Rich Desserts and Captain's Thin by Margaret Forster Chatto & Windus, pounds 17.99 Piers Brendon meets the gentle Quaker giant who gave his workers more than crumbs
My first thought was that any author hoping to woo the public with the history of a Cumbrian biscuit factory must be, well, crackers. Secondly, I reflected, we have visited Margaret Forster's Carlisle before and, though interesting, it lacks the magic of Richard Cobb's Tunbridge Wells or V S Pritchett's Camberwell. Finally, this book is written in a style at best chatty and at worst sloppy. Forster never produces an arresting phrase or challenging idea. In fact, she offers a kind of reader's digestive.

Yet I found it both fresh and palatable. This is because Forster resurrects as the hero of her family-cum-business saga one of those dissenting entrepreneurs who were the glory of their time. He was Jonathan Dodgson Carr (1806-1884), the son of a Kendal grocer and a worthy fit to be named in the same breath as Joseph Rowntree or Thomas Cook. Carr's parents were Quakers and even as a child he eagerly embraced their creed, being kind, gentle, modest and obedient.

He grew into a physical as well as moral giant, able to cope with the rigours of his apprenticeship as a baker. In 1831, he moved to Carlisle to make his fortune - he was also ambitious, embodying the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Carr's business plan was an early instance of vertical integration: he built a flour mill combined with a bakery which would turn out bread by night and biscuits by day. Sweet biscuits were a novelty, descendants of plain ship's biscuits which sailors tapped before eating in order to dislodge weevils.

Carr's "fancy" biscuits, made in many shapes and sizes and given exotic names such as Rich Desserts and Small Change Pennies, rapidly became fashionable. They kept crisp in tins and, although fragile, travelled well from Carr's strategically sited factory by canal and railway. Soon they were sustaining train passengers and in 1841 Carr somehow obtained a royal warrant from Victoria, the first ever given to a biscuit manufacturer.

Still more remarkable was the enlightened regime which Carr imposed in his hot, noisy, smelly but hygienic factory. A formidable figure in sober garb (occasionally enlivened by a rich brown velvet waistcoat embroidered with ears of corn, worn to advertise the Anti-Corn Law League), he laboured beside his employees. He even consulted them and, in a Tolstoyan spirit, made the venture seem like a cooperative. Of course, they knew who was boss. But Carr's benevolent paternalism overflowed into the community. Thee-ing and thou-ing vigorously, he promoted temperance, improved housing and backed causes such as the anti-slavery movement.

Carr's four sons had more evangelical zeal but less commercial skill. So when he died his biscuit business, already challenged by the likes of Peek Frean and Huntley & Palmer, began to crumble. It was sustained until 1931 by a grandson, Theodore, though he was primarily a talented mechanic. But eventually the family firm, by now a limited company, fell into the maw of McVities, part of the United Biscuits empire. Forster's story also fragments towards the end, though she keeps it going with lively period detail. This is her great strength as a chronicler and it enables her to turn an unlikely subject into surprisingly acceptable fare.