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Preserved in blue and white: Sarah Cooper

My parents are great fans of marmalade. Most weekends, when I come downstairs in the morning, I will find them eating it with toast. I am not the biggest fan myself, but their favourite brand is Frank Cooper’s ‘Oxford’ marmalade. It is available almost everywhere, with its distinctive, endearing and old-style design of simple bold text upon a white background and the Royal Warrant. My own mum would describe it as ‘a cut above the rest’ with a ‘delicious tang’ and a taste ‘less sweet’ than other brands. What is clear is that this is some quite good marmalade. You may already be wondering how this could be relevant, but trust me here. Believe it or not, there is actually a blue plaque for this confection, or rather its originator, situated on the High Street. Next to the historic Grand Café, on a pastel pink house just before the exams schools, a blue plaque reads “Sarah Cooper 1848-1932 First made Oxford Marmalade here in 1874”.

Though the brand may be known as Frank Cooper’s, it was Sarah who made the first legendary batch years ago in the family kitchen. She was born Sarah Jane Gill, in the village of Beoly in Worcestershire, and had Oxford connections through her father John, who came from a family of iron-mongers, printers and coal merchants. In 1872, while she stayed in Clifton, she married Frank Cooper. He had inherited his father’s grocery business on the High Street in 1867, and expanded it next door into No. 83, where the plaque is today. The premises was operated both as the shop and the family’s home. Originally, the Cooper’s had moved to 31 Kingston Road, just beyond Jericho, but they soon moved into the rooms above the shop. In this building, at the age of 24, Sarah made 34kg of her legendary marmalade for the first time. The Seville oranges she used were from Frank’s shop and due to be thrown away. After following her mother’s recipe, the marmalade was distinctive for its chunky and coarse-cut peel.

“Soon the notoriety had travelled further than Oxford, and there was demand from people all around.”

The custom of lighter breakfasts, including marmalade, had just become fashionable in Oxford, where college breakfasts were previously far more indulgent with items such as cold game pie and fish on the menu. It quickly went on sale in Frank’s shop, in white earthenware jars, and was an immediate success. Soon the notoriety had travelled further than Oxford, and there was demand from people all around. The marmalade gained a Royal Patronage, and in 1903 the Coopers opened a new factory at the end of Park End Street. It was at this point that Sarah apparently retired, but she maintained an interest in the company and was a much respected figure to the mainly female workers. By now Cooper’s were also producing jams, sauces and soups, the latter being popular during the First World War with sugar rationing.

The Coopers moved to Woodstock Road in 1907, and at the creation of a new company, Frank Cooper Ltd, in 1913, their sons took a more active role. The High Street shop remained until 1919, and Frank continued to attend board meetings until he died at the age of 83 in 1927. Sarah lived another five years, but ultimately died in 1932 aged 84. The idea of writing a column about a breakfast condiment may seem fanciful, but this particular marmalade does have a genuine place in British culture. Ian Fleming includes Cooper’s as part of James Bond’s breakfast in From Russia, With Love, and Captain Scott took some with him on the 1912 Terra Nova Expedition. It has become a ubiquitous part of breakfast, all thanks to the first batch that Sarah produced many years ago. When it went on sale, Frank had his name put on the jars, and this mistaken attribution persists today. It is unfair that he should be credited for his wife’s marmalade, but her blue plaque at least does something to recognise her achievement. We may not associate Oxford with culinary innovation, but next time you’re walking through the intimidating Exam Schools, remember that the country’s best loved marmalade was born just a few steps away.

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