C & T Harris (Calne) Ltd

A Harris Piggy Bank

How the company collapsed!



Wiltshire’s reputation as a producer of good bacon was of long-standing as early as the 18th century, when pigs were normally cured on the farms. (fn. 1) By the 19th century ‘Wiltshire bacon’ had come to mean bacon cut and cured by a particular method: the pig’s carcass was singed after slaughter, the hair, feet, head, offal, intestines, tail, and backbone were removed, the two sides were separated and then cured whole. The name of the county used in this way was regarded as a guarantee of high quality, and there were complaints that unscrupulous retailers used the term ‘Wiltshire bacon’ to advertise bacon produced neither in the county nor by this method. (fn. 2) The history of how Wiltshire, despite the change to factory production, maintained its reputation for good bacon, and also gave its name to a special type of cure, is almost entirely the history of one firm, C. & T. Harris (Calne) Ltd. (fn. 3)

This firm grew out of two small retail shops at Calne, one a pork butcher’s shop and the other a grocery shop and bakery. The butcher’s shop was opened in the late 18th century by a certain John Harris, when he first came to Calne. When he died in 1791 the business was carried on by his widow but on a very small scale: she ‘thought it a good week if she had killed five or six pigs and sold clear out on a Saturday night’. (fn. 4) It was her sons, John and Henry, who built up the business. John opened a shop of his own at the corner of the High Street in 1805–6. Henry helped his mother until her death in 1809; three years later he took over the grocery business and bakery in Butcher’s Row (later Church Street), previously belonging to his father-in-law, Joseph Perkins. (fn. 5) Each brother made a small quantity of bacon at the back of the shop, and this part of their trade became increasingly important. Before the construction of the Great Western Railway, (fn. 6) large droves of Irish pigs travelled from Bristol to London by road. One of the regular resting-places was near Calne, and these herds became the Harris brothers’ chief source of supply. Both businesses expanded until brought to a standstill in 1847 by the shortage of Irish pigs following the failure of the potato crop in the previous year. In order to overcome this crisis George Harris, the youngest son of the second John Harris, went to America to explore the possibility of killing and curing pigs there and sending them home to be sold. For a year he travelled about America visiting many bacon-curers, and sending home bacon, lard, cheese, and other provisions. After a brief visit home in the summer of 1848, he again returned to America and opened a baconcuring establishment in Schenectady (New York State). The venture was not successful, however, and the American branch was closed. (fn. 7)

Despite its apparent failure, George Harris’s trip to America was the most important turning-point in the whole history of the firm, because while he was there he observed the extensive use of ice for cooling purposes. Attempts had been made at Calne to find a way of curing bacon in hot weather instead of curing it in the winter and keeping it hard salted for summer use. These, however, had met with no success until George Harris suggested that they should follow the American method of cooling. The first ice-house was constructed at the High Street factory in 1856; the ice was stored on iron floors in huge chambers above the curing-rooms. After a great deal of experiment, it was found that charcoal was the best insulating material for use in the walls round the ice-chamber. The ice was collected locally in hard winters, and imported from Norway if not available in England. The construction of this type of ice-house gave the Harris family a lead over all other English bacon curers not only in curing throughout the year but also in developing a milder cure, which eventually almost completely replaced the old hard-salted cure. The volume of trade became so great that in 1863 the Harris family joined with other local interests to finance a branch railway line between Calne and Chippenham. (fn. 8) The ice-house was patented by Thomas Harris in 1864; most of the important bacon-curers throughout the country took advantage of the chance to improve their output by constructing such ice-houses under licence. (fn. 9) The income from the patent together with their own expansion enabled the two Calne businesses to increase their rate of mechanization: at the High Street premises a new ice-house, furnace, and pigsties were built in 1869; (fn. 10) and ten years later it was said that at the Church Street factory the pigs were moved almost entirely by machinery after they had been killed. (fn. 11)

