[Much of the information in this section draws on original articles published in Grocer monthly supplement (1950) and Grocer Gazette (1959). A special thanks to modern day Sharwoods who supplied some of the source material]
In 1889, James Allen Sharwood founded JA Sharwood & Co Ltd - an importer and exporter of food products. His premises were in Carter Lane, City of London. His early success came when he recognised that a drought in France would threaten the supply of canned peas. He secured a deal in Holland for 500,000 cans and, that season, became one of the few suppliers of canned peas strengthening his business reputation and finances.
One of James’ guiding principles was “Make it easy for the grocer to show and sell the goods and easier for the customer to buy them.” He was responsible for many improvements to the products, packaging and marketing and went on to be a founder member of the Institute of Certified Grocers.
Sharwood’s association with chutney was another piece of good fortune. According to a 1950 article, a customer of the firm could not pay a debt and offered to pay with a ‘parcel of chutney’. JA Sharwood was wondering what to do with the Indian chutney and discussed the matter with one of his ‘travellers’ (travelling salesman) who agreed to introduce it to his customers. The original stock was soon exhausted and JA Sharwood, seeing another opportunity, set up arrangements with the Bombay manufacturers. This was the start of what became known as ‘Green Label’ Chutney. The story had changed somewhat by the time of a 1959 article. Chutney was already being sold but in very small amounts. ‘Ship Brand’ chutney was used to settle the debt but this remained in stock for a year. One of the firm’s travellers saw the stock in the warehouse and undertook to introduce it to his customers. Whatever the exact circumstances, the pound/rupee exchange rate was very favourable at the time meaning that chutney could be bought and offered at a popular price. The rest is history.
Yet another piece of good fortune occurred with crystallised fruits. A salesman from France, unable to speak English, was pleased to come across JA Sharwood who was fluent in French. JA Sharwood made many improvements to packaging and marketing and another important strand of the business was established.
The business soon outgrew Carter Lane and in 1899 moved to 10 Botholph Lane off Eastcheap (near the Monument) with a factory at Offley Road - Offley Works. Improvements were subsequently made to the buildings in 1908, extensions added in 1924 and offices in 1956.
Historical records offer an interesting insight into JA Sharwood & Co Ltd as an employer. A 1923 advert (presumed to be for Sharwoods) sought for Offley Works a 'Short hand typist (Lady )' starting from £2 10s per week -an advert that might challenge modern sensibilities. It is possible that some years later, the ‘lady’ who got that job typed the letter from the Director of JA Sharwoods (Major HG Lomer) to a Traveller based in Birmingham (AW Shaw) see picture on right. The letter clearly shows a confident, caring and forward thinking company offering a guaranteed income with an opportunity to earn more.
Sharwoods remained at the site until about 1963 when they were bought by RHM (Rank Hovis McDougall). In 2007, RHM merged with Premier Foods. Although now part of a much larger group, the Sharwoods brand remains as strong as ever.
There is an interesting local corollary to the story of Sharwoods. In 2010, Joanna Lumley, who lives a short walk from Offley Works, teamed up with Sharwoods to develop a limited edition Mango Chutney with Kashmiri Chilli -an ingredient from her birth place (Sharwoods donated 10p for each jar to the Gurkha Welfare Trust).
Lambeth has been home to many successful businesses and it is hoped that the new Offley Works development will incorporate a plaque or something similar acknowledging Sharwoods time at the site.
Michael J Keane
11 August 2011