War and peas: Batchelor’s of Sheffield

In Britain, Batchelor’s has a major trade in tinned peas, but is probably best known for its convenience foods such as Cup-A-Soup and Super Noodles.

William Batchelor (1861 – 1913) was a Sheffield tea dealer. From a modest Lincolnshire background, he was a puritanical Primitive Methodist.

Batchelor opened a factory in the basement of a Primitive Methodist chapel in 1899. He grew the business almost entirely from company profits. The business was mainly concerned with dried peas by 1912.

The firm had grown to employ 50 people when Batchelor died in 1913. With his sons at war, and an invalid wife, if was left to his daughter, Ella Hudson Gasking (1891 – 1966), to run the company as managing director.

Ella Hudson Gasking, taken early 1930s
Ella Hudson Gasking, taken early 1930s

Following the First World War, Gasking was assisted in management by her two brothers, Maurice William and Frederick Lewis Batchelor.

A pea canning factory was established at Lady’s Bridge, Sheffield in 1930. Canned peas proved to be an immediate success. “Bigga” marrowfat peas were introduced from 1932.

In 1936 Batchelor’s was converted into a public company with an authorised capital of £720,000. It had the highest sales of canned and dried peas in the world. Turnover was just under £1 million.

In 1937, a new factory was opened at Wadsley Bridge, Sheffield at a cost of £100,000. It was the largest canning plant in Britain. Situated on a 12 acre site, it was equipped with playing fields and speaker radios for the staff.

Shortly afterwards, a small factory was opened at Worksop, which concentrated on the dried peas trade.

Ella Gasking became one of the most prominent businesswomen in Britain, and one of Sheffield’s best-known industrialists. She was noted for her charm and vitality; her humility and accessibility.

By 1939 the company had 1,000 employees, with a further 1,000 indirectly employed.

In 1943 the company was acquired by Unilever for £750,000. That year, Ella Gasking was awarded an OBE.

In 1951 the firm launched its first packet soup (chicken noodle).

In 1958 a factory was opened in Ashford, Kent.

In 1960 a factory in Portadown, Northern Ireland was acquired. In 1961 a former Chivers factory in Huntingdon was leased.

In 1967 the Sheffield cannery was modernised.

In 1969, £750,000 was spent on extending the factory in Worksop.

By 1971-2 Batchelor’s held around a third of the canned pea market in Britain.

In 1972 Cup-A-Soup was launched. In other countries it is branded under other  brands from the Unilever stable, such as Lipton.

In 1972 the Farrows tinned peas company was acquired.

In 1977 around 1,200 workers at the Batchelor’s factories in Sheffield and Worksop went on strike for nine weeks regarding pay. As a result, Batchelor’s lost over £5 million to wasted food.

In 1980 a steel strike saw Batchelor’s production reduced to one third of capacity due to a lack of supply of cans.

In 1982 Batchelor’s closed its factory in Sheffield with the loss of 650 jobs. Production was concentrated at Worksop.

A condition of Unilever acquiring Best Foods (Hellmann’s, Knorr) in 2001 was that it sell some brands. In 2001 Batchelor’s and Oxo were sold to Campbell’s Soup for £633 million. At this time the Batchelor’s site in Worksop employed 515 people.

In 2006 the UK and Ireland business of Campbell’s was acquired by Premier Foods for £460 million. The Worksop factory employed around 410 people as of 2007.

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