In a pickle: Holbrook’s of Birmingham

Holbrook’s was the highest-selling Worcestershire sauce in the world. It still holds the majority of the Worcestershire sauce market in Australia.

The English Midlands was rapidly displacing London as the centre of the British malting and brewing industry by the 1860s.

John Leslie Tompson (1841 – 1901) established Tompson & Co, vinegar brewers of Ashted Row, Birmingham in 1868 with financial capital provided by his father, John Tompson (born 1812) a wealthy maltster .

William Daniel Holbrook was appointed as manager of the Manchester sales branch in 1874. Tompson & Co began to manufacture pickles and sauces, such as Worcestershire, from 1875. Holbrook enjoyed a strong reputation in the trade, and the company branded these new products under his name.

Frederic Carne Rasch (1847 – 1914) entered the company as an investor in 1875, with a capital of £10,000. A vinegar brewery was acquired in Stourport, Worcestershire in 1876.

John Tompson retired in 1878, and left the business in the control of John Leslie Tompson and Carne Rasch.

The business was converted into a limited liability company called the Birmingham Vinegar Brewery in 1879. It had a nominal capital of £100,000. John Leslie Tompson was appointed as managing director.

A considerable export trade had been developed in Australia by the 1880s.

Private correspondence reveals that Carne Rasch later came to distrust J L Tompson as a swindler. Due to a series of unfortunate personal investments, Tompson was declared bankrupt in 1884.

Ten million bottles of Holbrook’s Worcestershire sauce were sold in 1888. Advertising claimed that sales were high because, “it is the best and cheapest”. It sold for around half the price of the Lea & Perrins product.

The Birmingham Vinegar Brewery had a capital of £150,000 by 1897. It was the second largest vinegar manufacturer in the world. An American subsidiary was established with a share capital of £100,000 in 1898.

Over 5.5 million bottles of Holbrook’s Worcestershire sauce were sold every year by 1898. It was the leading brand of Worcestershire sauce in South Africa and Australasia. Due to its strong export market and lower price, Holbrook’s was the highest selling Worcestershire sauce in the world by this point.

The name of the company was changed to Holbrooks, Limited in 1900. Worcestershire sauce was by far their most important product, although they also produced vinegar and pickles. There were factories in Birmingham and Southport, Worcestershire. The firm enjoyed a large export market.

John Leslie Tompson died in 1901 due to an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.

Holbrooks Ltd was the largest brewer of vinegar in the United Kingdom in 1906.

Holbrooks Ltd had an authorized capital of £170,000 in 1913. The company had 600 employees in 1914.

Holbrooks established a factory in Sydney, Australia in 1920. Sited on three acres, it was the largest Worcestershire sauce factory in the British Empire. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of Worcestershire sauce were stored for maturation at any one time. Several hundred workers were permanently employed. The site included its own vinegar brewery and glass bottle factory.

In 1932 Holbrooks advertising claimed that it took three years to produce their Worcestershire sauce.

The Stourport brewery contained vinegar vats that were among the largest in the world by 1935.

The Holbrooks factory in Ashted suffered bomb damage during the Second World War.

By 1951 a total of over 300 million bottles of Holbrook’s Worcestershire Sauce had been sold over the years. It’s 27 ingredients included brandy and sherry, and it was cold-brewed over a five year process.

A cash-flow shortage forced Holbrooks to sell its loss-making UK business to British Vinegars (a joint venture between Crosse & Blackwell and Distillers) for £100,000 in 1954. Under the name of Sauce Holdings, Limited, Holbrooks would continue to operate its profitable Australian and South African subsidiaries independently.

Reckitt & Colman acquired the Australian and South African subsidiaries of Holbrooks for £422,000 in 1955. The deal also included the rights to the brand outside of the UK and Europe.

Reckitt & Colman extended and improved the Australian factory in 1957.

Goodman Fielder acquired the Holbrooks business from Reckitt & Colman in 1998.

The Stourport factory in Worcestershire, which latterly had been brewing Sarson’s vinegar, was closed in 2005.

The Holbrooks brand is no longer in use in Britain, but the trademarks are owned by Premier Foods.

The brand is still going strong in Australia, and remains available in South Africa.

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