There can’t be many places where a four-legged chicken, railway planning documents and pictures of the Queen sit side by side, let alone make sense by doing so — but such is life at the Tiptree Jam Museum.
The petite exhibition is inside a barn at the farm and factory where the internationally-known Tiptree jam brand is produced. Though still very much a family-run business, the site has become something of a tourist attraction, with a shop, tearoom and museum open to the public, next to the fields where those famous strawberries are grown.
Located in a barn off the tearoom, the museum tells (most of) the story of the brand, from its origins to the present day through a charmingly random collection of objects and information boards. As a handful of visitors ogle the exhibits, staff parade backwards and forwards delivering food and drink to the Secret Garden area of the tearoom outside, the gentle tinkle of cutlery and glasses providing a relaxing soundtrack.
In the 1970s, the company founder’s grandson had the foresight to save some objects which had been relegated to the scrap heap, and the collection first opened to the public in the 1990s.
Originally called the Britannia Fruit Preserving Co, and later given the family name, Wilkin — which is still seen on some jars today — the brand was eventually renamed Tiptree after the rural essex village in which it’s located.
The Wilkin family history and how Tiptree village came to be is told through a small display of maps, photos and information, including a letter from then Prime Minister William Gladstone, whose 1883 speech inspired John Wilkin to found the Britannia Fruit Preserving Co. Wilkin sent Gladstone a jar from the first batch, and a handwritten note from Gladstone thanks him for the ‘agreeable present’.
Early documents show the jam was popular in Australia as early as 1886, and a 1920s clock, made in New York and used by Tiptree staff for clocking in, is a thing of beauty. But mostly, emphasis is on Tiptree as a small, family-run business, offering employment to local villagers and taking good care of its staff through benevolent schemes and help with housing.
For us though, things get really interesting when we spy those four magic words on a sign on the wall — ‘Beware of the Trains’. A map runs from floor to ceiling, showing the route of the ‘Crab and Winkle Railway’, which opened between Kelvedon and Tollesbury, including a stop at Tiptree, in 1904. Documents announcing its opening and displaying its timetable are shown, but little else is offered in the way of context and background information.
Our train-loving itch left unscratched, we continue on to a fascinating section about Tiptree in wartime (via a mounted and stuffed four-legged chicken, which was bred by the Wilkin family). So desired were Tiptree’s conserves during the first world war, that orders for the Royal Flying Corps at a nearby base were placed by dropping a weighted streamer into the Tiptree fields, a system that worked for several months until the Captain responsible was killed in a flying accident.
In addition to feeding local troops, Wilkin & Sons sent 8,000 boxes of jam to the Front during the first world war. Later, during the second world war, with produce rationed, Tiptree launched a temporary brand, Unitree, to avoid tarnishing their respected name while they were forced to make lower quality goods.
Fans of industrial heritage have much to enjoy here, including the world’s first automatic jam jar filler from the 1950s, filling 60 jars per minute (the modern equivalent does 180 per minute). A 1930s orange peel slicer was made in the Tiptree factory, using objects including bicycle chains and piano wire, and an automatic labeller, and an apple peeler and corer are also among the historic items saved from the scrap heap.
More into visual exhibits? A wall is adorned with past Tiptree adverts, taken from magazines from the 1970s onwards. Adjacent, a cabinet is stocked with the evolving jars and bottles used for Tiptree products over the years. Even more interesting are the examples of brands which have attempted to copy Tiptree’s patented oval design (think Colin/Cuthbert the Caterpillar), some of which resulted in legal action being taken by Tiptree.
Royal fans are treated to some photos of Her Majesty, on a visit to Tiptree — which holds a Royal warrant — in 2010, and some limited edition jars to mark her Diamond Jubilee a couple of years later.
A special gift jar, created to mark Tiptree’s 125th anniversary, comes with a gift voucher for cream tea. Expiry date? 2135 — another 125 years’ time. And out here in rural Essex, with its family values and traditional way of doing things, it’s not hard to believe that Tiptree will still be going strong by then.
You could easily see everything in the museum in 15 minutes — indeed, reading and examining every object in detail wouldn’t take you more than an hour. Once you’re done, queue up for a table in the tearoom or secret garden, and enjoy a cream tea or slice of cake in the Essex countryside.
On the other side of the building, the Jam Shop sells all manner of Tiptree products, including jams, sauces and spirits, plus sweets and other gifts. Oh, and trust us when we say visit the toilets before you leave — the walls are plastered with former Tiptree posters, adverts and other paraphernalia, and are well worth a look.
Tiptree Jam Museum, Factory Hill, Tiptree, Colchester, Essex, CO5 0RF. Entry is free. The nearest railway stations are Kelvedon and Marks Tey, both of which are a few miles away. Tiptree has tearooms at other locations around Essex and Suffolk too.
Take a look at our map of day trips near London for other ideas for days out.