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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”.

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

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 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, with a weekly output of 2.5 million tins and packets of peas. 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.