Category Archives: Canned food

From little acorns: Ye Olde Oak

Ye Olde Oak is the leading hot dog brand in Britain.

Origins of the business
Robert J Smith (born 1832) was a cattle dealer from Boston, Lincolnshire. He had relocated to Liverpool, which was perhaps the epicentre for the cattle trade, by 1871.

Rowland James Smith (1864 – 1926) succeeded his father as head of the business. Operations were transferred to London.

Frank Rowland Smith (1894 – 1945) joined his father and the firm began to trade as Rowland Smith & Son.

An extensive trade in fresh meat from Europe was developed.

Trade in processed meat begins; Ye Olde Oak brand is introduced
The British government established a trade embargo on fresh pork from mainland Europe in 1926. As a result, Rowland Smith & Son developed a large trade in imported Dutch bacon. From around this time the business also began to import tinned meat.

The Ye Olde Oak brand was first registered for tinned meats in 1933.

Frank Rowland Smith had entered into retirement by 1939, and he was succeeded by his two sons, Robert Frank Rowland Smith (1902 – 1968) and Rowland William Smith.

Ye Olde Oak became the first canned meat brand in Britain to be advertised on colour television in 1956.

Ye Olde Oak became the major British tinned ham brand, with one third of the market by 1973.

Struik Foods of the Netherlands began to supply Rowland Smith & Son with frankfurters from 1979.

Rowland Smith & Son is acquired by Hans Struik
Hans Struik (born 1940) acquired Rowland Smith & Son in 1984.

The company name was changed to Ye Olde Oak Ltd from 1985.

Ye Olde Oak hot dogs were found to contain just 50 percent meat, but less than that when collagens and fat were excluded, according to an investigation by The Food Commission in 2005.

Ye Olde Oak tinned ham was found to contain 37 percent water and just 55 percent meat, according to a study conducted by Which? magazine in 2005.

This article was produced with kind assistance from Rowland James Smith.

A sporting chance: C & E Morton

C & E Morton was a large packaged foods producer. Workers from C & E Morton established Millwall Football Club.

J T Morton
John Thomas Morton (1830 – 1897) was born on Oxford Street, London. He established a small factory producing preserved foods at Clayhills, Aberdeen from 1849. His preserved foods were used to supply sailing ships.

Morton had established a base in London by 1851.

Almost all production by J T Morton was destined for the export market. A major early product was tinned sardines.

Morton was a dedicated Puritan, and devoutly observed the Sabbath. He was a reserved man, with very few close associates, and his only known sentiment was towards his mother. He was emotionally cool, but just and honest.

The head office and factory in London were based at Leadenhall Street by 1858. The location close to the Leadenhall meat market, one of the largest meat markets in the world, was surely no accident.

The London premises were relocated to a larger site on Leadenhall Street from 1866.

Expanding sales saw Clayhills production relocated to a new factory on Mount Street in the Rosemount area of Aberdeen from 1870.

A manufacturing facility was established at Millwall from around 1872, in a former oil factory belong to Price & Co.

Millwall Football Club was established by J T Morton tinsmiths in 1885.

The Aberdeen factory employed hundreds of workers by the 1880s. It was one of the largest and best-equipped canneries in Britain by 1892.

The success of J T Morton was based on a quality product, slim profit margins, and a firm focus on export markets.

An additional factory had been established at Falmouth, Cornwall by 1897.

John Thomas Morton died as a highly wealthy man in 1897. He left an estate valued at £714,186. He dedicated over half of his wealth to churches and charities. His manager, who had been with the company for nearly 40 years, and helped to build his fortune, received nothing.

C & E Morton
The business was inherited by his two sons, Charles Douglas Morton (1861 – 1944) and Edward Donald Morton (1866 – 1940). The two men had previously worked as underwriters for Lloyd’s, the insurance business. A curious codicil of their father’s will was that the two sons were not allowed to trade under the J T Morton name, so the firm became known as C & E Morton.

C D Morton was an energetic and generous man. The two brothers established agents in overseas markets, which increased sales. They travelled the world extensively to attend to their overseas trade.

C & E Morton was a substantial supplier of food to the military during the Boer War.

C & E Morton was registered as a public company with a capital of £650,000 in 1912. There were premises at Leadenhall Street, Millwall, Lowestoft, Aberdeen and Mevagissy, Polruan and West Looe in Cornwall.