There were two parallel businesses throughout most of the 19th century. When John Harris died in 1837, the High Street factory passed to his son, Thomas, (fn. 12) who made his three eldest sons partners in 1885, when the business became known as Thomas Harris & Sons. Henry Harris died in 1861 and his nephew George took over the Church Street business. John Harris’s fifth son, Charles, joined his brother George in 1863 and after George’s death this business became known as Charles Harris & Co. (fn. 13) The two businesses developed along similar lines and were roughly the same size: in 1879 Charles Harris & Co. employed between 60 and 70 men and sometimes handled over 1,000 pigs a week; (fn. 14) this was approximately the same number as Thomas Harris & Sons could handle. (fn. 15) There was always close co-operation between the two firms and in July 1888 they were amalgamated as Charles & Thomas Harris & Co. Ltd.

The period shortly before and after this amalgamation was marked by further mechanization, (fn. 16) by the use of brine refrigeration in place of the ice-house method, and by a planned campaign to persuade farmers to breed the type of lean pig best suited to bacon. (fn. 17) In 1887 pigs were received from 25 counties in England and Wales, of which Wiltshire, Hampshire, Somerset, Dorset, and Devon were the most important, and a large number of pigs were still received from Ireland. (fn. 18) By this time bacon was exported to many parts of the world including most European countries, America, Australia, India, China, the Cape of Good Hope, and New Zealand. Some bacon was extra-cured and smoked for sending to hot climates. (fn. 19) By the end of the century the Calne factories also supplied the principal Transatlantic, Pacific, and Far Eastern steamship lines. (fn. 20) There was considerable competition by cheaper meat from America and the colonies, but by concentration on high-quality products the Harris Company survived this. It was said in The British Journal of Commerce that in January 1889 Calne was ‘the chief seat of the bacon-curing industry of England’. At the end of the century it was claimed, possibly with some exaggeration, that Harris’s produced more bacon than any other four or five curers in England together. Between 2,000 and 3,000 pigs were slaughtered each week and over 200 workmen and 30 clerks were employed. (fn. 21)

Bacon was by far the most important product of the firm throughout the 19th century but even before the amalgamation sausages and lard were also made on a large scale. It was said that on a single day just before Christmas in 1878, ‘Messrs. Harris made a mile and a half in length of sausages’. (fn. 22) It seems probable that pork pies were always made by Henry Harris and by Joseph Perkins before him: in the middle of the 19th century Henry Harris was still described as a ‘baker and bacon factor’. (fn. 23) The outstanding feature of the 20th-century history of the Harris business has been the expansion of these subsidiary products or small goods, both in quantity and in the number of varieties. Before the First World War the main varieties were pork sausages and sausage meat, pork-tomato sausages, pork pies, veal and ham pies, veal, ham and egg pies, cooked luncheon sausage, Bath chaps, polonies, saveloys, and galantine of ham and tongue in glasses. After the war many more varieties of cooked sausages, pies, cooked meats, meat and fish pastes, and specialities in glasses and tins were developed.

Many extensions to the factory have been necessary to deal with the expanding trade in the period since 1917 when Sir John Bodinnar became managing director. New sausage and small-goods factories were built in 1919–21 and again in 1931 on the south side of Church Street. The manufacture of bacon remained on the north side of Church Street and in 1933–4 extensive alterations were made there: new dry-cure and tank-cure cellars were installed, additional chillrooms and a hanging room were built and new bacon-smoking stores were added. Most of this work was undertaken during slump conditions, but it had been justified before the outbreak of the Second World War, and enabled the firm to supply the armed forces with large quantities of tinned and fresh food throughout the war. After the war yet further extensions and mechanization were carried out in the bacon factory; the result was that between 1930 and 1956 the bacon-curing capacity was trebled. Tankcuring began in 1932 and by 1957 most of the bacon was tank-cured; some of the original high-quality dry-cure bacon, however, was still produced every week. The growth of the sausages, small-goods, and canning department was even greater, and the capacity of the factories was increased at least tenfold between the beginning of the 20th century and 1956. A by-products factory was built near the station in 1930, so that in addition to food the firm makes fertilizers, feeding-stuffs, and soap stock, and provides materials for medicinal products, curled hair for upholstery, and bristles for brushes. (fn. 24)

