Jacob, William Beale (1825–1902), businessman, was born 17 August 1825 in Waterford, the eldest of the three children of quakers Isaac Thomas Jacob (d. 23 March 1839), baker, and his wife, Ann, eldest daughter of William Beale, woollen manufacturer, of Mountmellick, Co. Laois. After his father's early death in 1839, the young William Jacob took over the family business, which included an extensive bread and sea-biscuit bakery and a barm brewery. His mother married George Black in 1843. The family lived at 33 Bridge Street, Waterford.
Based at Bridge Street, the Jacob bakery saw an enormous increase in demand in the first half of the nineteenth century as Waterford became a thriving centre of maritime industry and demand for sea biscuits increased. General prosperity also increased demand for the fancy biscuits produced by Jacob, and in November 1850 William opened additional premises to sell fancy biscuits at 69, the Quay, Waterford. The new premises were styled the Waterford General Bakery. On 1 August 1850 William married Hannah Hill Newsom, with whom he had six sons and two daughters. The family lived at Ballybrack House, Ballybrack, Co. Dublin.
By 1851 William's younger brother Robert (1831–61) had joined the business, which became the partnership of W&R Jacob. In February of that year W&R Jacob was so successful that William began to search for better machinery to cope with demand. Foreseeing the possibilities of mass production, he travelled to England to investigate the use of steam-powered machinery in the production of biscuits. While returning via Dublin he saw a vacant coach yard at 5–6 Peter's Row and decided that it would provide an ideal location for a new steam-based bakery. The premises were acquired from Thomas Palmer in 1852 and by 1853 W&R Jacob's Steam Biscuit Factory, home to a 14 horse-power steam travelling oven, was listed at the location. With Robert based in Waterford as commercial traveller for the firm and output increasing dramatically, W&R Jacob boasted almost a thousand customers by 1855. In 1857 two additional travelling ovens were purchased for the Dublin factory. The following year the Waterford business was closed to allow Robert to base his sales operations in Dublin, and by 1859 sales had reached £21,124, compared with under £5,000 just six years previously.
In 1861 Robert drowned at Tramore, and William acted as sole proprietor of the firm until 1863. The following year W&R Jacob's products were launched in the North Wales market and in 1874 the firm took over Baker & Co., quaker biscuit makers based in Cork. In 1878 William's brother-in-law George J. Newsom and his second son, George Newsom Jacob, also became partners. Throughout this period the firm's premises had expanded to include a large proportion of Peter's Row and Bishop Street. Much of the factory was destroyed by fire in 1880 but production had resumed in full by 1881, and two years later the partnership became a limited liability company with William Jacob as chairman. From this time his son George Newsom Jacob was managing director and William played less of a role in the day-to-day running of the business. He died on 5 August 1902 at Portobello Nursing Home, Dublin, leaving an estate valued at £82,327. Despite his wealth and success, his quaker background made him an unassuming man, and this was reflected upon his death, when there was barely a mention in the press.
Jacob's son George Newsom Jacob (1854–1942), biscuit manufacturer, was born in Dublin on 13 June 1854 and was educated at Rathmines School before entering the family firm in 1872. He became a partner in 1878 and managing director in 1883. During his period as managing director the firm aggressively met competition from UK firms in the Irish market and competed successfully for business in the UK. A hardworking and astute businessman as well as a benevolent employer in the quaker tradition, Jacob was instrumental in the rapid growth of the firm not least through his introduction of the highly successful cream cracker in 1885. Often credited with the invention of what was to become the firm's signature biscuit, in reality Jacob discovered a variant of the product during a fact-finding mission to the United States.
In 1886 W&R Jacob appointed an agent in London and opened its own depot in Liverpool. Six years later the firm successfully entered markets in northern England and the midlands, and by 1899 it employed nearly 1,400 workers. George Newsom Jacob became chairman of W&R Jacob on the death of his father in 1902, and remained the public face of the firm for nearly thirty-five years. A permanent depot was opened in London in the same year and in Manchester in 1906. Demand in the UK rose rapidly in the pre-war period, and by 1911 the firm employed 3,000 workers in Dublin, exported over 18,000 tons of goods, and was ranked among the top five biscuit producers in Britain and Ireland. In 1912 a factory was opened at Aintree, Liverpool, while at the same time Jacob ensured that the firm remained at the cutting edge of technology with the introduction of a gas-fired travelling oven at the Dublin headquarters.
Despite his quaker background, Jacob was considered a hardliner during the 1913 lock-out. On 1 September 1913 the Dublin factory was closed and employees were informed that only workers renouncing the ITGWU, led by James Larkin (qv), would be rehired. Large sections of the workforce refused to comply with the ultimatum and Jacob responded by replacing them with non-union labour. The issue was not entirely resolved until May 1914, when the firm agreed to consider hiring union employees when vacancies arose.
Jacob's tenure included the uncertain years during World War I when raw materials were scarce. In addition, during the Easter rising of 1916 the factory, which by then took up most of Peter's Row, Bishop Street, and Bride Street, was taken over by Irish Volunteers led by Thomas MacDonagh (qv) to secure command of the route from Portobello Barracks into the city. Despite such problems, W&R Jacob prospered by supplying nearly 1,200,000 packets of biscuits to army canteens during the period 1916–18. Jacob did not initially welcome Irish independence, and in 1922 he split the company into English and Irish entities. At the same time he threatened to move it out of Ireland if the Free State government introduced tariffs. In 1928, W&R Jacob, which was one of the state's top three exporters, became a public company.
Despite his apparent hard-line conservative stance, Jacob was a paternalistic employer and was ahead of his time with the employee-focused reforms that took place within the company. During his period as managing director (1883–1902) refreshment and dining facilities were introduced at the Dublin factory and a part-time doctor was available to see workers on site. While he was chairman (1902–31) an employees’ swimming pool was introduced, a roof garden was constructed at the factory, and a recreation field was acquired at Rutland Avenue, Dublin. Pension and savings schemes were also introduced. In 1931 Jacob became president of the company.
Outside the bakery, Jacob played his due part in public affairs. He was a member of the Dublin port and docks board (1898–1905), a director of the B&I steam packet company, president of the associated chambers of commerce of the Irish Free State (1928, 1942), and vice-president of the federation of chambers of commerce of the British empire (1900). As president of the Dublin chamber of commerce (1926) he opposed the Shannon electrification scheme and the formation of the ESB. In his spare time he travelled extensively, and was a pioneer of motoring in Ireland, a skilful photographer, and a part-owner of a racing yacht, Puncillo. Probably his most unusual hobby, however, was that of lathe work, which he undertook in his own workshop. His charitable activities involved serving on the boards of the Rotunda and Meath hospitals.
Jacob lived at St Michaels, Ailesbury Road, Dublin, and before that at Greystones, Co. Wicklow. He died 19 December 1942 after a car accident in Dublin. He married Mary A. Clark and had two children. His son, Harold, became chairman of W&R Jacob and his daughter, Dora, married Sir Walter Jenkins, CB. There is a portrait of G. N. Jacob by Leo Whelan (qv) RHA in the possession of the family.