Maconochies in Millwall

James Maconochie (1850-1895) and Archibald Maconochie (1854-1926) were two of eight siblings born in England to Edinburgh-born Archibald Maconochie Sr. and Elizabeth Richardson from Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire.

Contemporary depiction of the Maconochie Brothers

The brothers’ first business was a fish-curing factory in Lowestoft, started in 1873. The business was a great success and it expanded to include food processing, packaging and canning, and they were one of the largest employers in the town.

By the end of the 1890s, Maconochies was the largest producer of canned food in the world, and they had a number of premises throughout Britain. In 1896 (a year after the death of James Maconochie from pneumonia), Maconochie Brothers – a name the business would retain despite the death of James – took over the former Northumberland Wharf in Westferry Road on the Isle of Dogs.  This was a couple of years before the company secured a lucrative contract to supply tinned meat and vegetable stew to British troops fighting in the Boer War (1899-1902).

Maconochie’s Wharf. Built on the former Northumberland Wharf, the launching site of HMS Northumberland, built by the Millwall Iron Works.

Survey of London:

From 1902 to 1920 Maconochies completely redeveloped the site, building a pickle factory, a jam, peel and candy factory, vegetable kitchens, riverside warehouses, stores, workshops, a large cooperage, and offices.

1910. Goad Insurance Map (Museum of London). Click for full-sized version

In 1907, Maconochies invented their very popular Pan Yan Pickle, made according to a secret recipe involving pickled fruit and vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce.

1930s

The redevelopment of the Island factory from 1902-1910 also coincided with the outbreak of World War I when Maconochies won a contract to supply meat and vegetable tinned rations to the British Army.

WWI canned army rations

The majority of troops appeared to have disliked the tinned food. Imperial War Museum website:

…a very familiar component of the British soldier’s daily life and diet. It was more blamed than praised and many considered it only edible if mixed with something else. Others (probably a minority) liked it . Brophy and Partridge describe it thus: ‘A tinned ration consisting of sliced vegetables, chiefly turnips and carrots, and a deal of thin soup or gravy. Warmed in the tin, ‘Maconochie’ was edible; cold, it was a man-killer. By some soldiers it was regarded as a welcome change from bully-beef.’ (‘The Long Trail. Soldiers’ Songs and Slang 1914-18′, Sphere Books, 1969, p.119)

Corporal R Derby Holmes:

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 piece of mysterious meat.

Still, Maconochies profited hugely from the contract to supply canned rations and their Millwall works competed with Morton’s to call itself the largest employer on the Island.

Maconochies in the 1920s. Photo: http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk

In 1926 Archibald Maconochie died and his son (another Archibald) took over. It was around this time that the business became a limited company instead of a family business.

From Westferry Road in about 1920. Maconochies main office building is visible on the right, just past The Ship pub, with the clock on the wall. Photo: Island History Trust

In 1926 the Island factory had over 1000 employees, 75% of whom were women.

Thomas Jeffrey Cole – Life & Labor* in the Isle of Dogs:

More than 40% of Island women who had paid jobs at the time worked in food processing plants. Of the two great Island firms in this field, Morton’s and Maconochies, the former was considered to be the better employer. Its wages were no higher than those of its rival, but working conditions were better and the management was thought to be fairer.

* Cole is an American.

1920s. Girls who worked at Maconochies. The two in the middle are Edie Lander, who lived at No. 1 Ferry Street, and Doris Burton, who lived at No. 16 Malabar Street. The other two are from Canning Town. Photo and Text: Island History Trust / Mrs Spotwood.

The Maconochies office building in c1930. Photo: Island History Trust

Viewed from the river in the 1930s

In the late 1930s, the most recent Archibald left the firm to join the army for the duration of WWII, before returning to the company. During the War the Millwall factory was so seriously damaged that production was impossible. Maconochies acquired a new site in Hadfield, Derbyshire and moved their production there in 1945 – the end of their 50 year presence on the Isle of Dogs. After the War Maconochie’s Wharf was used for wool storage.

In the following photo the lighter-coloured sheds indicate repairs to – or replacements for – sheds that were damaged or destroyed by WWII bombing. The lighter sections on the roofs of, for example, Burrell’s are also signs of bomb damage repairs.

c1950. By which time Maconochies had ceased production at the site.

A Maconochies lorry driving past the Tower

During the 1950s, Maconochies started to become a loss-making concern, and in 1965 it entered into receivership. Two years later it was acquired by Rowntree Mackintosh, who themselves were acquired in the 1980s by Nestlé, owner of Crosse & Blackwell (who made Branston Pickles, among many other brands).

Production of Pan Yan Pickle ceased in 2000 due to falling sales. Attempts in 2008 by DJ/celebrity Chris Evans to pressure Crosse & Blackwell into reviving the pickle led to the revelation that the secret recipe had already been lost in a 2004 factory fire.

The former Maconochies factory in Westferry Road was demolished in about 1980, leaving a large empty site that was overlooked by a community mural painted on the side of the adjacent Burrell’s building.

1980s. Peter Wright

In the late 1980s, the site was redeveloped by the Great Eastern Self-Build Housing Association.

Late 1980s

Early 1990s (estimate). Former Maconochies Wharf.

There is one little reminder of the area’s former use…..

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5 Responses to Maconochies in Millwall

  1. Gill says:

    My mum worked in their office. I believe that, during the war, the office was transferred to Oxford Street. Archie jnr apparently had a very posh accent, mum did a pretty good impersonation of him. Maconochies also used to ship kippers from Aberdeen to the factory, mum used to break up the kipper boxes to take home for the fire during the war, later she reflected on what the smell must have been like on the train, she didn’t have a sense of smell so was unaware of the odour.

  2. James Yule says:

    Lovely Piece of Island History Mick.
    My Great Grandfather (who I never met) , My Paternal Grandfather, and my Father, all worked at Maconochies , ( maybe I was lucky😂). My Fathers Dockers Hook. Always sparked my imagination as a young lad.

  3. William Tucker says:

    When ever my uncle was asked what his profession was was he would tell me that he was a jam twister and treacle bender at maconochies, never forgot that.

  4. All of your content is just amazing 🙂

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