The company acquired several factories outside Wiltshire between 1901 and 1930: factories at Redruth (Cornw.), Totnes and Tiverton (Devon), and Kidlington (Oxon.) were taken under direct control; factories at Chippenham (see below, the Wiltshire Bacon Co.), Ipswich, Needham Market (Suff.), Highbridge (Som.), Dunmow (Essex), and Eastleigh (Hants) were operated by subsidiary companies. The acquisition of these businesses greatly increased the amount of office work done at Calne. Warehouses were also acquired in a number of important towns. Since its earliest days the company has distributed most of its own products direct to retailers; (fn. 25) a large selling organization was developed and by 1939 most of the selling was being done by full-time employees. The growth since 1917 of the central office staff and distributing organization for the whole group of factories and warehouses, as well as the growth of the factory, is illustrated in Table 1.

The Harris family ceased to control the firm which bears their name in 1920, and in 1922 some of the shares were acquired by the Marsh family, the Midland bacon-curers. The Harris family’s connexion with the Wiltshire bacon industry, however, was not broken for long, because in 1924 J. M. Harris and his son, R. J. Harris (son and grandson of Thomas Harris), acquired the control of Bowyer, Philpott & Payne Ltd. at Trowbridge, and changed the name of the company to Bowyers (Wiltshire Bacon) Ltd. This firm, capable of curing 1,000 pigs a week in 1957, also grew out of a small retail shop.

Table 1

Growth in Personnel at Calne, 1917–57 (fn. 26)
Year Factory Office Travellers and van salesmen Warehouses Total
Factory Office
1917 550 90 11 651
1922 465 120 31 13 4 633
1927 880 150 62 17 4 1,113
1934 894 164 104 5 4 1,171
1939 1,008 189 126 5 5 1,333
1942 1,026 172 111 19 20 1,348
1947 792 168 98 25 30 1,113
1952 1,415 248 120 74 48 1,905
1957 1,389 310 234 115 68 2,116

Abraham Bowyer opened a grocery shop in Fore Street, Trowbridge, in the early 19th century. (fn. 27) It is said that he began curing bacon almost immediately and that he was also a miller. (fn. 28) By 1880 the business, then run by Abraham’s son, Elijah, occupied the mill at Innox as well as the Fore Street premises: the firm were described as wholesale bacon-curers, cheese factors, millers, and grocers. (fn. 29) A public company was formed in 1891 under the name Bowyer, Philpott & Co. Ltd. In 1898 the company became Bowyer, Philpott & Payne Ltd. with the acquisition of the business of John Payne, another small Fore Street bacon-curer and sausage-maker. (fn. 30) The making of sausages was an important activity of the original company at this date. (fn. 31) By the beginning of the First World War the company were probably curing about 400 pigs a week, but just before 1924 the number had dropped to 60 or 80 pigs a week. (fn. 32)

When the firm changed hands in 1924 considerable reorganization took place: the old mill was reconstructed and new factory buildings were erected. The manufacture of feeding-stuffs, which had been carried out in the mill, was abandoned, and all effort concentrated on the manufacture of bacon, lard, sausages, pies, cooked meat, and tinned meats. The retail shop in Fore Street once belonging to John Payne was, however, maintained. Since 1924 the business has expanded more or less continuously, especially since the legislation of 1931–3 aimed at stabilizing agricultural marketing. During the Second World War meat and sausages were tinned for the War Office. Throughout its history the firm has produced high-quality dry-cured ‘Wiltshire bacon’, but tank-cured bacon was also made by 1956. The pigs have mainly come from Wiltshire and the adjoining counties, and the products have been sold in London, and throughout southern England, Wales, and the Midlands. In 1953 the company purchased a large block of four-storey buildings, which they converted for office purposes. In 1954 the whole of the site was purchased, together with large buildings previously used by Kemp & Hewitt, woollen manufacturers. (fn. 33) This site adjoins the main factory of the company, and is being remodelled for the special requirements of Bowyer’s industry. This development was not complete by 1956 but even so over 400 work people were employed by the company.

