Food, glorious food!

The story of the foods and drinks we’ve made in Renfrewshire has had a huge impact on our history and heritage.

It’s not just about a slug in a bottle!

Brown & Polson

An essential ingredient used by cooks and found in many kitchens is cornflour. This is often used in baking and cooking as a thickening agent in soups, stews, custards, blancmange, puddings, and cakes.

One famous brand name associated with cornflour is that of Brown & Polson. The Brown & Polson factory and business began in Victorian Paisley and was the first to mass produce and market cornflour as a food product.

The origins of Brown & Polson as a partnership between two family businesses, where entrepreneurship, food technology and a paternalistic approach to management were significant markers to business success is a story worth exploring.

In 1840, the two-family run manufacturing firms of William Brown & Son and John Polson & Co joined together to make one firm called Brown & Polson. At this time Brown and Polson was not known as a food producer but as manufacturers and finisher of muslin cloth in the thriving textile industry. Thrushcraigs in Paisley was the factory site where muslin cloth was manufactured, bleached, scoured, and finished. The finishing process used natural wheat starch to make the muslin cloth firm and free of creases.

In 1842, a new process was developed by Brown & Polson using “sago” to extract natural starch which could be made into a powder which was easy and convenient to use in the home. This new product was marketed as “powder” starch and sold in shops for domestic use.

This product was highly successful and in 1843 Brown & Polson moved to a larger factory site in Carriagehill in Paisley. Expansion of the business continued in conjunction with experimentation with food technology over the following years. In September 1843 John Polson senior one of the original partners in the firm died. William Brown another original partner died in 1851.

John Polson, junior son of the original partner in the firm, was born in Paisley on 5 February 1825. His contribution to the family business was significant and came about via his interest in product development and experimenting with food technology.

In 1853, John Polson junior experimented with ways of extracting starch from “maize” which was also sometimes called “Indian corn”. Through his experiments he developed a way of doing this which resulted in a new product which he called “corn flour.”  Rather than this new product being used in the finishing of muslin cloth Mr Polson realised that corn flour could be sold as a food product. Corn flour could be marketed for use as an ingredient to thicken and bind together ingredients in baking and cookery.

Corn flour was an instant success and was patented by Brown & Polson in 1854. The business remained in control of the original families in partnership, but their product range changed from that of muslin manufacture and finishing to being a food producer. In 1857 the company received the royal licence to become the official producers of starch to Queen Victoria.

By 1861, Brown & Polson employed 32 men and 60 women in the factory at Carriagehill. Tragedy struck in November 1866 when the factory caught fire and was destroyed. It was rebuilt at a larger site in Falside Road in Paisley. This was called the “Royal Starch Works.”

By 1871, the firm employed more than two hundred workers. The family partners in the firm took a paternalistic approach to workforce management and in 1873 they introduced a profit-sharing scheme for the Brown & Polson workforce. Enrolment and benefits for workers under this scheme saw the workers get a share in the profits of the company. Thrift and economy were always encouraged with profit share being credited to individual saving bank accounts.

This paternalistic approach to the workforce went further and Brown & Polson built subsidised housing near to the factory as well as recreational facilities with a social club, bowling green and tennis courts.

By the late 19th century, the firm fully realised the power of marketing and media using advertisements and articles in newspapers and magazines targeted at a female audience. B&P developed new products, combining cornflour with rising agents, marketed as “Paisley Flour.”  Recipes using “Paisley flour” and handy cookery hints and tips formed part of the extensive Brown & Polson advertising strategy.

The firm remained a family business over generations until the early 20th century. John Polson junior the driver behind the success of corn flour died in 1900. John Armour Brown a grandson of the original business partner died in 1924. He was the last direct family member involved in the firm. As a private limited company from 1920, Brown & Polson Limited continued to produce corn flour whilst using the by-products from corn flour production to manufacture highly lucrative animal feed products. The firm further diversified in 1933 to manufacture blancmange powder.

In 1935 Brown & Polson was bought by an American company called Corn Products Co (C.P.C).

