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 joined by his brother, Archibald White Maconochie (1855 – 1926), around two years later.
The Maconochie brothers relocated from Aberystwyth, Wales to Lowestoft in Suffolk from 1873, where they acquired fresh herring to sell in London.
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 venture, 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 took responsibility for export sales in the British colonies.
A second factory, for canning herring, was established at Fraserburgh, 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.
Archibald Maconochie was a strong-willed and uncompromising man. 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 involved in an altercation with one of his tinsmiths in 1888. Maconochie punched his employee in the mouth in a blow that knocked him to the ground, and then proceeded to strangle, repeatedly punch, and threaten to kill him. As a result of the incident Maconochie was fined £2 and ordered 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
Maconochie Brothers was a pioneer in long-life military rations. 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 with a high carbohydrate content. 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. The headquarters of the business 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 receiving government contracts, Maconochie Brothers was incorporated as a limited company with a capital of £100,000 in 1900. 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. Maconochie Brothers was probably the largest supplier of food to the British armed forces during the war. Best known at this time for its tinned stew, “Maconochie” became military shorthand for a meat ration.
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… [the British soldier] 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 with an authorised capital of £600,000 in 1948.
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.