James Keiller & Sons, Dundee Marmalade

The Dundee Marmalade story begins in the late 1700’s with a small grocery business in Scotland that by the mid-1860’s had grown into a world-wide enterprise. According to a feature on James Keiller & Sons included in “The Industries of Scotland, Their Rise Progress and Present Condition,” by David Bremner, published in 1869:

The most extensive confectionery establishment in Britain is that of Messrs James Keiller & Son, Dundee. The firm have a specialty in marmalade – a conserve which they have been chiefly instrumental in bringing into general use. The history of the firm is brief, but it records a brilliant success. About the beginning of the present century, Dundee, which stands in the neighborhood of a famous fruit producing district, was pretty extensively engaged in the manufacture of “preserves,” and the late James Keiller was among those engaged in the trade. By way of increasing the variety of his productions, Mr. Keiller began to make marmalade, and was the first in the country to produce it as an article of commerce.

Called “chip marmalade,” it was the first commercially available marmalade to contain the rind of the fruit.  Developed by James Keiller’s mother, Janet, most versions of the brand’s origin run along the same lines as the one found in “Dundee at Work, Popular Industries Through the Years,” by Gregor Stewart, published in 2017.

Born in 1737, Janet Keiller ran a successful small shop in Dundee along with her husband John, selling cakes, sweets and fresh fruit. There are varying stories regarding how their brand of marmalade came about, the most common being that a Spanish ship had sailed into Tay estuary seeking shelter from stormy weather. Within the cargo was a batch of Seville oranges, which were already starting to go off due to the long journey. Knowing that the long delay would almost certainly result in the oranges being worthless, the ship’s captain offered them for sale, and they were bought by John Keiller. Knowing the fruit was already bitter, the captain no doubt was happy to have offloaded the effectively worthless consignment, but John knew a bargain when he saw one. He gave the oranges to Janet to see what she could do with them and she set about trying different recipes to make an orange preserve. What was different about her blend, and set it apart from other marmalades of the time, was that she included orange peel in her mix.

I’ll leave open to speculation as to whether this story is a legend based loosely on fact; created years later by an advertising agency or a little of both. What we do know is that in 1797 their son James established a business named James Keiller that served the l0cal community out of a small house near High Street in Dundee. Then, at some point, likely in the late 1820’s, they began expanding their reach to London, England.  According to Bremner’s “Industries of Scotland” feature:

For some years the demand was limited to the town and district; but in the course of time the new conserve worked its way into the more important towns of Scotland , and subsequently crossed the border into England. Between thirty and forty years ago, one of the principal grocery firms in London gave marmalade a trial, and soon secured a steadily increasing demand for it. A new market was thus opened up; and from being a subordinate part of Mr.Keiller’s business, the manufacture of marmalade took precedence.

Early evidence of this geographic expansion is a March 15, 1829 newspaper advertisement for Stokes Tea Warehouse in the (London) Observer.

Whether Stoke’s was the grocer referenced in the above quote is unclear, but the time frame fits, and by the 1830’s, other London grocers including Fraser and Wood at 63 New Bond Street and J Garnett & Co’s Italian Warehouse at 38 Wigmore Street were mentioning Dundee Marmalade in their advertising as well. That being said, throughout the 1830’s and early 1840’s growth was apparently slow and the Keiller business continued to operate out of their original High Street location where I found them listed in the 1837 edition of Pigot and Co.s Commercial Directory of Scotland. Now called James Keiller & Son, they were one of 13 confectioners operating in Dundee at the time.

It wasn’t until 1845  that the company, now under the management of James’ son Alexander, in an effort to address increased demand acquired additional space at nearby 2 Castle Street. Located below the Royal British Hotel the space allowed for, among other things, additional back space as well as a large street level shop. This undated photograph likely taken around the turn of the century, clearly shows the Keiller shop located below the hotel.

Over the next 25 years James Keiller & Son continued to expand such that in 1869, Bremner’s “Industries of Scotland” feature described their facilities like this:

The establishment, which occupies several blocks of three story buildings, is the largest of the kind in the country.

By then the business employed about 300 people producing marmalade, jams, jellies and general confectionery that included lozenges, candies and gum goods. That being said, Bremner made it clear that by then the production of marmalade had achieved prime importance.