1,500 workers at the Millwall factory went on strike in March 1914, in protest against girls under the age of 18 being hired, which they argued threatened to undercut their wages. The strike resulted in a victory for the workforce.

Morton was singular among preserved provisions manufacturers in normally refusing to hire under 18 year olds. They claimed that they had been driven to do so because of difficulties in sourcing sufficient labour. They also asserted that their factory workers were among the most highly-paid in London.

During the First World War the company continued to pay half wages to its staff who were serving in the armed forces.

Crosse & Blackwell planned to acquire C & E Morton in 1926, but the proposed deal fell through due to an uncertain economic climate.

Increasing import tariffs overseas hurt the business during the 1930s. Factories were established in foreign markets in order to circumvent such charges.

R S Murray & Co, a confectionery manufacturer, was acquired in 1936.

There were three large factories at Millwall, Cubitt Town and Lowestoft in 1939. Thousands of people were employed. The Lowestoft site was the largest herring cannery in Britain.

E D Morton died in 1940 and left an estate valued at £213,295.

Sale to Beecham and Hillsdown Holdings
Beecham, a large consumer goods group, acquired the struggling C & E Morton for £180,000 in 1945. Beecham concentrated production at Lowestoft, where the principal manufacture was tinned vegetables.

By the early 1980s the tinned vegetables market had become stagnant, with low margins, and supermarket own-label offerings and taken significant market share. Morton Brands was sold to Hillsdown Holdings for £8.5 million in 1986.

The Lowestoft factory, which employed 160 people, was closed down in 1988, and the Morton brand name was phased out.

The Morton brand name is still used for tinned goods in India, although the former subsidiary has been independent since 1947.

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.

Establishment and early growth
James Maconochie (1850 – 1895) established a fishmongers business in 1870. He was soon joined by his brother, Archibald White Maconochie (1855 – 1926). The brothers relocated from Aberystwyth in Wales to Lowestoft in Suffolk from 1873, where they acquired fresh herring to sell in London.

Archibald White Maconochie (1855 – 1926) in 1901

The brothers established the largest fish and meat canning factory in Britain at Lowestoft in 1877.

Archibald 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). An inventive man, he also developed many of the firm’s patents himself.

James Maconochie was responsible for export sales in the British colonies.

A second factory, for herring canning, was established at Fraserburgh near Aberdeen, from 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 during peak periods.

Even after making his fortune, Archibald Maconochie continued to travel in the third class train carriage. When asked why he did this, he responded, “simply because there’s not a fourth!”

Archibald Maconochie was a strong-willed and uncompromising man. A tinsmith approached him to discuss an issue regarding tools in 1888. 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 undoubtedly 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.

Maconochie Brothers processed 97 million fish in 1889. Over 1,000 people were employed at Lowestoft by this time.

Valuable army contract work
The Maconochie “Patent Emergency Ration” had been introduced by 1889. It contained three tins which could supply a soldier’s daily food needs. The largest tin contained meat and farina, a form of milled wheat high in carbohydrates. The second tin contained soup and the third tin contained cocoa.

The Fraserburgh works covered three acres by 1895.

James Maconochie died in 1895. He was remembered as a kindly man.

A new site at Westferry Road, Millwall, London, including a large factory and an office, was acquired in 1897. Headquarters were relocated to London.

Maconochie Brothers had a production capacity of 100,000 tins of food per day, and was the largest tinned foods producer in the world by 1900.

Archibald Maconochie represented East Aberdeenshire as its Member of Parliament from 1900 to 1906. As MPs were banned from carrying out government contract work, Maconochie Brothers was incorporated as a limited company in 1900 with capital of £100,000. However, Maconochie continued to effectively control the company, personally holding 80 percent of the shares in the business, with family members holding the remainder.

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

Maconochie Brothers was the largest single food supplier to the British Army between 1900 and 1905, with contracts worth a total of £1 million. At one point the company engaged 1,500 people in British military contract production. Maconochie Brothers supplied around 45 percent of British army rations during the Second Boer War (1899 – 1902).

Maconochie Brothers reverted to private ownership from 1908.

The Fraserburgh factory employed 300 to 400 people by 1914.

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.

Corporal R Derby Holmes wrote memorably of the Maconochie ration in 1918:

It is my personal opinion that the inventor brought to his task an imperfect knowledge of cookery and a perverted imagination. Open a can of Maconochie and you find a gooey gob of grease, like rancid lard. Investigate and find chunks of carrot and other unidentifiable material, and now and then a bit of mysterious meat… Tommy [British soldiers] regards it as a very inferior grade of garbage… he’s right.

