Category Archives: Spreads & sauces

Sauce material: an overview of brown sauce

Brown sauce was the last bastion of regionalism in British supermarkets until the re-emergence of local food from the 1990s.

In Britain and Canada, HP is the highest selling brown sauce. In the US, A1 sauce has higher sales. In Ireland, Yorkshire Relish retains popularity. OK sauce remains popular in China. In Japan they have their own brown sauce inspired by the English version called tonkatsu sauce.

The first sauce to gain nationwide distribution in Britain was John Burgess & Son’s Essence of Anchovies, a fish sauce.

The ur-type brown sauce was Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce. We don’t think of it as a brown sauce today, but its ingredients; molasses, vinegar, citrus fruits, tamarind, and its taste; sweet, bitter, savoury, tangy, spicy; undoubtedly informed the earliest brown sauces.

Goodall, Backhouse & Co introduced their Yorkshire Relish in the 1850s. Theirs was a fruitier version of Worcestershire, which removed the anchovy element. From the late nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, its keen pricing ensured that it was the highest selling sauce in the world.

In 1862 Henderson Brand introduced A1, the first thick brown sauce, thus inventing the category as we know it today. The sauce contained tomatoes, raisins and orange marmalade. In 1880 Brand’s nephew George Mason introduced an imitation of A1 called OK, which added more fruit, including dates, apple and mango, and was thicker.

The most successful brown sauce, HP, was a relative latecomer, launched in 1889. It is similar to A1 but thicker, and contains tamarind. Other ingredients in the original recipe include garlic, shallots, ground mace, tomato purée, cayenne pepper, ground ginger, raisins, flour, salt and malt vinegar.

In the 1960s, HP, A1 and OK were all acquired by large conglomerates. HP was already the highest selling brown sauce in Britain by this time. However its acquisition by Imperial Tobacco, one of the largest companies in the world, saw investment in new machinery at its factories and a huge increase in marketing spend. Large competitors including Rank Hovis McDougall and Colman’s could not compete with Imperial’s massive firepower, and one by one HP’s competitors faded away.

As late as the 1970s, brown sauce was highly regionalised, with HP the only national player. Daddies was strong in the South West, Fletcher’s was strong in the West and East Ridings of Yorkshire, while Heinz Ideal Sauce and Hammonds Chop Sauce were strong in the North Riding. OK sauce had a large share of the London market.

But the supermarkets grew in popularity, and reduced their lines. Now we just have HP or Daddies (both owned by Heinz) or low-quality supermarket own label as the only brown sauces. Some supermarkets carry the upmarket Wilkins of Tiptree brown sauce.

Yorkshire Relish: Goodall, Backhouse & Co

Yorkshire Relish was the highest selling bottled sauce in the Victorian era. It was advertised as “the most delicious sauce in the world”.

Robert Goodall (1831-1870) was born in Market Weighton, Yorkshire. He served an apprenticeship to a chemist, and then established a small chemist’s shop on Wade Lane, Leeds from 1853.

Many chemists of the era branched out into consumer goods products, and Goodall began to manufacture Yorkshire Relish from a family recipe. It was thin like Worcestershire sauce, but was fruitier and did not contain anchovies. The success of Yorkshire Relish was driven by its high quality and low price.


Goodall entered into a partnership with two chemists, Henry Backhouse (1829 – 1876), and William Powell (1836-1900), his brother-in-law and former apprentice, to acquire the business of Bell & Brooke, Leeds wholesale chemists, from Thomas Bell (1801 – 1878), who was retiring, in 1858.

The firm, now known as Goodall, Backhouse & Co, moved to Bell & Brooke’s larger premises at 46 Boar Lane. Goodall held 50 percent of the equity in the firm, and Backhouse and Powell held 25 percent each.

Robert Goodall died in 1870, and his stake in the business was inherited by William Powell. The firm relocated from Boar Lane to White Horse Street in 1873, and retail activities were discontinued. The firm developed as pharmaceutical wholesalers and sauce manufacturers. Henry Backhouse died in 1876, leaving William Powell as sole proprietor.

