Gallery: Behind the scenes at world famous jam factory Wilkin & Sons in Tiptree
10:00 19 April 2014
On a bright spring morning, the white blossom of several hundred morello cherry trees is a pretty spectacular sight at the 850-acre farm in Tiptree that makes up part of the world famour jam making business Wilkin & Sons.
And soon rich cherries will hang there, waiting to be harvested and turned into
Joint managing director Walter Scott has been with the company for nearly 30 years.
He said: “This is a very special place to work and it was like joining a family when I came here, the challenge today is to get that across to the younger generation.”
The firm may have celebrated its 125th anniversary with a visit from the Queen but it is firmly focused on the future.
Walter said: “We are planning a new factory just down the road from where we are now. It is almost as if we have come back into fashion.
“Jam and marmalades have been in slow decline for years but our sales are increasing and I think there is a revival in demand for food with provenance. People want to know where their food comes from.”
And in the case of Wilkin and Sons, much of the factory’s raw materials are grown on the adjoining farm.
Walter said the new factory represents an investment of around £25million - a significant vote of confidence in the future.
He added: “To my surprise we are no longer a small and medium enterprise, we turnover around £30million a year and we employ 300 staff – that doubles in the fruit picking season in June, July and August.”
Alongside a wide selection of jams and marmalades, the company has more than 100 different products including sauces, mustards, honeys, Christmas puddings, jellies and chutneys. It has also benefited from acquisitions including Thursday Cottage, a west country-based firm which was bought in 2003. They have recently introduced some new fruit juice products as well.
As well as the factory the firm owns farmland, property, five tea rooms, a museum and visitors centre and a growing online retail arm.
The company is owned by an employee benefit trust which is similar to the John Lewis partnership whereby employees are also shareholders.
It means the firm can’t be bought by a multi-national without full agreement from the employees. The company also benefits from being able to take a long-term view,
Walter said: “A lot of companies can only plan in the short term because of shareholder demands etc. We are not beholden to anyone else and we don’t do things short term. We plan for 30 years in advance. In the future we are hoping to open more tea rooms and develop our online business.”
Walter said the company exports to more than 60 countries.
He added: “The USA is still our strongest export market but we are also exporting to China through Hong Kong. We first started exporting to Australia 128 years ago so it is not something new for us.”
The miniature jams and marmalades made by the firm can be found in hotels, airlines, and cruise ships across the globe.
Walter, a food scientist by training, came to Tiptree as factory manager in 1985. He became joint managing director, after a stint as production director, in 2008.
As we don hairnets and white coats and move into the production area there is a strong smell of citrus. They are making lime marmalade with limes from Brazil.
Walter said: “In January we get the oranges in from Seville and make marmalade until the soft fruit season starts in May.”
With many jobs still done in the factory by hand, the process can be labour intensive.
Modern technology means that 400 jars a minute can be filled and the modern markets means there are labels in a wide variety of different languages but
the basic process of jam making hasn’t changed much since the Wilkin family first started in the 1880s:
-Boil the fruit and sugar
-Cool to 85 degrees
-Fill the jars
-Pass through a metal detector
-Put on lids.
The pride Walter displays in the company is something he shares with all those we meet during the tour.
The skill in jam making is getting it to set – not too runny and not too firm.
Robert Parker, head of technical for the company, is busy in the company’s laboratory.
He said his team monitors two main parameters - sugar content, and acidity levels. He said they also undertake an organoleptic assessment of the products – tasting, sight, smell, consistency.
He said: “We look at the colour and the shine. We are looking to see if there is whole fruit in the jam or if the shreds are the right size in marmalade, and we taste the product to make sure it is what we expect.”
The factory site has grown piecemeal over the years with much being built more than a century ago.
As the company looks to the future the old buildings are no longer really suitable.
Walter said enabling works are due to start this summer and the company is hoping the factory will be ready within the next two or three years.
He said: “Many of the buildings date from 1911 and it is time for a change.”
Though it will herald changes it seems unlikely to change the ethos of the firm.
Walter said: “We like to do things ourselves as we know we will have a better product if we do. The quality of our products sets us apart.
“We use the best ingredients and if you use the best ingredients you get the best product. We are fiercely independent and that is one of our strengths.”
Wilkin & Sons
• The ‘Tiptree’ story begins around the early 1700s with Trewlands, the farm that was later to become the main site for jam-making in the Essex village of Tiptree.
• By the time the Wilkin family had begun to move from arable to fruit farming in 1865, the village’s population was 850.
• Fruit farming in Tiptree involved growing the fruit, then taking it by horse and cart to Kelvedon railway station and from there on to London for sale at the markets.
• When Gladstone, Prime Minister of the day commended fruit preserving to the population at large, Arthur Charles Wilkin leapt on this idea as a way to finally make a success of farming in Tiptree.
• In 1885, The Britannia Fruit Preserving Company was formed and the very first ‘Tiptree’ preserves were made, all to be sold to a merchant who would ship them to Australia.
• Things weren’t always easy and Mr Wilkin once had to sell a horse to pay the men’s wages.
• By 1906, the company owned 800 acres of land yielding some 300 tons of fruit each season.
• In 1914 The Essex Telegraph reported: “During Monday, over ten tons of strawberries including a large proportion of the famous ‘Little Scarlet’ were made into jam.” -1914 brought the First World War and Wilkin records from November 1914 state “Business at a standstill. Large works closed. Much unemployment.”
• During World War Two, Wilkin and Sons came under the control of the Ministry of Food but somehow Mr Wilkin managed to get special dispensation to keep to the original recipes with their high fruit content.
• The Tiptree preserves business has seen good times and difficult times throughout its history but from the 1950s, there was a long period of steady growth.
• A renewed focus on home-grown fruits has helped the farm to flourish and today, it grows more fruit than ever, in stark contrast to much of the country’s fruit farming enterprises.
• 2010, the 125th year of jam making at Tiptree, signalled all-time record sales, despite global recession. A year of celebration, 2010 was marked by a visit from Her Majesty The Queen.
• The company has been proud holders of a Royal Warrant from the reigning monarch since 1911.