From Pimms to crackers: Dictionary unlocks history of British cupboards

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The Independent Online

The men who gave their names to some of British cupboards' best-known products are among those to make it into the new online edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The 140 new figures in the dictionary include 15 biographies of entrepreneurs to have created household brands, among them Jacob's crackers, Lea & Perrins sauce and Veno's cough mixture.

Dr Philip Carter, the dictionary's publication editor, said the aim had been to "recreate the life behind the brand". He explained: "Often the individual gets forgotten and people think more of the item. We're keen to put the person back into the history of brands."

More than 800 corrections and additions have been made to the dictionary's 50,436 articles and 63 million words. The print version - which comes in 60 volumes - costs £7,500 and will be revised with more names added in the next four years.

JOHN LEA (1791-1874) and WILLIAM PERRINS (1793-1867)

Responsible for accidentally inventing Worcestershire sauce, these two trained as chemists and became partners in 1823.

Their Worcester shop sold medicines, cosmetics and groceries, but their legacy-winning search began in the 1830s for a distinctive sauce to supplement meat and fish. The recipe's origin is unclear but the duo's original tale describes how they were asked to make an exotic Bengali sauce. They produced several gallons for tasting but found it rancid and consigned it to the cellar. Opened by accident months later, the matured sauce was delicious and was launched for retail.

JAMES PIMM (1798-1866)

The London oyster bar proprietor gave his name to the gin cocktail still popular today. Initially an oyster dealer in Kent, by 1824, Pimm had established himself as proprietor of a "fast-food" bar serving oysters, lobsters and the like - customarily served with stout or a rum-based "house-cup". Pimm instead offered a drink based on the in-vogue gin, mixed with liqueurs, spices, bitter herbs and fruit extracts. Pimms No 1 soon became popular. The recipe for Pimms No 1 is a secret still shared by only a handful of employees of the firm; they claim it is identical to that devised by the man himself in the late 1840s.

SIR WILLIAM VENO (1866-1933)

Born William Varney in Castle Douglas, he became bored by his work as a shop assistant and ran away to sea in 1887. It was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that he set up the business that would make his famous Veno's cough mixture. In 1897, he returned to Britain and founded the Veno Drug Company in Manchester. Knighted in 1920, he was an enthusiastic art collector. In 1925 he sold the company for £500,000, a decision he later rued. He sought ventures to enhance his estimated £1m fortune but lost everything through speculative investments and the 1929 depression. He shot himself at his home during a fit of impulsive insanity.


The Irish architect of the cream cracker, as a teenager Jacob was forced to take over the family bakery when his father died. In 1850 he started making fancy (sweet) biscuits, competing against Carrs of Carlisle and McVities of Edinburgh and, within two years, the reserved and pernickety young businessman had begun large-scale production in Dublin.

Sales rose fast and W and R Jacob & Co Ltd was registered in 1883 with William as its chairman. In 1885, the company introduced the biscuit that became its most sought-after snack: the cream cracker.

Plain, pale and frail, it was the friend of spread butter, cheese or even slithers of meat. In the remaining 17 years of his life, he saw the firm expand to Liverpool, London and Manchester.

EUGENE RIMMEL (1820-1887)

The French-born son of a scent manufacturer, his destiny as a perfumer - if not as the creator of the first factory-made non-toxic mascara - was apparent. He set up shop with his father in Soho in 1834 and took a prominent place in the development of manufactured cosmetics that were beginning to replace home-made beauty products. Rimmel was most famous for his mascara, which had previously been made out of the soot from oil-burning lamps or powdered charcoal, both pollutants. He collected 10 Royal warrants as business expanded across Europe, the Americas and the British Empire. Towards the end of his life he advised women not to use paints on their face at all, saying "cold water, fresh air and exercise are the best recipe for health and beauty".