We have recently been sent an extract from The Evesham Journal of 5th February 1927 entitled “Fruit Canning, Vale of Evesham’s new Industry”. This special supplement was full of praise for the exciting new partnership between Littleton & Badsey Growers and Angus Watson & Co of Newcastle. But sadly the enterprise was short-lived.
In 1958, reflecting back on the ill-fated venture some 30 or so years earlier, Charles Binyon, for many years the President of Littleton & Badsey Growers, felt: “With all its projects the Society learned to walk gently at first. If they were economically sound and worthwhile they grew and were developed. Only one venture can now be seen to have been allowed to depart from this policy. Fruit canning began in a small way but was promising and profitable. Had it been permitted to develop from its own strength a very different story might have been told.”
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Littleton & Badsey Growers’ first steps in fruit canning
A year or two before the agreement between Littleton & Badsey Growers and Angus Watson & Co was signed in February 1927, Littleton & Badsey Growers had taken their first tentative steps towards fruit canning. Charles Binyon (1874-1963) gives a detailed history of the company in The LBG Story, 1908-1958, written for its Golden Jubilee. In Chapter VI, he explains how they came to buy a factory and start a canning venture.
In 1915, during the First World War, Messrs Cadbury Brothers had built a vegetable drying factory at Blackminster, next to the railway station. In about 1924 or 1925, Littleton & Badsey Growers acquired the magnificently equipped factory for the sum of £7,000; Cadburys allowed two-thirds to remain on mortgage.
A key person in negotiating this deal was Samuel Ladyman Brookes, the manager-secretary of LBG. Described by Binyon as a very capable and experienced person, he had inaugurated a more detailed system of book-keeping when he joined the Society in 1920. He mortgaged LBG’s property to Lloyds Bank so as to have an overdraft. Amongst other things, Mr Brookes ordered a typewriter and duplicating machine; earlier secretaries had written all their letters by hand. To meet the transport problems during the General Strike of 1926 he persuaded members to buy a new Ford lorry and hire motors for long distance journeys.
For some time, the Directors had been desirous of undertaking the canning of fruit. They felt that this was the real answer to the glut problem in seasons when fruit had to rot on or under the trees because it would not pay for the picking.
With a heavy plum crop in 1926, LBG commenced fruit canning in the August on a comparatively small scale. The Canning Committee bought 100 gross of cans, three tons of sugar and were given much good advice by Campden Research Station who loaned a sealing machine.
Quality was the supreme consideration, which was demonstrated at the annual Imperial Fruit Show held in London in November 1926. In the British Empire section for one standard market case of plums in cans, they were awarded the gold medal for damsons and the silver medal for Magnum plums.
Success came at a price, however. They canned five varieties of plums and a few gross of blackberries – in total, 300 gross – only to find that they did not have enough fresh fruit for one of their general contracts. The manager was able to fulfil the order only at a heavy loss because prices had risen.
It was in the light of issues such as this that LBG decided they needed the resources of a larger company to deal with distribution and marketing.
Joint venture with Messrs Angus Watson & Company Ltd of Newcastle-upon-Tyne
In February 1927, Littleton & Badsey Growers Ltd completed an agreement with Messrs Angus Watson & Company Ltd of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, by which Vale of Evesham Fruits were to be canned and distributed. Angus Watson & Company was a firm of world-wide repute for its “Skipper Sardines” products and “My Lady” fruits. It was thought that this was the first occasion on which an agricultural society in the UK had joined hands with a large commercial firm. In a lengthy interview in the Evesham Journal, Mr Angus Watson made the following statement:
“We are entering into co-operation with the idea of taking over the whole of the pack of British canned fruits produced by the Littleton & Badsey Growers Ltd, and of distributing it through our selling organisation to some 80,000 retailers in Great Britain. We are setting out with the mutually high standard both on the part of the canners and of ourselves of turning out a product that is the very finest that can be obtained of its class, for we recognise that the British housewife increasingly is discriminating on the question of quality and is more concerned about getting the best article procurable than about buying a poor quality of goods at relatively low prices.