Pan Yan was easily the highest-selling pickle in the world by 1924. It contained mangoes and vegetables in a sweet-sour sauce.

The Millwall works employed over 1,000 people by 1926.

Death of Archibald Maconochie and subsequent decline
Archibald Maconochie died in 1926, and left an estate valued at over £390,000. His will contained an unusual codicil stipulating that if any of his children were to marry a Roman Catholic they should be disinherited.

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

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. The Hadfield factory employed about 550 people in 1948.

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

Pan Yan remained the highest selling sweet pickle in Britain as late as 1953.

Maconochie Brothers became loss-making, and the unprofitable Fraserburgh factory was closed with the loss of 190 jobs in 1958.

Maconochie Brothers was acquired by H S Whiteside, the manufacturer of Sun-Pat honey, in 1958. H S Whiteside was a business turnaround specialist, and as a result of the introduction of new management and marketing techniques, Maconochie Brothers had re-entered into profitability by 1960.

H S Whiteside management engaged in fraud, and underreported the extent of profit losses. The business entered into receivership in 1965. The company assets were acquired by Rowntree Mackintosh.

Rowntree Mackintosh was acquired by Nestle of Switzerland in 1987. Nestle already owned Crosse & Blackwell, a similar business to Maconochie Brothers.

Nestle already produced the highly successful Branston Pickle, and Pan Yan Pickle production was discontinued in 2000.

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

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

The Hadfield site was closed in 2004.

Heavy lies the crown: Princes Foods

Princes Foods led the global tinned lobster trade. Today its brands include Napolina, Jucee, Batchelors and Crisp N Dry.

William Muirhead Simpson (1842 – 1926) was born in Liverpool to Scottish-born baker parents.

Simpson had entered into partnership with Francis George Carvill, a Liverpool merchant, by 1872. Simpson left Francis Carvill & Son in 1878. The move was to prove fortuitous, as the firm collapsed with debts of £300,000 in 1883.

William Muirhead Simpson
William Muirhead Simpson (1842 – 1926)

Simpson entered into partnership with Frank Roberts (1853 – 1938), a native of New Brunswick, Canada, from 1880.

Simpson & Roberts began to import tinned lobster into Britain. Simpson managed the head office at 20 Redcross Street, Liverpool, while Roberts managed operations at Halifax, Canada.

Frank Roberts
Frank Roberts (1853 – 1938)

Thomas Edward Dickinson (1866 – 1962) was taken on as an apprentice, and was the first employee.

The partnership originally sold its products under the Simpson Roberts brand until the Maypole brand was introduced for tinned lobster from 1891. The Mikado name was introduced for tinned meats and fish from 1895. The Princes brand was introduced from 1900.

Simpson & Roberts established operations in Vancouver to produce tinned salmon from 1902. The site also imported fruit from California for canning.

William Muirhead Simpson retired from the partnership in 1907, leaving Frank Roberts, David Thomson and Henry Pythian Simpson to manage the business. At this juncture, Frank Roberts relocated to Liverpool to manage operations from there.

Simpson Roberts & Co had relocated to 46 Stanley Street, Liverpool by 1910.

Simpson Roberts & Co was the largest exporter of lobster in the world by 1915, and handled one third of the world’s output from sites at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; Shediac, New Brunswick; St John’s, Newfoundland and Vancouver.

The partnership became an incorporated company in 1919. Thomas E Dickinson was appointed chairman.

Vancouver became the Canadian headquarters from 1920.

Simpson died in 1926 with an estate valued at £86,710.

Company capital was reduced from £250,000 to £212,000 in 1929.

There were 21 Princes product lines by 1936. That year a larger warehouse and distribution centre had to be built to cope with demand. Across six floors, it was one of the most up to date canned goods warehouses in Britain.

Frank Roberts died in 1938 with an estate valued at £142,141.

Simpson & Roberts capital was increased to £500,000 in 1958. By this time canned fruit had joined canned fish as a major product line. That year, tinned foods sales increased by 17 percent, whilst Princes branded foods increased by 30 percent.

Simpson & Roberts changed its name to Princes Foods from 1962. Profits at the company rapidly declined between 1964 and 1968.

J Bibby & Sons, a Liverpool shipping firm which owned Trex cooking fat and a line of sandwich spreads, acquired Princes for £3.25 million in 1968.

