Jam workers of Essex unite in delight

Kate Watson-Smyth hears how an old-fashioned business hopes to preserve its independence by handing control to the staff
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The Independent Online
WALTER SCOTT'S face beams out from under his hairnet. He is a deeply satisfied man. Not for him the restrictions of jam yesterday and jam tomorrow. For Mr Scott, production director at Wilkin and Sons of Tiptree, otherwise known as jam-maker to the Queen, there is jam every single day. And he never tires of it.

Mr Scott has another reason to be cheerful. An employees' trust fund has been set up which gives him, and the rest of the staff, a controlling interest in the company, which has a turnover of pounds 10m a year.

The trust was set up by Peter Wilkin, the fourth generation of his family to head the Essex firm, because he has no direct heirs and wants to protect the company from predatory buyers when he retires.

Mr Wilkin, or Mr Peter as he is known by many of his 180 employees, is continuing the philanthropic tradition of the company, which was founded by his great-grandfather, Arthur Wilkin.

"The company has had very strong employee involvement since it started. My great-grandfather was rather a non-conformist and he was very into worker participation," he said. "There are no other family members coming along and I wanted to avoid someone snapping up the company, stripping the assets and throwing everything else away. This way we can avoid that happening and also give the workers a stake in the business."

The trust, which has secured agreements to purchase just over half of the shares for the staff themselves, is run by five trustees of which Mr Scott is one.

Strolling round the factory, it is clear that Mr Scott is passionate about jam. He cannot resist picking up jars and holding them up to the light. "Look at the strawberries in that, it's beautiful," he says of a jar of Little Scarlet, the company's most famous product, which even earned praise from 007 himself in Ian Fleming's novel From Russia with Love. "Jam is like wine. There are vintage years when the weather is just perfect and the jam is wonderful. 1998 was a vintage year for Little Scarlet."

Wilkin and Son produces 89 varieties of jam, including grapefruit, damson, mirabelle, passion fruit and pineapple. Mr Scott, however, is not too keen on the fancy flavours: "They don't tend to do too well over here. They send us the exotic fruit and we turn it into jam and send it right back again." In fact, one third of Tiptree jam is exported, a practice that dates back to 1885, the year the company was founded.

Arthur Wilkin had succeeded in growing soft fruit on his farm but was having trouble selling it. The produce, which was sent by rail to other parts of the country, often arrived in poor condition.

Returning in low spirits from market one day, Mr Wilkin stopped to pick up some groceries and noticed that his wife had put jam on the family's shopping list.

The rest, as they say, is history. The first batches were produced in the kitchen of the family farm and the results encouraged him to go into partnership with two colleagues and move into the barn. The first commercial- scale production was undertaken that summer and the season's entire output of strawberry jam was exported to Australia.

More than 100 years later, the factory still retains an old-fashioned air. Mr Scott, who has only been there for 14 years and therefore regards himself as an apprentice, is proud to point out that machines are only used "where they would not interfere with the product". In other words, the machines are permitted to fill the pots but not to wash and select the fruit, which is done by hand.

In one corner two "ladies" are staring intently at a tray of empty jars. Suddenly one of them swoops down and whisks one of the jars away. The glass seam is too thick and unsightly. The jar is rejected.

Elsewhere large vats of Seville oranges are boiled for four hours. To prevent them all floating to the top they are covered with wire racks which are weighted down with buckets of water.

"We tried other ways of doing it which were, shall we say, more modern, but this is the best way, so we carried on," said Mr Scott.

The company is still in its original premises, and Mr Peter even professes to live over the shop in the same way that his forebears did. However, "over the shop" later turns out to be an imposing Georgian mansion on the farm's land. Many employees, past and present, also live on the farm - albeit in slightly more modest properties.

In addition to being one of the first employers in Britain to offer staff pensions, the first Mr Wilkin also built houses for his staff, many of whom are third generation.

The houses are dotted around the 1,000 acres of farmland, just under half of which is used to grow fruit. A small area has also been set aside for organic plum trees.

"The first batch of organic raspberry jam will be in the shops next week, and as soon as it stops raining we will be planting our first organic trees," said Mr Peter. The first Mr Wilkin, a man who liked things done properly, would have approved.