The Humble Tin Can

9th March 2024

Here is a little piece based on an article I wrote for the Arctic Club Spring Newsletter

I was reading Fergus Fleming’s excellent book “Barrow’s Boys” and my ears pricked up when I learnt than the very first tin cans were made just a short stroll from where I live in Rotherhithe. I decided to investigate!

The process for preserving food is credited to Nicolas-François Appert, a French Confectioner, but he used heavy glass jars. There is some debate who first invented the can made from tinned metal. It is believed that the Frenchman, Philippe de Girard passed on the idea to a British Merchant called Peter Durand who obtained a patent in 1810.

He sold the patent for £1,000 to Bryan Donkin, a brilliant engineer and a manufacturer who was familiar with tinned metal. In 1813 the firm of Donkin, Hall and Gamble established the first canning factory in the world. It occupied a rectangular plot of 300 square metres near to his paper making factory in London’s Bermondsey district. 

Just a few miles down the road were the busy naval shipyards of Deptford which was the departure point of many of the Arctic Expeditions.

Deptford Naval Dockyards where many Arctic Vessels were fitted out and victualled

In the new factory sheets of tinned metal plate were formed by hand into tin cans and filled with mutton, beef, carrots, parsnips and soup. They had a quality assurance system where each can spent one month in incubation at 90-110° C before being dispatched. The first cans were heavy and expensive, well beyond the reach of the general public, but perfectly suited to the Royal Navy’s expedition ships.

Tin can used for the early preservation of food, by Donkin, 1812. It would have weighed about 7 lb. Property of the Science Museum.

The quest for the North West Passage had become an obsession for the Royal Navy. The ships were venturing ever onwards into uncharted areas often becoming embayed by ice and forced to overwinter. Sometimes the following year they would find to their horror that the ice never melted, and they would need to overwinter for yet another year. Occasionally they would even abandon ship and attempt an overland escape. Victualling exploration ships for three years became commonplace, and the new canned food was a welcome relief from hardtack and salt beef, which was incorrectly believed to cause scurvy.

In 1813, the Admiralty purchased 156lb of Donkin’s tinned food for feeding to sick sailors.

The following year Donkin’s business took off and an order was placed for 2,939lb of tins. By 1821 they were supplying the Admiralty with 9,000lb of tinned food.

As the can opener wasn’t invented until 1855, the cans were opened with axes!

The quality of the food from Donkin, Hall and Gamble was excellent.

Members of the royal family – including Queen Charlotte, wife and consort of King George III had tasted and enjoyed his canned beef.

Sailors also enjoyed the new canned food. In fact, they enjoyed it so much that there is a cove in Chile called “Caleta Donkin” named by the crew of Captain Fitzroy’s ship in respect of the splendid food.

Sir Joseph Banks described Donkin’s tinned food as “one of the most important discoveries of the age we live in”, high praise indeed.

Later in 1821 Donkin dissolved his partnership with Hall and Gamble to concentrate on his papermaking business and other engineering projects, including working with Sir Marc Brunel on the Thames Tunnel. This was the first tunnel ever made under a navigable river. He also helped construct Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine.

Gamble and Company was later merged with Crosse and Blackwell, now part of the Nestlé group.

Strapped for cash, the Royal Navy started looking for the cheapest suppliers irrespective of the quality. Other players had entered the market. On April’s fool day 1845, a Provisioner called Stephen Goldner was awarded the contract to supply Franklins ill-fated expedition with 8,000 cans of food. With only 7 weeks to fulfil the contract, the quality control was poor. The seals, made with lead solder, were described as “thick and sloppily done, and dripped like melted candle wax down the inside surface”. Although the theory that Franklin’s crew died from lead poising from the cans has largely been dismissed, it is very possible that the food would have gone putrid if the seals were not perfect.

Goldner was eventually banned from supplying the Navy.

Despite some food poisoning scandals, the tin can eventually became a staple household item. Today 370 billion cans are made every year. 80% of all metal produced has been recycled, making tin cans a very green option.

Rarely eaten ashore, but somehow the Frey Bentos pie transforms into a gourmet delight when a few hundred miles offshore!

Although today’s expeditions favour food pouches to save weight, expedition yachts still carry canned food, including the infamous Frey Bentos pies! The cans with paper labels normally have their labels removed and the content description clearly painted on the can before a couple of coats of spar varnish are applied to ward of the rust from the salt water. This avoids the embarrassment of serving up pineapple chunks with your sausage and mash.

The unveiling of the plaque on 17th October 1960 by Harold Shearman,
the Chairman of the London County Council’s Education Committee.
Found it at last!
The inconspicuous plaque hidden high on the school building

It does seem a shame that the brilliant Bryan Donkin is only commemorated with a small plaque high up on the Caretaker’s house in the grounds of the Harris Academy on Southwark Park Road.

Unbelievably, tin cans are still made in Bermondsey in William Say Ltd amazing solar powered factory just off the Old Kent Road. I was treated to a factory tour a few years ago and was very impressed. Their cans are sold through P Wilkinson Containers. Their websites are well worth browsing, especially if you want to purchase some cans!

Have a thought for Donkin, and Bermondsey, the next time you open a can of baked beans!

2 responses to “The Humble Tin Can”

  1. I find it amazing that the invention of the tin can has so little recognition within the general community when when cans occupy a very large percentage of the supermarket shelves. Bruce, Tui of Opua

    1. A can of sardines in olive oil takes a lot of beating! It is very strange that the local council decided to commemorate the great invention by putting a plaque just under the gutter of the School Caretakers House!

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