Category Archives: Spreads & sauces

A tinned history of Crosse & Blackwell (1927 – present)

Part I and Part II of this history.

Crosse & Blackwell established factories in Toronto, Canada and Baltimore, United States, in 1927 with a view to becoming a mass producer in North America. The Toronto factory cost £200,000 and employed 1,500.

Crosse & Blackwell claimed the largest number of product lines of any food manufacturer in the world in 1928.

Sarsons and Champion & Slee were acquired by Crosse & Blackwell in 1928. The acquisition brought together the three largest vinegar producers in the South of England.

The Morrison’s Quay production site in Cork, Ireland, was divested in 1930.

In 1930 company assets were valued at over £6 million and the company had factories in Baltimore, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Toronto and Paris, as well as the original Hamburg site.

The Great Depression hit Crosse & Blackwell especially hard, as so much of its trade was to overseas markets. Export sales declined by 50 percent.

Crosse & Blackwell (Canada) was divested for $800,000 in 1932.

Branston Pickle was the highest selling pickle in the world by 1934. Despite this, the 1930s saw Crosse & Blackwell redirect its focus from condiments to foodstuffs. The company manufactured 50 million cans of food a year by 1936.

By 1949 Crosse & Blackwell employed 3,000 people across its factories in Scotland alone, with sites at Peterhead, Dundee and Paisley.

A factory was established in South Africa in 1951.

In the 1950s the company introduced the “10 o’clock tested” slogan. This referred to the time at C&B factories when products would be taste-tested for quality.

Production of Crosse & Blackwell jam had been outsourced to William Moorhouse of Leeds by the 1950s.

British Vinegars acquired the British assets of Holbrooks of Birmingham for £100,000 in 1954. This included a vinegar brewery in Stourport and a factory in Birmingham.

United States sales amounted to $14 million in 1958, with 150 Crosse & Blackwell products, and 35 Keiller lines.

Crosse & Blackwell had concentrated its focus onto soups, but by 1959 it had been decisively defeated by its American rival Heinz on its home turf. Heinz held 60 percent of the soup market, double the share of Crosse & Blackwell.

By 1959 only one Blackwell remained on the board and a Crosse was among the company executives.

Nestle of Switzerland acquired Crosse & Blackwell for £11.3 million (£227 million in 2013) in 1960. Crosse & Blackwell was the largest canner of fish in Britain, and had six factories in Britain and five overseas. The company held one third of the British pickle market, and a ten percent share in baked beans.

Crosse & Blackwell employed 450 people in America in 1960.

Nestle baulked at the luxury of the Soho Square premises, and relocated the head office to Nestle headquarters at St George’s House, Croydon in 1965.

A factory was opened at Staverton in Wiltshire to cater for the rising demand for baked beans and tinned pasta in 1967.

The condensed soup market was abandoned by 1966, and by 1968 C&B had fallen to a distant third in the British soup market, with a 14 percent share.

In 1969, the main Crosse & Blackwell products in Britain were soups, baked beans, spaghetti rings, snack meals, pickles, salad cream, tomato sauce and Keiller jams, marmalade and boiled sweets.

Nestle closed the unprofitable Baltimore plant in 1972.

Nestle had managed to build Crosse & Blackwell’s market share in the British soup market to 27 percent by 1973. This was followed by disaster, as supermarkets began to rationalise their product lines and introduced own-label offerings. Between 1979 and 1986, C&B’s share of the soup market fell by almost two thirds. In 1982 a company-wide meeting was called to discuss the alarming fall in sales. By 1985 C&B accounted for less than ten percent of soup sales, and had been de-listed by some supermarket chains.

Crosse & Blackwell was identified as a singular misstep for Nestle, a company that had a well-regarded management. A 1976 study in the Harvard Business Review commented, “[Nestle] is by no means flawless in its market moves – for instance, the company probably regrets its acquisition years ago of Crosse & Blackwell.” In the same article, the chairman of Nestle described Crosse & Blackwell soups as a commodity business.

Nestle sold the loss-making Keiller preserve and confectionery works in Dundee to a local company in 1981. The loss-making former Keiller factory at Silvertown, London, was closed in 1985 with the loss of 500 jobs. Pickle manufacture was transferred to Peterhead.

Crosse & Blackwell focused mainly on soup, Branston pickle and sauces, and Waistline salad cream by 1982.

Crosse & Blackwell found itself unable to compete with Heinz and was squeezed at the lower end of the market by supermarket own-label products. In 1994 Nestle announced that it would close two canning operations at its Peterhead and Staverton sites, while a cold sauce factory in Milnthorpe would be closed, resulting in the loss of 515 jobs. All three operations had been unprofitable for some time. Nestle cited cheap supermarket own brand products for the closures. The tomato ketchup and standard salad cream lines were withdrawn.