Oranges are usually in season from the beginning of December till the end of March, and the years’s supply of marmalade must be made in that time. The oranges used are the bitter variety obtained from Seville in Spain. They are imported in chests containing 2 cwt. each. Messrs Keiller consume 3,ooo chests annually from which they produce about 1000 tons of marmalade…In the course of the season, about a million and a half of pound pots of marmalade, besides a considerable number of jars containing from seven to fourteen pounds, are turned out.

In support of their Dundee facility, by the early 1860’s the company was also operating another facility in the Channel Islands at St. Peter Port, Guernsey. Under the direction of Alexander’s brother William, the Channel Island facilities accounted for one-third of Keiller’s yearly 1,000 ton production during the 1860’s and 1870’s.

The reasoning behind this locale was explained in Amanda Bennett’s book, “Secret Guernsey,” published in 2015.

In the 1860’s and ’70’s, Guernsey was one of the largest centers for marmalade production in Europe. Sugar tax in Guernsey amounted to around 2s per 2,000 pounds of sugar – a fraction of what it was in Britain. In seeking a better share of the market, the Dundee marmalade manufacturer James Keiller & Son moved their center of operations from Scotland to Guernsey and, as a result, were able to undercut all their rivals and make a huge profit. Their factory in Park Street employed around 200 local people. In 1879, after 20 years of production, the reduction in sugar duty in Britain signalled an end to the Guernsey branch of operations, and the company disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived.

By the late 1870’s the company had replaced the Guernsey operation with a factory east of London in Silvertown. A January 6, 1899 story in Dundee’s “Courier and Argus” described it like this:

Their mammoth works there cover more than five acres of ground, with extensive frontage to the Thames, and having a specially constructed jetty projecting into the river, at which steamers arrive bearing the fruits of Spain, the Madeiras, Palmer, Corsica, etc.

A post card recently offered for sale on the internet provided this partial glimpse of the Silvertown operation, which I suspect included the buildings on the left along with the railroad siding.

By the early 1880’s Keiller had also expanded the Dundee operation, building a new factory at 9 Albert Square. A May 11, 1900 story in the “Courier and Argus” provided this description of the Dundee operation which by the turn of the century, probably had the appearance of a small campus.

The firm are wholesale confectioners, fruit preservers, and cocoa and chocolate makers, and the factory is one of the largest of its kind in Scotland, employing about 600 hands. The works are of large proportions, and are situated in the center of the city. They occupy the square formed by Commercial Street, High Street, New Inn Entry and Albert Square, with the exception of a line of tenement property on the west side of Commercial Street.

The business registered as a joint stock company in 1893. The registration notice was published in the September 2, 1893 edition of the Glasgow Herald.

At this point, Alexander’s son, John Mitchell Keiller, was made chairman of the company. He had been heading the company since his father’s death in 1877.  He continued in this capacity until his death in 1899 at which point long time employee James Boyd took control. Boyd was the first company head to not be a member of the Keiller family.

Around the time Boyd took control, both the Dundee and Silvertown facilities  would experience  devastating fires.

The Dundee fire was described in the May 11, 1900 edition of the “Birmingham Daily Post” and a pictorial representation of the tragic event appeared in the same day’s issue of the “Courier and Argus.”

A great fire broke out yesterday afternoon at the works of Messrs. James Keiller & Sons, marmalade and confectionery manufacturers, Dundee. The outbreak occurred  through a bursting of a refrigerator in the chocolate department, which is situated in the center of the colossal establishment. Work was in full swing at the time, but fortunately all the female operatives managed to escape by the windows and by means of a fire escape. A later telegram says the fire burned for over three hours, the melting sugar and syrup all the while sending forth pungent odors. A large store and the firm’s offices alone were saved.

A day after the fire, the “Courier and Argus” ran a notice that the store on Castle Street was not affected and remained open.

…and six months later a December 5, 1900 “Courier and Argus” story made it clear that not only was the facility being rebuilt but in the meantime it was business as usual.

The War Office have placed with Messrs. James Keiller & Co., Limited, Dundee and London, an order to supply 216,000 packages of jam for the use of troops in South Africa. This is the sixth government order which Messrs. Keiller have obtained within the past few months, the number of packages of jam supplied now standing at the huge total 1,800,000. It is also satisfactory to learn that this firm is about to reconstruct their working premises in Albert Square, Dundee. The works were partially destroyed by fire several months ago, and since that time temporary arrangements have been made and no stoppage of the work was necessary. The portion of the works burned down, along with other parts left standing, but which will be demolished in order to allow for a complete job being made, will be rebuilt. The machinery will be of the most modern description, and will be driven by electric power. The works will be lighted throughout by electricity…

The rebuilt factory, described like this in a 1907 feature, had all the bells and whistles of the day.