Tragedy struck in 1962 when there was a massive explosion at the animal feed drying plant area of the factory and five workers were killed. In the mid 1960’s as owners of the Knorr brand C.P.C moved production of soups and stock cubes to the Paisley factory. Between 1965 and 1975 the production of Gerber’s baby food products was undertaken at the factory site in Paisley. In 1978 an instant custard powder was launched using the brand name of Brown & Polson and manufactured in Paisley.

The products made at the Paisley site by 1992 diversly ranged from corn flour, custard powder, stock cubes, baby food and Hellmann’s mayonnaise.

In 2000 C.P.C was acquired by Unilever and the Paisley factory finally closed in 2002. Production of food products was moved elsewhere but the brand name of Brown & Polson corn flour continued and is still well known today.

Brown & Polson was first to patent and mass produce corn flour and launched a global food product. A success story which began in Renfrewshire.

Robertson’s Marmalade

What is the connection between the famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and a food product originally manufactured in Paisley?

The connection is Robertson’s Golden Shred marmalade.

Jars of Robertson’s Golden Shred marmalade made the perilous journey as part of the cargo to support Ernest Shackleton and members of the British Antarctic “Nimrod” expedition to the South Pole in 1907. The story of Robertson’s the manufacturers of the much-loved marmalade began in 19th-century Paisley.

The founder, James Robertson was born on 16 January 1832 in Niddry Street, Paisley. His father who was a handloom weaver died when he was a baby leaving James and his mother in poverty. By the age of eight James worked alongside his mother in a local thread mill. With an early ambition to escape a life of poverty, James began an apprenticeship at the age of fifteen in 1847 with a local grocery store. This was Gibson & Craig a wine, spirits, and tea merchant at 107 High Street. James applied himself diligently with on-the-job skills training supplemented by taking night classes at Seedhill School in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. In June 1856 James married Marion McFadyen, the daughter of a Paisley merchant. The couple settled into married life and by the age of twenty-seven James Roberson realised his ambition of opening his own grocery store at 86 Causeyside Street in Paisley.

All might have continued steadily in the life of a family grocer but for Mrs Robertson’s intervention in stock management over a barrel of Seville oranges which had not sold well with customers.  Mrs Robertson decided to use the oranges as the main fruit ingredient in her recipe for a sweet marmalade. The resulting marmalade was put up on the grocery shelves for sale and proved an instant success with customers. Some say the popular success of Mrs Robertson’s marmalade was because she removed the bitter pith from the oranges before cooking them, whilst others say that she added more sugar to the recipe and the texture of the resultant marmalade was more like a jelly than a chunky marmalade. It is Mrs Robertson who is also credited with inventing the name “Golden Shred” as she held a jar of the marmalade to the light coming through the grocery window the shreds of peel shone a golden colour.

The marmalade was so popular with customers that by 1864 production was moved to a factory at Thrushcraigs in the south of Paisley where bulk production could take place. James Robertson rented factory space in a cloth finishing works to expand the production of marmalade cleverly using the excess steam power from the adjoining factory to power the preserve-making plant and machinery. Success continued and only a few years later in 1880 James Robertson bought land at Stevenson Street in Paisley to erect a purpose build three-storey manufacturing plant. Golden Shred marmalade was joined by other jams and preserves to increase the product range for the growing consumer market. In 1891 Robertson’s mincemeat was included in the product range and became a staple ingredient of many Christmas celebrations. Continued business success saw the Robertson’s expand production over the following years with a second factory in Droylesden near Manchester opened in 1891 and one at Catford, London in 1900.

In 1891 the Robertson family are recorded in the census returns of that year as living in a mansion called “Marionfield” in the Blackhall area of Paisley. On 1 November 1902 however James Robertson suffered a personal loss when Marion Robertson died. The family business was incorporated as a limited company in 1903 and became known as James Robertson & Sons Preserve Manufacturers Limited.

A key to success for Robertsons employed from the beginning of the business was the extensive use of marketing and advertisements to expand their customer base with brands such as “Golden Shred” becoming very popular. In 1907 the British expedition to the Antarctic led by Ernest Shackleton took tinned foods and bottled preserves for the long journey of exploration and included in this were jars of the much loved Golden Shred marmalade.

