Vestey Brothers was the largest meat business in the world. The business controlled one third of the refrigerated storage capacity in Britain and two thirds of multiple butchers shops. It accounted for 20 percent of all meat imported into Britain. The Vesteys became the second wealthiest family in Britain after the Royals.
Origins and early growth
William Vestey (1859 – 1940) and Edmund Hoyle Vestey (1866 – 1954) were born to Samuel Vestey, a Liverpool provisions merchant. The two brothers began their commercial lives as office boys working for their father.
William Vestey was sent to Chicago, the centre of the North American meatpacking trade, to scout for opportunities in 1876. He was surprised at the amount of meat that was wasted. He decided to can the surplus meat as corned beef and export it to Britain.
William Vestey relocated to Argentina and began to export frozen partridges from 1890. Later, beef and mutton were added. Being among the first to realise the potential of refrigeration gave Vestey Brothers a competitive advantage against its rivals.
Vestey Brothers established Union Cold Storage as a subsidiary to manage their meatpacking and distribution network from 1897.
Vestey Brothers began to import eggs and chicken from China from 1906. Eggs had previously had poor availability, and Vestey’s low-cost frozen egg mix was to be a major factor in the subsequent growth of catering companies such as J Lyons.
Vestey established Blue Star Lines, a fleet of refrigerated vessels, with two second-hand steamers, in 1909.
The First World War
The business grew rapidly during the First World War, following a surge in meat prices.
Vestey Brothers acquired ranches and freezing works in Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela between 1913 and 1920.
Blackfriars Lighterage & Cartage Co was acquired in 1914, to give the company full control of its distribution in London.
Six million acres of land in the Australian interior were acquired during the First World War.
The Vesteys relocated their business headquarters from Britain to Buenos Aires in 1915 in order to avoid income tax, which had been increased in order to fund the war in Europe.
Vestey Brothers provided cold storage facilities free of charge for British supplies at Havre, Boulogne and Dunkirk during the First World War.
Vestey Brothers had operations all over the world, and a capital of over £20 million by 1919. It was one of the largest British industrial concerns, and larger than all the other British freezing and cold storage companies combined. In meat-packing, only the American concerns of Armour and Swift were larger.
Vestey acquired £7 million of beef from the British government in a single deal in 1920.
Eastmans, with a chain of butchers shops in Britain, was acquired in 1920.
Union Cold Storage was the largest cold storage company in the world by 1920, with a share capital of £4,780,000 and a storage capacity of over ten million cubic feet. The Blue Star Line was the largest refrigerated fleet in the world.
William and Edmund became so rich that they didn’t live off the interest of their wealth, but the interest of the interest. William was raised to the peerage in 1922.
Union Cold Storage spent £4 million to acquire the subsidiaries of the Western United Investment Company in 1923. This included the British & Argentine Meat Company, James Nelson & Sons and Fletcher’s butchers shops.
Vestey Brothers was the largest meat business in the world by 1923.
Vestey Brothers acquired the Liebig company’s freezing facility at Fray Bentos in Uruguay in 1924.
Vestey Brothers was the largest retailer of meat in the world by 1925, with a chain of 2,035 butchers shops in Britain. Vestey was responsible for 25 percent of the meat that was exported from South America.
Union Cold Storage employed over 30,000 people, with a capital of £9.6 million, in 1925. It had over 450,000 cattle on ranches in Australia, South America and South Africa. The company handled 20 percent of Britain’s frozen meat imports, and operated a third of the country’s cold storage capacity.
Vestey Brothers opened a new refrigeration plant in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1927. With an annual capacity of 1.5 million cattle and 2.5 million sheep, it ranked among the largest in the world. The plant employed 3,000 people.
Vestey Brothers acquired William Angliss & Co, the largest meat business in Australia, in 1934.
Blue Star Lines had grown to include a fleet of around forty vessels by 1939.
Deaths of the founders
William Vestey conservatively valued Vestey Brothers at over £90 million in 1940. The family became the richest in Britain after the Royals.
William Vestey died in 1940, and was remembered as a modest and benevolent man. During the height of the Blitz he had continued to put in a full working day in London.
Edmund Vestey never retired. He collapsed at his office desk in 1954 and died the following day. Remembered as a shy and reticent man, he left an estate valued at £737,738.
The latter half of the twentieth century
The company retained its position throughout much of the rest of the century. In 1968 it was still the largest cold storage operator in Britain, and had also become a leading supplier of chicken. It remained on par in terms of scale with Armour and Swift.
A legal tax avoidance scheme operated by the Vestey family was revealed in 1980, to public outrage.
Vestey Brothers was considered to be the largest privately owned multinational in the world in the 1980s. It was the largest retailer of meat in the world.
Vestey sold off five of its seven North Australian ranches in 1984. Before the sale it had been the largest private landowner in Australia. After the sale it still raised about ten percent of all cattle in the country.
Speculation on the property market saw Union Cold Storage hampered by short term debt of £423 million by 1991.
Vestey announced it would close 600 of its 1,000 Dewhurst butchers shops in 1992. The business had been adversely affected by the growth of the supermarket chains.
Both Dewhursts and Union Cold Storage entered into administration in 1995. 213 of the Dewhurst shops were saved by a management buyout. The remnant Australian estates were sold off in 1996. The Blue Star Line was sold to P&O Nedlloyd for £60 million in 1998. The sale of the fleet allowed the group to finally re-emerge free of debt.
Vestey Group continues to trade today as a smaller organisation, focused on the sourcing, distribution and processing of meat. The Vestey family are still wealthy: they ranked 160th on the Sunday Times Rich List in 2015, with an estimated fortune of £700 million. Actor Tom Hiddleston is a direct descendant of Edmund Vestey.