This factory, like its prototype at Silvertown, has recently been rebuilt after a fire. It stands in the heart of the city, and on the site of the original premises where James Keiller first started making marmalade, being in close proximity to the harbor and railway stations. The factory is of substantial erection, being built from stone from the famous Camperdown query. It is four stories high and covers about an acre and a half of ground. In addition to jam, jelly, peel, chocolate and confectionery departments, the factory includes a modern bakehouse for the production of wedding and birthday cakes, shortbread, etc. The departments are connected with each other by automatic telephones and there is a chemical laboratory where the goods are tested before being dispatched. The whole of the place is lighted by electricity generated on the premises, and the same power is used for driving the machinery and lifts.

As the above story states, the Silvertown facility survived the fire there as well and subsequently, a June 8, 1914 story in “The Times” of London described the two operations like this:

Today the works of James Keiller and Sons (Limited) in Dundee employ some 500 workers. In London, at Silvertown, the firm has another works employing 1,100 workers.

By then, the company had also added a third factory in Tangermuende, Germany, which opened in 1906.

In 1919 the entire James Keiller operation was acquired by Crosse & Blackwell. The deal was announced in the January 12,1919 edition of “The Times” of London.

A trade fusion of distinct domestic interest is announced today, for the firths of Crosse and Blackwell. James Keiller and Son, of Dundee, and E. Lazenby and Son have long been household words for jam, marmalade, pickles, sauces, and potted meat. We are officially informed that an agreement has been entered into between them, by which, each company will retain its individuality and continue to manufacture its own specialties independently. The capital of Messrs. Crosse and Blackwell is to be largely increased, so that it may acquire a controlling interest in the other two companies. There is to be an interchange of directors, and Mr. Robert Just Boyd, now managing director of James Keiller and Son (Limited ) will become chairman of Cross and Blackwell (Limited), while Frank S. Blackwell will be vice-chairman.

James Keiller & Son continued to operate under the Crosse & Blackwell umbrella for the next 40 years. Then, in late December, 1959, Cross & Blackwell became the prize in a takeover battle. According to the December 22, 1959 edition of London’s “Evening Standard.”

In this year-end tussle, the rivals are the Nestles chocolate giant and Sir Clavering Fison’s fertilizer combine, which has important food interests as well.

Nestles opened the bidding at 9,700,000 (pounds). Sir Clavering has topped it with an 11,000,000 (pounds) offer.

A little over a month later, the February 6, 1960 edition of the “Evening Standard” reported that Nestles had ultimately won the “tussle.”

Pay day comes next Friday for stockholders in Cross and Blackwell who accepted the 84s a share bid from Nestles.

Through their letter boxes will go cheques totaling 11, 500,000 (pounds). And you can be sure that by around midday they will be busily ringing their stockbrokers seeking new homes for their money.

Nestle retained ownership for over twenty years before selling to the Okhai Group in 1981. Okahi sold it to Barker & Dobson in 1985 who in turn sold it to Ranks Hovis McDougall in 1988. According to a story in the June 21, 1988  edition of London’s “The Guardian,” this marked the end of the Dundee plant as a marmalade maker.

Supermarkets and sweets group Barker & Dobson has sold its James Keiller marmalades and jams to Ranks Hovis McDougall in a deal worth just over 4 million (pounds).

But it is retaining Keiller’s Dundee plant and the butterscotch business and will use the factory space freed by the sale of the preserves machinery and stocks to expand sugar confectionery production. The sale to RHM also includes the Keiller preserves trademarks and goodwill.

B&D acquired James Keiller at the end of 1985 for just under 5 million (pounds). The assets being sold yesterday account for about a quarter of the original business, according to B&D chairman and chief executive John Fletcher.

Yesterday Mr. Fletcher said his group had decided to sell the preserves interests because “there was not sufficient critical mass in the business.” Under RHM’s ownership they would be part of a much larger jams operation, he said.

James Keiller and Son, Orange Marmalade is still available today on Amazon. Who exactly makes it is not clear to me.

So the question still remains…when did Dundee Marmalade make its way to the United States?