Further expansion into the international market saw Robertsons set up a manufacturing plant in Boston, USA in 1910. It was at this time that the “Golly” marketing trademark was first used.

In 1914 James Robertson the founder of the business died aged eighty-three. He had come a long way from the grocer’s shop in Causeyside Street. He had also been a council magistrate, director of a savings bank, and was associated with several philanthropic causes and institutions. After his death, the family continued to oversee the management of the business with his eldest son John Robertson becoming company chairman. In 1928 the “Golly” trademark formed part of a marketing campaign which was continued for many years. The campaign took the form of offering customers a range of collectables such as enamelled badges, brooches and ceramics which featured the Robertson’s Golly. Consumers had to collect several product labels which could be exchanged for a collectable. The controversial symbol of the Robertson’s “Golly” was finally axed in 2001 and recognised as being racially offensive.

After over a century of trading Robertsons faced changing markets and in 1979 took the decision to close the Stevenson Street factory in Paisley. The following years saw Robertsons go through different company buyouts with factory closures. The Robertson’s Golden Shred brand continued throughout and from 2001 until 2006 customers were offered a range of collectables featuring characters from Roald Dahl’s children’s books. In 2015 James Robertson the great great grandson of the founder reincorporated the business.

Robertsons has had a long history and the story of their most famous product Golden Shred has passed through many episodes. To close this chapter of the story it is interesting to highlight the character being used to front the current marketing campaign for Robertsons none other than the World’s most famous marmalade sandwich eating bear Paddington.


Paisley’s first marmalade company?

Paisley’s best-known preserve manufacturer is of course Robertson’s of marmalade fame, but did you know that the manufacturing of marmalade and other jams goes back much further to the establishment of Alexander Cairns Preserve Manufacturer in 1848? 

Alexander Cairns was born in 1828 in Cumbernauld though his parents would move to Paisley in 1836 when he was 8 years old.  At the age of 20, he established a wholesale confectioners shop at 15 St Mirren Street, before moving the business to 2 High Street around 1853.  In 1867 Alexander’s brother joined the firm and it became known as Alexander & Robert Cairns Wholesale Confectioners & General grocers.  In 1870 they opened a works at 32 High Street where they increased their marmalade, jam and jelly production in addition to their shop at No.2.

The business was successful, and in 1885 Alexander’s son, Robert, joined the business.  In 1886 the preserve works moved to new premises in Clark Street and by 1890 the works was given the name “St George Preserve Works”.  From local adverts, the produce was available from ‘respectable grocers’ in the town and abroad.  Alexander Cairns died on 11 January 1900. 

In 1920 things changed drastically for the firm.  The business combined with Crosse & Blackwell along with James Keiller and Son of Dundee; E. Lazenby and Son; Cosmelli Packing Co; Robert Kellie and Son and Batger and Co.  By 1925 the business had left Paisley, though the produce and name were used in America by Crosse & Blackwell for many years.

But where does ministry come into our story?  Well, Alexander’s father, Robert, arrived in Paisley on the 2 February 1836 to take up a post as the first minister of the New Street (4th) United Secession Church (The former Laigh Kirk, now Paisley Arts Centre).  During his time at the church, he raised the size of the congregation from 37 to 335 and increased his salary to £156, but the church was always faced with problems. They rented the building from the burgh for £40 a year, but the burgh began renting out the building during the week to other groups causing issues for the church. As it would happen the 5th United Secession Church in George Street became vacant at the same time and both congregations discussed the issue and, on the 12th November 1839, both congregations came together as George Street United Secession Church.

Rev Cairns was greatly respected in both the church and community. During his 18 years at the church, his work brought growth in the size of the congregation. He was married to Margaret Walker in Glasgow in 1824 and had nine children, five of which were born in Paisley.  When Rev Robert Cairns died in 1857, while still the minister of the church, he was buried in the family lair at Woodside Cemetery just behind the Martyrs church, now the Martyrs chapel and the Beild Scout Centre.