The integration of the two businesses was to prove more difficult than anticipated. Bibby entered into financial difficulty, and sold Princes to Buitoni, an Italian foods group, in 1973.

Buitoni introduced canned imported vegetables and corned beef to the Princes product range.

Buitoni was acquired by Nestle of Switzerland in 1988, who sold Princes to Mitsubishi of Japan the following year.

Princes held 25 percent of the British canned fish and cold meats markets by 1989. A factory in Southport, Lancashire employed about 200 people.

Mitsubishi provided global presence and extensive financial capital for Princes. Princes entered into soft drink production with the acquisition of G Barraclough in 1991.

Princes Foods was the largest importer-distributor of canned foods in the UK by 1997. The company employed 250 people. It was a market leader in corned beef.

Princes acquired a fish cannery on the island of Mauritius in 1999.

Princes acquired control of Beta Foods, manufacturer of Shippams fish paste, in 2001.

Princes employed 3,200 people by 2010.

Princes acquired the canning operations of Premier Foods for £182 million in 2011.

Princes was the largest supplier of tinned food in Britain by 2013. The company employed 6,000 people across 14 production sites. 20 percent of sales were overseas.

Princes extended its shareholding in the Napolina Italian foods brand from 76 to 100 percent in 2014.


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. Moir largely targeted export markets.

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 provide preserved meats to British and French troops during the Crimean War in the mid-1850s. For six consecutive weeks the works produced 5,000 6lb tins of meat every day.

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). Produce was largely sent to London to be sold through high-end retailers. 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.

Around 250 people, principally young women, were employed by 1876.

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.

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

Wallace Smedley and the National Canning Company

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.

Wallace Smedley
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.

The office building at Wisbech (2014)

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.

Peas in our time: Farrow’s

Farrow’s Marrowfat Processed Peas is a classic “orphan brand”. The Farrow company has long since ceased to operate, with the brand surviving as a single product line.

Joseph Farrow & Co is established
Joseph Farrow Sr (1815 – 1898), was from Dowsdale in Lincolnshire. He established himself as a manufacturer of mushroom ketchup at Parson Drove near Wisbech, Cambridgeshire in 1840.

Farrow’s son, Joseph Farrow Jr (1850 – 1939) had entered the business by 1876, which became known as Farrow & Son of Holbeach, Lincolnshire. The business advertised its goods as far afield as Liverpool.

Joseph Farrow Jr was a dedicated Baptist, a lifelong non-smoker, a Liberal and a temperance advocate.

Joseph Farrow Sr retired as a gentleman around 1883, and Joseph Farrow Jr continued the business, as well as managing farms at Spalding, Lincolnshire.

Farrow & Co branched out into mustard production from 1887.

Farrow & Co relocated to South Square, Boston from 1889.

Expanding sales saw production relocated to a model factory at Fletton, Peterborough, from 1902.

Farrow & Co claimed to be the largest manufacturer of mushroom ketchup in the world in 1904. The company also expanded into dried peas.

Farrow peas and mustard began to be branded under the A1 trademark, (no relation to Brand’s A1 sauce) from 1908. Much of the company’s mustard seed was grown on its own farms.

Moss, Rimmington & Co of Selby, mustard and twine manufacturers, was acquired by Joseph Farrow in 1912, after the former’s factory burned down. Over 300 workers had been employed at the Selby works. To absorb this new production, Farrow reopened its recently closed Boston and Holbeach works. The Peterborough site was also expanded.

Joseph Farrow & Co is acquired by Colman’s
Colman of Norwich acquired all the shares in Joseph Farrow & Co, which became a limited company, in 1912.

Farrow’s mustard production was relocated to Norwich from 1931.

The Carlton Works at Peterborough were greatly extended in 1932. In early summer, at the height of the fruit-picking season, 200 to 250 girls and women were employed.

In 1936 the company had capital of £250,000, and the first directors were Joseph Farrow Jr and his son, Joseph Algernon Farrow (1874 – 1949).

Joseph Farrow Jr died in 1939, with an estate valued at £48,000. The role of chairman was assumed by Joseph Algernon Farrow. By 1945 the company’s principal activity was the canning of fruit and vegetables.

R W Gale & Co Ltd of London, a processor of honey, was acquired in 1948.

Joseph Algernon Farrow was chairman of Farrow’s until his death in 1949. He left an estate valued at £58,000.

