The “Holbrook” story got its start in the West Midlands of England in the late 1860’s with a company that manufactured vinegar called Tompson, Berry and Co. Also referred to as the Birmingham Vinegar Brewery, the business included three partners; John Tompson, his son, John L. Tompson and Edward Berry. This advertisement for the brewery that appeared in several September 1869 editions of the Birmingham Daily Post, appears introductory in nature, so it’s likely that the business got its start sometime that year.
Four years later, on June 17, 1873, the partnership was dissolved when the Tompson’s and Berry went their separate ways. The dissolution notice was included in the 1876 “Birmingham & District and Sheffield & Rotherham Commercial List:
After the dissolution, the Tompson’s established John Tompson & Co., to continue the manufacture of vinegar and, on January 15, 1874, published a notice in (London’s) the Guardian announcing the hiring of W. D. Holbrook.
A year later John Tompson & Co. began to manufacture pickles and sauces under Holbrook’s name and the Holbrook brand, still around to this day, was born.
A legal item published in the June 13, 1888 edition of the (London) Times laid out the early course of events.
In 1875 they commenced to manufacture pickles and sauces, and…it was thought expedient to give a special or fancy name to the sauces and pickles manufactured by the firm, and it was accordingly…arranged that the articles should be labeled and advertised by the name of Holbrook, and the articles became known and acquired a reputation by that name in question.
Interestingly, the business associated the name of “Holbrook & Co. with their products but according to W. D. Holbrook’s testimony in an 1895 court case (Powell v. The Birmingham Vinegar Brewery Company, Ltd.):
there never was a firm “Holbrook & Co. in actual existence.
When the business incorporated in May, 1879 as the Birmingham Vinegar Brewery Company, Ltd., they continued to associate the Holbrook & Co. name in connection with the Holbrook brand. W. D. Holbrook left the business in 1888, but the courts ruled that the Holbrook name, along with the reputation of their products, would remain with the firm.
Their first newspaper advertisements I can find for their Worcestershire Sauce appeared in 1884. This one was published in the June 1, 1884 edition of (London’s) Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper.
Right from the start one of their primary selling points was price and their early advertisements included phrases like “half the cost,” which was an obvious reference to their main competitor, Lea and Perrin’s. Some advertisements, like this 1885 advertisement published in the Christian Messenger, actually went as far as mentioning Lea & Perrin’s by name, albeit in small letters.
A story in the August 1, 1887 British Trade Journal made the same point a little more eloquently.
The high quality of Holbrook’s Worcester Sauce is well known for good keeping qualities, piquancy, and fullness and choiceness of flavor; it is one of the best on the market, while its price is not its least recommendation to popular favor.
The British Trade Journal story went on to say that as early as the 1880’s the sauce was gaining recognition, having won awards world wide.
We may say that by 1883 their sauce has carried off the highest awards at all the principal exhibitions, from Tasmania, Antwerp, Melbourne, and New Zealand, to Edinburgh and Chicago.
The story included this photograph of their display at the Brussels International Exhibition which they described like this:
A prominent object in the British section is the pyramid formed of bottles of Holbrook’s Worcestershire Sauce. It measures about 20 ft. high by 20ft. square, the bottles being arranged upon twenty tiers, the base being protected by turned wood standards and rails and embellished with mirrors and ferns.
The business reorganized in 1897 under the same name; the Birmingham Vinegar Brewery Company, Ltd., and later, in 1901, reorganized again, this time as Holbrooks, Ltd. By the turn of the century, in addition to Birmingham, the business was operating a second brewery in Stourport which they had acquired in 1876 and they maintained facilities in London as well. The prospectus associated with the 1897 reorganization, published in the April 13, 1897 edition of (London’s) Morning Post provided a good description of their facilities around the turn of the century.
The brewery and manufacturing premises in Birmingham are situated in Ashten Row, Dartmouth Street, and Windsor Street, standing on upwards of two acres of land, occupying valuable frontages and intersected by a branch of the Birmingham Canal, which affords direct water carriage to London. Included in the Birmingham premises is a complete printing establishment equipped with modern machinery, which enables the company to produce its own show cards, tablets, wrappers, advertisements, etc.ander its own supervision and control.
The brewery and premises in Stourport occupy an important position on the River Severn at its junction with the Stour, thus obtaining direct water communication with the canal system and the Bristol Channel.
The premises in London of freehold tenure are situated at Nos. 138 and 140 Commercial Street East, forming an imposing block, and having frontages to Commercial Street, Fleur de Lis Street and Pearl Street.
The trade has been of steady growth and is still expanding. To meet its requirements it has been found necessary to acquire a freehold site in Birmingham, adjoining the company’s original premises, and to erect thereon an additional factory, which is now upon the point of completion.
What could be described as the monument to their success was described in the November 26, 1906 edition of the Ottawa (Canada) Citizen. It was their storage vat located at Birmingham.