The sauce was popular enough for others to attempt to pass off their own sauce as “Yorkshire Relish” by 1865. Every bottle of Yorkshire Relish was embossed with a willow tree logo to confer authenticity, a process that was established by 1870.

Over 670,000 bottles of Yorkshire Relish were sold in August 1872. Yorkshire Relish holds trademark no. 3,101; it was among the earliest to be registered when trademarks were introduced in 1876.

Goodall, Backhouse & Co operated the largest sauce factory in the world by 1874. The six-floor building was largely mechanised, and powered by steam.

Aided by heavy advertising, eight million bottles of Yorkshire Relish were sold in 1885. Yorkshire Relish even received a recommendation from Charles Perrins (1864 – 1958) of Lea & Perrins.

Goodall Backhouse & Co was involved in a landmark House of Lords legal case against the Birmingham Vinegar Brewery, who had begun to manufacture an imitation product which they branded as “Yorkshire Relish”, in the 1890s. The case ruled that only Goodall, Backhouse & Co could use the name. Powell spent £25,000 in legal fees to defend his trademark rights against other businesses between 1892 and 1900.

Under the astute leadership of William Powell the business became one of the largest sauce manufacturers in the world. There were around 500 employees at the firm by 1900.

Powell died a lifelong bachelor in 1900, and left the firm to two nephews. William Powell Bowman (1862 – 1955) gained a two thirds stake, and Frank Boyce received one third. Bowman had worked at the business since 1877.

The factories occupied some ten acres of floor space by 1907, and the wage bill ran to over £80,000 (£8.5 million in 2015). Thirteen million bottles of Yorkshire Relish were sold each year. It remained the highest selling sauce in the world as late as 1911.

Bowman bought the remaining third of the company from Boyce for £36,000 (around £2.7 million in 2015) in 1916. Bowman was joined by his eldest son, George Edward Bowman (1901 – 1979), from 1921.

The base of Yorkshire Relish consisted of shallots, soy sauce, garlic and malt vinegar. It was flavoured with 27 “Eastern spices” including black pepper. The sauce was matured in wooden vats for at least 14 months and up to three years.

Following the introduction of import tariffs in Ireland in 1933, Charles Ernest Hogg established Goodall’s of Ireland, which produced the sauce for that market under licence.

Goodall, Backhouse & Co became a limited company from 1934, with capital of £125,000 (£8 million in 2015).

A thick version of Yorkshire Relish was introduced from 1935, under the initiative of George Edward Bowman. It was made from apples, tomatoes, dates, tamarinds and spices.

The company was awarded a royal warrant from George V.

The company’s drugs business and properties on White Horse Street in Leeds were spun off as a separate company called “Goodalls (Leeds), Ltd” in 1937. George Edward Bowman remained as a director of the drugs business. The remnant foods business, mostly employed in the manufacture of Yorkshire Relish, had a staff of over 300 people and a works located on Sovereign Street.

George Edward Bowman had taken over as managing director of Goodall, Backhouse & Co by 1947, with William Powell Bowman serving as governing chairman.

William Powell Bowman died in 1955. A reserved man, he never suffered a day of illness in his life until his death.

Goodall Backhouse struggled in the wake of the death of W P Bowman. His successor, George Edward Bowman, was an excellent salesman, but not a natural business manager. Additionally, as W P Bowman had been the sole proprietor of Goodall Backhouse, his death duties were consequently very high.

Goodall, Backhouse & Co was sold to Hammonds Sauce Co of Shipley, Yorkshire in 1959. Hammonds (then, as now) was a largely regional brand, whereas Yorkshire Relish had a national presence and a large export market.

Hammonds was acquired by Pillsbury in 1982, who closed the Leeds factory in 1985 and relocated all Hammonds production to a new £1 million factory in Bradford. Pillsbury was acquired by Grand Metropolitan in 1988 who sold Pillsbury UK to Dalgety in 1991. Later that year Hammonds was acquired by Albert Fisher for £12 million. Goodall, Backhouse & Co was liquidated in 1990. Hammonds had an annual turnover of £11 million in 1990.

Yorkshire Relish was available in thin, thick, spicy and fruity varieties by 1994.

Hammonds relaunched Yorkshire Relish in 1996, however by this time only the thick version was available. Due to low sales, production had been discontinued by 2001.

Hammonds was acquired by Unigate in 1999. The Bradford factory was closed in 2002 and production of Hammonds sauces was relocated to a former vinegar brewery in Lancashire.

When the Bradford factory was being demolished, a collection of papers relating to Goodall, Backhouse & Co were found hidden in the roof wall. Included was a handwritten recipe for Yorkshire Relish and the will of William Powell. The archive was sold at auction and purchased by a member of the Bowman family.

Hammonds is currently owned by McCormick, the American seasoning giant. McCormick also own the rights to the Yorkshire Relish trademark.

Yorkshire Relish is still produced by Robert Roberts in Ireland. The product has a base of vinegar, sugar and soy sauce.

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

This is Part III of my history of Crosse & Blackwell. (Links to Part I  and Part II.

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 English style sauces, pickles and chutneys. In South Africa it is the highest-selling brand of mayonnaise.

Exports to North America were sufficient for Crosse & Blackwell to establish factories in Toronto, Canada and Baltimore, United States, in 1927.

The Toronto factory cost £200,000 and employed 1,500 people.

The Baltimore plant cost US$1.5 million, covered five acres, and also employed around 1,500 people. Baltimore was chosen for its strong transport links.

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.

Crosse & Blackwell operated factories in Baltimore, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Paris and Hamburg. Company assets were valued at over £6 million in 1930.

The onset of the Great Depression took its toll on Crosse & Blackwell, as so much of its trade was to hard-hit overseas markets. Export sales consequently 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. However Crosse & Blackwell redirected its focus from condiments to foodstuffs in the 1930s. The company manufactured 50 million cans of food a year by 1936.

With sites at Peterhead, Dundee and Paisley, Crosse & Blackwell employed 3,000 people in Scotland by 1949.

A factory was established in South Africa in 1951.

Crosse & Blackwell introduced the “10 o’clock tested” slogan in the 1950s. 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.

A vinegar brewery in Stourport was acquired from Holbrooks of Birmingham for £100,000 in 1954.

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 the company had been decisively defeated by its American rival Heinz on its home turf by 1959. Heinz held 60 percent of the British soup market, double the share of Crosse & Blackwell.

Only one Blackwell remained on the board of directors by 1959, and a Crosse was among the company executives.

Crosse & Blackwell employed 450 people in America in 1960.

By 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.

Nestle of Switzerland acquired Crosse & Blackwell for £11.3 million (£227 million in 2013) in 1960. Nestle was the largest food company in Europe.

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 Crosse & Blackwell had fallen to a distant third in the British soup market, with a 14 percent share.

Nestle invested in the Peterhead plant to make it the largest Crosse & Blackwell canning factory by 1969. The site covered nearly ten acres and employed a staff of around 1,000.

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.

The Baltimore plant became outdated and unprofitable, and it was closed by Nestle in 1972. About 350 jobs were lost.

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 introduce own-label offerings. Crosse & Blackwell’s share of the soup market fell by almost two thirds between 1979 and 1986. A company-wide meeting was called to discuss the alarming fall in sales in 1982. Crosse & Blackwell accounted for less than ten percent of soup sales by 1985, and had been de-listed by some supermarket chains.

The acquisition of Crosse & Blackwell was identified as a singular misstep for Nestle, a company that had 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, an admission that the brand could no longer command a premium price among consumers.

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 with the loss of 500 jobs in 1985. 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 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.

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

Crosse & Blackwell, along with Fray Bentos, was sold to Princes Foods of Liverpool in 2011 for £182 million.