“We have been in the fruit canning business for a period of 25 years, and probably are one of the largest distributors of Californian, South African and Australian canned fruits in this country. These goods of their kind are without doubt as fine as anything that can be obtained, but in Great Britain we have certain classes of fruit, notably plums, strawberries, greengages and gooseberries that are better in quality than anything grown abroad. There is no reason why these goods should not be packed in the Mother Country and supplied at times when the fresh fruit is unprocurable.
“This is the first time that we have packed English fruit. The appeal that this particular venture made to us was first of all the fact that it would enable the small grower to carry on his industry, which is increasingly necessary to the community, on a basis which should be profitable to him. The plant which has already been erected right in the heart of the orchards near to Evesham is one which is peculiarly suited to the purpose of developing the canning industry. Built during the war by Messrs Cadbury Brothers, with all the requirements that one might expect to find in a plant with which their name is associated, when properly equipped, it will probably be the finest model fruit cannery there is in the country. It is a strategic centre for the distribution of products as the Growers have already discovered in the marketing of their fruit and vegetables.
"Our firm has felt for a long time that some of the enormous business being done in imported fruits might profitably be directed into British channels, thereby enabling the consumer to get fruits with which he is familiar all the year round and at attractive prices. The importance of the imported canned fruit trade is not generally realised, amounting as it does to more than ten million pounds a year. The British public have now overcome any prejudice which might have existed against canned fruits. The facts are that preserved fruits are every bit as safe as fresh fruits and, if anything, the balance is in favour of preserved fruits if they are packed with no added preservatives but pure sugar syrup and are just the pure fruit hermetically preserved by modern vacuum processes.
"The Littleton & Badsey Growers are fortunate in having as a member of their executive Mr S L Brookes, who has had some years’ experience in the trade, and quite apart from his technical qualifications, which are considerable, he is fired whole-heartedly with the co-operative ideal. He will have in a consultative capacity one of our own executive, Colonel Douglas Mitchell, who for the last seven years has been responsible for the development of our own fruit preserving plant in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which is one of the largest organisations of its kind.
"The business for the first year necessarily will be on a quite conservative basis, as it is important, in the first instance, to satisfy ourselves that the labour employed is fully trained to turn out an article of the essential high quality which we would expect, but after the first year’s preliminary development the production should expand rapidly, and we hope through our export representatives all over the world to make it possible for British subjects to purchase British fruits with all the freshness and delicacy of flavour with which they were familiar when they obtained the fresh fruit in the Old Country.
“One of the prime objects of the venture will be to provide labour for the women and the younger people in the district, and it will be an invariable rule that only local workmen would be employed to the extent to which they are available in large enough numbers of sufficient experience. We were, of course, strongly impressed by the fact that the fruit canned would be perfectly fresh because the factory is in the centre of the orchards, and therefore the deterioration which is inevitable when fruit has to be sent over long distances would be avoided. The fruit will be canned immediately after it is picked in the orchards.
“The arrangements made with the growers are designed to secure continuity and permanency in the business both for them and for their shareholders, but it will naturally be some time before a sufficiently large quantity of fruit can be grown to meet all our requirements.
“The most modern machinery is being brought over from the United States, where canning machinery has been developed so highly. The growers are accepting financial responsibility for the product till the canning is completed; then we take over the pack, financing the business so far as the distributive trade is concerned. We propose to put the whole of our organisation at the growers’ disposal, and certainly will do everything we can on our side to bring for it the measure of success that we feel confident it will finally secure. The goods will be marketed under well-known trade marks which have been very extensively advertised. This venture is dependent entirely for its success on first obtaining the enthusiastic support of the growers and their recognition that their interests and ours are identical.”
