Maconochie Brothers was the largest tinned food manufacturer in the world during the late Victorian period. It was 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 Lowestoft, Suffolk, in 1870.
Archibald White Maconochie (1855 – 1926) eschewed his ambition to become an army officer, and joined his brother in the growing business from around 1872.
The Maconochie brothers entered into canning herring for the London market from 1873. In an age before widespread artificial refrigeration, canned fish was a much more important commodity than it is today.
The largest fish canners in the world
A new factory was established at Lowestoft in 1877. It was the largest fish and meat canning factory in Britain.
Archibald Maconochie, a colourful figure, soon took the lead in the venture, and combined a shrewd business mind with high energy (he professed to never feeling tired). An inventive man, he also developed many of the firm’s patents himself.
Meanwhile, 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 largest producer of tinned fish in the world.
Maconochie Brothers also began to produce pickles, potted meats, soup and sauces.
The fish canning factory at Fraserburgh was the largest in Britain, and possibly the world by 1886, and employed over 350 workers during peak periods. 97 million fish were canned in the 1888 season.
The Lowestoft site employed over 1,000 people by 1889.
Archibald Maconochie was a strong-willed and uncompromising man. Even after making his fortune he 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 hundreds of production days were lost due to strikes. Maconochie invested heavily in canning technology in an attempt to negate their influence, and by the turn of the century manual smoldering had been replaced by high pressure sealing.
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.
James Maconochie died in 1895. He was remembered as a kindly man.
The rapid expansion of colonial sales saw the establishment of a new factory across a three acre site on Westferry Road in Millwall, London in 1897. The headquarters of the business were also relocated to Millwall.
Maconochie Brothers had a production capacity of 100,000 tins of food per day by 1900, and was the largest tinned foods producer in the world.
Archibald Maconochie represented East Aberdeenshire as a Member of Parliament between 1900 and 1906. As MPs were banned from winning 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.
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).
The Pan Yan Pickle trademark was first registered in 1903. The brand had achieved substantial success by 1907.
Maconochie Brothers reverted to private ownership from 1908. The business was the largest supplier of tinned fish in the world, with up to 30 percent of the British market. Between 250 and 300 tons of herring were canned daily during the season at Fraserburgh.
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. An unofficial recipe for Pan Yan pickle during this period suggested it contained marrow, onion, apple, tomato, gherkin, tamarind, mustard, sugar and vinegar.
The Millwall works employed over 1,000 people by 1926.
Death of Archibald Maconochie and subsequent decline
Archibald Maconochie died in 1926, and left a net personalty valued at £107,985. 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.
Over four million bottles of Pan Yan pickle were sold every year by the mid-1930s.
The Millwall factory was destroyed by German bombs in 1940, and a new site was acquired at Hadfield, Derbyshire.
In the post-war period the Fraserburgh factory employed 500 people and the Hadfield site employed about 550 people.
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 becomes loss-making and is sold
Inconsistent herring yields had rendered the Fraserburgh site unprofitable, and it was closed with the loss of 190 jobs in 1958.
Maconochie Brothers became loss-making, and the company was acquired by H S Whiteside, the manufacturer of Sun-Pat peanut butter, in 1958. H S Whiteside had a reputation as a business-turnaround specialist.
H S Whiteside announced that as a result of the introduction of new management and marketing techniques, Maconochie Brothers had re-entered into profitability by 1960. However management was later found to have engaged in fraud, and had underreported the extent of profit losses. The business entered into receivership in 1965. Maconochie Brothers was acquired by Rowntree Mackintosh, a confectionery manufacturer, in 1967.
At some point mangoes were removed from the Pan Yan Pickle recipe, presumably in order to lower production costs.
Rowntree Mackintosh was acquired by Nestle of Switzerland in 1987. Nestle already owned Crosse & Blackwell, best known for Branston Pickle.
After years of falling sales, largely due to the success of Branston Pickle, production of Pan Yan was discontinued in 2000.
Nestle sold its British ambient foods business, including Sun Pat and Gale’s honey, to Premier Foods in 2002.
The only known recipe for Pan Yan pickle was destroyed in a factory fire in 2004.
The Hadfield site was closed with the loss of 250 jobs in 2005.