Pott & Co built what was probably the largest vinegar brewery in Britain, and grew to control 25 percent of the market.
Rush family establishment
William Rush (1611 – 1668) began to brew vinegar at Castle Street, Southwark, London, from 1641. The premises had previously belonged to a gardener, who had used the land to rear hogs.
In an age before artificial refrigeration, vinegar was a much more important commodity than it is today, due to its preservative effect on foodstuffs.
A single vessel at the brewery held 50,000 gallons of vinegar by 1790.
Pott family acquisition
The Rush family operated the brewery until 1790 when it was acquired by Robert (died 1824) and Arthur Pott, whose family had brewed vinegar at Mansell Street, Whitechapel since 1720.
Robert and Arthur Pott rebuilt the entire site across five or six acres, to create perhaps the largest vinegar brewery in England by 1795.
Charles Arthur Pott and William Pott (1795 – 1878) were the partners by 1833. The firm was the third largest vinegar brewer in Britain by this time, with 14 percent of the market.
Charles and William Pott held a 25 percent share of the British vinegar market by 1844. The firm held a stock of 746,139 gallons of vinegar that year.
The brewery site covered five acres by 1846.
An examination of vinegars by The Lancet praised the purity of Pott’s vinegar in 1852.
The brewery possessed one of the principal wells of London in 1862.
The business traded as R W C Pott by 1866.
By 1876 the business traded as A W R & N Pott.
By 1884 the business traded as R & N Pott. Robert (1825 – 1894) and Norbury Pott (1838 – 1924), sons of William Pott, controlled the business.
Robert Pott was head of the concern until his death in 1894.
The brewery was operated by Robert Bertram Pott (1861 – 1944), son of Robert Pott, and Norbury Pott by 1900.
The family sold the brewery to Beaufoy & Co, its long-established London rival, in 1902.
Hill Evans operated the largest vinegar brewery in the world by 1881, but the firm is almost forgotten today.
Cowell, Crane & Kilpin established themselves as British Wine manufacturers on Foregate Street, Worcester in the 1760s.
William Hill (1788 – 1859), a Wesleyan Methodist from Stourport, and Edward Evans (1788 – 1871), a Welsh chemist, acquired the firm from Charles Kilpin (1770 – 1845) in 1829.
Hill and Evans branched out into the production of vinegar. It was not only a highly important commodity for its use as preservative in an era before refrigeration, but the process also utilised the waste from the British Wine production.
Hill Evans was the sixth largest brewer of vinegar in Britain, and the largest producer outside of London, by 1844. 153,875 gallons of vinegar were produced in 1848.
Edward Bickerton Evans (1819 – 1893) and Thomas Rowley Hill (1816 – 1896) had joined their fathers in partnership by 1848. It was the two sons, especially Rowley Hill, who provided the impetus and drive for the business to develop scale. Rowley Hill had been barred from Oxbridge due to his Congregationalist faith, and instead received an education at University College, London.
The Hill Evans works held hundreds of thousands of gallons of vinegar stocks by 1852.
An 1852 chemical analysis of Hill Evans vinegar commissioned by The Lancet, a leading medical journal, asserted that the firm used sulphuric acid, a widely exploited adjunct which reduced maturation times. Hill Evans & Co refuted this, challenging the editor to conduct “the most rigid analysis of their vinegar…by chemists of acknowledged reputation”.
Eminent scientists such as Dr Lyon Playfair (1818 – 1898) were afforded free access to the entirety of the Hill Evans site, as well as their brewing records for the last twenty years. The Lancet was subsequently forced to back down in a rare and humiliating defeat, and acknowledged that sulphate of lime, naturally occurring in the local water, had been mistaken for sulphuric acid.
Bickerton Evans and Rowley Hill were the sole proprietors of the firm by 1858. Rowley Hill was a generous benefactor, with a strong work ethic and high integrity. Bickerton Evans was a down-to-earth Baptist. Hill Evans established a reputation as a model employer.
1,048,229 gallons of vinegar were produced in 1858. This had risen to an annual output of two million gallons of vinegar by 1866, and the firm was by far the largest vinegar producer in Britain, employing around 100 people.
Hill Evans was the largest producer of British Wine in Britain, with an annual production of 130,000 gallons in 1868. By this time the firm had established a London depot at Eastcheap.
Continuing growth saw the firm build a small private railway in 1870 to connect it to the Great Western & Midland Railways.
Rowley Hill and Bickerton Evans retired from the firm in 1874, and distributed a bonus of £1,173 among their 118 employees. They were succeeded by Edward Wallace Evans (1847 – 1901), Thomas William Hill (1843 – 1898) and Edward Henry Hill (1849 – 1911).
Edward Wallace Evans was an excellent businessman, and much of the subsequent growth of the firm was credited to him.
Hill Evans was the largest vinegar brewery in the world by 1881, with annual production of two million gallons a year. A single mash tun had a capacity of 12,307 gallons. There were eleven fermenting vats, each with a capacity of 15,000 gallons. A single storage vat with a capacity of 114,821 gallons was the largest vat in the world. All told, the brewery had a storage capacity of 500,000 gallons of vinegar. The brewery held more than 100,000 casks.
Rowley Hill died in 1896. He left a personal estate valued at £170,322.
Hill Evans became a limited company in 1900, with a share capital of £150,000, in order to pay out the share of the company owed to Thomas William Hill, who had recently died. It was probably the largest business of its kind in the United Kingdom. It had an annual capacity of 1.5 million gallons of vinegar production. Edward Henry Hill became chairman.
Lea & Perrins used Hill Evans vinegar to make their Worcestershire sauce, and Charles William Dyson Perrins (1864 – 1958) joined the Hill Evans board of directors.
In later life Wallace Evans suffered from gout in his hands, and on the advice of his doctor, bandaged his hands in cotton wool. After Evans attempted to light a cigar whilst reading a letter, the wool set alight. Evans died from shock as a result of the subsequent burns in 1901. Curiously, he left a relatively modest net personalty of £10,876. The only son of Wallace Evans appears to have played no active part in the business.
The works covered around seven acres by 1907. Exclusively English grain was used for brewing. The company probably still had the largest vinegar brewing capacity in the world.
Edward Henry Hill died in 1911 and left a net personalty of £147,081. A generous benefactor, he died unmarried.
After the founding families ceased to be involved in management, Hill Evans appears to have been milked as a cash cow, with little inward investment.
Increased competition saw the company suffer from reduced profitability in the early 1960s. Hill Evans lacked the scale of its larger rival British Vinegar.
Hill Evans entered voluntary liquidation in 1967, and the vinegar works were closed. Grade II listed, the vinegar works building is now used by the Territorial Army.
Sarson’s is the leading brand of malt vinegar in Britain.
Sarson’s asserts that Thomas Sarson established himself as a vinegar brewer on Craven Street, London, from 1794. I have not been able to independently verify this, but I have no reason to doubt its veracity.
A Mr Sarson was certainly established as a vinegar brewer on Craven Street, City Road, London, by 1822.
Sarson’s “Pure Malt Vinegar” was being advertised in the press by 1842.
James Thomas Sarson (born 1821), vinegar dealer of Brunswick Place, City Road, London was declared bankrupt in 1847.
James Thomas Sarson was described as a vinegar and mustard merchant in 1851. His brother Henry (born 1825) is also described as a vinegar merchant. The business was small-scale at this time.
The business was known as Sarson & Son by 1860.
From 1861 Sarson & Son branded its product as “Virgin Vinegar” to indicate its purity at a time when food adulteration was rife. Most vinegar brewers added sulphuric acid to their product to decrease the necessary fermentation period.
Sarson was advertised as a high quality vinegar. By 1871 it was sold only in capsulated bottles to prevent tampering, and sold through 3,523 outlets.
Henry Sarson employed 20 people, including four carmen, four van boys, three clerks, three women and six salesmen, by 1881. The business was still a relatively modest concern.
Henry Sarson sold his share in the partnership in 1893, leaving his two sons, Henry Logsdail Sarson (1861 – 1918) and Percival Stanley Sarson (1867 – 1951), to manage the business. The brothers converted Sarsons into a private limited company. Percy Sarson was a keen businessman, with a feisty personality.
Over one million gallons of vinegar were brewed in 1913.
Crosse & Blackwell acquired both Sarson’s and Champion & Slee, another large London vinegar brewer, in 1929. The merger brought together the three largest vinegar brewers in the South of England.
The Crosse & Blackwell vinegar interests were merged with those of Distillers and Beaufoy Grimble in 1932 to form British Vinegars with a capital of £450,000.
Over five million gallons (around 23 million litres) of vinegar were brewed in 1950.
The Virgin Vinegar brand name was phased out in the 1950s.
Holbrooks & Co, with a vinegar brewery in Stourport, was acquired in 1954.
A site was acquired from the Co-op at Middleton, Manchester in 1968.
Nestle of Switzerland took full control of British Vinegar in 1979.
The London vinegar brewery was closed in 1991.
