Yes, we can: Smedley of Wisbech

Samuel Wallace Smedley pioneered the British canning industry in the 1920s. Canned food was important before the widespread domestic use of refrigerators and freezers.

Samuel Wallace Smedley (1877 – 1958) was born to a poor Quaker coal dealer in Aston, Warwickshire. Raised in Evesham, Worcestershire, he left school at the age of eleven and found employment as a door-to-door salesman selling primroses. At the age of 18 he found work as a salesman at an Evesham fruit firm. Within a year he was promoted to manager of the Wisbech branch where he demonstrated considerable flair as a buyer.

With savings of £250, Smedley 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.

Smedley, by now a wealthy man, pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 1921, and was fined £500 plus court costs. Upon hearing the outcome he promptly fainted in the courtroom.

Smedley determined to establish a canning operation along the lines of the California fruit pickers. He went to America for three months to study their methods before he opened a factory at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire in 1924. Called National Canning Company, his was the first large-scale canning business in Britain. A second factory was opened at Evesham from 1927.

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Fortunately for Smedley, the canning industry in Britain boomed, 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 from five sites, and around 20 percent of the canned goods market. By this time the company had an authorized capital of £350,000.

At peak periods the Wisbech site alone produced 500,000 cans of fruit and vegetables every day, with around half of production dedicated to peas. The plant was open 24 hours a day and employed nearly 800 people. Peak operations lasted for seven months. During the off-season, the likes of pork & beans were produced.

The Paddock Wood, Kent site was expanded in 1931 from a female staff of 120 to 1,000 women and 100 men; the site focused on vegetable and apple canning. A large factory in Dundee was acquired in 1931. In 1932 a factory in Spalding, Lincolnshire was established and a former jam factory in Ely was acquired to tin fruit.

The Norseland Canning Company of Leeds was acquired in 1932 with 400 to 500 employees. This introduced the company to fish canning. A large fish canning factory was opened in Dundee in 1933.

Smedley acquired peas from 3,000 acres of farmland in 1933, mostly from fields in East Anglia.

Smedley gifted his potato and fruit merchants business to his brother Alfred in 1933. He gifted the goodwill of the business (valued at over £25,000) to the company’s management team. By divesting his original business, Smedley was able to concentrate on his canning interests.

British Fruit Ltd, with a factory at Faversham, was acquired in 1935.

National Canning Company employed over 4,000 people across nine factories by 1935.

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.

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.

As late as 1939 Smedley was one of only three firms involved in quick-freezing fruit and vegetables in Britain, the other firms 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.

S W Smedley donated Wallace House as a social club for the people of Evesham in 1946.

A factory at Blairgowie, near Dundee, was opened in 1946 to tin raspberries.

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.

1952 saw trading profits of over £1 million for the first time.

S W Smedley retired from business due to his 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), joined him as joint managing director. That year, authorised capital was increased to £950,000.

S W Smedley died in 1958. He left £170,000 gross estate.

£750,000 was spent in expanding and modernising the Spalding, Lincolnshire site in 1958. It left Smedley’s with one of the largest cold storage units in Britain.

Wallace Smedley sold the business to Imperial Tobacco in 1968 for £9.5 million in cash. 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’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 in 1979 with the loss of 840 jobs. As a result, Michael Smedley, the grandson of the founder, resigned from the board of directors in protest.

Smedley’s suffered a loss of £1.5 million in 1980. The loss-making Wisbech factory was closed in 1981, with the loss of 480 jobs.

Imperial Tobacco merged Smedley’s with Lockwoods, a loss-making canning operation jointly-owned by Tozer Kemsley & Millbourn, to form a 50:50 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 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’s beans and peas are available at LIDL. Smedley’s tomato soup can be found at Co-op.

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4 thoughts on “Yes, we can: Smedley of Wisbech”

  1. Dear Sir:
    Excelent and worthy article. Peter Smedley, a family member, and I were pals in London in the early 60’s.
    I emigrated to the United States and farmed Avocados in Fallbrook, California.
    Peter and I Iost touch over time.
    I hope he is well. If you have any news of him I would be very grateful for your response.

    Regards, Rich Blacker

  2. “In 1931 the Paddock Wood site was expanded from a staff of 120 girls to 1,000 girls and 100 men”.

    Girls? Surely they were women.

  3. If anyone can lend me a copy of “What Happened To Smedley’s?” (2012) by Michael Smedley I’d be much obliged. I can’t find it to buy online anywhere.

    Cheers,

    Tom

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