In advance of our Made in Oxfordshire evening workshop, taking place on Monday 7th December in collaboration with Agile-ox and the Local Nexus Network, we explore the history of food and drink manufacturing with walk back in time! To sign up to the event click here, or see more details below. Please note the location of the event has moved to the Environmental Change Institute.
Walking through Oxford is a fascinating reminder that at one time food and drink manufacturing would have been a far more visible part of daily life for people living in the city. Right across the road from Oxford station there is the Jam Factory, now a restaurant, but formerly the production site for Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade. The first batch was made by Cooper’s wife, Sarah-Jane in 1874. A short walk away is Osney Mill, a flour mill from the 12th century up until it was partially destroyed by fire in 1946. It is now residential flats. A plaque in the Museum of Modern Art records the building’s history as the former Hall’s Brewery. This function is still evident in the museum’s floorplan, designed around a series of fermentation rooms. From the former cattle market that is now the Gloucester Green bus station, to street names like Beef Lane and Brewer Street, there are many signs that the food chain of the past was very much a central part of the city’s life.
Much of this productivity would have served local consumers. Breweries were typically linked to public houses which would have sold their beers. In East Oxford, records suggest that small bakeries were to be found every few streets, where they served their immediate neighbourhood with fresh bread. Of course, successful manufacturers of non-perishable food products would also have exported to the region and country. Oxford became a regional centre for the brewing industry, with 9 breweries operating in 1874. They were mostly close to the railway line and canals for ease of both supply of raw materials and distribution of the finished product.
However, as manufacturing processes, transport, health and safety regulations, and technology developed, food and drink manufacturing became more efficient, large-scale and centralised. Combined with a growing urban consumer-base demanding hygienic and affordable food, these changes in the industry cemented the rise of mass-production. Both bakeries and breweries are a case in point. By the early 20th century, bread was being produced industrially with semi-automated techniques. Frank Cooper’s Marmalade was bought up and moved outside of Oxford in the 1960’s, and the brand is now owned by Premier Foods. By 1914, Hall’s Brewery had taken over all except one of the city’s other breweries. In 1926, Hall’s itself was purchased by Allsopp & Sons Ltd. of Burton-on-Trent, along with a number of other regional brewers in the same period. Allsopps continued to make more acquisitions to become the biggest brewer in the country by the end of the 1950s, supplying 48% of the UK’s total outlets. The business eventually became part of the Danish Carlsberg Group, which now have just one large brewery in Northampton, with around 15% market share.
But continued centralisation, globalisation and economies of scale are not the end of the story for food and drink manufacturing. There are survivors from earlier times. When the Osney Mill burned down in 1946, mass-produced bread was already taking off, and the mill’s traditional local bakery clients were starting to disappear. Instead of rebuilding, the owners moved to a mill in nearby Wantage and specialised in producing flour for biscuits, rather than bread. After decades of supplying to the biscuit industry, the mill is now grinding bread flour again, creating a high-quality product for craft bakers, rather than for the mass-market. The company supplies both local and national customers, and uses a large percentage of grain from local farms in its grist. In the brewing industry, there has been a notable revival of diversity. By the end of the 20th century there were a limited number of large, mainstream breweries. However in recent years the number of microbreweries has rapidly expanded and is now in the thousands, partly due to taxation changes favouring smaller operators. While these small breweries focus on high-quality artisanal products often targeted at local audiences, some are also aiming for UK sales or even export markets.
One of Good Food Oxford’s strategic aims over the coming years is to promote the growth of Oxfordshire’s local food economy, and the value-added processing of raw materials into finished food products is an important part of the future potential in this area. GFO is collaborating with the Local Nexus Network to organise an evening workshop for everyone with an interest in local food and drink manufacturing in Oxfordshire to discuss key opportunities and challenges, and what might be done to support the growth of the sector. The event is open to all, and small food businesses, farmers, policymakers and civil society are warmly encouraged to attend. We look forward to seeing you there.
***Please note the location of the event has moved to the Environmental Change Institute***