Archibald White Maconochie: Tinned Fish, Tariff Reform & War – Part 1  

A W Maconochie (2)

Guest blog by Textor

At a time when political rats of all descriptions are scuttling to fight for or against Brexit it’s worth bearing in mind that ghostly shadows of today’s dogmas, bigotries and self interest are to be found in the past. Not because the world never changes, but because the stresses and strains of capitalism presents supporters and opponents of different factions with a limited bag of solutions. Eerily for today the brief party political career of Archibald White Maconochie (AWM) mixed the “common sense” of a businessman, ill-trained in politics, with bellicose aims, scandal, racism and demands for something to be done about unfair international trade.

Ad of 1877

 

 Archibald White Maconochie’s business was canning; putting fish, meat and vegetables into tins as well as preserving fruit and making pickles. In the early 1870s with his older sibling James he became one half of Maconochie Brothers. Based in Lowestoft the firm initially dealt in handling and curing fresh herring; a massive trade in late Victorian Britain and supplied fish to the British and European markets. Business grew and by 1878 the brothers had developed a network of contacts around the British coast and in Ireland. Skippers and their boats were contracted as sole suppliers of herring while at the same time the brothers bought fish on the open market.

Pan Yan Pickle ad

Keeping an eye out for opportunities the brothers turned to food preserving – an industry pioneered by Pasteur’s science of sterilisation and with expanding global urban markets the commercial potential was enormous. The Maconochie Brothers while still curing food by older methods enthusiastically entered the new world of tinned foods so much so that by 1878 they were promoting themselves as The Largest Fish & Meat Preserving Factory in Great Britain. Thriving and struggling to cope with the demand for preserved fish James and Archibald decided to go to the heart of the Scottish herring industry, to the Buchan coast and specifically to Fraserburgh where they built Kinnaird Head Works. There at the factory’s two-acre site literally millions of herring were filleted, cleaned and washed by fifty “girls” and either packed into wooden barrels or preserved and canned using up-to-date scientific methods. Above the fish processing area was the tinplate department where men manufactured cans for the busiest season, July and August. The store had capacity to hold up to 2 million tins. With smooth continuous factory production being one of the keys to the profitability of the new industry the empty tins were carried by a shoot to the processors below. Five herrings were packed into 1lb tins by women and lids were soldered on by men prior to entering high pressure steam vessels for sterilisation. It’s worth noting how important female labour was in this system and how up until mechanisation was introduced the handicraft skills of the tinsmiths were crucial in the early days of the trade.

unnamed.jpg

Archibald White Maconochie (AWM) was aware of the potential for tinsmiths to hobble his business for he knew these skilled men could withdraw labour at the height of landings, and with herring being highly perishable there was a real threat of losing fish, losing profits and customers shifting to competitors. This could be managed either by introducing new technology or taking a hard line with workers. In 1888 at Lowestoft the extent of AWM’s enthusiasm for stopping fractious labour showed when he grabbed tinsmith David Brown by the throat, knocking him down with the apparent intention of strangling him and shouting I’ll have the life out of you yet. Violence was his negotiating stance when workmen had the temerity to question the rate of work and the tools supplied for soldering. The boss was charged with assault and at the Police Court he was found guilty and  fined £2 with the option of one month imprisonment. He chose to pay the fine. But the Maconochie Brothers had the last laugh as they vindictively sued men who walked out in sympathy at the Lowestoft factory at the time of the assault. The company claimed men had broken a legal contract and that under the conditions of the Employers’ and Workmen’s Act of 1875 they, the company, were entitled to £10 compensation from each of the six men pursued. In the event the firm was awarded £1 damages from each man with the tinsmiths also forfeiting two days wages. Not difficult to see who came out of this affair least affected.

An endnote to this tale is that machinery had been developed in the 1870s to put lids on tins which removed one component of the canning process to semi-skilled status. This was not enough for AWM and in 1901 he still fretted over the canning operation and eventually came up with a machine for beading tin lids and so doing away with the need for soldering. With a single operator the mechanism could manufacture 2500 containers per day but this was further improved by his design of a 4-man operated beader which could deliver 6000 tin an hour. These machines he said gave the edge to employers and tinsmiths could no longer hold up the trade.

Maconochie's Ad 2

And trade was not held up. The world became the company’s marketplace especially countries of the empire and as provisioning of British military forces became a necessity Maconochie found the State an enthusiastic customer for his products. Late Victorian imperialist wars were fed by Maconochie and what better to supply the troops than rations with a shelf life of at least two years. According to Baden-Powell

With morale and Maconochie the British soldier can go anywhere and do anything.

 “Maconochie” had become a global brand  Unsurprisingly when Archibald Maconochie turned to politics the problems of the British Empire were central to his campaign.   

Political cartoon AWJ election Sept 26 1900 p.7

It was the General Election of 1900 that achieved a small political profile for AWM when he was elected to represent the constituency of East Aberdeenshire. He’d stood on a Liberal Unionist  platform against the sitting Liberal member T. R. Buchanan a man who favoured Gladstone’s Home Rule for Ireland agenda. In Maconochie’s eyes Irish Members of Parliament, and by extension their supporters, through their demand for Home Rule threatened the very existence of Britain and its empire (it seems that his anti-Irish bias extended to him having a condition in his will that should any of his sons marry a Catholic they would forfeit their inheritance.) As much as he loathed home rulers it was not this that brought him to politics but the more immediate and bloody struggle being fought out in southern Africa, the Boer War. Fought essentially over who would control the area’s goldfields and get access to the strategically important ports round the Cape this, the final war of Victoria’s reign, was a sure indication of mounting international tensions which divided liberals such as Buchanan and socialists like Keir Hardie from bellicose defenders of the rights to empire.