The Stourport brewery was closed in 1999 with the loss of 22 jobs. Production was relocated to the larger Middleton site.
Sarson’s vinegar was the leading vinegar brand in Britain by 1999, with around a third of the market.
When Sarson’s was acquired by Premier Foods in 2002, over 5.5 million litres were sold every year.
Mizkan of Japan acquired Sarson’s in 2012.
Sarson’s is made from a 9.5 percent alcohol barley wine that the company brews itself. The vinegar is matured for seven days in huge oak vats.
Slee & Co was founded by Noah Slee at Church Street, Horsleydown, London in 1812. He was soon joined by Josias Slee (1773 – 1829), who emigrated to London from Honiton, Devon.
The firm was owned by John Vickers and Noah Slee from 1823 until 1838.
Vickers & Slee was the fifth largest vinegar brewer in Britain and Ireland by 1832. The firm held about seven percent of the market.
In an age before refrigeration, vinegar was a much more important commodity than it is today, due to its preservative effect on foodstuffs.
The company was owned by Noah Slee, William Payne and Edward Richardson Slee (1815 – 1878) in the 1840s. Payne was a brother-in-law.
Noah Slee was declared bankrupt in 1842, and the business continued as Payne & Slee.
Payne & Slee was the fifth largest vinegar brewer in Britain by 1844.
In the 1850s the company traded as Payne, Slee & Payne, after William Payne Jr joined the business.
By 1861 the company employed 36 people. 49 people were employed by 1871.
The premises were struck by fire in 1874.
Batty & Co, sauce and pickle manufacturers of Finsbury Pavement, was acquired in 1874.
From 1878 the business was run by Cuthbert Britton Slee (1818 – 1900) and Herbert Hutton Slee (1853 – 1933) as Slee, Slee & Co.
Export sales began in earnest, principally to New Zealand, from 1889.
The business became a limited company in 1895.
Batty & Co was sold to Heinz, who wanted a British manufacturing facility, in 1905.
Champion & Co, vinegar brewers of City Road, London was acquired to form Champion & Slee Ltd in 1907. The company had a share capital of £140,000. The takeover was motivated by the scope for economies of scale. The Slee brand was phased out, but all production was relocated to the Slee premises, where there was ample room for expansion.
A large proportion of production was exported to foreign and colonial markets.
In 1929 Champion & Slee was acquired by Crosse & Blackwell, who merged operations with Sarson’s. The Champion brand was phased out in favour of Sarson’s.
Champion & Co was the fourth largest vinegar brewer in Britain and Ireland.
Champion & Co, vinegar brewers of London, was established in 1705. In an age before refrigeration, vinegar was a much more important commodity than it is today, due to its preservative effect on foodstuffs.
William Champion (died 1799) had acquired a brewery on City Road by 1794. He died suddenly whilst serving as Sheriff of London in 1799, and the business was taken over by his son, Thomas Champion (1774 – 1846). The firm was to owe its subsequent growth, both at home and overseas, to the business acumen of Thomas Champion.
From 1813 to 1818 the business was known as Champion & Moore, when a Francis Moore joined in partnership. The premises were burgled in 1814, with £1,000 of valuables stolen. Moore left the partnership in 1818 to establish himself independently.
The business was owned by Thomas Champion and Thomas Green from 1821, and traded as Champion & Green. The firm was manufacturing mustard as well as vinegar by 1830. That year the two men were joined by Guy Champion (1786 – 1846), brother to Thomas, who had previously worked as a merchant in Spain.
Champion & Green was the fourth largest vinegar brewer in Britain and Ireland by 1832, with 13 percent market share.
A fire at the works destroyed the building and stock in 1833. Fortunately the business was insured.
According to Charles James Feret (1854 – 1921), writing in 1900, Guy Champion chanced upon a slave auction whilst in Albania. There he bought a girl, who he brought back to England and married.
Thomas Green had left the business by 1839.
In 1840 the partnership between Guy and Percival Champion, Arthur Mann and William Henry Wright was dissolved. They had been trading under the name Champions, Mann & Wright. The business was transferred to Thomas Champion.
Guy Champion died in 1846. His brother Thomas died suddenly whilst organising the funeral arrangements.
George Willis and William Henry Wright took over the company in the 1840s, but the Champion family continued to hold a stake, and it continued to trade as Champion & Co.
James Bigwood (1839 – 1919) was the head of the firm by 1871. He was a strong advocate of product purity, and was vehemently opposed to food adulteration.
Champion & Co produced well over 1.5 million gallons of vinegar every year by 1872. The firm also produced two tons of mustard per day. The firm employed 170 workers, almost all skilled.
