The House of Orange: James Robertson & Sons

Robertson’s Golden Shred is the leading marmalade brand in Britain, with around a quarter of the market.

James Robertson establishes the business
James Robertson (1832 – 1914) was a grocer in Paisley, a town outside Glasgow, Scotland.

Robertson noted that preserves had a superior profit margin to fresh produce after his wife made a jelly from a surplus barrel of apples. Robertson introduced his marmalade from 1866, and the tangy preserve would quickly grow in popularity.

James Robertson circa 1890
James Robertson (1832 – 1914) circa 1890

The grocery business was divested in order to concentrate on marmalade production. Rapid expansion of the business saw a freehold site acquired at Paisley in 1873 where a large factory was erected.

The Golden Shred brand name had been introduced by 1883.

Expanding sales in England saw a factory acquired at Droylsden, Manchester, from 1891.

A large factory was erected at Catford, Kent in 1900. Its location was convenient for both the fruit gardens of Kent and the large London market.

James Robertson appointed his numerous sons to manage his various factories. John Robertson (1859 – 1937) was in charge of the Paisley factory, William Robertson led the Droylsden site, and David Robertson (1870 – 1948) managed the operations in Catford.

James Robertson & Sons was incorporated as a limited company from 1902. Control of the business remained in family hands.

By 1909 Golden Shred had been joined by Silver Shred marmalade, which was flavoured with lemon, Wild Bramble Jelly, and mincemeat.

A factory had been established at Boston in the United States by 1910. It was in America that John Robertson encountered the golliwog character. The mascot was added to the label of Robertson’s products from 1910.

The Bristol factory
A view of the Bristol factory, c.1914

A new factory was established at Brislington, Bristol, from 1914. The site was chosen for its strong railway links. Output at the site was estimated at 150 tons a week.

The second and third generation take over the business
James Robertson died in 1914, and he was succeeded as chairman by his son, John Robertson.

James Robertson & Sons described themselves as the “largest manufacturers of marmalade” in 1919.

James Robertson & Sons introduced its own brand of thick-cut marmalade from 1929.

The Boston factory had closed by 1931. American consumers regarded the marmalade manufactured in the United States to be inferior to the imported Paisley product.

James Robertson & Sons employed 1,400 people by 1931. The Paisley site exported one third of production to markets such as North America, Australia, China, Africa and the West Indies.

John Robertson retired as chairman in 1937, and he was succeeded by his son, David Robertson (born 1893).

Company headquarters had been transferred to Bristol by 1939.

A shortage of oranges saw Robertson’s marmalade withdrawn from sale during the Second World War.

David Robertson retired in 1960, and he was succeeded as chairman by Charles James Robertson (1909 – 1983), a grandson of the founder.

James Robertson & Sons produced more jam and marmalade than any other business in Britain by 1964. However, success was largely confined to the home market, with just an estimated four percent of production destined for overseas. C J Robertson resolved to change this, and expanded export sales.

The Quantock Preserving Company of Bridgwater, Somerset, was acquired in 1965.

James Robertson & Sons acquired 45 percent of the annual crop of Seville oranges by 1965.

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Unionisation was introduced to James Robertson & Sons from 1966, beginning with 320 workers, out of 600 employees, at the Catford factory.

James Robertson & Sons held 60 percent of the British jam and marmalade market by 1967.

James Robertson & Sons exported to over 70 different countries and territories by 1970.

C J Robertson retired as managing director of James Robertson & Sons in 1970, but remained as chairman. Neil Robertson (born 1937) and J Charles Robertson, great grandsons of the founder, were appointed as joint-managing directors.

James Robertson & Sons was to struggle throughout the 1970s with rising costs, a stagnant jam market and the growth of supermarket own-label products.

The Catford factory was closed in 1970 with the loss of 350 jobs. 207 employees were retained for distribution and administrative functions.

The Paisley factory was closed with the loss of around 250 jobs in 1974.

James Robertson & Sons announced that it would close the Bristol factory, with the loss of 500 jobs, in 1979. Production would be concentrated at Droylsden.

Loss of independence and subsequent ownership
James Robertson & Sons was acquired by Avana, an own-label supplier of foods to Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s, in 1981.

The Droylsden factory employed 764 workers, and produced 86 million jars of jam a year by 1986.

Avana was acquired by Rank Hovis McDougall in 1987.

The Golliwog mascot was retired in 2001.

Rank Hovis McDougall were acquired by Premier Foods in 2007.

The Droylsden site was closed with the loss of 253 jobs in 2008. Production was relocated to the Chivers factory at Histon in Cambridgeshire.

Robertson’s jam for the general public was discontinued in 2009. Premier Foods would instead concentrate on its more successful Hartley’s brand.

Robertson’s jam continued to be produced for the catering trade until around 2014.

Premier Foods sold its sweet spreads division to Hain Celestial in 2012.

Robertson’s marmalade and mincemeat continue to be produced.

11 thoughts on “The House of Orange: James Robertson & Sons”

    1. Keiller began to use glass jars from 1928. I’d imagine Robertson was similar. So, at a guess, between 1866 to the 1920s. Could you upload some photographs?

  1. I have found an envelope containing 10 Golly Tokens 5 Roald Dahl Tokens and an order form and 2 Invoices are these of any use to anyone I do not want money just to pass tehm on for safe keeping.

  2. Hello Thomas,
    I’ve read many accounts of the history of the James Robertson “Golden Shred” empire but until now I’ve never come across – “A factory had been established at Boston in the United States by 1910. “. Are you able to tell me any more about the US factory?
    Best regards, Andrew

  3. Hi Thomas,
    Did you research the information about the Boston factory yourself or was it information your got from a third party?
    Regards, Andrew

  4. Hi Tom,
    This makes interesting reading, I wonder if you’d be interested in doing a talk for us in September, we’re at the Tameside Local Studies & Archive Centre in Ashton? I’m sure many people who worked at the local factory in Droylsden would be interested.
    Many thanks
    Jill Morris

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