Struthers of Lochwinnoch

For a century, soft drinks manufacturers Struthers of Lochwinnoch was well known for popular drinks such as Krystal Klear lemonade and Koala Kola.

The story of the family firm began around 1905 when William Struthers returned to Scotland from Australia to start sheep farming. He rented a large plot of land at Lintmills as well as some acres at Calderbank near to the village of Lochwinnoch. This latter site also contained an old mill and disused bleachworks with assorted outbuildings.

Recipes for fruit drinks and cordials such as ginger beer and lemonade were firm favourites which were produced and consumed on a household scale. In the late 19th century however the consumer demand for soft drinks drove manufacturers to develop new recipes and explore techniques to purify, preserve and enhance the shelf life of the product. This was achieved with the introduction of the use of carbon dioxide in the manufacturing process. The use of carbon dioxide put the “fizz” in the soft drink. The manufacturers of “carbonated” water as these soft drinks were sometimes referred to went further to explore ways of selling the product in glass bottles with stoppers and then screw caps. This gave rise to referring to a bottle of soft drink as a bottle of “pop” as this was the sound the residue of cardon dioxide made as it was released when the bottle was opened. By the beginning of the 20th century the consumer demand meant that mass production and marketing of “fizzy” drinks was very profitable. It may also be at this time that the Scottish colloquialism and use of the term “ginger” became popular when referring to any soft drink. This references the popularity of original homemade recipes for ginger beer.

In 1908 this was the marketplace that the Struthers family decided to join using the outbuildings at the site of the old bleach works and mill at Calderbank as their manufacturing base. By 1912 the sale and production of soft drinks had prospered enough for Struthers to move production to a larger site about a mile away in the village of Lochwinnoch. The building that Struthers choose to site this business expansion had originally been the old village school. This site provided space enough for offices, a laboratory for recipe development and experimentation, production and bottling plant and distribution and storage facilities. Over the years the product range expanded beyond lemonade to include others such as ginger beer, cola, red cola, limeade, orangeade, pineapple, and cherry flavours.

The Struthers family business continued to grow with their customers enjoying the full range of flavours with perhaps Krystal Klear lemonade being their most well-known. Marketing, always a vital component to business success saw this most popular variety advertised as “Krystal Klear – puts the ginger in your life!”

In 1987 the firm celebrated success when Krystal Klear lemonade won the European & Great Britain Gold Medal a prodigious award in the soft drinks industry. The granddaughter of William Struthers who founded the family firm was at this time involved with the management of the company. There were fifty-six staff with a fleet of eighteen vans and two articulated lorries employed to distribute to customers in a fifty-mile radius from Lochwinnoch. The company also employed the returnable bottle scheme with ten pence being paid for each bottle. An excellent description of the manufacturing process was outlined in an article for the Largs & Millport Weekly News on 22 May 1987 as follows:

“Great vats of syrup swirl and eddy, before making their journey through a network of pipes to where the syrup, sugar and carbonated water are blended and bottled. Heat hits with tropical force as you descend into the steaming heart of the bottling plant. A metallic jumble of pipes holding the liquid confection, bubble and chug as containers holding 14 tons of sugar, purified water, syrup, and carbon dioxide pour the drink in to the familiar screw tops bottles serried soldier fashion along the conveyor belt.”

This success was rightly celebrated by this family run business but in the following years the “fizzy” drinks industry saw massive changes with supermarket distribution on a much larger scale becoming the norm for business success and the cornering of the market by a few large multinational companies. In 2006 Struthers faced legal action by the Coca Cola global brand for the use of the Koala Kola product label. Struthers despite being a well-known and much-loved local family business could not compete in such a marketplace. In 2006 after a century of business in Lochwinnoch, Struthers closed, and production ceased.

Struthers and soft drinks production now form an interesting and important part of the history of the village of Lochwinnoch. The mention of Krystal Klear will for many evoke happy childhood memories of Struthers lemonade and the task of collecting empty “ginger” bottles to return to the local shop to get extra spending money!