Sticky situation: James Keiller & Son

James Keiller & Son was the world’s leading marmalade manufacturer throughout much of the nineteenth century.

A modern day jar of Keiller orange marmalade (for export only!)
A modern day jar of Keiller orange marmalade

From the 1760s Janet Keiller operated a small confectionery business at Seagate, Dundee, where she produced jams. She modified a quince recipe to create “chip” (shredded peel) marmalade. It was believed that the addition of orange peel aided digestion.

Her son James Keiller (1775 – 1839) took over in 1797, and the business assumed his name. Marmalade was just one of their many lines, which included jams, cakes and confectionery. The firm was known as James Keiller & Son by 1827.

Alexander Keiller (1821 – 1877) took over the firm from his father in 1839 when it was still relatively small. Alexander Keiller was a warm but reserved man, with steely determination. He moved the premises to Castle Street in 1845. He increased production with the introduction of steam-powered machinery. By 1851 he employed 60 people.

In the 1850s Keiller established a dedicated bakery department.

“Dundee marmalade” had secured a worldwide reputation by 1857. Keiller was already exporting, mostly to expatriates in countries such as Australia and South Africa. The Dundee factory employed an average of 150 people (mostly women), rising to 200 during the marmalade season. Nearly 15 tons of sugar were used every week. Jams, candied peels and confectionery were produced when Seville oranges were out of season.

Alexander established a factory at St Peter Port, Guernsey for export manufacture in 1857. The Channel Island location was chosen to avoid mainland sugar duty. Managed by his brother William (1829 – 1899), for twenty years, the site accounted for one third of the company’s 1,000 ton a year output. Around 200 people were employed by 1878. However, profits were disappointing, and Alexander eventually bought out his brother’s third share in James Keiller & Son.

By the 1860s, Keiller was filling millions of these earthenware pots every year. They were made by Maling of Newcastle upon Tyne.
By the 1860s, Keiller was filling millions of these earthenware pots every year. They were made by Maling of Newcastle upon Tyne.

At a time when manufacturer’s adulteration of food was rife, Keiller invited The Lancet‘s food adulteration expert, Dr Arthur Hassall, to examine their marmalade in 1859, which he declared to be pure and “the finest he had ever tasted”.

Keiller was the largest confectioner in Britain by 1869. Around 300 people were employed at the Dundee site. John Mitchell Keiller assumed control of the company in 1877, following the death of his father.

Following the abolition of sugar duty in 1871, manufacturing offshore lost its rationale. The Guernsey operation was relocated to Tay Wharf at Silvertown, London in 1879. J M Keiller used the opportunity to oust his uncle William, and install his junior partner, James Boyd, as manager of the new factory, where around 260 people were employed.

Until the 1870s the jam was made with a 1:1 fruit sugar ratio, and only the juice and peel of the fruit were used in order to maximise sweetness. The abolition of sugar duty gave preserve manufacturers the incentive to use all the bitter innards of the fruit, and simply increase the sugar content to compensate. This gave notable economies but decreased the quality of the product.

It was not until the 1880s that Keiller was surpassed by Cadbury and Rowntree as the largest confectionery manufacturer in Britain.

James Keiller & Sons became a limited liability company with a capital of £300,000 (£35 million in 2015) in 1893. J M Keiller used this juncture as an opportunity to step back from management of the business, and James Boyd became managing director.

When J M Keiller died in 1899 his gross estate was valued at £521,000. He was the last Keiller to sit on the company board of directors. His son, Alexander Keiller (1889 -1955), inherited the entire company.

The Silvertown factory was completely gutted by fire in 1899, with the damage estimated at over £100,000. 1,400 workers were temporarily thrown out of employment whilst it was rebuilt. The next year the Dundee factory at Albert Square also burned down, and was rebuilt at a cost of £30,000. The building, stock and machinery had been insured for £118,000.

Keiller had a turnover of £350,000 by 1900.

A German subsidiary was established in 1906 with capital of £150,000 and a factory at Tangermunde, near the sugar beet growing fields.

In 1908 James Keiller & Son had a capital of £400,000, and company assets were valued at £443,000. Around 2,000 people were employed in 1914.

Keiller was sending millions of jars of marmalade and jam every month to British troops in France by 1917. In one year during the First World War 43,000 tons of jam and marmalade were produced. W M Mathew asserts that Keiller was the principal supplier of jam and marmalade to the Army.

Alexander Keiller did not engage in management of the company, and in 1918 sold his entire shareholding. Much of his stake was acquired by the Boyd family.

