Herring aid: Maconochie Brothers

Maconochie Brothers was the largest tinned food manufacturer in the world, and probably the largest supplier of food to the British armed forces during the First World War.

The firm was founded as a fishmongers by James Maconochie (1850 – 1895) in 1870. He was soon joined by his brother, Archibald White Maconochie (1855 – 1926). In 1874 the firm relocated from Aberystwyth to Lowestoft and entered the fish canning business.

A W Maconochie, a colourful figure, soon took the lead in the firm, and combined a shrewd business mind with high energy (he confessed to never feeling tired). He also developed many of the firm’s patents himself.

The Lowestoft factory was the largest fish and meat canning factory in Britain by 1877. A second factory was established at Fraserburgh near Aberdeen, in 1883.

Maconochie Brothers was the leading fish canning business in Britain by 1886, and sold millions of herrings every year. The fish canning factory at Fraserburgh was the largest in Britain, and possibly the world, and employed over 350 workers at peak times.

A W Maconochie was a strong-willed and uncompromising man. In 1888 a tinsmith approached him to discuss an issue regarding tools. Maconochie punched the man in the mouth in a blow that knocked him to the ground, and then proceeded to strangle, repeatedly punch, and threaten to kill the man. As a result of the incident Maconochie was fined £2 and forced to pay court costs.

Whilst an overreaction, Maconochie’s anger stemmed from the powerful position of the tinsmiths, to whom many production days were lost due to strikes. Maconochie invested heavily in canning technology in an attempt to negate their influence.

In 1889 the firm processed 97 million fish. By this time over 1,000 people were employed at Lowestoft.

A large factory and office was acquired at Millwall, London in 1897.

Maconochie Brothers was incorporated as a limited company in 1900 with capital of £100,000. The firm had a capacity of 100,000 tins of food per day, and was the largest tinned foods producer in the world.

Five million herrings were canned every year by 1903. The Pan Yan Pickle trademark was registered in 1903.

Between 1900 and 1905, Maconochie Brothers was the largest single food supplier to the British Army, with contracts worth a total of £1 million. At one point, 1,500 people at Maconochie Brothers were engaged in British military contract production. Maconochie Brothers supplied around 45 percent of British army rations during the Second Boer War.

The firm became a private company in 1908.

By 1914 the Fraserburgh factory employed 300 to 400 people.

The army food supply contract remained in place throughout the First World War. Best known at this time for its tinned stew, “Maconochie” became shorthand for a meat ration. Maconochie Brothers was probably the largest supplier of food to the British armed forces during the war.

By 1924 Pan Yan was easily the highest-selling pickle in the world.

A W Maconochie died in 1926, and left an estate of over £390,000. His will contained an unusual codicil stipulating that if any of his children married a Roman Catholic they would be disinherited.

The firm suffered following the loss of Maconochie’s strong leadership. The Lowestoft fish canning facility was sold to the Co-operative Wholesale Society in the early 1930s.

The Millwall factory was destroyed by German bombs in 1940, and a new site was acquired at Hadfield, Derbyshire.

The Fraserburgh factory employed 500 people in 1947. In 1948 the Hadfield factory employed about 550 people.

The firm was converted into a public company in 1948 with an authorised capital of £600,000.

Maconochie Brothers began to lose money and in 1958 it was acquired by H S Whiteside, the manufacturer of Sun-Pat honey.

H S Whiteside was a business turnaround specialist, and introduced new management and marketing techniques. Maconochie Brothers had re-entered profitability by 1960.

H S Whiteside entered into receivership in 1965, and its assets were acquired by Rowntree Mackintosh.

Rowntree Mackintosh was acquired by Nestle in 1987.

Pan Yan Pickle production was discontinued in 2000. Sales had fallen, largely due to the success of Branston Pickle.

In 2002 Nestle sold its British ambient foods business, including Sun Pat and Gale’s honey, to Premier Foods.

Although an ingredients list still exists, the last known recipe for Pan Yan pickle was destroyed by fire in 2004.

The Hadfield site was closed in 2004.

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2 thoughts on “Herring aid: Maconochie Brothers”

  1. I am researching a railway in the Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire environs and found a reference to a piece of land, just inland from the fishing port, apparently owned by a firm called Maconochie Brothers Limited. My reference is dated 1925. An earlier reference dated 1911 shews the same piece of land with a different owner. I do not, at present have any dates when the land was actually bought and sold.

    I am wondering if the Pembrokeshire Maconochie Brothers Limited were the same company as this one.

    1. It will be the same company. I’ve never heard of Maconochie having premises at this location before, maybe it was only small.

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