Edwyn Gilmour on a surprising part of the history of the Catholic Movement
Marmite disappeared from the shelves briefly in October after Unilever’s spat with Tesco; but seems to have returned. This is an account of the life of a faithful Anglo-Catholic layman who has no memorial, and yet whose endeavours led to a result familiar to millions across the world.
Alfred James Oxford was born in Burton-upon-Trent in April 1858. As he grew up it became clear that he had an unusual combination of talents. He had a keen analytical mind, and was good at mathematics; but at the same time he had a natural gift as an artist. He also applied this artistic ability to carvings on hand-made furniture. Because of his ability with figures it followed that his creative work was always very precise; but despite all these attributes he was always thought of as being more of a dreamer than an achiever. In the light of later developments, however, it can be seen that this was not necessarily the case.
In any event, like many residents of Burton, when he left school he worked for one of the town’s many breweries – he was employed as a wages clerk with Samuel Allsopp & Sons, and later became an accountant with the same company. For many years Alfred was a churchwarden of St Lawrence’s, Walton-on-Trent, which then enjoyed full Catholic privileges.
Working in the heart of the brewing industry, Alfred became aware of the huge quantities of yeast that were continuously discarded. He set his creative mind to discovering if there was any useful material that could be salvaged from it. His interest turned to serious research, and by experimenting he found the means of terminating the fermentation process. From there on it was a matter of considering and trying out what other materials could be added to the static yeast; and then, when a composite foodstuff had been created, to consider in what areas the new nutritious compound could be applied. In time he found a way to create a sellable product from what was at that time considered purely as waste.
Alfred’s brother Leonard recommended that Alfred took out patents on his new foodstuff – Leonard had already taken out patents of his own in 1897 in connection with a profit-sharing scheme. The Oxford brothers were not alone in their researches into yeast extracts, and the depositing of their Patent Application in 1901 under the title of “Improvements in the Treatment of Yeast for the Utilisation thereof” would have aroused much interest.
Alfred, however, found his income stretched to the limit. Faced with a choice between supporting wife and family or funding his researches, he allowed his provisional patent to lapse. The unprotected patent was immediately snapped up; and a small production plant was set up by a newly-formed company calling itself the Marmite Food Extract Company, which launched its product in 1902.
During the 114 years that Marmite has been in production the manufacturers have never acknowledged the origins of the product. The commonly accepted story about the origins of the product is that it was invented by the Marmite Yeast Extract Company, who, on that basis, would have formed the company, invented the product and then marketed it, in that order, and all in the space of a year!
Although Alfred continued with his researches and took out later patents for animal feed products, nothing further evolved of any great consequence, and he died in 1923 at the age of 65. Alfred took it all very philosophically, and he clearly felt that his first duty was to his family. He remained loyal to his Anglo-Catholic tradition and brought up his children in the faith. His last words, spoken with a smile, were “I shall be happy up there.” Following his Requiem at St Lawrence’s Church, his body was laid to rest in the churchyard – at his own request he was placed in an unmarked grave, with no headstone.
Edwyn Gilmour is a lay minister at St Andrew’s, North Weald, in the Diocese of Chelmsford. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Prag (no.105),
at Christmas 2006