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The history of Henderson’s Relish - a real Yorkshire icon

PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 March 2015 | UPDATED: 01:32 24 October 2015

Hendersons has been spicing up our lives since 1885

Hendersons has been spicing up our lives since 1885

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The iconic old Hendersons Relish factory at 41 Leavygreave Road, SheffieldThe iconic old Hendersons Relish factory at 41 Leavygreave Road, Sheffield

When Henry Henderson finally perfected his spicy relish in his small General Merchant Store on Broad Lane, he couldn’t possibly have imagined that 130 years later it would still be a firm favourite on the dining tables of his native Sheffield.

And it’s not just spice-conscious South Yorkshire folk who slosh this fruity vegan condiment around with relish these days; Henderson’s – or Hendo’s, as it’s affectionately known – now has a growing army of die-hard fans around the globe.

Actor Sean Bean once ordered a batch of Henderson’s to be sent to his film set in India; chef Marco Pierre White became enthusiastically convinced of its charms during a live radio tasting; litre-sized bottles are regularly shipped out to the troops in Afghanistan and MP David Blunkett used it to give his shepherds’ pie a spicy edge in a TV cook-off with Gordon Ramsay.

The business has been in the Freeman family for around 75 years. It’s currently run by Pamela Freeman, who first took up the reins in 1991 with her husband, Dr Kenneth Freeman. She credits him with raising the profile of the product to new heady levels.

Hendersons managing director Pamela Freeman (centre) with her children, Simon Freeman and Julia WaxmanHendersons managing director Pamela Freeman (centre) with her children, Simon Freeman and Julia Waxman

‘The company was still very small when it came under our care, but he had enough belief in both the product and himself to take the business to where it is now,’ she said. ‘Since my husband’s family were all born and bred Sheffield folk, I daresay he understood better than anyone the importance of the product to the local people.’ With that in mind, would she mind revealing to us what makes the relish so special? We won’t tell anyone – promise.

‘We remain forever dedicated to preserving the integrity of the brand and the secret mix will continue to be carefully guarded, retaining the sense of mystery which makes our product so unique,’ she said. So, that’s a no then.

But it’s not just the mystery surrounding the ingredients that has kept people guessing – and buying – over the years. There were tall tales aplenty surrounding the old factory in Leavygreave Road, most notably the local legend that not a single person had ever been seen entering or leaving the building during working hours. And what about the building itself? Surely it was too small to produce such industrial quantities of relish?

Needless to say, fables of a northern Oompa-Loompa workforce and a building with Tardis-like capabilities were passed down through countless generations and can still be heard murmured on Sheffield street corners to this day.

Bottles of Hendersons are now shipped around the world  even to troops in AfghanistanBottles of Hendersons are now shipped around the world  even to troops in Afghanistan

Singer-songwriter Richard Hawley and indie-rockers the Arctic Monkeys are all die-hard fans of their home town’s special spicy brew but – whisper it carefully – not everyone is as enthusiastic.

In January 2014, Labour MP Jim Dowd whipped up quite a storm by making disparaging comments about Hendo’s during a speech in the House of Commons.

He was subsequently almost knocked off his high horse by a tidal wave of anger from Sheffield – and even deputy prime minister Nick Clegg called on him to reconsider.

In the end, the misguided member of parliament spent an amicable day at the factory, where he tucked into a tasty meat pie liberally awash with Henderson’s Relish. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr Dowd admitted he’d made a gaffe and retracted his unhappily negative comments.

And who knows? He might even have purchased a crate of the beautiful black stuff to take home with him (proving that even southern palates are not immune).

While there will always be naysayers, Henderson’s has a resolutely positive attitude that has propelled it through two world wars, the Blitz and several economic downturns and is looking forward to reaping the rewards of moving to larger premises at Sheffield Parkway, where bigger vats mean even more relish can be produced.

General manager Pat Byrne, who joined the company shortly after the move, believes Henderson’s is entering a new era of even greater prosperity, with increasing brand recognition on a national and international scale.

But that doesn’t mean it will ever forget its Sheffield roots. ‘We now have the opportunity to grow as a business,’ he said. ‘But we also need to focus on the brand’s fine heritage and continue to pay back the warmth and support shown to us by the local people.’

What the fans say

Singer-songwriter Richard Hawley: ‘I got back from the States after nine months and was a mess. My wife cooked sausage and mash with gravy and Hendo’s in it. I took one mouthful and burst into tears. The taste of Henderson’s meant I was home at last with my family – the taste of Sheffield.’

Artist Pete McKee: ‘If I was painting a kitchen scene, I’d always ensure there was a Henderson’s Relish bottle in there somewhere. The Hendo’s would serve as a visual cue that the painting featured a Sheffield household.’

Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders: ‘It’s like Worcester sauce but a million times better.’

Painter James Coates: ‘If you cut a man from Sheffield, he’ll probably bleed Henderson’s.’

Singer KT Tunstall: ‘Henderson’s Relish is easily the best non-alcoholic liquid on the face of the earth.’

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