Moir than meets the eye: John Moir & Son

John Moir was a pioneer in the early tinned fish and meat trade. It survives as a leading dessert brand in South Africa.

John Moir and Benjamin Moir
John Moir (1766 – 1833) was born in Musselburgh, Scotland. He established himself as a provisions merchant with premises at 56 Virginia Street, Aberdeen.

John Moir became the first person in Britain to mass produce tinned fish, initially salmon, from around 1812. Soon, tinned meats, game, soup and vegetables were also sold.

Progress was initially slow, as a sceptical public had to be convinced of the merits of tinned foods.

Benjamin Moir (1807 – 1872) joined the firm, which became known as John Moir & Son. He was regarded as an excellent businessman.

John Moir died in 1833.

John Moir & Son won extensive contracts to provided preserved meats to British and French troops during the Crimean War in the mid-1850s.

John Moir & Son was the largest preserved food manufacturer in Scotland by 1868. Annual preserved meat production averaged around 2.5 million lbs (c. 1.1 million kg). Key export markets included India, China and Australia. The business held a Royal Warrant to supply the Duke of Edinburgh.

John Moir & Son first produced marmalade for the home trade from 1869.

John Moir Clark
Benjamin Moir died unmarried in 1872, and the business was transferred to his nephew, John Moir Clark (1836 – 1896). The business was to greatly expand under his leadership.

King Alfonso XII (1857 – 1885) of Spain granted John Moir & Son an exclusive licence to pulp oranges for export in Seville from 1877. Close to the source of the fruit, it avoided wastage losses which occurred during transit, and allowed the company to use the freshest oranges.

John Moir Clark relocated the focus of the business to London. He had established a factory at Glasshouse Fields, Brook Street and a head office at 148 Leadenhall Street by 1878.

John Moir & Son is established as a limited company
To increase funds for expansion, John Moir & Son became a limited company from 1881 with a capital of £150,000. The company had over 10,000 wholesale customers.

An American canning factory was established at Wilmington, Delaware from 1881. The one acre site was chosen due to its strong distribution network of waterways and train lines. The building and machinery cost $40,000, and it was one of the best equipped canning facilities in the United States. A staff of 200 to 300 was employed during periods of peak demand. The factory had a capacity to produce five million lbs (c.2.3 million kg) of goods a year. Produce was predominately destined for the London headquarters. Alphonse Biardot, a French chef of repute, was appointed as manager of the factory.

John Moir Clark retired from the board of directors of John Moir & Sons in 1886.*

Company capital was reduced to £50,000 in 1888 due to profit losses sustained in America and elsewhere, and the Delaware factory was divested.

John Moir Clark entered into bankruptcy in 1893, and died in 1896.

The head office was relocated to 9-10 Great Tower Street, London from 1898.

John Moir & Son held a valuable contract to supply rations to the British Army during the Boer War.

King Edward VII awarded John Moir & Son a Royal Warrant for preserved provisions in 1901.

The Aberdeen factory was closed in 1910 in order to reduce costs.

Robert Falcon Scott took Moir tinned meat with him on his fatal expedition to the Antarctic.

The company benefited from extensive military contracts during the First World War.

A small factory was acquired in Woodstock, Cape Town, South Africa from 1920.

Decline of the business
The wartime economic boom was soon followed by a slump, which hit the preserved foods industry hard. The British business made successive profit losses due to low sales between 1920 and 1925. The South Africa subsidiary remained profitable.

John Moir & Son rejected numerous takeover offers in 1925, and instead entered into steady decline. The Virginia Street premises in Aberdeen were divested in 1927. Company capital was reduced from £150,000 to £45,000 in 1933.

The South African subsidiary was divested in 1948.

John Moir & Son entered into voluntary liquidation in 1950 and the London premises were divested.

The South African branch continued to prosper however, and as of 2015, Moir’s is the leading brand for jellies, custard powder and instant desserts in that market.

Notes
* John Moir Clark presumably resigned due to pressure from the other board members, given the company’s decline in profitability.

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