Maconochie fell into the pro-war camp and found a ready supporter in Aberdeen’s conservative paper the Daily Journal. However, regardless of the fact that his business was selling vast amounts of tinned food to the army it would be wrong to attribute his support solely to self-interest. Like so many others of the time his notion of what was best for Britain inextricably linked business and politics with Britain bringing civilisation and some form of material well-being to the rest of the world: plant the flag and let business follow and so native populations could be given proper  “care and protection”. He believed what he described as the Anglo-Saxon race had a great and heavy responsibility. If we look at the way Maconochie treated his own white labour, from direct assault to paternalism, we can conclude how he thought the colonised should be handled. Archibald had in fact a very straight forward way of addressing politics. Sophisticated notions of negotiation, of moral authority and international law were beyond him. In his view all government required was application of business principles to the nation’s affairs.

Maconochie Accident APJ Aug 22 1903

Mr A W Maconochie, MP, had a nasty motor spill on his way to political meetings at Tarves and Methlick last Saturday. The Liberals of East Aberdeenshire are doing their best to effect another spill later on.

 Britain was not alone in the imperial chauvinist dream; Germany and France in particular envied and challenged her as the then premier world power. Archibald Maconochie recognised these growing threats; to take an anti-war position was to open the door to competitors. The only way of confronting commercial-political enemies he said, was the extension of the Empire in order to keep open markets for British trade. Supporters of AWM stressed his local connections and in particular the hundreds employed at the Fraserburgh works pointing to the fact that full employment meant no need for a soup kitchen in the town. Addressing electors Maconochie said Boers needed to be defeated, integrated and made part and parcel of our Imperial Empire. His rival the anti-war Liberal Buchanan fought to retain his seat but he was denounced for his support for Home Rule as giving succour to the enemy and of not supporting troops who were dying on the battlefields of the Transvaal and despite Aberdeen’s liberal newspaper the People’s Journal condemning AWM for having no other platform than being anti-Boer Buchanan lost the election by 73 votes.

In local terms this was a big event as liberalism had long been backed by the area’s agricultural and fishing electorate. The conservative Press was ecstatic; Maconochie had broken the evil tradition of Aberdeenshire Radicalism. In Fraserburgh Kinnaird Head Works declared a half-holiday and workers marched through the streets shouting Maconochie forever. We can imagine that the local anti-war and pro-labour voters were all but silenced at the unionist success but we can only wonder what they thought when in the midst of Fraserburgh celebrations the new Member of Parliament found eager workers willing to unhitch horses from his carriage and yoke themselves to draw Maconochie to his factory. It is undoubtedly the case that Archibald’s victory was down to his opposition to the Boers and defence of British troops then dying on the veld. Fourteen years later a similar febrile, pro-empire mood also had men swarming to the flag.

1900

Columbia to Britannia: You mustn’t mind those noisy boys of mine, it’s election time. May 16 1900

Maconochie’s anti-Boer view reached fever-point in 1901 when he told the good folks of New Deer that it was for every man to do his utmost to support the Government . . . If a man encouraged the enemy he was no patriot, and was not fit to live among us . . . kid gloves must be taken off and war ended as speedily as possible a sentiment endorsed by the editor of the Daily Journal who described Radicals as a cause of humiliation and shame to Scotchmen in all parts of the world. Addressing constituents at Strichen AWM went so far as to sympathise with the view that anybody expressing support for the Boers should be shot.

 With the end of the Boer War in 1902 the central plank of Maconochie’s platform fell away. He was a bit like Donald Trump left with a rag-bag of opinions and prejudices which mingled commercial instrumentalism with half-digested economic theory. For example on taking his seat in Parliament he was astonished at how backward and hidebound by tradition the process of parliamentary voting was, with walking in and out of yes-no lobbies. This he said could be made easier, more efficient by giving each member electric bells to register approval or disapproval of motions resulting in more or less instantaneous results. In a similar rejection of tradition AWM wanted to throw out aspects of the humanist education syllabus in particular he saw no need for Greek and Latin to be taught. These languages served little purpose in a world of competitive commerce he claimed, better that students spoke German and French. Maconochie did fall in with fellow liberals in his support for old age pensions and as for trade unions he judged them okay so long as they did not actually interfere with employer’s right to set the rates of production. Too often, he said, unions were implicated in ca-canny policies, robbing management of its rights and undermining competitiveness. In other words they might be fine as friendly societies but unacceptable if they challenged the distribution of property and economic power.

MB ad 1877

As manager of a business with international reach Maconochie’s view of the world was saturated with notions of competition. He saw the world in terms of struggles, between firms, between nations and also a social-Darwinist hierarchy of racial division. And there’s no doubt that he was correct to identify deepening international competition as being profoundly important to the well-being of the British Empire. Times were changing, the historical advantage industrial and commercial Britain once had was under threat. Across the pond the USA had emerged as a growing power with its state providing protection to some home-grown industries. In Europe Germany in particular was aggressively pursuing industrialisation and colonisation with the intention of promoting what it regarded as its national right. In Britain these antagonisms highlighted the need for an active and even aggressive defence of national interest. Private capitalism and state institutions were in deep embrace, or as Archibald put it trade followed the flag, for trade was sustained by the flag, and the trade led the flag. So it was with some prescience he predicted that this competition would lead to war with Germany.

unnamed

Planting the flag

Part 2 to follow

The demonisation of foreign workers; the emergence of the Consolidated Pneumatic Tool Company; dodgy war rations; continuing xenophobia- Chinese, European Jews and threat to the Empire.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: