A small village in Essex that you probably didn’t know existed, yet with an instantly memorable name is also home to a museum – of the making of jam.
The village is Tiptree, and since 1885, Wilkin and Sons have been making their world-famous jams here. Quite literally world-famous, as their first batch, under the brand name of The Britannia Fruit Preserving Company was sold in its entirety, for shipping to Australia.
Today, Tiptree jams are a curiously old fashioned looking product on the supermarket shelves. Ubiquitous and with their old text-heavy labels and royal warrants, they look posh but remain accessible.
A dollop of Miss Marple, scones and cricket on the green appearing on kitchen tables across the country.
Despite the lure of modern business methods, they are still producing jam in Tiptree from local farms to this day. They’ve branched out a bit, with tea rooms in several towns, and more fruit-based products for sale, but it’s likely that mechanization of farming and jamming aside, the founder would probably still recognise the company today.
The village of Tiptree being their home, it’s also home to the fairly recently opened museum, and one of their tea rooms.
I had expected the tea room to be all cream teas and the like, but it’s more of a local cafe – and your correspondent took in a full English Breakfast, which was decent if hardly amazing – filled a spot without being fussy. As the car park was half-empty but the tea room busy, it’s evident that this is not just a tourist trap, but a very local amenity. Maybe they lay on the cream teas for the coach tours.
The museum looks modest in size but is surprisingly informative. A few factory and farming implements dotted around adding a flavour (and there’s more outside) – but it’s mainly display boards and old photos.
From the beginnings of the area as post-Roman farming, right up to the arrival of the Wilkin family and their long reign over the area.
I was surprised by the Belgian signs on one wall — and it turned out to be a gift from former Belgian refugees who lived and worked locally during WW2.
About a quarter of the museum is given over to wartime efforts, for both as a food producer struggling with sugar shortages and government demands for basic foods, not the fancy stuff, to the social impact of the war on communities.
The centre is packed with old equipment, including an early orange peeler made from an angle iron, a motor, bicycle chains and piano wire. Heath Robinson would have been proud.
Do look at the 125th-anniversary display, with a special jam jar given to all employees, which includes a gift voucher with an expiry date of 2135 — when the factory will be marking its 250th anniversary. That’s long term planning.
They also give over a decent about of space to the thing that often makes a jar of Tiptree jam stand out — the label. It’s a trademarked design from just under 100 years ago, and they show off some naughty jam jars from other firms who veer a bit too close to the Tiptree design.
In an era of supermarket own-brands and low-cost alternatives, today the label is probably the one thing preventing Tiptree’s descent into being a low-cost commodity producer. It’s a strong brand and apart from small local producers often selling in heritage sites, there’s not another jam producer with the same brand recognition.
Unlike some firms who trade on their brand, and end up spreading it too thinly over many products, Tiptree has stuck to fruits — so yes, the jams, but also now curds, honey, candles — and gins!
There’s a shop next to the museum packed full of those familiar jam jars and gin bottles.
I did like the sign by the museum entrance. Most places say they have CCTV for our safety and convenience as if somehow we are the beneficiaries. Tiptree says that it regrets the need to have them. I prefer Tiptree’s opinion.
The museum is open daily, and free to visit. I spent a surprising amount of time there. It’s a goodly mix of social history, industry, and a railway line.
Had you visited a couple of years ago, all around the entrance was more fields, but today a roundabout and a housing development fill the space. While most of it is conventional houses for sale, Wilkin and Sons continues the custom famously popularized by Cadburys, and provides homes for its employees — and recently some of the new homes were handed over to the jam makers just across the road.
In fact, the jam makers own about half the company, as a trust was set up on behalf of the employees, and it has slowly been increasing its stake in the firm.
The one thing I didn’t get to see was the farm itself. They offer tractor tours at weekends in the summer, which you buy tickets for on the day. As the text at the top of the webpage the tickets go on sale from 9:30am, I assumed the tours were an all-day thing, and I missed the text at the bottom of their webpage with the tour times. The first one is at 1:30pm, so if you’re planning a visit, lunchtime is better than mornings.
I, however, had other places to visit, so couldn’t linger.
Getting to Tiptree
It’s not the easiest place to visit for people who don’t drive.
A train service to the nearby town of Kelvedon is regular and swift from London. From there it’s about 3 miles to Tiptree, which is tolerable by cycle, or if like me, a decent hike through the countryside.
There is a very irregular bus service, the route 91, with buses every couple of hours at weekends (and more frequent during the week).
It was once much easier though – as there used to be a dedicated railway line to Tiptree.
The Kelvedon and Tollesbury Light Railway opened in 1904 and part-funded by the jam factory to improve deliveries to towns. It ran from Kelvedon down to the coast, and while mainly freight, it carried passengers as well.
Sadly, not enough passengers, and was eventually closed down in 1962.
More sadly, the line was quickly taken away and most of it now lies under modern housing developments. Had the line lingered on a tiny bit longer, or the route preserved, it would probably today be a hugely popular heritage railway, and the Jam Museum an essential stop to visit.
Had that happened, the Jam Museum you probably didn’t know existed would instead be quite famous.