The ingredients of a great story often include a mystery and a rise from obscurity to greatness. There are few better examples in Worcestershire than the incredible tale of two local chemists who created a product so successful that it can now be found across the globe.
Around the world many people use Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce but don’t necessarily know where Worcestershire is, or how to pronounce it! This versatile sauce can be included in a variety of recipes including a Bloody Mary, cheese on toast, meat and soups – the list of suggestions is endless. It is one of few successful exports that is still operating in the city of its birth, a testament to its unique flavour.
This lignite jug, on permanent loan to Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum, was used to make early batches of the sauce. Specially carved from brown coal, it was purchased by John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins for use in their original chemist shop. The pair had joined forces by 1823, manufacturing medicines but also stocking other items such as perfume, soap, veterinary supplies and foodstuffs such as gravy browning (as was common for chemists at the time).
Legend has it that the original recipe was not their own. Its mysterious origin story starts in 1835 when a “nobleman of the county” reportedly visited their Broad Street shop and commissioned them to replicate a recipe he had thoroughly enjoyed on his travels – a sauce infused with strong spices, onions and fish. The chemists followed out his instructions and delivered the order, retaining a small quantity for themselves, but the sauce tasted quite unpleasant and so it was placed in storage and forgotten about. Time passed and when the batch was tested again, they discovered it had fermented and was now delicious!
Lea & Perrins began making the sauce in larger quantities, sending out free samples to build demand. It became a great success and eventually overtook their chemist business until they were exclusively sauce manufacturers. They outgrew their little chemist shop and warehouses in 1896, moving their operation to a purpose-built factory on Midland Road, Worcester.
Their success inspired dozens of similar brands to copy the medicine bottle shape as well as the distinctive orange label. For a while, was entirely possible to buy a competing brand by mistake. The only unique feature Lea & Perrins was allowed to trademark was the white signature across the label and the words “The ORIGINAL and GENUINE”. Despite the imitators, Lea & Perrins’ business sense and unique recipe means it is now a globally recognized product which stood the test of time.
The identity of the “gentleman of the county” was never revealed by the chemists, although it is assumed to be politician Baron Marcus Sandys. Lea & Perrins have stated that “various legends have appeared from time to time concerning the origins of our brand, but never the correct one as far as we know.” Perhaps they honoured a gentleman’s privacy, perhaps we have guessed incorrectly, or perhaps it was a brilliant piece of marketing from the start. We will probably never know for sure but, as with many mysteries of history, it all adds to the charm.