Dundee Marmalade was introduced to the commercial market by the firm of James Keiller of Dundee, at the beginning of the 19th century.
It is generally accepted that the Keillers went from the discovery of marmalade to a factory operation in a remarkably short time; such was the desire and profitability of this new, exotic – but still familiar – product. However, recent research has unearthed the more humble beginnings and arduous rise to profitability of the Keillers – and also discovered a story beset by jealousy and commercial fratricide.
Janet Keiller lived from about 1735 to 23 July 1813, owned a small sweet shop, specialising in selling jam and ‘boilings’, with fruit picked from the locality – namely the berry fields of Blairgowrie and the Carse of Gowrie.
Keiller’s Marmalade is said to have been the world’s first commercially produced marmalade. The traditional story about its origins is that John Keiller was in Dundee’s docks one day when he encountered a storm-bound Spanish ship trying to offload – in every sense of the word – a cargo of Seville oranges that were too bitter to eat, and as a result proving difficult to sell. John brought them for a good price, and Janet thought it would be worth trying them in an existing recipe she had for quince jam. Recipes for marmalade, even orange marmalade, already existed, but what set Janet Keiller’s apart from the rest was the inclusion of shreds of orange skin.
Indeed, the notion that Keiller invented marmalade from scratch is quite preposterous, especially as recipes for similar ‘pots’ have been traced back to the 1500s; what is more probable is that she, an experienced maker of sweets and jam, used her existing knowledge and new raw materials to put her own particular twist on an existing recipe and came up with the ‘chip’ marmalade we know.
Alex was an extremely hard-nosed businessman and, in an attempt to maximise profits and take advantage of the favourable tax conditions, he authorised the purchase of a small property in Guernsey – which capitalised on the lack of sugar duties and, whilst managed by his brother William, accounted for one third of the Keiller’s net output, although the Guernsey stock always carried the Dundee logo.
The move to Guernsey was also a direct attempt to service the south of England, a market which had gradually opened up to the Keiller’s over the years, but now was at danger from a growing list of competitors – especially as producing marmalade and jams could be easily done with little specialised equipment.
Alex Keiller fitted the stereotype of the paranoid tycoon perfectly, although to call him a tycoon possibly overstates his importance in the city of Dundee. In a city built around the jute industry, a sector that employed thousands, the Keiller’s small time operation was, by comparison, fairly insignificant.
The Keillers only employed approx. 300 people at their peak of production, which, when set against the 3200 that worked in Cox’s Lochee mill alone, it is evident that although their brand was growing at a quick rate, their impact on the local community was limited.
The Keillers did much for putting the city of Dundee on the national and international map, but within the city itself they were not recognised as the global brand that they were. Indeed, local historian Charles Maxwell stated in 1867 that “the Keillers’ operation was small and unimportant when compared with the jute and flax spinning”. Alex Keiller also appreciated that his business was small-time locally and could not compete with the larger spinning businesses in terms of wages, so used this as an added justification for opening the Guernsey arm of the operation.
Alex’s paranoia about rival businesses and his brother’s performance in the Channel Islands would undermine their own relationship and provide a sad end to what should be a success story. William, the appointed proprietor of the Channel Islands operation, was Alex’s younger sibling and lacked the business acumen of his older brother. A furious series of correspondence between the two highlighted their tensions and exposed a fractured relationship.
Alex, often dismayed with the lack of profitability recorded in Guernsey, constantly reprimanded his brother – for, on occasions, the poor quality of produce, slip-ups in packing which resulted in destroyed goods and, his biggest bugbear, the comparative lack of profitability when placed alongside his own Dundee-based operation. The Guernsey operation, with all its foibles, lasted until 1879 before being transferred to North Woolwich and brought back under the control of the Dundee plant.
The Keiller name continued to grow, and attracted outside investment well into the 20th Century. They built on their humble beginnings and traded off the notion – which still exists to this day – that Janet Keiller invented marmalade.