April 19, 2024
Sir Michael Coleman, the fifth-generation mustard heir who reinvented himself as a peppermint magnate – obituary

Sir Michael Coleman, 3rd Bt, who has died aged 95, was the last of five generations of the Coleman family to run the mustard business; In retirement he created a mint by reviving the British peppermint crop and creating the Summerdown brand of expensive oil, tea and chocolate mints.

A lithe and silver-haired figure with bushy white eyebrows, Coleman displayed a polite, old-world charm. He spent 47 years with Reckitt & Coleman, including nine years as chairman, but after selling in 1995 he was determined to take on a new project, preferably centered on the farm he had inherited three decades earlier in the Hampshire Downs. Inherited, where the main crop was peas.

“I never intended to go back into the food business, but I was going to make stumps,” he told The Guardian, using one of the cricket metaphors of which he was fond. “The problem was that I was virtually unemployed.”

With the price of peas falling, Coleman’s thoughts turned to alternatives. “You have to have something special to make an impact at retail, where price is a major theme,” he told Telegraph magazine. “The key is to go not for the mass market but for a large minority.” Creating high-grade peppermint oil and producing a small line of flavored products met their criteria.

British peppermints fell into disuse during World War II. It took Coleman three and a half years to select the right strain of Black Mitchum, a traditional variety grown in Mitcham, south London, in the 18th century. Several more years were required to establish the crop, import state-of-the-art distilling machinery from the US, and decide what products to make.

mint becomes thin in summer

mint becomes thin in summer

Coleman took the early crop of mints to a leading confectioner, who “made a batch of chocolate creams and said they were very good, but didn’t want to take it any further”. Eventually he found a firm in Preston, Lancashire, willing to make Summerdown Peppermint Cream. They soon became popular in stores such as Harvey Nichols and media interest soon increased, with Coleman appearing on Countryfile, The One Show and Farming Today. “A lot of people like us more than Bendix,” he said mischievously.

Michael Jeremiah Coleman was born on 7 July 1928 in Eaton Place, London, the second of three children of Sir Jeremiah Coleman, 2nd Baronet, and his wife Gwen, descendants of the Tritton Baronets. The Coleman Baronetcy was created in 1907 for his grandfather Jeremiah, who developed the mustard business into an international concern.

Coleman’s Mustard originated in 1814 at Stoke Holy Cross, a Norfolk watermill, when the first Jeremiah Coleman began grinding mustard and flour to produce the hot flavor so beloved by the roast-beef-eating classes of England. In the 1950s the company merged with its old partner Reckitt of Hull, selling quintessentially English products such as Robinsons barley water, Jiff lemon juice, Brasso and Vindoline.

Michael Coleman as a young manMichael Coleman as a young man

Michael Coleman as a young man – Courtesy of the family

Young Michael was 8 when his family moved to Malshanger, a 16-bedroom Regency pile with an arboretum, a cricket pitch and a Tudor tower built by the last pre-Reformation Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham. He was raised in an almost Edwardian environment, with an extensive staff including five gardeners and eight woodcutters. He learned to drive at the age of 11 and his love of a fine car never diminished, although during the war his mother donated the family Rolls-Royce to the War Office. It was seen in Paris after the liberation.

After King’s Mead School, Seaford and Eton, he had his heart set on serving his country in uniform. But the war ended and he had to commit himself to National Service, training with the Royal Marines and serving as a captain in the East Riding of Yorkshire Yeomanry.

Then his father encouraged him to go to work. “They were worried I was spending too much time hanging out in Park Lane with the girls,” he told The Guardian. He started on the shop floor but was unimpressed with the management of the company whose shares he inherited. However, before he could intervene, he had to learn more and was duly relieved of his duties to run the overseas business. “More to get me out of the way than anything else,” he laughed.

Sir Michael and Lady Coleman at home with their three grandchildrenSir Michael and Lady Coleman at home with their three grandchildren

Sir Michael and Lady Coleman at home with their three grandchildren – Andy Sewell

In 1961 he succeeded to the baronetcy, inheriting Summerdown Farm in Hampshire and Malshanger. He also had a house in Belgravia and an estate near Blairgowrie in Scotland, where he enjoyed walking and shooting in August.

Coleman became a foreign board director of Reckitt & Coleman in 1962. Before joining the Main Board he ran the Industrial Division. In 1970 he created the group’s first corporate planning department. Ten years later he was appointed a director and rose to the office of Chairman in 1986, during which time he commuted regularly between Hampshire and Hull.

“I’m not the most successful businessman in the world, but I’m able to add value and develop teams,” he told the Daily Telegraph in 1994 when planning his exit strategy for the following year. By then the value of the family’s shares and their influence had declined significantly. Furthermore, the next generation of Colemans had careers of their own. “The family had become a bit stale, and I hope that by the time I came to the end of my career, so had I,” he told Great British Life.

This was not the first time he had sold part of the family silver. The laundry dye Reckitt Blue was long gone, as well as Cherry Blossom shoe polish, once the population at large stopped polishing their shoes in the military fashion.

Sir Michael ColemanSir Michael Coleman

Sir Michael Coleman

Coleman now turned his attention to Summerdown, where mint had once been grown, although for more than three decades it had been part of a pea-growing co-operative. Chocolate Mint was followed by Peppermint Tea, which he described as an open goal because “Twinings produces fairly generic teas”.

Then came peppermint oil, which usurped existing brands with “little character.” He explained how, like wine, good quality peppermint oil needs to rest for six months, even two or three years. “It becomes stable and soft,” he said. Other essential oil crops also followed, notably lavender, chamomile and spearmint.

Coleman, whose ancestors were Puritan Methodists until the first Baronet joined the Church of England, was appointed the first Church Estates Commissioner, equivalent to Chairman, in 1993. This was the time when the Church lost £800 million in property speculation. “They never had a business person before. They were in a bit of disarray,” he told the Telegraph magazine.

He pulled them out of risky investments, apologized for their past mistakes and froze the pensions of thousands of clergy, and refused to take the £80,000 annual salary to which he was entitled, his three-day week in central London. He was particularly proud to be mentioned in George Carey’s autobiography, in which the former Archbishop of Canterbury describes how he by turns infuriated and charmed the church’s bishops.

Sir Michael Coleman with his familySir Michael Coleman with his family

Sir Michael Coleman with his family – Courtesy of the family

While his own faith was that of an old-fashioned churchman, Coleman struck up an unexpected relationship with Knightsbridge’s upmarket evangelical church, Holy Trinity Brompton. A relative had worked as a curate and he encouraged his members to use a wing of Malshanger’s for weekend meetings. “I’m not keen on the modern diet of church music, but what they have done for young people in London is wonderful,” he told the Church Times.

He also served as Chairman of the Royal Warrant Holders Council, on the board of the Lighthouse Authority Trinity House and as a council member of the Scout Association. From 1991 to 1992 he was master of the Skinners’ Company.

Coleman met Judy, daughter of the Governor of Southern Rhodesia, Vice Admiral Sir Peveril William-Paulet, at a party for his brother’s 21st birthday. They were married in 1955 at St Martin-in-the-Fields by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, who attracted press attention by mentioning the irrevocable nature of marriage vows in his sermon, when Princess Margaret and the divorced Group Captain A possible marriage to Peter Townsend was being discussed.

He was survived by Judy by three daughters and two sons, the eldest of whom, Jeremiah, known as Jamie, succeeded to the baronetcy.

Sir Michael Coleman, 3rd Bt, born 7 July 1928, died 26 December 2023

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