It appears this occurred shortly after the business began to expand in 1845. It was around that time Dundee Marmalade began to appear in advertisements run by the firm of John Duncan & Son, who would go on to serve as Keiller’s long time U. S. agent. A July 28, 1911 feature on Duncan in the “Retail Grocer’s Advocate,” described Duncan as:

a thrifty son of Scotland who in 1819 established in New York City a business in rare and fine groceries

In 1840 he partnered with his son, David Duncan, and established John Duncan & Son. Their co-partnership announcement, published in the February 27, 1840 edition of New York’s “Evening Post,” mentioned that:

They offered for sale a general assortment of wines, teas and groceries selected with care expressly for families.

As early as 1845 the company was offering “to dealers,” an item for “Scotch Marmalade in pots,” as evidenced by this advertisement that appeared in the December 10, 1845 edition of the “Evening World.”

Likely Keiller’s, by November 15, 1848 Duncan was calling it Dundee Marmalade in their ads.

Though more well known for their association with Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce, John Duncan & Son, and later John Duncan’s Sons, continued to name themselves as an agent for James Keiller & Son in their advertising up through the early 1900’s. The following advertisement, primarily focused on Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce, mentioned “John Keiller’s Celebrated Dundee Marmalade” in the last paragraph. The ad appeared in the July 15, 1869 edition of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Commercial.

Here’s another advertisement, this one from 1886, that features both Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce and Dundee Marmalade among other products touted by John Duncan’s Sons.

As far as I can tell, their relationship with the Duncan business ended when James Keiller & Son joined with Cross & Blackwell. A 1922 advertisement in the Boston, Massachusetts City Directory certainly suggests that, by then, Cross & Blackwell had assumed distribution responsibilities for Keiller products in the United States.

At times the two also shared advertisements as evidenced by this 1952 advertisement that appeared in a Virginia newspaper.

Cross & Blackwell continued to maintain a U.S. presence up through the time of the Nestle acquisition. In New York City, they were initially located at 105 Hudson Street and later at 146 West 22nd Street. Then, sometime in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, they moved across the East River to Long Island City where they were listed at 22-22 Jackson Avenue.

Over the years I’ve found three small earthenware pots. Embossing on the base of each indicates they were made by Maling Pottery in Newcastle.

All three pots bear the same two prize related inscriptions:

Only Prize Medal for Marmalade  London, 1862

Grand Medal of Merit Vienna 1873

This dates them subsequent to the Vienna award; no earlier than 1874. A syndicated “question and answer” newspaper item in 1950 mentioned that this style pot was used until 1914. (I’ve been unable to confirm this end date so please take it with a grain of salt.)

Each of the three pots exhibits a different small letter; “P” “R,” and “C” located below the central wreath that encircles the product and company name.

An article in the Maling Collectors’ Society Newsletter, dated September 2000, suggests that these letters likely indicate batch codes but there’s no logic yet detected associating the letter designation with a specific manufacture date.

According to Bremner’s 1869 “Industries of Scotland” feature, one and a half million of these pots were required every year at a cost of 6,500 (pounds). He went on to describe the process of filling and covering these pots back in the day.

…The boilers are so worked as to be ready in rotation; and when the contents of one are sufficiently boiled the marmalade is emptied into a pan fixed on a small truck and conveyed to the filling room. This is a large apartment, with tables arranged longitudinally, on which thousands of pots and jars are piled. Adjoining the filling room is a sort of scullery in which the pots are washed by a steam machine. The jars, which contain from 7 to 14 lb. each, are filled on a set of scales ; but as the pots are made of a uniform size, holding 1 lb. each, they are not weighed. When the contents have sufficiently cooled, the pots are raised by a steam-elevator to an upper room, where they are covered. About fifty women and girls are employed in this department. A circular piece of tissue paper is first laid on the surface of the marmalade and then a piece of vegetable parchment is tied over all. Formerly animal tissue was used for covering the pots; but now vegetable parchment, a much more cleanly and equally effective material, is being employed.

The pots I found are roughly 4 1/2 inches tall and 3 inches in diameter and are certainly of the 1 lb. variety. Rimmed at the top, this feature was likely required to accommodate the tied covers described above.

On a final note…

The building that housed Keiller’s original 2 Castle Street retail store in Dundee remains to this day. The modern version below is courtesy of Google Earth.