Alfred Bird’s Custard

Bird’s custard powder.

Cornflour based custard is now so common that, for many of us, it is more “real” than the version made with eggs. Alfred Bird (1811-1878) is the man we need to thank for it.

Alfred set up himself up as “experimental chemist” in 1837. I am not entirely sure what an experimental chemist was meant to do but Alfred’s investigations were influenced by his wife’s delicate digestion.  Mrs Elizabeth Bird was unable to eat eggs or bread made with yeast so Alfred came up with alternatives.  Initially his inventions were only used at home but he went on to manufacturer them on a commercial-scale.  Custard powder was popular from the start.  It was cheap, simple to make and tasted good. By the mid 1840s it was being sold throughout Britain.

Alfred embraced the new opportunities of industrial Britain, which helped his firm to grow.  He put a lot of energy into promoting his products, which is reflected in the company motto,

“Early to bed, early to rise, stick to your work, and advertise.”

Later two of his sons joined the firm and more products were developed, including blancmange powder in the early 1870s and jelly crystal powder in 1895.   The firm, Alfred Bird and Sons Ltd, was bought in 1947 by the General Food Corporation.  Today the Bird’s brand is part of Premier Foods and the old Bird’s factory in Gibb Street, Birmingham is now part of an arts and media quarter called the Custard Factory.


Marmalade and Dundee Cake

Towards the end of the 18th century Janet Keiller (1757-1825?) founded a marmalade dynasty which also pioneered the Dundee cake.

Keiller’s stoneware pots have become quite collectable. Later ones were made of white glass. Image from

The story goes that Janet’s husband brought a quantity of Seville oranges from a Spanish ship that was sheltering in Dundee harbour and she invented marmalade.  Like a lot of good stories it is partly true but has been somewhat embroidered.  Recipes for marmalades existed before Janet’s “invention”.  It would be more accurate to say that Janet, who ran a shop selling sweets and jams, adapted an existing recipe.  Her innovation was to include pieces of peel rather than pound the oranges into a pulp.  The invention story lived on as marketing hype.

Janet and her son James set up a small factory to make this new type of marmalade. When James died, 1839, the enterprise was taken over by his widow, Margaret, and their eldest son Alex.  Alex turned out to be a hard-headed businessman and the firm expanded under his guidance.  Alex’s younger brother William was sent to run a Keiller’s outpost in Guernsey, which helped the firm to reach markets beyond Scotland and gave them a tax break since, at the time, the Channel Island had no sugar duty.  In 1880 the company opened a factory on the north bank of the Thames, London close to Henry Tate’s sugar refinery.  Keiller’s products were exported all over the world.

There is another story that the Keiller’s were the first firm to produce Dundee cake on a commercial scale and they did so to keep the factory workers busy when Seville oranges were unavailable.  Recipes for this fruit cake decorated with blanched almonds came be found here.

Cleaning up the Milk Supply

Last week’s protest by British dairy farmers, and their threat to disrupt supplies during the Olympic Games, made me think about milk.   Specifically about how accustomed we are to having clean milk available all year round.  In Britain we might worry that too much double cream is unhealthy but we can assume that milk, and other dairy products, are safe.

Franz Ritter von Soxhlet, the German chemist who developed pasteurization in the late 19th century.

During the 18th and 19th century milk could be a source of illness.   Leaving aside adulteration, the way milk was produced and transported allowed harmful micro-organisms to multiply.  Milk cows were often kept in overcrowded conditions, equipment was not always cleaned properly and the lack of refrigeration made things worse.   Tuberculosis was one of the diseases that could be spread by contaminated milk but the lack of certainty about how the disease spread meant there was plenty of room for disagreement.  Some argued that the milk supply could be cleaned up by good hygiene practices alone.  Others argued that pasteurization of milk was absolutely essential.  There were even voices suggesting that the best solution would be for the government to take over milk production as in this 1899 Fabian Society leaflet.

Of all the people who helped clean up the milk supply the Medical Officers of Health deserve a special mention.  These government officials, who began to be appointed from the mid-19th century, gathered evidence on a range of public health matters including the milk supply.  They inspected milking parlours, visited dairies, tracked the spread of disease and reported on the cause of deaths in their area.   All of which helped to persuade others of the need for improvements.  Some changes were slow to come.  Franz Ritter von Soxhlet (1848-1926) proposed a way destroying the harmful bugs in milk by heating it, i.e. pasteurization in 1886 but British diary farmers resisted compulsory pasteurization.  It wasn’t until 1949 that it became standard practice across the UK. 

This book by Hannah Velten provides more information about the history of milk.

The King of Golden Syrup

The classic green tin was introduced in 1885 and the design has hardly changed since then.

Abram Lyle (1820–1891) was responsible for producing and selling an awful lot of golden syrup.

Abram was born in Greenock, a Scottish port near Glasgow, which was heavily dependent on the sugar trade.  He attended a good local school until he was apprenticed to a lawyer at the age of 12.  Later Abram joined his father’s cooperage firm.  In addition to barrel making Abram developed a shipping business with his friend, John Kerr, which grew to be one of the largest in Greenock and made both men rich.  Abram and John expanded into sugar refining in the mid 1860sIt was probably at  the Glebe Sugar Refinery that a syrup by-product of the refining process, originally known as “Goldie” was first made and sold to staff and locals.

Abram Lyle by an unknown artist. Image from Wikicommons.

In 1881, Abram bought land in Plaistow, East London and began building a sugar refinery.   His sons managed this refinery on the banks of the Thames while Abram remained in Scotland.  In 1883, as the Plaistow refinery was getting established, Lyle’s and Sons suffered large losses due to a dramatic fall in the price of raw sugar.  The value of the sugar they were importing collapsed while en-route to Britain.  The Lyles’ businesses looked shaky.  Abram sold the cooperage business, his only steam ship and persuaded the bank to extend their credit.

Golden syrup was their salvation. Abram insisted that the refinery pushed ahead with production and Golden Syrup was profitable.  Part of the Plaistow refinery was devoted to making this partially inverted sugar syrup.  The Plaistow refinery became part of Tate & Lyle in 1921 and continued to produce Golden Syrup.   In 2010 it was sold to American Sugar Refining.

For more about the worker’s lives at Plaistow in the 20th century see the recently published book The Sugar Girls.