Gale’s production was relocated to Peterborough from 1951.

Farrow & Co was the largest subsidiary of J & J Colman Ltd by 1961, aided by the popularity of Gale’s Honey.

The Farrow’s canned vegetables business was sold to Batchelors of Sheffield, a Unilever subsidiary, in 1971.

The Peterborough factory continued to produce Gale’s honey and preserves, but  it was closed with the loss of 250 jobs in 1973, and production was relocated to Norwich.

Unilever sold Batchelors to the Campbell Soup Company in 2001. Batchelors was again sold, this time to Premier Foods, in 2006. Premier Foods sold the Farrow’s brand to Princes Foods of Liverpool in 2011.

War and peas: Batchelor’s of Sheffield

Batchelor’s became the largest producer of canned peas in the world.

William Batchelor
William Batchelor (1861 – 1913) was a puritanical Primitive Methodist from a modest Lincolnshire background. He established himself as a tea dealer in Sheffield, Yorkshire.

Batchelor opened a factory in the basement of a Primitive Methodist chapel on Stanley Street, Sheffield, in 1899. He grew the business almost entirely from its profits. The sale of dried peas was the principal business by 1912.

Ella Hudson Gasking
The business 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 22 year old daughter, Ella Hudson Gasking (1891 – 1966), to run the business as managing director.

Ella Hudson Gasking, taken early 1930s
Ella Hudson Gasking (1891 – 1966), in the early 1930s

Gasking was a warm and friendly woman. Although a hard worker, she had no business training. She later commented, “I myself never even dreamed of being a business woman… I took over because I had to”.

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

Batchelor’s introduces low-cost canned peas and enters into mass production
Dried peas in cartons proved popular with heavy industries workers in Sheffield. The peas had to be soaked overnight before use.

Canned fresh peas were expensive. However, Batchelor’s discovered that they could pre-soak the dried peas on site, and then can the produce, thus reducing costs.

Gasking travelled to the United States four times in order to study American canning methods.

A pea canning factory was established at Lady’s Bridge, Sheffield from 1930. The canned “processed peas” were to prove an immediate success.

“Bigga” marrowfat peas were introduced from 1932.

The success of Batchelor’s was such that within a few years it needed to relocate to a larger factory. In order to fund this the family business was converted into a public company with an authorised capital of £720,000 in 1936.

Batchelor’s had the highest sales of canned and dried peas in the world. Turnover was just under £1 million.

A new factory was opened at Wadsley Bridge, Sheffield at a cost of £100,000 in 1937. It was the largest canning plant in Britain. Situated on a twelve 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.

Production was soon expanded to include canned soups, vegetables and fruits, although peas remained the principal product.

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.

The company had 1,000 employees by 1939, with a further 1,000 indirectly employed.

Batchelor’s was one of the principal suppliers of canned goods to the British armed forces during the Second World War.

Ella Gasking was awarded an OBE in recognition of her contribution to the war effort and the grocery industry in 1943.

Acquisition by Unilever
Batchelor’s was acquired by Unilever for £750,000 in 1943. Unilever would provide Batchelor’s with commercial and technical support.

Poulton & Noel, a large canning company with a factory in Southall, London, was acquired in 1945. Production was rapidly increased.

Ella Gasking retired as chairwoman in 1948. She was replaced by her brother, Maurice W Batchelor.

Unilever introduced Bird’s Eye frozen pea production at the Wadsley Bridge site.

Batchelor’s employed 3,500 full-time workers by 1950. Hundreds more were employed during the fresh fruit season.

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

A factory was opened in Ashford, Kent from 1958.

A factory was acquired in Portadown, Northern Ireland from 1960. A former Chivers factory in Huntingdon was leased from 1961.

The Sheffield cannery was modernised in 1967.

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

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

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

The Farrows tinned peas company was acquired in 1972.

Around 1,200 workers at the Batchelor’s factories in Sheffield and Worksop went on strike for nine weeks regarding pay in 1977. Food was wasted at a cost of over £5 million.

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

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

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

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

A tinned history of Crosse & Blackwell (1914 – 1927)

This is Part II of my history of Crosse & Blackwell. (Links: Part I and Part III).

The Crosse & Blackwell brand rights are owned by various companies across the world. The brand is most closely associated with tinned soup in Britain. In America it is a specialist purveyor of English-style condiments. In South Africa it is the highest-selling brand of mayonnaise.

