Smedley’s Canning Factory in Evesham
by Michael Smedley
Thursday 28th November 2013
The pioneering manufacturing of Smedley’s wide range of canned products, including such items as peas, carrots, strawberries and beans, and not forgetting asparagus, was a significant part of Evesham from the 1920s to the 1970s. There is now no trace of the factory and its associated railway sidings in Worcester Road. Tesco’s store now occupies the former hive of production activity, which at its peak employed around 200 people.
All this was revealed in a fascinating talk, given to the Vale of Evesham Historical Society by Michael Smedley, the grandson of the founder Samuel Wallace Smedley. Sam, always known as Wallace to his family and friends, came to Evesham from Birmingham in 1876, as a sickly child needing fresh air and a good education. On leaving school aged 11 he started to sell the fruit and vegetables from the market gardens, and this evolved into a thriving Wholesale business. After World War 1 he sent one of his sons off to America to find out how things were being done there. Which gave the young Wallace an insight into the new way of storing food by canning.
In 1924 a firm to produce canned goods was established by Samuel Smedley in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, and an Evesham man, Mr Gapp, was recruited to manage the new factory at the salary of £3 per week eventually rising to £4.
As a result of the American trip, canning machinery was imported to the Wisbech factory and production started in 1926. The new canned food sold well and a first prize was awarded in 1927 and 1928 at the Birmingham Fruit Show. Every Smedley’s can proudly showed its British mark of origin, as the products were distributed throughout the world. In 1929 Sam converted his Evesham preserves works to canning, moving to a newly built factory in Worcester Road in 1932.
The business expanded, such that by 1937 there were canning plants in Dundee, Paddock Wood, Evesham, Wisbech and Spalding, later increasing to include Faversham, Barming, Blairgowrie and Coupar Angus, and the Smedley name was well known in all the grocery shops throughout the country. Samuel Wallace was not however one to rest on his laurels, and in 1937 England’s first frozen peas were produced. The lack of refrigerators in homes meant these were sold mainly to the catering trade and institutions, which had suitable storage. This included the Royal Navy battleship, which took King George V and his entourage to Canada in 1939.
On the outbreak of World War II the Government stopped production of frozen vegetables as the country’s bulk cold storage was needed to concentrate on important imported foods such as meat and butter. Other wartime activities included, in 1940, the Paddock Wood factory giving refreshments to the troops returning from Dunkirk in the passing trains, using empty cans of course! Women had always been a large part of the workforce, for sorting the fruit and vegetables, but now they expanded their range of work into machine maintenance and production line changes.
After the War Smedley’s were awarded a Royal Warrant for services to the Royal Household. Fruit and vegetables being seasonal, the product range was expanded to make good use of the machinery both for canning and freezing. New items included fish fingers, rice pudding, spaghetti bolognaise, petit pois a la francais, and meat pies among other things. New management techniques were developed especially vetting daily production costings. This was among the tasks at Evesham of Dennis Hallett, who had moved from the Paddock Wood plant and who is still an active Evesham Probus member with fond memories of the Worcester Road factory.
Competition was fierce and it was rumoured that, Birds Eye, one of Smedley’s main competitors, ran at a loss for over 12 years, to compete with the success of the Smedley frozen food range.
Eventually, it was decided it was time to sell the business and Imperial Tobacco were the eventual buyers. They already owned Ross Foods and HP Foods who in turn owned Lea & Perrins. Smedley’s and HP became one company as SmedleyHP. Michael Smedley, our speaker and grandson of the founder, stayed for some time with Smedley HP, first as Overseas Director and then Chief Executive, the last of the Smedley family to hold that position, and he was the observer of the many changes that followed. Product rationalisation by the new owners saw a mix of lines including HP Sauce, Golden Wonder Crisps, Symington’s Soups and Lea & Perrin Worcester Sauce added and the abandonment of the once well-known Smedley name. The closure of the Evesham plant in 1973 was a sad day, especially for driver Bill Cook who had served the company from 1926 until retirement in the 1960s, many of those years as personal chauffeur to Samuel Smedley. Evesham resident, John Doyle has childhood memories of the Rolls Royce standing in the narrow Avon Street, when Samuel visited the Evesham factory and his relatives, still living in the town.
However, Samuel Wallace Smedley, has left his mark on Evesham, having created and endowment to buy and support Wallace House a valuable community centre, and in Wisbech a similar trust was founded to provide low-cost rented housing. Initially this was intended for redundant farmworkers who often, on retirement, found themselves homeless having been forced to vacate tied farm cottages. These houses still exist and the Trustees are still building new properties to be let. The philanthropy of our Victorian forefather’s should stand as an example to all successful businesses.
Michael Smedley, followed his career as Managing Director of Smedleys as a consultant in food manufacturing and international marketing working in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and for 10 years, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Kazakhstan and other Asian republics. He has written three books about the Smedley Dynasty:
These can be purchased from from York Publishing Services Ltd., 64 Hallfield Road, Lavertorpe, York YO31 7ZQ