The CEO of Nestle admitted to a defeat by Heinz in the British soup market in 1996.

In 1998 Nestle closed the remaining operations at the Peterhead plant, with the loss of 170 jobs, and transferred operations to Hadfield in Manchester, citing lower transport costs.

In 2002 Nestle sold the remaining British operations (principally Branston Pickle and Sarsons vinegar) to Premier Foods and the American operations were sold to J M Smucker in 2004.

C&B, along with Fray Bentos, was sold to Princes Foods of Liverpool in 2011 for £182 million. In 2012, Branston Pickle and Sarsons vinegar were sold by Premier to Mizkan Foods of Japan. Branston Pickle and its factory in Bury St Edmunds were valued at £92.5 million, and Sarsons was valued at £41 million. The sale meant that Branston Pickle no longer carries the Crosse & Blackwell name.

Also in 2012, Tiger Brands acquired Crosse & Blackwell’s South Africa operations from Nestle.

It’ll all be OK: George Mason & Co

OK was the highest selling brown sauce in London as late as the 1970s. Today, it is only produced for the Chinese market.

Henderson Brand introduced A1 sauce in 1862. He employed two nephews, George and John Mason, who in 1880 established a small factory of their own at King’s Road in Chelsea. Their first products, OK sauce and beef and chicken extracts, were direct imitations of Brand products.

Shortly afterwards, John left the company to leave George on his own. George Mason took on investors to form a private limited company called George Mason & Co in 1884. Mason evidently lacked managerial skills, and was forced to resign his directorship in 1891.

The following year, Percy Cooper was appointed general manager, and three years later was promoted to Manager and Secretary. Cooper decided to focus production and marketing efforts upon OK sauce.

The lease on the Chelsea factory expired in 1896, and a new contract was taken at a larger premises at St George’s Hall in Walham Green, Fulham. The new factory was named the Chelsea Works.

OK won the only gold medal for sauce at the Festival of Empire exhibition in 1911. 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 in Wandsworth in 1920 in order to cope with increasing demand for OK sauce.

From 1920 ownership of the company was divided fairly evenly between the Cooper and Ripley families. In 1925 Percy Cooper’s son Rex was appointed as general manager.

OK Sauce used no cereal-based thickening agent, artificial colouring or added chemical preservatives.

In 1928 both factories were closed and production centred on 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.

In 1929 the sauce contained raisins, cane sugar, mangoes, ginger, bell peppers, mace, nutmeg, cloves, British herbs, cinnamon, shallots, malt vinegar, garlic, lemons, oranges and tomato purée. 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 refrigeration.

Percy Cooper died suddenly in 1931, and Rex Cooper was appointed as the new managing director.

In the early 1930s distribution of OK sauce was mainly limited to Southern England and South Wales. In 1936 a dedicated northern sales team was established to boost sales nationwide.

Wartime restrictions meant that by 1945 only OK sauce, mustard, Worcester sauce and fruit chutney were produced.

In 1960 OK sauce sales surpassed £1 million for the first time (about £21 million in 2015).

Reckitt & Colman were keen to enter the thick sauce market, and in 1964 acquired George Mason for £826,575 (equivalent to £14.5 million in 2013). Rex Cooper joined the Colman’s board of directors.

Rex’s son Brian was appointed managing director in 1965. Rex died the next year, leaving £77,514 (£1.3 million in 2013).

The Southfields factory was closed in 1969 with the loss of 150 jobs. Colman’s explained that Mason’s had “long since outgrown” the London factory, and relocated production to Norwich.

By 1969 caramel and colouring concentrates were added to OK sauce for colouring, and gum tragacanth and manucol ester were added for appearance.

As late as 1970 the brown sauce market in Britain was highly regional, and OK claimed the largest share of the London market.

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, and it was discontinued in the UK market a very long time ago.

OK sauce may be found in large Chinese supermarkets in the UK. It retains its original packaging but with the addition of Chinese lettering. The label states that the sauce is manufactured in Great Britain by Colman’s of Norwich.

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 highly recommend it as an accompaniment to bacon or sausage. Chinese restaurants use it with shredded beef, shredded chicken and spare ribs.

A tinned history of Crosse & Blackwell (1706 – 1914)

The Crosse & Blackwell brand rights are owned by various companies across the world. The brand is most closely associated with tinned soup in Britain. In America it is a specialist purveyor of pickles, chutneys and Christmas puddings. In South Africa it is the highest-selling brand of mayonnaise.

West & Wyatt was established in London in 1706. The firm had a sizeable trade in salted fish and held Royal appointments to George III, George IV and William IV.

Edmund Crosse (1804 – 1862) and Thomas Blackwell (1804 – 1880) joined West & Wyatt as apprentices in 1819. The two men soon struck up a strong friendship. Richard West had died in 1824, and upon the retirement of William Wyatt in 1830, Crosse and Blackwell borrowed £600 from their families to acquire the business.

