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A tinned history of Crosse & Blackwell (1914 – 1927)

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

A factory was acquired in Branston near Birmingham at the cost of £1 million (£39 million in 2013) in 1920. Exports were growing and additional capacity was needed. 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. 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.

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 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 the 1930s saw Crosse & Blackwell redirect its focus from condiments to foodstuffs. 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.

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.

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 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, 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 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.

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 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. 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 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).