Sauce of inspiration

Henderson’s Relish bottle label (2023)

Mark Dawson’s talk ‘A Saucy Tale:  the history of Henderson’s Relish’ is a detailed account of one of Sheffield’s proudest cultural icons, presented by a food historian with access to the archive of a traditionally reticent family business.

His presentation is exemplary:  the PowerPoint presentation is immaculate;  the content – replicated in his book of the same title – is comprehensive and entertaining, and though he talks at 100mph you can hear every single word.

Relish, a piquant condiment to meals as well as an ingredient in gravies and sauces, is derived from catchup – later ketchup – which from the late-seventeenth century was made laboriously and expensively by hand until after about a hundred years it was mass-produced to sell to middle- and then working-class markets.

The two most prominent brands were Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce and Goodhall, Backhouse & Co’s Yorkshire Relish, both introduced coincidentally in 1837.

Henry Henderson (1850-1930) was born in Lincolnshire and apprenticed as a miller until he realised that the impact of roller mills in the late-nineteenth century threatened him, as Mark relates, with grinding poverty.

He started a grocery business when he married and moved to Sheffield in 1874 and, like many of his competitors in the north of England, he began to make and sell his own version of Yorkshire relish from his shop on Green Lane, Neepsend.

In 1885, to avoid litigation, he adopted the brand ‘Henderson’s Relish’ for his unique blend of exotic spices – tamarind, cloves, cayenne pepper and garlic – in a vinegar base.  Modern food-labelling regulations make the claim of a secret ingredient ambiguous, but there’s no question that Henderson’s, unlike Lea & Perrins’, does not contain anchovies.

The Hendersons company is a remarkable survivor.  It has always been maintained and sold on as a family business, and it’s never left Sheffield.

Henry Henderson sold up in 1910, enjoyed a twenty-year retirement and left an estate worth, in current values, three-quarters of a million pounds.

The company passed to George Shaw, a Huddersfield jam and pickle manufacturer, who moved Hendersons to Leavygreave and meticulously kept the Sheffield and Huddersfield businesses separate, which reinforced the strong connection between the relish and the city.

In 1940 Shaw’s manager, Charles Hinksman, bought the Sheffield business, formed Hendersons Relish Ltd and enjoyed a boom period after the war.  Mark Dawson calculates that in the early 1950s the factory was producing enough relish for every Sheffield inhabitant to consume half a pint a year.

When Charles died in 1953 his widow Gladys appointed her brother Neville Freeman to the board, and he ran the business with the characteristic pride and obstinacy of Sheffield business traditions. 

“We don’t reckon to be up to date”, he told a news reporter, and admitted that he personally never used the relish.

This was the period when Henderson’s Relish became a Sheffield institution.  It wasn’t sold outside a 25-mile radius of the factory.  “If you mention Henderson’s Relish in Rotherham, they don’t know what you’re talking about,” Neville boasted.  The Sheffield actor Sean Bean bought two gallons of relish on the basis of a false rumour that company was going bust.  Other Sheffield illuminati ranging from the nightclub entrepreneur Peter Stringfellow to Matt Helders of the Arctic Monkeys and the musician Richard Hawley have eulogised a condiment that used to be practically unknown south of Dronfield.

Mark Dawson characterises Sheffield as “a one-sauce town”.

When Neville died in 1985 his widow Connie brought in her nephew Dr Kenneth Freeman, who reconciled the company to a retail market dominated by major supermarket chains, and faced down the threat of losing the Leavygreave site to university development by opening a brand-new factory on Sheffield Parkway.

The Lewisham MP Jim Dowd caused uproar in 2014 by claiming in the House of Commons that Henderson’s orange label was copied from Lea & Perrins.  He had the grace to apologise and to put in a stint in the packing department when he visited the factory.

Nowadays, it’s cool to use Henderson’s Relish.  The orange labels have occasionally been rested to celebrate the local football teams and Jessica Ennis’s 2012 Olympic gold medal.  The bottle features in the Park Hill musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge.

I’m intrigued that Henderson’s Relish stayed so close to home for so long.  Sheffield is different to the rest of the old West Riding.  When I was interviewed for a job in Ecclesfield in 1973, I was firmly told that “Hartley Brook [the old city boundary] is as wide as the English Channel”.

My distinguished interviewer added, “They’re very conservative round here.  They still return Liberal candidates.”

Not so much nowadays.

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