James Keiller & Son was acquired by Crosse & Blackwell, the largest food processor in the British Empire, in 1919. Keiller’s managing director, Robert Boyd, became chairman of C&B. The amalgamation gave C&B between 17 and 20 percent of the British jam market. Keiller continued to operate as an independent concern with its own management, and only limited operations were merged.

There were nearly 800 employees in Dundee in 1920. There were over 1,000 workers in London in 1922. In 1921 Keiller was described as the largest preserve manufacturer in the world.

The collapse of the post-war boom saw Keiller profits drop from £500,000 in 1919 to under £69,000 in 1920. Keiller announced a trading loss of £555,000 in 1921.

The German subsidiary was liquidated in 1923, after debts owed to it failed to be repaid after the war. A fruit pulping and canning operation at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire was sold to Smedley & Co of Evesham in 1923.

Keiller marmalade production began at the Crosse & Blackwell factory in Vincennes outside Paris, France in 1925.

A new bakery plant was opened at Mains Loan, Dundee in 1928.

The glass jar with a metal lid was introduced for the UK market in 1928. The white jars were retained for export production.

Keiller was claiming to be the original creator of the Dundee cake by 1929. Dundee cake was the bakery division’s highest selling line, followed by shortbread.

Keiller supplied the King (marmalade) and Queen (chocolate) by royal appointment by 1931.

Keiller gained a licence to produce Toblerone in the UK in 1932.

All Keiller chocolate and confectionery production was centralised at Dundee from 1935, taking the number employed to around 900. In 1947 the Albert Square factory was closed, and production was relocated to new premises in the city at Maryfield.

By 1946 Keiller operation a chain of bakeries around the Dundee area. In 1948 Keiller opened its first retail shop in Blairgowrie, Scotland.

By the 1950s, shortbread was the company’s highest selling export. America, the Middle East and the Far East were the principal overseas markets.

Keiller preserves manufacture was transferred from Silvertown to Dundee in 1952, leaving Silvertown to produce Crosse & Blackwell branded goods.

Crosse & Blackwell was acquired by Nestle of Switzerland in 1960.

Following the takeover of Chocolat Tobler by Associated Biscuits in 1967, Keiller lost the licence to produce Toblerone.

Keiller had been overtaken by Robertson’s of Paisley and Frank Cooper’s of Oxford in marmalade, and by Hartley’s, Chivers and Wilkins in jams by the 1970s.

Keiller was in the top six confectionery manufacturers in Britain in 1980, employing 320 people with a four percent market share. However Keiller began to lose money after a decline in sales and Nestle announced plans to close the factory. Sales were down so badly that the marmalade line only operated a half day a week.

Okhai of Dundee stepped in to acquire the company, with a reduced workforce of 145. Okhai transformed a site that had been losing £2 million a year into one that made an annual profit of £400,000. Export value increased from £500,000 to £4 million a year. 60,000 jars of marmalade were produced every day by 1985, and Okhai was awarded a Queen’s Award for export achievement.

Barker & Dobson acquired Keiller for £4.9 million in 1985. In 1988 B&D sold the Keiller preserves brand to Rank Hovis McDougall, who owned the Robertson’s preserves company, for £4.9 million. The preserves arm had employed a mere 14 staff, and production was relocated to the Robertson site in Manchester.

In 1988 Barker & Dobson sold its confectionery arm to Alma Holdings, the fourth largest confectionery company in Britain, for £40 million. Alma relocated its headquarters to Dundee where it invested £8.5 million to transform the Keiller factory into one of Europe’s most modern confectionery plants. The high cost of borrowing saw Alma enter receivership in 1992. Keiller was the market leader in butterscotch at this time.

The Keiller and Barker & Dobson brands were acquired by Craven of York for £3 million. The company subsequently renamed itself Craven Keiller. It was the third largest sugar confectioner in Britain after Trebor Bassett and Nestle.

Craven Keiller was acquired by Cadbury in 1996, who spun off their sweets arm as Monkhill, which was later acquired by Tangerine Confectionery. The Keiller brand was eventually phased out, and now no confectionery bears the name.

Keiller marmalade is produced by Hain Celestial at Histon, Cambridgeshire, for export only to markets such as America, Australia and New Zealand.

4 thoughts on “Sticky situation: James Keiller & Son”

  1. My Great Grandfather, a certain Webster, was brought down from Dundee to manage the Silverton Branch, before the fire. One of his sons, William A M Webster came to South Africa in the early 19’00s. The family have stayed here ever since.

  2. Apparently my great nan received money from the Keiller company in the early 1900, we believe she was a relative.

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