Ribena: A history of the brand from its Bristol beginnings to the Forest of Dean

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Written by:   | Posted 06-September-2013 9:35

Believe it or not Ribena – the blackcurrant health drink – was created right here, in the West Country.

The drink became a money-spinner through the efforts of Bristol firm, H. W. Carter & Co, formed to make a wide range of solid and liquid foods, and the University of Bristol.

The pioneer behind Ribena’s manufacture and sale was Frank Armstrong, whose family owned the company.

It was his work on the commercial development of syrups containing vitamin which, in the 1930s, won the company recognition from the government.

In fact the Bristol firm’s black currant juice, rich in vitamin C, was the first “Welfare Food” to be distributed by the wartime Ministry of Food.

The drink’s emergence, however, was due to a great deal of work carried out at Bristol University’s now defunct Long Ashton Research Station, better known, perhaps, for its work with apples, ciders and perry.

In the 1930s this was under the direction of Dr Vernon Charley, later to become head of product development at Beecham’s food and drink division.

It was only chance, followed by exhaustive tests, which revealed the rich store of vitamin C locked away in blackcurrant juice.

The work at Long Ashton coincided with efforts by Carter’s to make a healthy, vitamin-enriched cordial.

The new drink was called Ribena, a name which derives from the Latin name for the blackcurrant – ribes negrum.

During the Second World War, other fruits rich in vitamin C, such as oranges, were almost impossible to obtain due to the Nazis’ Atlantic U-boat campaign. 

From 1942 until the end of the war almost the entire British crop of black currants was converted into syrup (or cordial).

Manufactured by Carter’s, and distributed by the Ministry of Food, the firm was responsible for making nearly all the black currant juice supplied to children.

Ribena was followed in 1941 by the commercial development of another product high in Vitamin C – rose-hip syrup – again pioneered by the boffins at Long Ashton’s research station.

As I am sure many BT readers can recall, post-war youngsters were also given concentrated orange juice and cod liver oil to keep them well and healthy.

During the war Carter’s factories in Stokes Croft and Ashton Gate were bombed and in 1947, under government pressure to ease unemployment, production was switched from Bristol to Coleford in the Forest of Dean.

In the 1930s, following the decline of the coal mining industry, the jobless rate for this part of Gloucestershire had risen to 43 per cent of the adult working population.

A new factory went into production in 1947 and Ribena – once advertised by a young Michael Portillo – has been produced there ever since.

In 1955 Carter’s, then still a family business, was taken over by Beecham Foods.

Still a well known brand for its over-the-counter cold and flu relief products, Beecham’s later became part of the giant GlaxoSmithKline company.

In 1982 Ribena became the first major squash to be available in a ready-to-drink package.

Over the next 20 years more drinks, and different flavours, were added to the Ribena family, including No Added Sugar squash.

In 2011 the multi-national company splashed out £70 million on expensive new machinery at the Coleford factory.

Now one of the largest in-house bottling operations in Europe (it produces 1.1 billion bottles of Ribena and Lucozade a year) the Coleford plant employs 500 staff.

Now there are fears, given the Japanese takeover, of production moving abroad.

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