Crosse & Blackwell employed 2,171 people by 1914, and the first European factory had been opened in Hamburg, Germany. The London vinegar brewery held 91 vats, one of which was capable of holding 115,000 gallons. The company boasted an annual production of one million gallons of pure malt vinegar.

A small canning factory in Peterhead, Aberdeen, was acquired in 1919.

Crosse & Blackwell acquired James Keiller of Dundee, manufacturer of jam and marmalade, and E Lazenby of London, sauce and pickle manufacturers, in 1920. The combine had a capital of £10 million (£390 million in 2013) and fixed assets of £1.6 million. The takeover likely made Crosse & Blackwell the largest packaged food producer in the world, with over 7,000 employees and twelve factories.

Exports were growing and additional capacity was needed. A factory was acquired at Branston near Birmingham at the cost of £1 million (£39 million in 2013) in 1920. Situated on a 150 acre site, it was the largest and best equipped packaged food factory in the British Empire. The factory employed about 1,500 workers, mostly women and girls, although this was expected to expand to a staff of 5,000. Branston Pickle was first produced there in 1922.

Branston Pickle (2006). Source

As a result of the Branston purchase, the one acre Charing Cross Road factory, which lacked space for expansion, was sold off in 1921.

Unfortunately production costs at Branston proved higher than in London, as the capital was home to the bulk of Crosse & Blackwell’s British customers and provided good access to export markets. The Branston factory was shuttered in 1925 and lay unused until it was sold in 1927 at a large loss.

The debacle saw 5,500 tons of machinery, furniture and stock transferred back to London. Production at Branston was relocated to the Lazenby factory on Crimscott Street, Bermondsey (which was expanded), and Keiller’s Silvertown factory.

Meanwhile, the merger proved disastrous and the company began to lose money (over £1 million in 1922). An independent review commissioned by the company cited “serious duplication and overlapping in management” and “an embarrassing surplus of expensively equipped factory accommodation”. Furthermore, the company had presumed that the post-war boom would last forever, and had overpaid for raw materials.

This colossal failure left Crosse & Blackwell unable to pay its shareholders a dividend between 1921 and 1927.

Meanwhile, a marmalade and jam factory was established outside Paris in 1925.

Full of beans: Heinz in the UK

Heinz is best known in Britain for tinned soup, baked beans and condiments. The company succeeded with a dedication to quality, a concentration on relatively few product lines, and a strong commitment to marketing.

Henry John Heinz (1844 – 1919) began to sell bottled horseradish sauce in Pittsburgh from 1869. He aimed to emulate the high standard of the greatest producer of packaged foods in the world: Crosse & Blackwell. To demonstrate that he had nothing to hide, he packaged his product in clear glass bottles.

Fortnum & Mason of London was the food retailer with the best reputation in the world. Heinz cold-called on the head of its grocery department in 1886, and managed to persuade him to stock all of the seven product lines he brought with him.

H J Heinz used the “57 varieties” slogan from 1892. He actually had more product lines than this, but decided that the tagline had a pleasing resonance.

Establishment of a British subsidiary
A British subsidiary was established to manage Heinz imports from America in 1886.

H J Heinz appointed Charles Hellen (1866 – 1944), a perfectionist and “the best man I’ve got” as general manager for Britain from 1905. Hellen spearheaded the acquisition of Batty & Co, makers of the popular Nabob Pickle, in order to quickly gain a manufacturing site for Heinz products. The Batty brand was phased out in 1910.

Salad Cream was the first product that Heinz created specifically for the UK market. Introduced in 1914, it was supposedly formulated by Charles Hellen himself. The recipe likely owed a debt to Batty’s own “Dr Kitchener’s Salad Cream” product.

Heinz UK was established as a private company in 1917. H J Heinz died in 1919, leaving an estate valued at £1.1 million (about £115 million in 2015).

Heinz becomes a mass producer in the UK
Heinz UK sales quadrupled between 1919 and 1927. A 22-acre factory site was established at Harlesden, London, from 1925. It doubled the number of employees at Heinz UK from 500 to 1,000. The larger factory allowed Heinz to mass produce, and pass on the economies of scale to the consumer.

A view of the Harlesden site by Russell Trebor in 1992

Baked beans were manufactured in the UK from 1928. Soups and spaghetti production began in 1930. Previously these items had been imported from America and Canada. All products sold in Britain were manufactured domestically by 1933, except for four tomato-based products, which were imported from Canada.

