Sweet Sticky Community – Unusual Jam Factory in Tasmania

Dray carts loaded with jam for shipment overseas, at Hobart, Tasmania, in the early 1900s.

Several months ago I wrote about an unusual reconnection with the Taylor family of Fort Stewart, Ontario, where I taught school in the 1970s. I promised then to tell the rest of the story at a later date. Here it is:

Don Taylor, grandson of the family I wrote about, re-introduced me to the home-made jam business that began in that isolated Mennonite settlement in Canada. Far up in the bush, with few options but to work in a uranium mine or rough sawmilling camps, some of those people turned to processing the berries that grow wild in that mosquito-infested wilderness. Out of that, with God’s blessing, grew a home industry that came to involve hundreds of people throughout Canada and the United States, and that is still going strong.

On Don’s suggestion I contacted Samuel Huber, founder of the industry, and began to take preliminary steps in seeing whether a similar project might work in this “little England” of the southern hemisphere. My research quickly led me to into a whole network of people I believe you should know about: the Peacocks, the Leitches, “Jam Tin Harry,” and more.

In the spring of 1850 George and Margaret Peacock left Bath in Somerset, England, to make a better living in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). On the ship they came to know John and Jane Leitch, a young couple from Scotland. While tending their little ones together, the ladies got to talking, sharing favourite recipes, and the like. Jane Leitch, it turned out, had cooked jam to sell in Scotland.

Small talk may lead to large things. In Hobart Town, where the Peacocks and Leitches found places to rent, the women used Jane’s recipes to cook jam for themselves and began to make some extra to sell. Everyone liked it. Even though they felt a bit silly doing so (they hadn’t travelled half-way around the world just to cook jam) the two men gradually got involved more and more. The little business grew until it kept all four adults and their growing children busy to keep up with orders.

After a number of years the Peacocks and Leitches rented an unused warehouse facing the Victoria docks at Hobart. They bought a copper steam-jacketed boiler and jam pans. Even though they hesitated doing so, they took on a few extra hands and the business grew from building to building until a major section of the Hobart waterfront became its unusual “jam factory.”

While the men took care of sales and supplies, Margaret Peacock managed the cooking operation. Work began at 7:30 every morning, but all hands were expected to come at seven for a half-hour prayer meeting with which to start every day. Anyone caught speaking unkindly, using the Lord’s name in vain, or showing signs of alcohol consumption immediately lost his or her job. The Peacocks and Leitches worked with everyone else, inspiring all by their good humour, their faithfulness, and loving example. All went marvellously and the business, eventually named IXL Jam, grew phenomenally until 1886, when disaster struck.

A family of six died of food poisoning in Hobart. The blame was put on a half-empty jar of IXL jam found in their house.

A number of ungodly people, long envious of the Peacocks’ and Leitches’ success, took the opportunity to attack the business and all associated with it. The matter was brought to court and eventually before the legislative assembly of Tasmania. “The bulk of Peacock jam,” one accuser testified, “is made of pumpkin, squash, rotten fruit, with only a spoonful of fruit pulp to give it the appropriate flavour.”

Even though the accusions were proven false (the half-empty jar of jam had been left standing open for weeks before the incident) the business suffered a severe blow from which it seemed unable to recover. Only one thing did not die with the business. The lovely days spent praying, singing, and working together in the jam factory like one large happy family lived on in the minds of the employees and they couldn’t bear the thought of all going their separate ways.

Many cried and prayed. Some wrung their hands in despair. But four young men, Ernest Peacock, William Leitch, Henry Jones, and Ack Palfreyman (son of a Primitive Methodist preacher from Table Cape, about whom I may write another story), got their heads together and decided to act as well as pray. With each of them contributing 500 pounds sterling, they were able to bail the jam factory out of bankruptcy, and get things back into operation. Taking better care then ever of their fruit (cooking all berries with a bit of sulphur, on site, before shipping them from the Tasmanian hinterlands to Hobart) they redeemed the company’s image, and more.

To let everyone see how the fruit was handled, processed, and packed, the young men began to take visitors through the factory. More and more people wanted to see it, and a growing stream of guests from the mainland, from England, and other countries began to take the “Jam Factory Tour.” Murmurs of the envious and disgruntled died down as everyone in Hobart began to feel pleased and happy with their one-of-a-kind “Christian factory.”