Thousands of tourists who have visited the famous castle of Heidelberg remember with interest the great vat which stands in its cellars and which was once filled with the delicious wines of the Rhine country. It stands within the heavy walls as a permanent testamonial to the drinking powers of the nobles who inherited the castle in years gone by… For centuries (it) was famous as the largest in the world.
It can no longer, however, claim that distinction, for in England there is one which is three times as large. This is the great vat at the works of Holbrooks, Limited, in Birmingham.
It contains three times more space than the Heidleburg vat and is capable of holding the contents of two and a half millions of bottles of Holbrook’s Worsetershire Sauce, equal to 100,000 gallons. In the picture here given a man standing on a long ladder may be seen clinging like a spider against its side. The famous vat is now, and doubtless will remain, for many years, the largest in the world.
In 1898, their world wide sales were five and a half million bottles annually. That included local sales as well as exports to France, Germany, India, Ceylon, New Zealand and the Australian Colonies, the West Indies and South America and South Africa. What lacked was any significant effort to expand into the United States.
They sought to remedy that in 1898 when they formed a new company called “Holbrook’s Worcestershire Sauce, Ltd.” The company’s prospectus spelled out the reasoning behind it’s formation.
The Company is formed to purchase and acquire all the trading rights in the sale of “Holbrook’s Worcestershire Sauce” for the United States of America and Canada from the Birmingham Vinegar Brewery Company, 1897 (Limited)…
The Birmingham Vinegar Brewery Company, 1897 (Limited), owing to the rapid expansion of their business in the United Kingdom, the Colonies, and elsewhere, have hitherto been unable to direct concentrated attention to the development of the American and Canadian trades. The Directors of this Company believe that, with the support of the Parent Company, a lucrative and increasing business can be speedily founded.
The prospectus went on to name Horace De Lisser as their U. S. vendor. In retrospect, with no apparent experience or connections in the grocery trade De Lisser appears to have been an odd choice. According to his biographical profile published in the July 1, 1919 edition of a publication called “India Rubber World:”
In 1894 he conducted a bicycle tire factory in England, which was later sold to a London syndicate. In disposing of this business he agreed to remain out of the rubber business for five years, and therefore took the United States agency for the Holbrook Sauce Co. of London.
Under De Lisser’s lead, the Holbrook Worcestershire Sauce Co. was listed in lower Manhattan at 90 West Broadway in the early 1900’s. The company’s approach to growing the business in those early years was described by De Lisser’s brother in the September 18, 1901 edition of an advertising publication called “Printer’s Ink.”
We began and are still continuing an elaborate and thorough house-to-house canvass, not only in most of the large cities, but also in the smaller towns and in the agricultural districts. We started by having six very elaborate wagons built – vehicles that cost us, even with the advantages of wholesale prices, a little more than $600 each. They are gorgeous, and manned each by a driver, a tiger and six distributors. Each of this force is attired in a striking uniform, and the horses are gaily harnessed. Soon after the first six had begun their rounds, we added six more, and continued to add wagons and crews until we now have nearly forty. This distribution has been continued steadily ever since except in the summer months. All parts of the country have been visited, except the extreme parts of New England and the South.
While newspaper advertisements during this time were scarce, I did find several in the Brooklyn newspapers that included little poems or jingles. This advertisement in the December 21, 1901 issue of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was typical.
De Lisser’s attempts to grow the business proved unsuccessful. As early as November 5, 1901, the Solicitor’s Journal and Reporter listed “Holbrook’s Worcestershire Sauce Limited as “in liquidation,” and by 1906 it was no longer listed in the New York City directories. After his five-year moratorium, De Lisser was back in the rubber business where in 1905 he established the Ajax Standard Rubber Company.
At this point, the company established a Canadian presence but took a different approach in the United States where they began looking for local agents in various parts of the Country. Their classified advertisement in the New York area was published in the November 28, 1906 edition of the New York Tribune. Similar advertisements appeared in Boston and St. Louis newspapers.
It’s not clear exactly who or how many agents they assembled but their Worcestershire Sauce was only listed sporadically in U. S. grocery store and department store advertisements up through the late 1920’s. After that, it’s hardly mentioned at all, so it doesn’t appear that the product ever caught on in the United States the same way it had world wide.
According to Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, in 1954 Holbrooks, Ltd sold their British business to British Vinegars Ltd., a company consisting primarily of Distillers Co., and Crosse & Blackwell.
No longer made in England, today Holbrook’s Worcestershire Sauce is manufactured and sold in Australia by Goodman Fielder.
The bottle I found is approximately 6 oz in size. It’s embossed with the unofficial company name of Holbrook & Co. I also found a glass stopper that fits with the bottle, however the bottle and stopper were found at different times at different locations. Mouth blown, the bottle was likely made sometime after 1898 when the company established a presence in the United States and the late teens, when I would expect a machine-made version.