© COLIN BAKER 2007
In 1875, Edwin Samson Moore opened the Midland Vinegar Company brewery in Tower Road, Aston Cross; he chose the area due to the abundant local supply of hard water, which is essential to the brewing of ale and vinegar. There was already a number of ale brewers established in the area, including Ansells Brewery, which gave the area its distinctive aroma for which Aston Cross, will always be remembered.
As the company grew Moore, continued to extend his business interests by taking agencies for other food producers such as jelly, custard, coffee and gravy and they began to bottle their own pickles.
In 1883 two members of staff were tragically killed, when they drowned in a vat of vinegar.
With the company continuing to grow, Edwin was joined in 1890 by his eldest son, also named Edwin, (known as “Eddie”) and in 1893 his daughter Minnie.
With a successful vinegar and pickle business Edwin Snr. looked toward sauce production, he aspired to manufacture a sauce that would become a household name, and the company set about trying to find the right recipe and also the right name.
Edwin Snr. was involved with all aspects of the business, and one day when out collecting debts in Nottingham, he called at a small grocers shop, owned by a Mr. Frederick Gibson Garton, when discussing the matter of the debt Moore saw Garton was brewing a sauce that smelt “uncommonly good”. Garton had been brewing this sauce and delivering it around the neighbourhood on a basket cart, on the side of this cart was a board with the name “Garton’s HP Sauce”, when he asked for an explanation for letters “HP”, Garton said he had heard a rumour that a bottle of his sauce had been seen in a restaurant at the Houses of Parliament.
Moore had found what he was looking for, a sauce and a name, and cancelled Gartons debt and paid him £150 for the name and recipe for his sauce.
In 1901, Moore registered the offices of F.G.Garton’s Sauce Manufactory at Tower Road, Aston Manor, and by 1903 felt it was time to launch Garton’s HP Sauce. The initial reaction for the new sauce was better than Moore had expected and found him looking to extend the brewery. He realised the initial impact of the new sauce would need constant advertising, and assembled a fleet of small wagons, to transport the small bottles of sauce around the country, with the intention of using Zebras to pull them, however he was eventually persuaded that donkeys would be easier to train and maintain.
He followed this campaign a couple of years later, with possibly the first “doorstep challenge”, any housewife able to produce a bottle of HP Sauce on demand would receive 10s (50p), not a inconsiderable sum, considering the average weekly wage at this time around 15s (75p) a week.
Trade continued to increase and Moore looked to export his products, his first overseas customer was New Zealand, soon followed by Canada, by 1913 the USA was purchasing the sauce and South Africa followed a few years later.
At this time HP Sauce was considered quite a luxury, the sauce was sold for 6d (2 1/2p) a bottle, no small sum for a working class man.
Modernisation continued with the purchase of a lorry in 1912, followed by that of several motor vans and in 1913 motor cycles were provided for sales representatives.
In 1914, with the beginning of the Great War, the male workforce began to leave and join up to fight, with this shortage of labour and the heavy government demands for the supply of vinegar and sauce for the troops, Moore believing that “a woman’s place was in the home”, had to relax one of their rules, and employ married women, there was no official tea breaks at this time and woe betide anyone caught drinking, but the management didn’t wish to face the prospect of telling a crowd of women that they would be deprived of a cup of tea, turned a blind eye to the practice. Following the end of the war the married women moved out to allow the men to return to their old jobs.
In the immediate post-war years business boomed and conditions at the company improved, a sports ground was built for the staff and a weeks paid holiday was introduced.
In 1921, Edwin Snr. retired and in 1924 the Midland Vinegar Company was sold to the British Share Holders Trust, who floated it as a public company under the name of HP Sauce Ltd. With the takeover Edwin Jnr. also retired and so ended the Moore family connection with the firm.
The new management continued to run the company on similar lines to the old and maintained the atmosphere of a family business.
The company continued to grow throughout the 1920’s – 30’s and introduced a range of tomato ketchup and a salad cream, and acquired the company Lea & Perrins Ltd. manufactures of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. In the 1930’s HP still used nearly forty dray horses, which they used right up until 1948.
In 1939 with the onset of the Second World War, women again entered the factory to continue production and the workforce became fire fighters, air-raid wardens and drove ambulances, they even had their own Home Guard company. Often production output was reduced due to the uncertain availability of the raw materials. In an attempt to continue production contact was made with a Canadian company E.D.Smith of Ontario, who had supplied HP for many years with tomato puree and they were licensed to make the sauce in Canada. The recipe that had been a closely guarded secret since the days of Edwin Moore was translated into code and sent in two separate halves across the Atlantic, with the details of production following in a separate envelope.
During the war a small economy label was used on the bottles, and so the Garton label disappeared forever.
Following the war HP continued to grow acquiring the established companies of Macks of Walsall and Fletchers of Selby, both respected producers of pickles and sauce, and acquired an interest in the Albion Bottle Co. of Oldbury, who provided the bottles used by HP.
In the 1950’s HP Sauce Ltd. took over Norfolk Canneries who packaged such products such as baked beans, all under the HP label.
In 1956 an event happened at the factory that affected the whole of the area, just before Christmas of that year, one of the old maturing vats used in the vinegar production, burst sending 24,000 gallons of malt vinegar flowing down Tower Road, houses were flooded and a great deal of damage caused to the belongings of the householders. The company agreed to compensate them but were taken back by the number of claims for fur coats and family heirlooms of great value that were submitted, from the humble buildings. The only thing they couldn’t compensate for was the lingering aroma of vinegar.
In 1967, ownership changed again, with an offer from Imperial Tobacco Company. This enabled the company to further expand with the large sales and marketing department moving to Leamington Spa.
In the late 60’s, the area around the factory became part of the road modernisation plans for Birmingham with a result that when the road for the Express Way was cut through the middle of the factory, HP insisted that a pipe laid in the days of Edwin Moore to pump vinegar from the brewery to the maturing vats, should remain intact, with the result that a bridge was built over the road to carry the pipe.
In 1972 HP was amalgamated with another company within the Imperial Food Group, Smedleys of canned food fame, the resulting company Smedley HP Foods Ltd. based at Leamington Spa
In 1975 rumours had been heard about a management plan to close Aston Cross, but Imperial Foods dispelled fears by investing £1 million on expanding and modernising the premises. HP had another reason for celebration, it was now a hundred years since Edwin Samson Moore had established his Midland Vinegar Company at Aston Cross.
Extracted from “The True Story of H.P. Sauce by Dinsdale Landen and Jennifer Daniel