The Branston Pickle and Sarsons vinegar operations were sold seperately to Mizkan Foods of Japan in 2012. Branston Pickle and its factory in Bury St Edmunds were valued at £92.5 million, and Sarsons was valued at £41 million. Due to the change in ownership, Branston Pickle no longer carries the Crosse & Blackwell name.

Tiger Brands acquired the South African operations of Crosse & Blackwell from Nestle in 2012.

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 (1805 – 1893) introduced A1 sauce from 1862. He employed two nephews, George and John Mason, who established a small factory of their own at King’s Road in Chelsea from 1880. 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. 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 1920 in order to cope with increasing demand for OK Sauce.

Ownership of George Mason & Co was divided fairly evenly between the Cooper and Ripley families from 1920. Percy Cooper’s son Rex 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 was appointed as the new 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.

Reckitt & Colman 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 was appointed managing director in 1965. Rex died the next 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.

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 may be found in large Chinese supermarkets and wholesalers 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.

As of 2019 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.

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 English style sauces, pickles and chutneys. 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 (1810 – 1858) and Charles Elmé Francatelli (1805 – 1876), 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 rise in luxury food sales, and a steadfast dedication to quality. Standard practice among food producers at the time, pickle manufacturers boiled their vegetables in copper vessels in order to bestow a “fresh” green hue to their product. Esteemed medical journal The Lancet revealed that this was harmful to human health in 1851. 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, but the firm’s dedication to consumer health was proven.

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 were 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. The firm employed nearly 400 people by 1867. The business was awarded warrants from Emperor Napoleon III of France and the King of Belgium in 1868.

Continued expansion resulted in premises at Soho Square, Sutton Place, George Yard, Denmark Street, Stacey Street, Dean Street and Earl Street by 1868.

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 was described as “probably the largest employer of labour in London” in 1887.

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

About one million gallons of vinegar were produced every year by 1893.

Crosse & Blackwell added glucose to some of its jams, citing public demand, from 1894. 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).

Despite suffering from heavy import duties, Crosse & Blackwell had developed a leading reputation and taken a significant share of the United States jam market by 1913.

Read Part II of this history here.


A1: a history of Brand & Co

Brand & Co was a major food producer in Britain. Brand’s Essence of Chicken remains a major health supplement in Asia, and Brand’s A1 is one of the highest-selling English-style brown sauces in the world. How did this company become almost entirely forgotten in its native country?

Henderson William Brand
Henderson William Brand (1805 – 1893) was born in Durham, North East England, the son of Thomas Brand, an innkeeper and brewer.

We can almost certainly surmise that the young Henderson Brand worked in his father’s kitchen, and it seems plausible to suggest that he possessed a precocious culinary talent that soon became evident, because by the age of twelve he was employed in the kitchen of the Prince Regent  (1762 – 1830) as “under cook”.

The Prince Regent was a confirmed gastronome who had previously employed Marie-Antoine Careme (1784 – 1833), the founder of modern haute cuisine, and one of the greatest chefs of his era. Brand thus had an excellent opportunity to develop his culinary repertoire in one of the greatest kitchens in Europe.

The Prince Regent became King George IV from 1820. Brand was promoted to “Yeoman of the Mouth”, a position akin to that of sous chef, from 1822.

Brand was appointed head chef to Thomas William Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester (1754 – 1842) from 1826. Coke was a charismatic man, and regularly held large dinner parties to discuss his agricultural improvements. His magnificently-equipped kitchen at Holkham Hall in Norfolk boasted a fireplace large enough to roast an ox.

Brand published an updated version of Simpson’s Cookery, a popular cookbook, in 1834.

Brand established a factory/shop on 11 Little Stanhope Street in Mayfair, London from 1835. His first product was Essence of Chicken, using a recipe he had allegedly developed for the convalescent king. It was manufactured 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.

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 business was acquired by a Mr Withall.

A bottle of A1 sauce, manufactured in Britain for export to Singapore (2018)

H.W. Brand
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 in London. 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. A1 sauce was in use by the Royal household by 1868, and it was in use at the House of Lords and the House of Commons by 1879. H.W. Brand had been acquired by Brand & Co by 1886.

