Tag Archives: History of Crosse & Blackwell

A tinned history of Crosse & Blackwell (1907 – 1927)

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

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.

This post tells the story of a large merger and subsequent disaster.

Crosse & Blackwell was one of the three largest fish canners in the world by 1909, alongside Maconochie Brothers and C & E Morton.

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.

Crosse & Blackwell employed 2,171 people by 1914. 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.

Edmund Meredith Crosse died in 1918 with a net estate valued at £310,633.

A small fish canning factory in Peterhead, Aberdeen, was acquired in 1919.

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.

Branston Pickle (2006). Source

As a result of the Branston purchase, the one acre Charing Cross Road factory, which lacked space for expansion, was sold off in 1921.

Unfortunately production costs at Branston proved higher than in London, as the capital was home to the bulk of British customers, and provided good access to export markets, which constituted the majority of sales. 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. Production at Branston 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 small marmalade and jam factory was established outside Paris in 1925. Small factories were also established in Belgium and Altona, Germany.

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.)

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.

Crosse & Blackwell continues to expand
Rising import tariffs saw Crosse & Blackwell 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, low wages and competitive taxes. Its principal lines were jam, marmalade, pickles, soup, mayonnaise and canned meats.

Sarsons and Champion & Slee were acquired by Crosse & Blackwell in 1928. The acquisition combined the three largest vinegar producers in the South of England. Crosse & Blackwell closed its own and the Sarson’s vinegar brewery and concentrated production at the Champion & Slee site.

Williams & Woods, the largest jam manufacturer in Ireland, was acquired in 1928.

The Lazenby’s Chef line of moderately-priced condiments and tinned goods was introduced from 1928.

Crosse & Blackwell was the largest food manufacturer in the world by 1928, with over 40 factories across the world. Company assets were valued at over £6 million in 1930.

Plaistowe, a Bermondsey jam manufacturer, was acquired in 1930.

The Great Depression and a transition from condiments to foodstuffs
The onset of the Great Depression took its toll on Crosse & Blackwell, as much of its trade was to hard-hit overseas markets. Export sales consequently declined by 50 percent. As a result, Crosse & Blackwell increased sales by lowering home market prices. The Great Depression was the catalyst that saw Crosse & Blackwell transition its main focus from that of a condiment manufacturer to a mass producer of foodstuffs.

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

The Canadian business became loss-making, and control was sold to local investors for CA$800,000 in 1932. The factory had been poorly located, as its rivals had their sites in smaller towns where taxes and minimum wages were lower, resulting in estimated annual additional costs of CA$75,000. The National Post commented, “given good management, the company would have made money, instead of losing it”. Competition was also intense from Heinz, Canadian Canners and Campbell’s Soup.

Branston Pickle was the highest selling pickle in the world by 1934.

The Plaistowe factory was closed in 1935.

The company manufactured 50 million cans of food in 1936. The canning factory in Peterhead employed over 300 people.

The Silvertown factory was destroyed by German bombing during the Blitz of 1940, and was subsequently rebuilt.

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

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 was one of the four largest producers of tinned soup in the United States, and concentrated on the premium market.

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 had six factories in Britain and five overseas including the United States, Australia and South Africa. It was the largest fish canner in Britain and held one third of the pickle market, 30 percent of the tinned soup market and a ten percent share in baked beans.

Crosse & Blackwell is acquired by Nestle
Nestle of Switzerland acquired Crosse & Blackwell for £11.3 million (£227 million in 2013) in 1960. Nestle was the largest food company in Europe, and was motivated by a desire to increase its presence in the British tinned soup and vegetables market and the tinned fruit juice market in the United States. The two companies’ portfolios were largely complementary, with Nestle strong in milk products, instant coffee and confectionery, although it did have a presence in dried soups through the Maggi brand.

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

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

Crosse & Blackwell had fallen to a distant third in the British soup market, with a 14 percent share, by 1968.

Nestle closed the Bermondsey factory in 1969 with the loss of 1,300 jobs. Production was transferred to Silvertown and Peterhead.

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

The 9 acre Baltimore plant had become outdated and unprofitable, and it was closed by Nestle with the loss of around 350 jobs in 1972. Some product lines were discontinued and others were transferred to other Nestle factories.

Crosse & Blackwell loses market share to supermarket own-label products
Nestle had managed to build the Crosse & Blackwell 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. Crosse & Blackwell accounted for less than ten percent of soup sales by 1985, and had been delisted by some supermarket chains.

Nestle was identified as a company with well-regarded management, but its acquisition of Crosse & Blackwell was identified as a singular misstep.

The Keiller preserve and confectionery works in Dundee became loss-making, and were sold to a local company in 1981.

The factory at Silvertown, London, also became loss-making, and was closed with the loss of 500 jobs in 1985. Production of Branston pickle and other condiment lines were transferred to Peterhead.

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

Crosse & Blackwell baked beans held just seven percent of the market by 1994, versus 55 percent for the Heinz version.

Unable to compete with Heinz, and 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. The tomato ketchup and standard salad cream lines were withdrawn.

The CEO of Nestle conceded defeat to Heinz in the British soup market in 1996. An analyst commented, “why pay more for a product which isn’t the brand leader and is of no better quality than the own-label [products]?”

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 divests its Crosse & Blackwell businesses
Nestle sold the remaining British operations (principally Branston Pickle and Sarsons vinegar) to Premier Foods in 2002. 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 separately 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.

Nestle sold the South African operations of Crosse & Blackwell to Tiger Brands in 2012.

Nestle continues to own the Crosse & Blackwell brand in Mexico, where it markets a popular brand of Worcestershire sauce.

A tinned history of Crosse & Blackwell (1706 – 1907)

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 sizeable 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. The two men enjoyed a strong friendship. Richard West had died in 1824, and upon the retirement of William Wyatt in 1830, Crosse and Blackwell acquired the business with £600 of borrowed capital. 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 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 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.

The firm 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 17,000 gallons 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. 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 suddenly in 1862. His estate was valued at £140,000.

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.

In 1869 the firm sold two million bottles of pickles and 800,000 tins of sardines.

Between 600 and 1,000 people were employed at Crosse & Blackwell by 1870, depending on the season. The firm had a reputation as a good employer.

The firm imported nearly half a million tins of lobster into England in 1871.

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.

Thomas F Blackwell (1838 – 1907), date unknown

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 of 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.