store and it was from there that Tony ran the business through the difficult period of rationing in the 1950s. It would have been a Herculean task and he succeeded only to be faced with the most difficult of all decisions. Entering old age and with no children of his own, he would have to sell Prestat if it were to survive. The Dufour period of ownership was about to end.

At the same time, on the other side of the West End the curtain was being lowered on one of London’s shortest-lived theatrical productions – the run of All Year Round was closing after two days and three performances – and a distraught playwright was looking for a new career. Enter Neville Croft and his supportive, wealthier, brother Maxwell.


We know a good deal more about Neville Croft and his wife Elisabeth from the reminiscences of Peggy and Dilys who both joined the business in the 1960s. I also spent a day in the (now closed) Theatre Museum in Covent Garden looking at old theatre programmes in which the names of Neville and Maxwell Croft appeared. Neville had tried his hand at acting – having some very minor roles in various reviews – before his foray into playwriting. Maxwell had been credited as a costumier before sensibly leaving the theatre behind and establishing a successful Regent Street fur shop.

In the late-1950s Neville wrote All Year Round, a Chekov-style drama that followed the lives and loves of three sisters over a thirty year period. It caught the eye of the respected director Frith Banbury and was booked to open at The Duke of York’s, a beautiful and major London playhouse on St Martin’s Lane.

Unfortunately, it opened on Friday October 9, 1959, the night after a general election which returned Harold MacMillan’s Tory administration. Annie Get Your Gun was playing to sell-out audiences at The London Coliseum opposite The Duke of York’s. Newspaper articles reported gaggles of drunken people celebrating or, as historian Alexander Dickinson notes, bemoaning the government’s re-election. Unable to get into Annie, they staggered across the road and bought Upper Circle tickets for All Year Round’s opening night.

Angered by the lack of music and dance – they’d wanted to see Annie – the drunkards started heckling the actors as early as Act One and continued through Acts Two and Three. The cast bravely completed the play but the performance was ruined. Under the circumstances, the theatre critics refused to review the play and without favourable reviews its financial backers immediately withdrew support. It closed after the Saturday’s matinee and evening performances.

In 2000, I tracked down the 88 year old and still active director Frith Banbury (Neville Croft, his wife Elisabeth and his brother Maxwell having all passed away) and asked him about the experience. He said it was the saddest thing he had ever witnessed in the theatre. The play was worthy, if not ground-breaking, and Neville would have considered the opening at The Duke of York’s a breakthrough in his writing career. Over the course of three hours, however, he witnessed his career and dreams being destroyed by drunken yobs in the gods. He never wrote again and must have been close to a breakdown.

Fortunately, he had a wonderful brother. Maxwell was a customer at South Molton Street and he became aware that Tony Dufour was looking to sell Prestat. He stepped in, buying the business and immediately handing the reins over to Neville and Elisabeth.


Neville took to the business like a duck to water. Or perhaps it was the business that took to him. Peggy and Dilys had nothing but fond memories, recalling how Neville divided his office off from the shop with a red velvet curtain, appearing with a theatrical flourish whenever he heard a customer of note making a purchase.

Prestat had enjoyed a celebrity clientele from its inception. Antoine Dufour had created a special chocolate – a type of inverted violet crème – for the actress Sarah Bernhardt in the 1910s and the Crofts’ theatrical connections resulted in frequent visits from actors such as John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft.

Prestat was also a favoured haunt of Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who made Prestat truffles the centrepiece of his novel My Uncle Oswald. In the book, a raucous comic romp, a love potion hidden inside irresistible Prestat truffles is secretly fed to Europe’s monarchs and a host of 20th Century geniuses such as Picasso, Freud and Nijinsky among others. In the real world, Prestat had for many years supplied (unadulterated) chocolates to members of the royal family and in 1975 it was granted a Royal Warrant as Purveyors of Chocolates to Her Majesty The Queen.

On the product side, Neville developed a new line of mint chocolates including a Double Mint, being a mint fondant enrobed in mint-infused chocolate, and a Coffee Mint, being a coffee fondant enrobed in mint-infused chocolate. The kitchens in the basement were working overtime. He also up-dated the packaging and Prestat became famed for its red and gold chocolate boxes and its tall brown truffle cartons.

These years were Prestat’s brightest since the heyday of Antoine Dufour in the 1920s but behind the scenes there were a number of problems creeping up on the business that needed to be addressed. By the early 1980s, Neville and Elisabeth were suffering poor health and had no natural successor. The lease on South Molton Street was coming to an end and the rent was likely to increase steeply. And there was talk of new health and safety legislation that would effectively make it impossible to continue production of chocolates in the basement.

It was time for Neville, a great showman to the customers and an inspiration to the staff, finally to hang up his hat. The business needed a fresh injection of funds and leadership to meet the challenges that lay ahead.


