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A sinful obsession

Tiptree in Essex boasts the UK’s only jam-making museum

The late J. S. Wilkin was fascinated by preservation. For some, his was a sinful and unhealthy obsession. For others, it was an important historical mission.

And all in the cause of conservation.

‘Big John’ began hoarding jam and everything to do with it. Not for rationing purposes but for historical motives.

Thirty miles from Stansted, Tiptree in Essex boasts the UK’s only jam-making museum. Entry is free. For years, Mr Wilkin tucked away in a back room of the original farmhouse jam-making machines, labels, prototype jam jars and containers, as well as archival jam-related documents and letters.

Like the ones from November 1914: “Business at a standstill. Large works closed. Much employment” and, four years later: “Acute shortage of wheat, sugar and other important foods. Went to see Government Jam Controller in London. Turned out to be a barrister. Very difficult to convince that one pound of sugar and one pound of fruit would not make two pounds of jam.”

The unique museum opened in 1985 with John’s wife, Daphne, doing the cataloguing. For some reason, the museum also stores for safe-keeping railway maps, a four-legged chicken and the propeller of a ‘Sopwith Snipe’ plane. Stow Maries airfield is nearby and, during the war, passing planes used to drop orders into the jam factory.

Curator Tally Flack says: “My favourite object in the museum is the tiny jar measuring 1.2cm high which was made to go in Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, presented to her in 1923 by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It’s incredible to see the intricate detail of the world-renowned Tiptree oval shrunk to the size of your fingernail.

“The John Wilkin Collection at the Tiptree Jam Museum provides a taste of the history of jam making at Wilkin & Sons Ltd. Sealed jars containing preserve from 1885 and copper boiling pans are the other stars of the show.”

The Romans preserved fruit in honey. It was probably the Phoenicians, searching for tin, who introduced jam to Essex.

The Brittania Fruit Preserving Company was founded in 1885 by Arthur Charles Wilkin. Harley’s of Lancashire (now Cambridgeshire) dates to 1871, Frank Cooper’s of Oxford 1874 and Robertson’s of Paisley, Scotland 1864. Manchester’s F. Duerr & Sons was established in 1881.

The Tiptree family have farmed the land  around Trewlands Farm since 1757. In 1867 it converted from arable to fruit and changed names. The first jams all went to Australia. The word ‘conserve’ was used for home-grown fruit and ‘preserve’ for foreign.

By 1891, 400 pickers were employed. In 1901, the company had 600 acres under cultivation and was growing gooseberries, cherries, damsons, quinces, crab apples, plums and loganberries. 

In 1914 The Essex Telegraph reported: “During Monday, over 10 tons of strawberries including a large proportion of the famous ‘Little Scarlet’ were made into jam.”

Produce was shipped on the old  Crab & Winkle line, the Kelvedon and Tollesbury Light railway. 1911 saw the award of a Royal Warrant from King George V. A second  ‘By Royal Appointment’ came in 1954, supplying the royal family with jam and marmalade. New jam boiling facilities, a freeze store  and sugar silos opened.

Spain has a jam museum

Tiptree, which claims to be the largest village in the country, derives  from Tippa’s Tree. The company now has 10 tea rooms in Essex from the 16th century timber-fronted  Essex Rose in Dedham to the latest in Bond Street, Chelmsford. It has several growing farms which share the privilege of hosting the annual charitable Strawberry Race in which contestants pick as many strawberries in an hour as they can. No one has ever completed one 150 row.

Wilkin & Son uses Leaf (linking the environment and farming) standards. Underground micro-irrigation systems are employed. Audrey’s iPhone is the hub. The company has recently diversified into lemon curd scented candles and Victoria plum and hand-picked ‘Little Scarlet’ reed diffusers.

The company’s unique ‘Little Scarlet’ strawberries came from the US and are erratic croppers. Unable to keep up with demand, strawberry conserve sells out quickly.

Spain has a jam museum or Museu de la Confitura in Torrent, near Girona. It is run by Geiorgina Regas whose interest in all things jammy started when an English friend gave her a recipe for lemon jam. She now makes 114 sorts of conserves, including azarote (hawthorn berry) and karkade (hibiscus). She  has written books about jam.

The word marmalade comes either from the Latin for sweet apple, ‘melimelum’ or Portuguese for quince jam (‘marmelo’).

“Jam and marmalade are not the same,” explains the Spanish jam museum curator. “No one can agree what the difference really is. Jam is made from fruit pieces while marmalade is shredded. In England, marmalade refers to citrus fruit preserves.”

In her museum you learn that Joan of Arc loved quince jam and ate it to build up her courage before battle. The Romans called marmalade ‘defutum’. Medieval quince spread was called ‘corignac’. Before he started making prophesies, Nostradamus wrote a treatise on preserves and jam.

Mary Queen Stewart was another jam ambassador. Henry VII was partial to quince paste. Marie Curie was a keen jam maker. James and Janet Keiller started making Dundee Marmalade with Seville oranges in 1797. Mackay’s are now the only company which makes it.

At the UK’s first and so far only jam museum you learn that Wilkin & Sons Little Scarlet Jam is the official jam of the Cream Tea Society of Great Britain. As well as a vital part of James Bond’s breakfast. With his French Marins hen brown egg “…there were two thick slices of wholewheat toast, a large pat of deep yellow Jersey butter and three squat glass jars containing Tiptree ‘Little Scarlet’ strawberry jam; Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade; and Norwegian Heather Honey from Fortnum’s.” (From Russia With Love)

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