Charles Binyon’s Views
Interviewed by a Journal representative at the new premises at Blackminster in early February 1927, Charles Binyon said:
“The first thing that struck me when I settled her 28 years ago was the fact that it seemed almost impossible in a ‘glut’ year to dispose of fruit at all. I remember seeing in plantations large quantities of Egg plums which it evidently did not pay to pick, lying on the ground.”
He went on to explain how the co-operative Society had come into being nearly 20 years earlier saying that the question of satisfactorily marketing produce was one of the most difficult problems that faced the grower. If growers could find any method of preserving their fruit and vegetables, which did not at the same time destroy their appearance and flavour, they would make a great step forward. He went on to say:
“Our experiment last year with plums has shown us what can be done with this fruit, and we have actually produced an article which has preserved the appearance of the fruit and indeed, in some cases, has, I think, enhanced the flavour. But, although this article has given satisfaction, we found that the selling of canned fruit was a very difficult matter, and involved the tying up of much capital until sales were effected. We have, however, made an arrangement with Messrs Angus Watson & Company which we believe has a great future. This arrangement is of a very unusual and remarkable character, inasmuch as perhaps for the first time in this country we have the distributor working in close co-operation with the grower to the great mutual advantage of both.”
Evesham Journal Editorial
The editorial in that February 1927 edition of the paper was optimistic about the future:
“With such influential backing there is no doubt that the scheme should spell success, and the future of the industry will be awaited with interest. If it reaches the extent it is anticipated that it will, it should do much towards solving the problem of what to do with surplus fruit in times of glut, and should ultimately be of the greatest benefit to the staple industry of the district.”
A Difficult Year
But instead of the glut that had been anticipated, 1928 proved to be a difficult year. On 29th April 1928, a heavy frost wreaked havoc in the plum orchards. Charles Binyon travelled to Newcastle to tell Mr Angus Watson that plum and other fruits had suffered badly. He agreed to an adjustment of quantities for canning and to treat that year as an experiment.
Fruit purchased included 125 tons of Pershore Egg plums at £31 per ton. A good deal of new canning machinery was installed. In order to help, Mr Cadbury persuaded the Avoncroft College Trustees (this was a college which Cadbury had founded) to loan LBG £810 and his firm also helped in various ways. But, despite packing 20,000 cans of soft fruits during the season, at the end of the year, they owed their growers £2,000 for fruit and the can makers £3,000. LBG’s overdraft was £11,000 and another call for capital brought in several hundred pounds.
Formation of Vale of Evesham Fruit Canners Ltd
A new private company, Vale of Evesham Fruit Canners Ltd, was formed in 1928 to take over the Canning Society; it was registered on 4th August. The objects were: “To carry on the business of fruit and vegetable canners, etc.” Capital of £15,000 was provided by Angus Watson & Co in cash; £6,000 in buildings and machinery by LBG; and Mr George Cadbury contributed £3,000 by reduction of mortgage. The first directors (to number not less than five and no more than nine) were:
- A Woodhall, Longdon Hill, fruit grower
- C A Binyon, Badsey, market gardener
- J D Mitchell, The Hill Top, Stocksfield, Northumberland, food preserver
- J G Dawson, 12 Norwood Avenue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, incorporated secretary
- G Cadbury, Primrose Hill, Selly Oak, Birmingham, manufacturer
LBG members welcomed the project in which the Growers had the sole right of supply, and Angus Watson & Co the sole selling rights.
Sale of Shares
LBG’s capital was doubled but, despite this, the members still did not have sufficient cash to finance the new venture. The bank looked askance at canning and refused to consider shares in the new Society as good security. Angus Watson & Co gave a temporary guarantee for £5,000 and they were then allowed an overdraft limit of £6,250.
By the autumn of 1929, after two years in operation, the LBG members felt the arrangement was not working. The turnover was not large enough. The quality of the goods turned out was very good and no complaints had been made, but the selling organisation had been somewhat lacking, and the orders had not been coming through quite as satisfactorily as they should do. In the first year Angus Watson had given an order for 500,000 cans. In the second year it was exactly the same; in the third year the order was cut down to a quarter.
