This page contains a Flash digital edition of a book.

Doing what it says on the tin

Sreela Banerjee

Buying presents in the holiday season, we often have to ask the ‘accuracy’ question - Does it ‘do what it says on the tin’? Sreela Banerjee, taking it rather literally, looks at the history of tin cans first produced commercially in 1813, exactly two hundred years ago. But what has the Duke of Wellington got to do with the origins of the food canning industry? And is a gas valve named after the first commercial producer of the tin can? She looks in more detail at the history of the tin can, and meanders through many cans of worms on the way towards a living definition of ‘joined up thinking’ in this season of great music and good cheer.

Dudley Baines I Bryan Donkin

n the course of keeping house, an occupation in which I continue (now a mile or so away from the Barbican) I opened a cupboard and found a tin of chestnut puree.

Ignoring that ever present voice which says ‘think of the calories’, I looked up some ways of using this murky paste, and immediately put it into what turned out to be an unusually rich meatloaf. ‘Tastes like a Christmas nut- roast’, said my friend – ‘just right, does what it says on the tin.’ The meal was polished off in near silence, a compliment which embraces politeness guidelines the world over. I was pleased that he said as much as he did – this is a taciturn man at the best of times. I wondered after he had left, what

that expression has come to mean, in the couple of centuries it will have existed - Exactly two hundred years ago the tin can containing (sterilised) food came into being. In the late 1970s, I had heard of the many journeys of the tin can in the United States – it rode with cowboys to open up the wild west, it marched South with Union soldiers, and of course more recently went abroad with the American GI. Economic history lectures floated up in my memory – I recall Dudley Baines, my tutor at the LSE, saying that progress would have been slower if there had not been tinned sardines, potted chicken and devilled ham for the sons of the sage- bush to eat, as they rode west and


than I had thought. I found that the BBC magazine had done a super article on the English scientist and engineer, Bryan Donkin, whose main factory nearby was making paper, when he solved the canning problem on the same premises. Donkin was a versatile engineer. I borrow from Tom Geoghagen, (now US based BBC journalist) whose article on the discovery of the tin can I commend. To summarise, Appert in France is

south. I recall with affection the terrible picture of the model T Ford he used to draw in his lecture, attributing to its very existence and design much of the progress of that vast continent. I was somewhat surprised to

discover therefore that somewhere in Southwark, (now a car park) a small plaque says that this is where the first tin cans of food were produced – hardly a fitting memorial to what is now a vast and lucrative industry. I knew from a few years in the City that the American Can Company (a major Government contractor during WW2) was the precursor of the present Citicorp, when it went through a period of mergers and acquisitions in the mid- 1980s and early ‘90s. I didn’t know about the UK origins of the tin can at all.

It had all started closer to home

accredited with the discovery of canning but it was a Mr Donkin of London who first produced cans commercially – for the use of the Navy. The contents of his cans helped many a sailor revive after illness, filled as they were with beef, mutton, vegetables and soup. The Royal family itself had tasted and approved of his canned beef, before the Duke of Wellington (then Lord Wellesley) decided to buy it in some quantity for both the Army and the Navy, which

Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40  |  Page 41  |  Page 42  |  Page 43  |  Page 44  |  Page 45  |  Page 46  |  Page 47  |  Page 48  |  Page 49  |  Page 50  |  Page 51  |  Page 52  |  Page 53  |  Page 54  |  Page 55  |  Page 56  |  Page 57  |  Page 58  |  Page 59  |  Page 60  |  Page 61  |  Page 62  |  Page 63  |  Page 64  |  Page 65  |  Page 66  |  Page 67  |  Page 68