Dence & Mason take over 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. He was joined in partnership by John James Mason (1833 – 1896), who managed the business.

Mason was to prove instrumental in improving the range of foods for convalescents at Brand & Co.

The Mayfair site was to prove too small for the expanding business, and a new factory was opened at South Lambeth, Vauxhall in 1887.

Henderson William Brand died in 1893, a sadly forgotten figure who received no newspaper obituaries.

Sales of A1 were such that Brand & Co struggled to meet demand, and so the business never actively sought out export markets. Gilbert Heublein (1849 – 1937), a German-born spirits distributor resident in Connecticut, was impressed by A1 sauce following a visit to England. After much effort he acquired the exclusive United States distribution rights to A1 sauce from 1894.

A Heublein advertisement claimed that A1 held over 50 percent of the British bottled sauce market in 1895. It was described as a milder version of Worcestershire sauce.

John James Mason died in 1896 with an estate valued at £151,811.

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

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

Brand’s Essence of Chicken (2015)

Brand & Co was established as a private limited company to acquire the business from the partnership in 1907. The company continued to be managed by the children, and later grandchildren, of Mason and Dence.

Brand & Co struggled to meet increasing consumer demand, and Heublein established a factory to produce A1 sauce in Connecticut from 1916.

Thomas Dence died as a highly wealthy man in 1918, with an estate valued at over £917,672.

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.

Public offering
Brand & Co became a public company from 1949. The business employed 650 people, and the site in Vauxhall occupied 2.5 acres. Brand’s Essence and A1 Sauce remained the principal products. 26 percent of production was exported.

A1 sauce sold in Canada in 1956 listed its ingredients as tomato puree, orange marmalade, raisins, onions, garlic, malt vinegar, sugar, salt, tragacanth (an emulsifier and thickening agent), spices and flavourings.

Brand & Co was acquired by Cerebos for £4.1 million in 1959. Cerebos produced a range of well-known packaged food brands including Bisto, Paxo, Scott’s Porage Oats and Saxa salt.

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

The British A1 sauce bottle label indicated that it contained “aromatic herbs from Old World gardens, rare spices from the Far East and sun-ripened fruits from the orchards of the world”.

A1 sauce was manufactured in Canada and South Africa by 1963, as well as Britain and the United States.

The Vauxhall factory was closed in 1967, and the valuable site was sold for £900,000. Brand & Co production was relocated to the Cerebos plant in Greatham, County Durham. Sales of Brand’s tinned soups were growing, and the Greatham site offered ample space for expansion.

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

An American bottle of A1 sauce (2016)

It is believed that sales of A1 Sauce were discontinued in Britain sometime between the late 1970s and the early 1980s. The sauce had been usurped by more popular rivals such as HP, Daddies and OK sauce.

Present day
Brand’s Essence of Chicken remains popular in Asia, where it is valued for its restorative properties, and reports annual sales of around £330 million as of 2018. A1 sauce remains popular in the United States and Canada.

Premier Foods, the successor to RHM, still manufacture A1 sauce in England for export to Asian and European markets. English-made A1 sauce contains tomatoes, malt vinegar, spirit vinegar, sugar, dates, salt, carob gum (a thickening agent), ginger, caramel colouring, onion powder, nutmeg, black pepper and cayenne pepper.

American-made A1 sauce contains tomato puree, spirit vinegar, corn syrup, raisin paste, crushed orange puree, mixed spices, garlic powder, caramel colouring, onion powder, potassium sorbate (a preservative), xanthum gum (a thickening agent) and celery seeds.

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 Tesco supermarkets in the UK (£5.50). It pairs well with beef, especially 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.”

Gilbert Heublein (1849 – 1937), a German-born spirits distributor resident in Connecticut, visited England and encountered A1 sauce. He was impressed, and after much effort he acquired the exclusive US distribution rights to A1 sauce from 1894. He gained the US production rights from 1916.

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.