OK was the highest-selling brown sauce in London as late as the 1970s. It was withdrawn from the British market in the 1990s, but Unilever continue to produce it for export to Asia.
George Mason & Co is established
Henderson Brand (1805 – 1893) introduced A1, probably the first brown sauce, from 1862. He employed two nephews, George and John Mason.
The Mason brothers entered into business for themselves, as competitors to Brand, from 1880. They established a small factory on King’s Road, Chelsea, and their first products, OK Sauce and beef and chicken extracts, were direct imitations of Brand & Co products.
John Mason left the venture shortly afterwards, to leave George Mason as sole proprietor. George Mason took on investors to form a private limited company called George Mason & Co in 1884.
The business began to struggle, and George Mason was forced to resign his directorship in 1891.
Percy Cooper and the growth of OK Sauce
Percy Cooper (1863 – 1931) was an engaging man, who worked as an amatuer actor and magician during his spare time. He became a salesman for George Mason & Co from 1891. He was appointed general manager the following year.
Cooper was promoted to Manager and Secretary from 1895. He decided to focus production and marketing efforts on OK Sauce. He relocated production to larger premises at St George’s Hall in Walham Green, Fulham, from 1896. Cooper named the new site ‘the Chelsea Works”.
OK Sauce won the only gold medal for sauce at the Festival of Empire exhibition in 1911. George Mason & Co were purveyors by appointment to the House of Lords, and also supplied the House of Commons.
An additional factory was opened at Southfields, Wandsworth, in order to cope with increasing demand for OK Sauce, from 1920.
Ownership of George Mason & Co was divided fairly evenly between the Cooper and Ripley families from 1920.
Rex Cooper expands OK Sauce nationwide
Rex Cooper, son of Percy Cooper, was appointed as general manager from 1925.
OK Sauce used no cereal-based thickening agent, artificial colouring or added chemical preservatives.
Both factories were closed in 1928 and production was centralised at a single larger site at Southfields, which was also named the Chelsea Works. Rationalised production at an efficient site allowed the company to lower prices for the consumer.
OK Sauce contained raisins, cane sugar, mangoes, ginger, bell peppers, mace, nutmeg, cloves, British herbs, cinnamon, shallots, malt vinegar, garlic, lemons, oranges and tomato purée in 1929. It is interesting to note that the sauce was a product of international trade: only the herbs, shallots and vinegar came from the British Isles. Salt and vinegar were used for their preservative qualities in a time before widespread artificial refrigeration.
Percy Cooper died suddenly in 1931, and Rex Cooper assumed his position as managing director.
Distribution of OK Sauce was mainly limited to Southern England and South Wales as late as the early 1930s. A dedicated northern sales team was established to boost sales nationwide from 1936.
Wartime restrictions meant that by 1945 only OK Sauce, mustard, Worcester sauce and fruit chutney were produced.
OK Sauce sales surpassed £1 million for the first time (about £21 million in 2015) in 1960.
Acquisition by Reckitt & Colman
Reckitt & Colman, manufacturers of Colman’s mustard, were keen to enter the thick sauce market, and acquired George Mason for £826,575 (equivalent to £14.5 million in 2013) in cash in 1964. Rex Cooper joined the Colman’s board of directors.
Rex’s son Brian Cooper was appointed managing director in 1965. Rex died the following year, leaving £77,514 (£1.3 million in 2013).
The Southfields factory was closed with the loss of 150 jobs in 1969. Colman’s explained that Mason’s had “long since outgrown” the London factory, and production was relocated to Norwich.
By 1969 caramel and concentrates were added to OK sauce for colouring, and gum tragacanth and manucol ester were added for appearance.
The brown sauce market in Britain was highly regional as late as 1970, and OK claimed the largest share of the London market.
The British grocery sector was increasingly in the hands of large supermarket chains by the mid-1970s. Supermarkets focused on a limited product range, and also introduced own-label products in categories such as brown sauce. This placed pressure on OK Sauce, which was a less-prominent brand than HP Sauce, its major rival.
OK Sauce is withdrawn from the UK, but continues to be produced for Asian markets
Colman’s was acquired by Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant, in 1995.
OK Sauce appears to have disappeared from British shelves in the mid to late 1990s. Many of its customers switched to HP Fruity as the closest available alternative.
According to an email from Unilever in 2014:
Colman’s OK Sauce is still produced for catering trade purposes for only overseas [sic], and it was discontinued in the UK market a very long time ago.
OK Sauce continued be found in large Asian supermarkets and wholesalers in the UK, and was manufactured in Great Britain by Colman’s of Norwich.
OK Sauce has been unavailable since the closure of the Norwich site in 2020, and would appear to have been quietly discontinued.
OK is a dark brown sauce. It is fruity, peppery, tangy, sweet and sour. Its fruit content is listed as 39%. It has quite an Oriental profile, and perhaps contains star anise. It perhaps shares similarities with a puréed fruit chutney.
The recipe appears to have changed over time. Mangoes are no longer contained in the sauce, and dates are now present. The label now claims that there are no artificial colours, flavourings or sweeteners added. Modified maize starch is added as a thickener.
The sauce can be used in much the same way as HP, and I can highly recommend it as an accompaniment to bacon or sausage. Chinese restaurants use it with shredded beef, shredded chicken and spare ribs.