Crosse & Blackwell grew to become one of the largest food manufacturers in the world. It remains best known for tinned soup in Britain, English-style condiments in America and mayonnaise in South Africa.
Origins of the business
West & Wyatt was established in London in 1706. The firm had a sizable trade in salted fish and held Royal Warrants to supply George III, George IV and William IV.
Edmund Crosse (1804 – 1862) and Thomas Blackwell (1804 – 1879) joined West & Wyatt as apprentices in 1819, and became firm friends. Richard West died in 1824 and William Wyatt retired in 1830. Crosse and Blackwell borrowed £600 and acquired the business. Supposedly, Crosse sourced the ingredients and Blackwell created the recipes. Early products included fish sauce and Soho sauce, an accompaniment to game.
Relocation to Soho Square; mass production begins
Crosse & Blackwell received a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria in 1837. The business grew to employ 21 people. The expanding business relocated from 11 King Street (now Shaftesbury Avenue) to 21 Soho Square in 1839.
Crosse & Blackwell became the first business in the world to mass produce jam from 1841.
Crosse & Blackwell had a capital of £26,000 in 1844. The business 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. Preserved foods were luxury items, aimed at the wealthy.
Crosse & Blackwell opened the first large-scale salmon cannery in the world in Cork, Ireland, in 1849.
Crosse & Blackwell grew due to a rise in luxury food sales, and a steadfast dedication to quality. Standards of freshness and cleanliness were paramount.
Crosse & Blackwell employed 126 people in 1851.
A second Soho Square building was acquired in 1857.
Mushroom ketchup ranked as the firm’s most popular sauce in 1857, with 77,000 litres sold that year. 120,000 tins of sardines were sold in 1859, and 300 tons of sugar were used in jam-making.
Crosse & Blackwell was the leading preserved goods producer in the world by 1860. Nearly one million jars of pickles were produced every year, using over 100,000 gallons of vinegar. 249 people were regularly employed, with hundreds more employed as seasonal workers. A contractor in East Ham employed 400 women to pick and prepare 12,000 bushels of onions every year.
Edmund Crosse died with an estate valued at £140,000 in 1862.
Edmund Meredith Crosse (1846 – 1918) and Thomas Francis Blackwell (1838 – 1907) followed their fathers into the business.
Crosse & Blackwell operated 38,000 square feet of factory and warehouse space in the Soho Square area by 1865. Nearly 400 people were employed.
British trading links with India saw the introduction of products with an Eastern influence such as Major Grey’s Chutney, Colonel Skinner’s Mango Relish and Captain White’s Oriental Pickle.
By 1867 the business used one ton of sugar daily, and annually 240,000 gallons of vinegar. 450 tons of fruit were preserved. 200,000 gallons of pickles were produced.
Continued expansion resulted in premises at Soho Square, Sutton Place, George Yard, Denmark Street, Stacey Street, Dean Street and Earl Street by 1868.
The business was awarded warrants from Emperor Napoleon III of France and the King of Belgium in 1868.
Crosse & Blackwell sold two million bottles of pickles and 800,000 tins of sardines in 1869. The firm imported nearly half a million tins of lobster into England in 1871. The business employed up to 1,000 people during peak periods.
Thomas Francis Blackwell becomes senior partner
Thomas Blackwell Sr died in 1879 with an estate valued at under £160,000. T F Blackwell succeeded his father as senior partner.
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 the largest jam manufacturer in England, using around 3,000 tons of sugar a year by the late 1880s. The firm commenced exports of jam to the United States, despite a 30 percent import tariff.
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.
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). He was regarded as one of the merchant princes of British business; a strong man with high integrity. He continued to work at the company until a few days before his death.
By this time Crosse & Blackwell had established a number of employee benefits, including a savings bank with superior interest rates as well as athletic and recreational clubs.
Read Part II of this history here.