There’s a rather famous brown condiment, HP Sauce, which features a rather famous building, coincidentally called the Houses of Parliament, but is one named after the other?
It’s a curious story.
Described as being “prepared by blending together the most delicious oriental fruits and spices with a suitable proportion of pure malt vinegar.”, it was not unique on the market for such products, Hoe’s Sauce was almost identical, but clever marketing and advertising in newspapers helped it to become the household name it is today.
The question really is why does Big Ben* appear on the bottle, and is the name HP a reference to the Houses of Parliament?
There’s no simple absolute answer, just a lot of legends, and myths.
The origins of HP Sauce is said to go back to 1884, and a Nottingham Grocer, Frederick Gibson Garton who invented it in his pickling factory on Sandon Street, New Baseford.
Candidly, he no more invented it than Lea and Perrins invented Worcestershire Sauce, both made a product that was already well known locally, but at a time of dodgy food labels and lack of trust, they did so with branding and quality at their heart.
His first trademark, in 1890 was for The Banquet Sauce, which was designed as being used as banquets, mansions, hotels or private dining tables. The legend, often repeated, is that he registered the name H.P. Sauce in 1895, hearing that his bottled condiments were being served up at the Houses of Parliament.
Here’s the problem, I can’t find the trademark. If it exists, it’s not under the company name, under any variants I know were used, or even under the trademark number which is recorded in a letter.
The name Garton’s H.P. Sauce was certainly being used, as there are lots of surviving early bottles with the name embossed on the side, but was it actually trademarked?
What on earth is going on?
Whatever it was, Mr Garton wasn’t to enjoy the fruits of his labours for long though, as he was deep in debt to a vinegar malting factory, and despite any appeals to delay repayment, the debt was called in in 1899.
He was forced to sell his trademarks and recipes, not just for HP Sauce, but a whole range of products he was making to Edward Eastward & Edwin Samson Moore Manufacturers based in Birmingham, where they owned the Midlands Vinegar Company.
The new owners launched the sauce in 1903 as Garton’s HP Sauce, with the now familiar Houses of Parliament logo on the bottle from the start. Note, they never said at the time the product was linked with the Houses of Parliament, just used the image and presumably let everyone draw their own, obvious, conclusion.
Although the image had been in use for some years, the first advertisements that directly linked H.P. Sauce with the Houses of Parliament appeared in 1906.
That was a rarity though, almost all adverts since then have avoided inferring a relationship between the political leadership and the condiment — focusing mainly on its flavour and versatility in the kitchen. In fact, I can’t see a reference in any adverts to Parliament until 1910, when one advert stated that it “is used on the dining tables of the House of Parliament”.
The Midlands Vinegar Company changed its name to HP Sauce Ltd in 1925, which the company said that the change reflected the popularity of its core product, and other HP branded items, such as HP Pickles, HP Yeast, and HP Custard.
It was also around this time that Garton’s HP Sauce became simply H.P. Sauce, and in recent years, the full stops have gone as well, leaving just plain HP Sauce.
Although the Houses of Parliament have appeared on the bottle ever since, the design has changed dramatically. In the earlier years, they showed the full building, with the Victoria Tower in the foreground, and Big Ben towards the rear. That fitted with how the building was generally shown at the time, where the larger Victoria Tower was considered more impressive than the mere clock tower at the far end of the building.
After WW2, probably thanks to the increased significance given in radio broadcasts to the bell, Big Ben became a much more significant emblem for the Houses of Parliament and these days, any image of Parliament needs to include Big Ben – which would have seemed very odd to the Victorians who built it.
The question that’s unanswered though, is did Frederick Garton really rename his sauce, possibly from The Banquet Sauce to H.P. Sauce after hearing it was being used in the Houses of Parliament? If the story is true, then it’s at least very odd to have used the term HP, instead of Parliamentary, or something more obviously recognisable to the layman.
The fact is, we are probably never going to know the exact truth of the matter. Whatever the origins of the name though, it’s very clear that the famous branding and square bottle shape owe their popularity to the Midland Vinegar Company.
*Yeah, yeah, I know, get over it.