A new soup factory was established at Harlesden from 1934. The three-storey building produced millions of tins of soup a year, across eighteen different varieties. The extension saw the Harlesden site increased from 22 to 40 acres. The site was producing 100 million cans a year by 1936.

Howard Heinz, the company president, donated £20,000 (£1.2 million) to buy aircraft for the British war effort in 1940. He also invited his staff to send their children to America for the duration of the war at the company’s expense.

Heinz Ltd was valued at over £9 million when it was converted into a public company in 1948. The American parent company owned 91 percent of the shares. That year a former munitions factory in Standish, Lancashire, was acquired to produce Heinz baby food.

Heinz Ltd grew sixfold between 1945 and 1956. The company employed around 5,100 people.

It was claimed that Heinz was the best known brand name in Britain in 1957. By this time the British ate more baked beans per capita than the Americans. Heinz products in Britain were by now formulated differently from the American versions, apart from Tomato Ketchup, which remained consistent across every market.

A second large factory is established in Wigan
Demand remained high for Heinz products, and a new factory was established outside Wigan in 1959. Situated on a 130-acre site, it was the largest food factory in the British Commonwealth. It cost £6.5 million (£135 million) to build and employed 2,500 people. Two thirds of production was dedicated to soup, and one third to baked beans.

Meanwhile, the Standish site was closed and administrative offices were relocated to Hayes, London.

A view of the Heinz factory outside Wigan (2009). Credit: David Ashcroft

Heinz was by far the largest producer of canned foods in Britain by 1960, and produced over one million cans of baked beans and over one million cans of soup every day. The company enjoyed far greater market share for its products (other than tomato ketchup) in Britain than it did in its home country.

Tinned ravioli was launched in 1965, and spaghetti hoops were launched in 1969.

Heinz dominated the baked bean market with an 80 percent share by 1967. That same year that the popular “Beanz Meanz Heinz” slogan was introduced. Heinz held 83 percent of the baby food market by volume in 1967. Heinz had 60 percent of the canned soup market (and 40 percent of the overall soup market) and 31 percent of the sauce market (behind HP) by 1968. The company had 80 percent of the tinned spaghetti market by 1969.

Heinz acquired a 40 percent stake in Manor Vinegar Brewery of Burntwood, Staffordshire in 1969. A supplier to Heinz since 1917, it was the single largest vinegar producing facility in Britain, and produced about five million gallons a year. Vinegar bottling was transferred from Harlesden to Burntwood.

Annual sales of Heinz Ltd surpassed £100 million (£1.2 billion in 2015) for the first time in 1972. Heinz of America acquired the eight percent of its British subsidiary that it did not already own for £7.7 million in 1977.

The Harlesden factory employed over 2,000 people in 1980.

Heinz sold its Manor Vinegar Brewery stake to Hazelwood Foods for £1 million in 1981.

The rise of supermarket own-label products
Heinz began to suffer from the late 1970s into the 1980s as supermarket own-label products began to take significant market share in traditional Heinz categories such as tinned soup. Own-label accounted for 37 percent of the baked bean market by 1982. Heinz reduced its workforce from 8,600 to 4,800 between 1975 and 1985.

Heinz employed 2,750 people at Wigan in 1985 when it was announced that 1,220 jobs would be lost there over the course of five years due to a £60 million modernisation plan which would introduce high-speed automation to the two UK factories.

Heinz marketing began to emphasise product quality in order to counteract the threat from own-label. The company began to manufacture own-label baked beans for supermarket chains such as Tesco from 1993. Heinz maintained that they only produced value beans for supermarkets, to a different recipe from their branded product, which enabled them to capture a greater share of the market without damaging their brand equity.

Heinz acquired Farley of Plymouth, the largest manufacturer of infant formula in Britain, from Boots for £94 million in 1994.

The Harlesden factory was closed with the loss of 450 jobs in 2000. Production was relocated to Wigan.

Heinz acquired HP, with brands including Lea & Perrins and Daddies Sauce, for £470 million in 2005.

Current operations
Heinz employed around 2,100 people across the UK and Ireland in 2019. The 53-acre Wigan site produces over one billion cans of food each year, and is the largest food factory in Europe, and the largest canning plant in the world. In Britain, Heinz has the largest market share in tomato ketchup (80 percent), baked beans (70 percent), canned soup (70 percent), brown sauce (70 percent) and baby food.