Walking through Oxford is a fascinating reminder that at one time food and drink manufacturing would have been a far more visible part of daily life for people living in the city. Visitors getting off the train at Oxford station can walk across the road to the Jam Factory, now a restaurant, but formerly the production site for Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade. The first batch was made by Cooper’s wife, Sarah-Jane in 1874. A short walk away is the towering Osney Mill. It was a flour mill from the 12th century up until it was partially destroyed by fire in 1946 and is now residential flats. A plaque in the Museum of Modern Art records the building’s history as the former Hall’s Brewery. This function is still evident in the museum’s floorplan, designed around a series of fermentation rooms. From the former cattle market that is now Oxford’s bus station, to street names like Beef Lane and Brewer Street, there are many signs that the food chain of the past was very much a central part of the city’s life.
Much of this productivity would have served local consumers. Breweries were typically linked to public houses which would have sold their beers. In East Oxford, records suggest that small bakeries were to be found every few streets, where they served their immediate neighbourhood with fresh bread. Of course, successful manufacturers of non-perishable food products would also have exported to the region and country. Oxford became a regional centre for the brewing industry, with 9 breweries operating in 1874. They were mostly close to the railway line and canals for ease of both, supply of raw materials and distribution of the finished product.
However, as manufacturing processes, transport, health and safety regulations, and technology developed, food and drink manufacturing became more efficient, large-scale and centralised. Combined with a growing urban consumer-base demanding hygienic and affordable food, these changes in the industry cemented the rise of mass-production. Both bakeries and breweries are a case in point. By the early 20th century, bread was being produced industrially with semi-automated techniques. Frank Cooper’s Marmalade was bought up and moved outside of Oxford in the 1960’s, and the brand is now owned by Premier Foods. By 1914, Hall’s Brewery had taken over all except one of the city’s other breweries. In 1926, Hall’s itself was purchased by Allsopp & Sons Ltd. of Burton-on-Trent, along with a number of other regional brewers in the same period. Allsopps continued to make more acquisitions to become the biggest brewer in the country by the end of the 1950s, supplying 48% of the UK’s total outlets. The business eventually became part of the Danish Carlsberg Group, which now have just one brewery in Northampton, with around 15% market share.
But continued centralisation, globalisation and economies of scale are not the end of the story for food and drink manufacturing. There are survivors from earlier times. When the Osney Mill burned down in 1946, mass-produced bread was already taking off, and the mill’s traditional local bakery clients were starting to disappear. Instead of rebuilding, the owners moved to a mill in nearby Wantage and specialised in producing flour for biscuits, rather than bread. After decades of supplying to the biscuit industry, the mill is now grinding bread flour again, creating a high-quality product for craft bakers, rather than for the mass-market. The company supplies both local and national customers, and uses a large percentage of grain from local farms in its grist. In the brewing industry, there has been a notable revival of diversity. By the end of the 20th century there were a limited number of large, mainstream breweries. However in recent years the number of microbreweries has rapidly expanded and is now in the thousands, partly due to taxation changes favouring smaller operators. While these small breweries focus on high-quality artisanal products often targeted at local audiences, some are also aiming for UK sales or even export markets.
The Local Nexus Network project is exploring this trend for more small-scale, local manufacture of food and drink and how this might change in the future. There are many factors that could drive this change, including an emerging demand from middle-class consumers for unique local products. The example of tax incentives leading directly to the rise of microbreweries shows that external conditions are also important. What difference will rising oil prices, new environmental regulations or new technologies have on the viability of local and small-scale food manufacturing? What are the connections between food, water and energy systems at local level and how can they be linked to produce environmental benefits? On what scale should businesses be organised in order to produce maximum social value and sustainable prosperity? Over the coming months, members of the multidisciplinary academic team working on the Local Nexus Network will explore some of these questions.
Julian Cottee is working on the food feasibility project for the Local Nexus Network at the Environmental Change Institute (ECI), University of Oxford.