I was fascinated by a recent visit to the Tiptree farm and factory of world-famous preserves producer Wilkin & Sons, to see what was being grown for our dining tables.
The size of the farm I kind of understood, 800 acres-plus to produce fruits for jams, jellies and juices. But the scale of the operation in the factory was quite amazing.
From the outside it just didn’t look big enough to produce those millions of jars per year that come out through the Victorian gates. But it was like Dr Who’s Tardis, small on the outside but big on the inside. Every single part of the factory was being used for some form of production, bottling and storage.
Vats for cooking were everywhere, all hand filled and controlled by masters. As soon as the jams were made, they were in jars that were spiralling around being filled, sealed and labelled with the iconic Tiptree brand in a matter of minutes.
The range and quality of the jams and marmalades produced is second to none in this country; the fresh fruits in season are superb; and the chutneys and table sauces are quite outstanding. This is all why we use so many of their products at the Club.
The fruits in the various orchards were a berry-lovers delight – with two different cherries to pick and try, two strawberries, and blackberries, raspberries and loganberries. All being picked in the early morning, packed and sent out by mid-afternoon, or made into the jams and conserves that we all love.
A new state of the art strawberry growing area is in its second year of experimentation. The idea is to produce two crops per year from the same plants. The poly-structure is air-tight, with great trays of plants sitting in recycled coir water baths, with bees brought in for pollination.
The Morello cherry orchard was just three days from being ready to pick. Andrea the farm manager told me: “We wait for the pigeons to gather, then it’s all hands picking before they are pecked.”
The business is owned by the Wilkin Family, with a share ownership scheme for the employees. Indeed, the firm has a slogan: “Our people are as important to us as our fruit”.
Today, the farms cover 850 acres – enough land for around 300 cricket pitches. And the business’s heritage can be traced all the way back to 1885, when Arthur Charles Wilkin joined with two friends to form the Britannia Fruit Preserving Company. He stipulated that the jam should be free of glucose, colouring and preservatives. The first jam was of such high quality and impressed an Australian merchant so much that he arranged to buy every last pot. As new varieties were added the distinction between jams made with home grown fruit (conserve) and foreign produce (preserve) was made.
In 1901 the company had over 8000 customers and all the goods were delivered directly. Over 600 acres of land were planted with unusual fruits, including gooseberries, cherries, damsons, quinces, crab apples, plums and loganberries.
In 1909 the company was renamed Wilkin & Sons Ltd to avoid confusion with 25 other companies trading as Britannia. The company’s success saw the introduction of a minimum pension scheme and company housing, which many employees live in to this date.
1911 saw the award of a royal warrant from King George V. By 1920 the company had over 200,000 customers on the books. A.F and T.G Wilkin joined as a new generation of employees.
The Second World War saw a great shortage of labour, and the company was forced to deal with retailers and forbidden to deal with the public directly. After the hostilities the business again flourished, with consumer demand so strong through retailers that there was no returning to direct sales.
In 1954 further success came in the form of a royal warrant from Her Majesty the Queen for supply of jam and marmalade.
In 1971 the founder’s great-grandson was appointed director and the factory saw an extensive modernisation program, including new jam boiling facilities and extended freeze stores.
In 1985 a share ownership scheme was started, and shares were transferred to the employees, a trust which currently holds over half the issued share capital.
By the mid-2000s turnover topped £15 million. In 2009 the Royal Warrant from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was extended to cover the whole range of Tiptree products.
2010 marked 125 years of jam making at Tiptree. It was the company’s best year ever, and a year of celebrations was completed with a visit from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
- Foods produced include: conserves, marmalades, jellies, curds and sweet spreads, honey, fruit juice, fruit gin liqueur, fresh fruits including three varieties of strawberries, three varieties of cherries, gooseberries, and occasionally apricots.
- At the Club: .....where to find the ingredients at The Farmers Club: breakfast buffet, Restaurant desserts, digestives.
Find out more at www.tiptree.com