Supposedly, Crosse sourced the ingredients and Blackwell created the recipes. There were 15 employees in 1835.

Under the name Crosse & Blackwell, the company gained a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria in 1837. The following year there were 21 employees. The expanding business relocated from 11 King Street (now Shaftesbury Avenue) to 21 Soho Square in 1839.

Crosse & Blackwell became the first company in the world to mass produce jam from 1841. Previously jams had been made by local confectioners and private households.

Crosse & Blackwell had capital of £26,000 in 1844. The firm had a particularly successful export trade, and produced 75 different sauces and pickles and 25 varieties of soup, as well as potted meats, jams and honey. At this stage these were luxury foods, not the commodity goods that preserves would later become.

Crosse and Blackwell enlisted the two most famous celebrity chefs of the era, Alexis Soyer and Charles Elmé Francatelli, to create recipes for them. Soyer branded sauces were sold with the chef’s face on the label. With Soyer, Crosse and Blackwell introduced the world’s first commercial brown sauce in 1848.

Crosse & Blackwell opened the first large-scale salmon cannery in the world in Cork, Ireland, in 1849.

The firm grew due to a dedication to quality, as well as a rise in luxury food sales. At the time, pickle manufacturers boiled their vegetables in copper vessels in order to give the product a green colour. In 1851 The Lancet discovered that this was harmful to human health. Crosse & Blackwell led the way in the changeover from copper to enamelled iron vessels. C&B pickles subsequently appeared less appealing than those of their competitors, and sales initially suffered.

Crosse & Blackwell employed 126 people in 1851. A second Soho Square building was acquired in 1857.

Mushroom catsup (ketchup) ranked as the firm’s most popular sauce in 1857, with 17,000 gallons sold that year. 120,000 tins of sardines were sold in 1859.

Crosse & Blackwell was the leading preserved goods producer in the world by 1860. Nearly one million jars of pickles were produced every year. 249 people were regularly employed, with hundreds more employed as seasonal workers. Over 100,000 gallons of vinegar was used every year. A contractor in East Ham employed 400 women to pick and prepare 12,000 bushels of onions every year.

Edmund Crosse died in 1862 with an estate valued at £140,000.

Crosse & Blackwell operated 38,000 square feet of factory and warehouse space in the Soho Square area by 1865. By 1867 the firm employed nearly 400 people. In 1868 the business was awarded warrants from Emperor Napoleon III of France and the King of Belgium.

By 1868 Crosse & Blackwell had premises in Soho Square, Sutton Place, George Yard, Denmark Street, Stacey Street, Dean Street and Earl Street.

In 1869, two million bottles of pickles were sold. 562 tons of English fruit, and over 500 tons of sugar were used to make preserves and jams. 800,000 tins of sardines were sold.

By 1870, depending on the season, between 600 and 1,000 people were employed by Crosse & Blackwell. Standards of freshness and cleanliness were paramount. The firm also had a reputation as a good employer.

In the 1870s, the partner’s sons joined the business, Edmund Meredith Crosse (1846 – 1918) and Thomas Francis Blackwell (1838 – 1907). In 1880 T F Blackwell became the senior partner upon the death of his father.

In 1880 around 1,200 people were regularly employed, around 400 to 500 of which were women. That year, 20,000 bushels of onions were pickled. The firm’s brewery produced 500,000 gallons of vinegar each year. 60,000 bottles of pickles were produced every week. Over one million tins of soup were sold annually; turtle, mock turtle and oxtail were among the most popular variants.

Crosse & Blackwell became a limited liability company with a capital of £570,000 in 1892. T F Blackwell was appointed company chairman.

From 1894, the company added glucose to its jams, citing public demand. Jams were produced at Soho Square. Raspberries and strawberries were sourced from Kent, and greengages, damsons and plums came mostly from Cambridgeshire.

Crosse & Blackwell was one of the largest food manufacturers in the world by 1898. The company employed around 2,000 people, mostly unskilled labourers. There were factories at Soho Square; Charing Cross Road; Soho Wharf in Lambeth, Victoria Wharf at Millwall, a vinegar brewery on the Caledonian Road, a lemon squeezing factory at Vauxhall and a branch factory in Cork, Ireland.

T F Blackwell died in 1907, leaving an estate of £979,659 (£103 million in 2013).


A1: a history of Brand & Co

Brand’s Essence of Chicken sells 400 million bottles a year in Asia. Brand’s A1 is the highest selling brown sauce in the United States.

Henderson William Brand (1805 – 1893) was born in Durham in the North East of England.

Brand worked in the kitchen of King George IV (1762 – 1830) before being appointed head chef to Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester (1754 – 1842).

From 1833 Brand was a writer of popular cookbooks.