Henry Jones, with a real eye for business, married and took up quarters in the jam factory itself (as did others of the single employees). No wonder people knew him only as “Jam Tin Harry.” But many that had worked in the factory even longer than him, stayed on and on. Year after year the “jam factory people” got together on weekends as well as on workdays. They not only held prayer meetings, but went on picnics and day trips together. Their children played rugby together and formed a brass band. And because they had worked together all their lives, they found it completely natural to band together and care for one another as they grew old.

None of the “jam factory people” lost their jobs due to old age. Rather, they got smaller and easier things to do as long they could. George and Margaret, John and Jane, died after many years of faithfully working together. Ernie Newman tacked the lids onto wooden crates for 63 years until cardboard boxes (that he dismissed as “rubbish”) took their place. But even then his jam factory family found something for him to do. Miss Annie Blomfell worked at the factory for so long everyone forgot when she had started (and she wouldn’t tell). Even Bill Leitch, Fred Wilson, Alf and Bill Males, who all worked at the factory more than seventy years, didn’t know when Annie began, and by the time she finally died in 1965, no one knew how old she was, either.

Henry Jones, however, could not hide himself that well. Neither could his sister Emma (married to George Rigby) who became the horse and firewood buyer for the jam factory. At auction sales, all over eastern Tasmania, everyone stopped bidding on horses if they realised they were up against Emma Rigby. A modest quiet little woman she knew a good horse when she saw one, and had the means to get it. In 1920 the factory’s stables caught fire and over fifty horses perished in the flames, but with renewed vigour all hands joined to rebuild and the new stables were even larger and nicer than what they had before.

By the time of the Great War (World War I) the jam factory had established itself so firmly that all Australia and much of the rest of the British Empire had come to accept IXL jam as a fixture. The factory owned vast orchards, berry patches, and farms throughout Tasmania, the Australian mainland, New Zealand and South Africa. From there the business spread and more shops and lands were purchased in Ireland, Great Britain, Argentina, throughout Europe and North America. In our local town of Smithton, Tasmania, the factory set up a canning plant (still going as McCains) and got many local farmers started in vegetable raising, while all along the coast boys caught whitebait in season to supply the factory’s demands.

Out of the factory’s crate making grew a large sawmilling industry (seven saw mills in Tasmania alone). To provide itself with tin cans the factory purchased and ran its own tin mine in Malaysia. At the factory itself, young workmen turned out millions of tin cans yearly. Two coal mines provided fuel for the factory’s fleet of ships that sailed South Pacific and Indian Oceans, to Europe and beyond.

Not long before he turned sixty, Henry Jones received a letter from King George V calling him to a meeting in Buckingham Palace. Some worried about the meeting. Everyone knew “Jam Tin Harry” in overalls, a kindly man but barking orders in a loud gruff voice. All common sense without much elegance.

Henry Jones worked in his visit to King George on a business trip to England. The king congratulated him warmly for his great work in feeding Australia and the British Empire during difficult times. Then he touched him with his sword and knighted him: Sir Henry Jones.

“Sir Henry” returned to Tasmania somewhat embarrassed. Calling the jam factory people around him he said, “Don’t worry about titles. Just keep calling me Jam Tin Harry. I could have done nothing without the rest of you, and it is all of you together that deserve this honour I carry on your behalf.”

In 1926 Sir Henry Jones died, but the business, started in faith and operated for so many years on a foundation of prayer, honesty, thrift, compassion and good management for the welfare of all, is far from dead. With government regulation and business policy, no, it is not the “family of believers”  it used to be. In fact, a large number of IXL’s current employees may not even know the story. But for those of us that love Jesus, and enjoy a good breakfast marmalade on English muffins, it still speaks:

Working to make money is an empty pursuit. Working for the transformation of society is eternal gain.

Children at Rocky Cape with IXL jam, 9 December 2007.

Peter

Rocky Cape Christian Community
19509 Bass Highway
Detention River, Tasmania 7321
Australia
www.thecommonlife.com.au

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