Ownership indeed changed hands with Prestat being acquired by Stanley S. Cohen, a successful entrepreneur with numerous business interests ranging from property development to fine porcelain. The challenges, however, proved extreme. As feared, production of chocolates in South Molton Street was halted shortly before the prohibitive increase in rent forced the business to move from its birthplace to the current Piccadilly premises in Princes Arcade.

An attempt was made to open a far larger store in Windsor to compensate for the downsizing of the London shop. A new buyer brought in from Fortnum & Mason purchased a large volume of packaging but sales of the Windsor store proved disappointing and it was closed. With no obvious avenue to recovery, a decision was taken to maintain the Prestat shop in Princes Arcade but to take time-out from any further expansion plans.

The shop was well-cared for, enjoying a refurbishment in the early 1990s, but it lacked day-to-day leadership with Stanley Cohen having significantly larger businesses to manage. His other priorities included work for charities, in particular The Duke of Edinburgh Award – which was recognised with the award of an OBE.

Life In The Prestat Shop


Prestat might have continued happily in this fashion for many years if my half-brother Nick Crean hadn’t taken an interest. He remembered the shop from its South Molton Street days and, in particular, a visit he had made as a teenager to buy chocolates in the early 1970s. Peggy was serving and Nick, having made his selection, proudly took out his new chequebook – he’d just opened his first bank account – to pay for the goods. Peggy correctly asked him for his cheque guarantee card, something Nick had never heard of and certainly didn’t have.

When she asked for any other form of identity he looked aghast. The cheque book was the only thing he had except, he remembered, the school name-tag sown into the back of his shirt. Trying to look serious, Peggy marched around the counter, pulled his shirt collar down and confirmed the name matched the cheque-book. She accepted payment and sent the young customer on his way.

I can’t think of any shop other than Prestat where a name-tag would have been accepted as a guarantee on a cheque. Good on Peggy. It was the fondness that this experience engendered that led Nick to enquire in June, 1998, whether Stanley Cohen had any plans for the business – and, if not, whether by any chance he would consider selling Prestat. Nick could feel his cheque book itching to get out once more and he asked whether I would like to join him in an acquisition.


The timing of Nick’s request was fortuitous. Stanley Cohen was indeed prepared to sell the business and I was at a loose end with my job at a bank in Indonesia having gone up in smoke following the temporary collapse of that country’s economy. I wanted to return to the UK and the idea of co-managing a small chocolate business with Nick seemed like an offer from heaven.

We acquired Prestat in October, 1998, and have taken enormous pleasure over the past nine years in building the business out from Princes Arcade. Initially, we refurbished the shop and commissioned the artist Kitty Arden to design a new range of colourful and elegant boxes with the remit that they reflect the theatrical heritage of Prestat. As the company’s new stewards, it’s extremely important to us to honour the legacy of Prestat’s previous owners. Emboldened by the positive response to the packaging, we expanded the range by introducing new products including a sumptuous range of organic wafer-thins, a fabulous hot chocolate, an outrageous banoffee caramel truffle and, most recently, a selection of fruit jellies enrobed in chocolate which we named Prestat Babes.

As a result of my visit to the secret room in the basement of Princes Arcade I found files showing we had been supplying The Queen Mother for many years and in December, 1999, Prestat was awarded a second Royal Warrant as Purveyors of Chocolates to HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.


In 2006, we invested in new chocolate manufacturing capacity, which now takes places in Park Royal in West London. Chocolates are taken to the Princes Arcade shop fresh on a daily basis.

In October, 2007, we launched a range of Single Origin Chocolate Buttons from Ecuador, Sao Thome and Madagascar. Our Napoleon III truffles, available only from the Princes Arcade shop, are now made using single origin covertures which we change on a seasonal basis. New products in the pipeline include a Pink Marc de Champagne Truffles (coloured with natural strawberry) and a range of rough-dipped dark, milk and white chocolate truffles we call Arcade Truffles.

In a major new development in November, 2007, we launched an extraordinary range of chocolate bars named Choxi+. Thanks to uniquely gentle processing, Choxi+ enjoys two to three times the level of antioxidants – chocolate’s main health-giving property – of ordinary chocolate. Richer in antioxidants than any fruit or vegetable, Choxi+ is a wonderfully positive indulgence.

We would like to thank the former owners of Prestat – Antoine and Tony Dufour; Neville, Elisabeth and Maxwell Croft; and Stanley S. Cohen – for giving us the opportunity to take on this wonderful business. Also, to all the staff who have looked after the shop so well and made such beautiful chocolates. And, of course, to the customers, without whom Prestat would not exist. We look forward to the future, if not to the time, when Nick and I, old and enfeebled, in our turn have to pass this gem of a company over to someone new.

Bill Keeling
Managing Director
June, 2007