Most of the other bacon-curing firms working in Wiltshire in 1956, together with many other firms not surviving until that date, (fn. 34) were founded between 1877 and 1900. The majority were apparently small family businesses, often combining bacon curing with a retail butcher’s or grocer’s shop. J. H. Case Ltd. of Trowbridge still retained this character in 1956, although it then controlled a small chain of retail shops. The first shop was opened in Mortimer Street in 1878; the bacon-curing has always been done at the back of this shop, and distributed by wholesalers in Westbury, Bristol, and South Wales. The worst crisis experienced by the firm was at the height of the South Wales slump from 1929 to 1932. Before the Second World War a large mail-order trade was done with north Scotland, the Western Isles, and the Shetland Isles. Sausages and other ‘small goods’ have also been produced throughout the firm’s history but only for local distribution. The business was not turned into a company until 1938, and the maximum number of pigs ever cured in a week was about 400; the usual capacity in 1956 was 300 pigs a week, and eleven men were employed on the bacon-curing side of the business. (fn. 35) Two firms founded a year earlier, Adye & Hinwood Ltd. of Malmesbury, and Frank Moody Ltd. of Warminster, still occupied their original site in 1956, when the firms had a capacity of 200 and 250 pigs a week respectively. (fn. 36)

The three firms surviving from the 1890’s differ from those founded earlier because they were all established as limited companies. The avowed aim of the Wiltshire Bacon Curing Co. Ltd., incorporated in 1890, was to provide the Wiltshire farmers with an alternative market for their pigs—’the Wiltshire bacon trade being practically a monopoly’. (fn. 37) The first chairman and managing director was Henry Herbert Smith, the agent for the Marquess of Lansdowne, the Earl of Crewe, Lord Methuen, and other local landowners. (fn. 38) A foundry and engineering works in Foundry Lane was bought; it was adapted for curing and in 1891 the manufacture of ‘Royal Wilts.’ bacon began. Hams, lard, sausages, black puddings, polonies, brawn, and cooked Bath chaps were also made. In 1895 the company acquired the shares of the Chippenham Cheese Factory Ltd. and this business was carried on alongside the manufacture of bacon until 1919; this was a further development of the practice, frequent in the late 19th century, for the same man to be both a bacon factor and a cheese factor. (fn. 39) In 1897 the company took over the Bradenham Ham Co. and since it was wound up in 1921 ‘Bradenham’ hams, cured by a secret recipe, have been manufactured by the Wiltshire Bacon Co.

In 1920 the shares of the Wiltshire Bacon Curing Co. were acquired by the Harris business and since 1922 the company has been a wholly owned subsidiary of C. & T. Harris (Calne) Ltd., the firm whose position they had set out to challenge. The bacon producing capacity remained fairly constant at Chippenham from 1891 to 1934, when a tank-cure cellar was constructed, thereby increasing capacity by 50 per cent. During the Second World War the factory was closed for bacon-curing under the Bacon-Curing Concentration Scheme. When curing was resumed in 1949 further extensions doubled the 1938 baconcuring capacity, and additional lines of ‘small goods’ were introduced—meat pies and pasties, roast legs of pork, savoury ducks, and pork-meat loaf. The number of employees was 43 in 1914, 102 in 1939, 137 in 1950, and 290 in 1957. Throughout its history the company has distributed its products in England, Scotland, and Wales. At first the pigs were drawn from farms within a 50-mile radius of Chippenham, but this was gradually extended.

