Wallace Smedley pioneered the British canning industry, and his business was the largest of its kind in Britain from the 1920s into the 1950s. The Smedley brand entered into decline after supermarkets introduced own-label tinned foods, but can still be found in LIDL and Co-op stores.
Samuel “Wallace” Smedley (1877 – 1958) was born the son of a poor Quaker coal merchant in Aston, Warwickshire. He was raised in Evesham, Worcestershire, and left school at the age of eleven.
Smedley found employment as a door-to-door salesman selling primroses, before entering the fruit trade from the age of 14.
At the age of 18 Smedley was appointed salesman to John Idiens & Sons, a large Evesham fruit firm. He had been promoted to manager of the Wisbech branch within a year, where he demonstrated considerable acumen as a buyer.
Smedley saved £250, and entered into business for himself as a fruit and potato merchant from 1905. S W Smedley & Co grew to become one of the largest fruit and vegetable firms in Britain, with operations in London, Wisbech, Evesham, Maidstone and Worcester.
Wallace Smedley became wealthy. He pleaded guilty to tax evasion, and was fined £500 plus court costs in 1921. Upon hearing the outcome he promptly fainted in the courtroom.
Smedley establishes the National Canning Company
Wallace Smedley determined to establish a canning operation along the lines of the California fruit pickers, and went to America for three months to study their methods. He returned to England and established the National Canning Company, with a factory at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire from 1924.
Smedley’s was the first large-scale canning business in Britain, and was to prove an immediate success. Output doubled every year from 1924 to 1931. A second factory was opened in Evesham, the centre of the English plum-growing trade, from 1927.
Three additional sites were established at Paddock Wood in Kent, Dundee, and Spalding, Lincolnshire, in 1931.
The Evesham factory was relocated to a new three-acre site from 1931. The site employed over 400 people and had a daily production capacity of 35,000 cans and 10,000 bottles of fruit.
The canning industry in Britain experienced rapid expansion, with National Canning Co at the forefront. It was the largest canning operation in Britain by 1931, with an annual output of over 20 million cans and around 20 percent of the canned goods market. By this time the company had an authorised capital of £350,000.
The Wisbech site produced 500,000 cans of fruit and vegetables every day during the seven-month peak period. The plant was open 24 hours a day and employed nearly 800 people. Around half of production was dedicated to peas. The site manufactured pork & beans during the off-season.
A disused jam factory in Ely was acquired to tin fruit from 1932.
Smedley entered into fish canning with the acquisition of the Norseland Canning Company of Leeds, with 400 to 500 employees, in 1932. A large fish canning factory was established in Dundee from 1933.
Smedley acquired peas from 3,000 acres of farmland in 1933, mostly from fields in East Anglia.
Smedley determined to concentrate on his successful canning company, and gifted his potato and fruit merchants business to his brother Alfred in 1933.
British Fruit Ltd, with a factory at Faversham in Kent, was acquired in 1935.
National Canning Company employed over 4,000 people across nine factories by 1935. 30 to 40 million cans of fruit and vegetables were produced every year.
National Canning Company began to sell frozen vegetables from 1937. These were the first quick-frozen vegetables to be mass-produced in Britain.
Baird Wolton & May Ltd, with a cannery at Barming, Kent, was acquired in 1938.
The Norseland Canning Company was divested in 1938.
National Canning Company had twelve sites across Britain by 1938, and held over 25 percent of the canned fruits and peas market. Over 200 million tins were produced every year.
As late as 1939 Smedley was one of only three firms involved in quick-freezing fruit and vegetables in Britain, the others being Chivers of Histon and Bailey of Ware. Considered a luxury good by the Ministry of Food, quick-freezing was prohibited during the Second World War.
National Canning Company directly employed over 2,500 people by 1940. Thousands more were employed indirectly.
National Canning Co was one of the largest fruit and vegetable growers in Britain by 1940. The company owned 3,000 acres in Scotland, 2,000 acres in Worcestershire and further acreage in Lincolnshire.
Wallace Smedley donated Wallace House as a social club for the people of Evesham in 1946.
A factory at Blairgowie, near Dundee, was acquired in 1946 and used to tin raspberries and other fruits and vegetables.
The Kingsway, Dundee site employed nearly 700 people by 1947.
A disused potato flour factory at Monikie, Dundee, was acquired to can peas and fruit, in 1947.
A shortage of tinplate for cans saw the six National Canning Company factories temporarily closed in 1951.
Trading profits of over £1 million were registered for the first time in 1952.
Death of the founder and sale of the business
Wallace Smedley retired from business due to failing health and old age in 1953. He was succeeded in the role of chairman by his eldest son, Wallace Venables Smedley (1907 – 1981). His brother, Graham Powell Smedley (1909 – 1983), was appointed as joint managing director. Authorised capital was increased to £950,000.
National Canning Co was the largest canning company in Britain in 1954.
Wallace Smedley died in 1958. He left a gross estate valued at £170,000.
The Spalding site was expanded and modernised, at a cost of £750,000, in 1958. It left Smedley’s with one of the largest cold storage units in Britain.
Wallace Venables Smedley sold the business to Imperial Tobacco for £9.5 million in cash in 1968. Imperial provided the company with capital and management expertise. Members of the Smedley family remained in key managerial positions.
Imperial was keen to diversify from its core tobacco business, and had acquired HP Foods (including Lea & Perrins) a year earlier, and also owned the Golden Wonder crisps brand.
Imperial acquired Ross, the frozen foods group, in 1969, and merged its operations with Smedley’s. Both groups had each previously held around five percent of the British frozen food market.
Smedley products were exported to 96 different countries by 1972. A large proportion of sales were made to British armed forces stationed abroad.
Smedley was merged with HP Foods in 1972. Smedley’s held nearly 30 percent of the home-grown canned fruit market, and a large share of the home-grown tinned vegetables trade.
The Smedley business enters into decline
Smedley’s began to struggle as public taste switched from tinned to fresh and frozen vegetables. The four-acre Evesham site was closed in 1973.
Three more unprofitable factories, two in Faversham, Kent and one in Blairgowrie, were closed with the loss of 840 jobs in 1979. Michael Smedley, the grandson of the founder, resigned from the board of directors in protest.
Smedley’s registered a profit loss of £1.5 million in 1980. The loss-making Wisbech factory was closed with the loss of 480 jobs in 1981.
Imperial Tobacco merged Smedley’s with Lockwoods, a loss-making canning operation owned by Tozer Kemsley & Millbourn, to form a joint-venture in 1981. The merger proved to be a disaster.
Smedley’s losses became heavier, and it was sold to Hillsdown Holdings for a nominal sum of £1 in March 1983. Net assets of Smedley’s totalled £6.6 million, but losses for the previous year totalled £7.4 million.
Hillsdown’s managing director was confident that he could turn around the Smedley’s business within a year. The Smedley operations were consolidated into two plants, one in Scotland and one in Cambridgeshire.
Smedley had re-entered into profitability by July 1983. Smedley-Lockwood was the largest food-canning operation in Britain by 1986.
Hillsdown Holdings eventually morphed into Premier Foods. Premier Foods sold its canning operations, including Smedley’s, to Princes of Liverpool in 2011.
Smedley products are not usually found in the major British supermarkets, but can often be found in Co-op and discount supermarkets such as LIDL.
Peter Smedley (1949 – 2012), a member of the canning family, made the news in 2011-12 when he opted for an assisted death in Switzerland after years of fighting an incurable form of motor neuron disease.