The brewery was extended in 1873.
A new 53,000 gallon vinegar vat was installed in 1883. It took three months to construct from English oak. It joined 46 other similarly-sized vats at the brewery.
There were nearly 200 workmen employed at the brewery by 1883. Many had followed their fathers and grandfathers into the business.
Champion & Co had been registered as a limited liability company by 1887.
The City Road premises was described as “imposing” in 1890. The brewery was capable of producing up to 10,000 bottles of vinegar every day by 1894.
James Bigwood had been joined in the business by his son, James Edward Cecil Bigwood (1863 – 1947) by 1901.
The firm was the oldest established vinegar brewery in London by 1907.
The brewery site, close to the City of London, became highly valuable, and keen to realise its value, James Bigwood and James Edward Cecil Bigwood sold the business to Slee, Slee & Co, a rival vinegar brewer, to form Champion & Slee Ltd in 1907. The company had a share capital of £140,000. Champion production was relocated to the Slee premises at Church Street, Tower Bridge Road, London, where there was ample room for expansion.
A large proportion of production was exported to foreign and colonial markets.
After the First World War, the British vinegar market was suffering from overcapacity. Champion & Slee was acquired, along with rival Sarson’s, by Crosse & Blackwell in 1929.
The Champion vinegar brand continued to be advertised until 1955, after which it appears to have been phased out in favour of the Sarson’s brand.
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 (born 1842) 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 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.
Three giant wooden vats, each capable of holding 140,000 gallons of vinegar, were installed at Stourport in the 1890s. It was claimed that they were the largest vats in the world.
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 low 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 company 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 vinegar brewery was reputed to be one of the most modern in the world, with some of the largest vats in Britain, in 1936.
The home market operations were loss-making by 1939, but the profitability of the overseas businesses enabled Holbrooks to survive.
The Birmingham factory suffered significant bomb damage during the Second World War.
British sales grew in the post-war period. However the South African market suddenly closed in 1948, and two million bottles of Worcestershire sauce had to be redirected to the home market.
A total of over 300 million bottles of Holbrook’s Worcestershire Sauce had been sold over the years by 1951. It’s 27 ingredients included brandy and sherry, and it was cold-brewed over a five year process.
The Birmingham factory was subject to compulsory purchase by the Birmingham Corporation in 1954, and the site was redeveloped. The Stourport brewery produced three million gallons of vinegar a year.
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 brewery in Worcestershire, which latterly had been producing 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.
This is Part II of my history of Crosse & Blackwell. (Links:Part IandPart III).
Crosse & Blackwell employed 2,171 people by 1914, and the first European factory had been opened in Hamburg, Germany. The London vinegar brewery held 91 vats, one of which was capable of holding 115,000 gallons. The company boasted an annual production of one million gallons of pure malt vinegar.
Crosse & Blackwell acquired James Keiller of Dundee, manufacturer of jam and marmalade, and E Lazenby of London, sauce and pickle manufacturers, in 1920. The combine had a capital of £10 million (£390 million in 2013) and fixed assets of £1.6 million. The takeover likely made Crosse & Blackwell the largest packaged food producer in the world, with over 7,000 employees and twelve factories.
Exports were growing and additional capacity was needed. A factory was acquired at Branston near Birmingham at the cost of £1 million (£39 million in 2013) in 1920. Situated on a 150 acre site, it was the largest and best equipped packaged food factory in the British Empire. The factory employed about 1,500 workers, mostly women and girls, although this was expected to expand to a staff of 5,000. Branston Pickle was first produced there in 1922.
As a result of the Branston purchase, the Charing Cross Road factory was sold off in 1921.
Unfortunately production costs at Branston proved higher than in London, as the capital was home to the majority of Crosse & Blackwell customers and provided good access to export markets. The Branston factory was shuttered in 1925 and lay unused until it was sold in 1927 at a large loss.
The debacle saw 5,500 tons of machinery, furniture and stock transferred back to London. Branston production was relocated to the Lazenby factory on Crimscott Street, Bermondsey (which was expanded), and Keiller’s Silvertown factory.
Meanwhile, the merger proved disastrous and the company began to lose money (over £1 million in 1922). An independent review commissioned by the company cited “serious duplication and overlapping in management” and “an embarrassing surplus of expensively equipped factory accommodation”. Furthermore, the company had presumed that the post-war boom would last forever, and had overpaid for raw materials.
This colossal failure left Crosse & Blackwell unable to pay its shareholders a dividend between 1921 and 1927.
Meanwhile, a marmalade and jam factory was established outside Paris in 1925.