Brand established a factory/shop on 11 Little Stanhope Street in Mayfair, London in 1835. His first product was Essence of Chicken. It was produced by heating chopped meat inside a pot until it separated into fat, fibre and “liquid essence”, a clear amber liquid. It was recommended as a substitute for brandy in relieving exhaustion and nervous ailments. Brand had allegedly developed the product for the convalescent king.

Shortly afterwards, Brand introduced Essence of Beef at the request of a Dr Druitt.

Evidently a better chef than a businessman, Brand was declared bankrupt in 1843 and the company was acquired by a Mr Withall.

Henderson Brand re-emerged on his own, trading as “H.W. Brand” from 1858. He was appointed Cook and Co-Manager of the Cuisine at the 1862 International Exhibition. It was at the Exhibition that he first introduced “Brand’s International Sauce”. At the Exhibition it was ranked “A1”, and thus became known by this name. By 1868 A1 sauce was in use by the Royal household, and by 1879 it was in use at the House of Lords and the House of Commons. By 1886 the business had been acquired by Brand & Co.

Withall sold Brand & Co to Thomas Dence (1840 – 1918) for £5,000 in 1873. Dence was born in London to a Kentish grocer. Dence was joined in partnership by John James Mason (1833 – 1896), who managed the business.

The Mayfair factory proved too small for the expanding company, and a new factory was opened in South Lambeth in Vauxhall in 1887.

Brand & Co products received royal warrants from Edward VII, George VI, the Tsarina of Russia and the Empress of Germany.

Gilbert Heublein (1849 – 1937), a German-born spirits distributor based in Connecticut, visited England and encountered A1 sauce. Impressed, he acquired the exclusive US distribution rights from 1906.

By 1906 Brand & Co had 200 employees, about 80 of which were women. Facilities for the staff were excellent, with a canteen, a smoking room and a club room. The company processed about six tons of meat every day.

Brand & Co Ltd was formed to acquire the business from the partnership in 1907. The company continued to be run by the children, and later grandchildren, of Mason and Dence.

When Thomas Dence died in 1918, his estate was valued at over £916,000.

Brand’s Essence remained the best known product in 1923. Brand & Co used no artificial preservatives. A1 sauce contained vinegar, Eastern spices, and dried fruits including raisins, sultanas, dates, oranges and tomatoes.

Brand & Co went public in 1949. By this time Brand & Co had 650 employees, and the site in Vauxhall occupied 2.5 acres and 123,000 square feet of factory and office space. Net assets, excluding goodwill, amounted to £452,000. Brand’s Essence and A1 Sauce remained the principal products. 26 percent of production was exported.

Brand was acquired by Cerebos for £4.1 million in 1959. Cerebos owned well-known consumer goods brands such as Bisto, Paxo, Scott’s Porage Oats and Saxa salt.

Sales of Brand’s Essence of Chicken had been successfully established in Asia by 1961.

Manufacture of A1 sauce began in South Africa from 1963, and was already underway in Canada. The Vauxhall factory was closed in 1967 and production was relocated to Greatham in County Durham.

Cerebos was acquired by Rank Hovis McDougall for £61 million in 1968. That same year, Brand & Co won a Queen’s Award for Industry for export achievement.

Sometime between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, availability of A1 Sauce was discontinued in Britain. The sauce had been displaced by later rivals such as HP, Daddies and OK sauce.

A1 Sauce is still highly popular in the US and Canada, and Brand’s Essence of Chicken sells in the region of 400 million bottles a year in Asia, where it is valued for its restorative properties.

Why can’t you get A1 sauce in the UK?

The leading brown sauce in Britain is HP. The leading brown sauce in the US is A1.

Broadly speaking, A1 is a cross between HP Sauce and Worcestershire Sauce. HP is sharper and thicker, whereas A1 is a little more fruity. You can find the imported American sauce in larger Tescos in the UK (£5.50). It is an excellent accompaniment to beef, and goes well in casseroles and meatloaf.

A1 is a British invention, introduced by Henderson William Brand in 1862, when he was co-manager of the cuisine at the International Exhibition in Hyde Park. He submitted the sauce before the Royal Commission for use in the Exhibition’s restaurants. The Chief Commissioner reportedly declared the sauce to be “A.1.”

The A1 name as applied to sauce was first trademarked in Britain in April 1890. The trademark was first registered in the US in June 1895. It was initially distributed in the US by Del Monte, until Heublein acquired the rights in 1906. Heublein later gained production rights as well.

A1 was phased out in Britain in the 1970s, forced out of a crowded brown sauce market which included HP, Daddies and supermarket own-label nationally, as well as OK, Heinz Ideal, Hammonds and Fletcher’s Tiger Sauce at a regional level.

The brand is currently owned by Kraft in the US. In Britain, the trademark is currently owned by the British food giant Premier Foods, who acquired the former owner Rank Hovis McDougall.