Following the annual meeting of the directors in October 1929, George Cadbury told Charles Binyon that the loan Avoncroft College had made them was required for development purposes and they would require the repayment of that money. Mr Cadbury said that would cause them some embarrassment and suggested that he would buy some or all of the shares and some of the land in order that LBG might develop the factory. He offered in his proposals to buy half the shares (3,000) for £2,500 and the land, meadow and Grey building for the sum of £1,000.
A special general meeting of LBG was held in November 1929, presided over by Charles Binyon. Mr Binyon explained the terms of Mr Cadbury’s offer, explaining that it meant a loss to the Company but, on the land, they were making a profit. The net loss would be £400 which he contended required a good deal of justification. As far as finance was concerned, it would mean a great advantage. They would be able to pay back the loan to Avoncroft and subsequently not have to pay the interest on it. They would lose the rent they were receiving on that land, and also they would have to pay rent of the storehouse. It would mean them being to the good by something like £130 a year, so by giving up now this £400 a year they would be saving £130 which, in his opinion, would be a very sound proposition. He felt it would make the Society a good deal stronger and would show the bank people something. There was some possibility that the cannery was going to pay a dividend and, coupled with the suggestion was that Mr Cadbury took over the shares, and also a greater responsibility and authority in the management of the Cannery. Mr Cadbury would possibly do something to work up a selling organisation.
One of the members shouted from the back of the hall that there was no doubt Angus Watson had let the Society down.
Mr Binyon proposed that they should accept Mr Cadbury’s offer of purchasing the land, meadow and building for £1,000 and the 3,000 shares for £2,500, making in all a total of £3,500. The resolution was carried unanimously.
A loss of £239 on the year 1929 and some dissatisfaction about management affairs led to Samuel Brookes being asked to accept a lower salary. He refused and left in June 1930.
The End of the Venture
The sale of shares did not improve matters. The directors found the cannery buying much of its fruit elsewhere while LBG were supplying fruit to other canneries.
At the Annual General Meeting of LBG in March 1932, the following resolution was submitted:
“That the Littleton and Badsey Growers Ltd elect to receive cash for their shares in the Vale of Evesham Fruit Canners Ltd, at the rate specified in the circular issued by British Canners Ltd.”
Prior to the resolution being put, Charles Binyon observed that they had £3,000 in shares in the Cannery for which they had been offered £2,250, or the alternative of holding shares at a reduced value in British Canners Ltd. He felt that the best thing they could do would be to accept the cash offer, pointing out that with regard to supplying fruit and vegetables to the Cannery, the position of the Society would be unaffected.
In moving the resolution, Mr Smith said his mind went back to the days when they looked with great hopes towards the canning industry, which was started in their midst and which they as a Society were largely responsible for bringing into being. They had hoped it would be one of the great assets of fruit growing in the district. He felt it must be a source of disappointment to those who had put capital into the business, and they had paid a big price for their experience. He did not think the present position could be attributed to any mis-management of the Cannery, but it was due to factors which they could not be expected to foresee when the venture was mooted.
The resolution was carried with two dissentients. Thus ended LBG’s involvement with the cannery.
The cannery continued in operation until 1936. On closure, LBG bought the premises for £5,000, with loans totalling £4,000 from members. Having adapted the new premises (situated across the road from their office), this acquisition of adequate headquarters paved the way for success as they began new activities which proved to be more successful than the ill-fated canning enterprise.
Maureen Spinks, January 2022
Thanks to Christopher Horne for sending the Badsey Society The Evesham Journal article about fruit canning on which this article is based. Further information has been gleaned from C A Binyon’s The LBG Story, 1908-1958 and contemporary reports in The Evesham Standard.
Brian Smith of Aldington writes to say that his mother, Doris (née Savage), worked at the canning factory, as did many other Badsey women. Brian's father used to say Doris was "in the Jam Wallahs" just to wind her up. She would reply that they did not make jam, but