St. Margaret’s Wiltshire Bacon Co. Ltd. began production in 1895 at The Green, Stratton St. Margaret (now Oxford Road, Swindon). A substantial proportion of its output was sold locally. In 1947 it was acquired by Brown & Knight Ltd. of Lambeth, London, bacon-curers and food-distributors. In 1956 about 50 people were employed in the factory. (fn. 40)

The Central Wiltshire Bacon Co. Ltd. at Bath Row, Devizes, has retained its independence; it was formed in 1899 and the only major crisis was during the Second World War, when it was closed. The period since it reopened in 1950 has been its most successful; in 1956 the capacity was about 350 pigs a week and there were 30 employees. (fn. 41)

Almost all bacon-curing factories produce also lard, sausages, and other associated products. The only factory in Wiltshire devoted wholly to baconcuring is the branch factory at Chippenham of the Bristol firm of Spear Bros. & Clark Ltd. This factory was built by the Wiltshire Farmers’ Co-operative Association but had been closed for some years when the factory was bought by Spear Bros. & Clark in 1916. In 1956 the number of pigs cured in the factory varied from 100 to 300 a week. (fn. 42)

The west and north-west of the county around Chippenham has always had the greatest concentration of bacon-curing establishments. The only factory of any size in the south of the county was established at Downton in 1929 in the building which was originally the workhouse and prison; it was incorporated as the South Wilts. Bacon Curing Co. Ltd. The directors of this company were local meat traders or connected with local farming, and the main object was to provide the retailers with pork and bacon. It would have been impossible to choose a worse time for entering the bacon industry and by 1934 the factory was scarcely functioning and most of the capital had been lost. The directors wished to participate in the Ministry of Agriculture BaconDevelopment Scheme. In order, therefore, to raise more capital they approached I. Beer & Sons Ltd. of London, a large wholesale company concerned primarily with the distribution of bacon, and this company took over the South Wilts. Bacon Curing Co. The reformed company enlarged and modernized the premises: the interior of the old building was completely rebuilt, and new buildings, added at the rear between 1934 and 1939 and from 1948 to 1954, have dwarfed the original one. By 1935 the factory had a capacity of 500 pigs a week. A small cannery was established in 1938 for tinning gammons. During the Second World War the factory made sausages and small goods as well as tinned bacon for the armed forces. The extensions after the war increased the capacity to 1,600 pigs a week and by 1956 there were about 100 employees. Fertilizer, bone meal, and glue are produced as by-products at the factory. (fn. 43)

The success of the South Wilts. Bacon Curing Co. at Downton illustrates the greater stability in the industry as a whole since the legislation of 1933. (fn. 44) The pig cycle was almost certainly the cause of the failure of many firms begun in the late 19th and early 20th century. Companies as well as family businesses appear in the directories and then disappear again after a few years: for example, out of the 20 baconcurers listed in a 1907 directory, three companies— the Avon-Vale Bacon Co. at Chippenham, the North Wilts. Bacon Co. at Swindon, and John Walter & Co. at Sedgehill, Maiden Bradley, Zeals, and Bourton—had disappeared by 1923. (fn. 45) By 1931 the number of curers was reduced to 12, but 10 of these were still at work in 1956. All the smaller firms stopped curing during the Second World War, but they were allocated bacon for their customers, so that in 1949– 50 they were able to resume production. Despite the efforts of the Fatstock Marketing Corporation pigs have often been scarce since 1950, and in 1956 nearly all the firms, large and small, were working far below full capacity.

The rate of expansion of the large firms since 1934 has been much greater than that of the smaller firms, and Harris’s has remained by far the largest manufacturer of both bacon and its associated products. The concentration of bacon-curing in the west of the county was encouraged during the 18th and 19th centuries because it was the main cheese-making area, and, therefore, the farmers kept pigs to use up the whey. It has been shown, however, that Harris’s first expansion was dependent not on local pigs but on Irish pigs. The success of Harris’s was itself a potent influence in encouraging other firms, wishing either to emulate or rival the older firm, to set up their businesses in the west of the county. All the curers at work in both 1935 and 1956 obtained their pigs from a much wider area than the county; thus, the role of Wiltshire farming in the growth of the modern bacon-curing industry in Wiltshire must not be exaggerated.