Maconochie Brothers was the largest tinned food manufacturer in the world, and probably the largest supplier of food to the British armed forces during the First World War. The firm was founded as a fishmongers by James Maconochie in 1870. He was soon joined by his brother, Archibald White Maconochie. In 1874 the firm relocated from Aberystwyth to Lowestoft and entered the fish canning business.
A W Maconochie, a colourful figure, soon took the lead in the firm, and combined a shrewd business mind with high energy (he confessed to never feeling tired). He also developed many of the firm’s patents himself.
The Lowestoft factory was the largest fish and meat canning factory in Britain by 1877. A second factory was established at Fraserburgh near Aberdeen, in 1883. Maconochie Brothers was the leading fish canning business in Britain by 1886, and sold millions of herrings every year. The fish canning factory at Fraserburgh was the largest in Britain, and possibly the world, and employed over 350 people at peak times.
In 1889 the firm processed 97 million fish. By this time over 1,000 people were employed at Lowestoft. A large factory and office was acquired at Millwall, London in 1897. The firm had a capacity of 100,000 cans of food per day, and was the largest tinned foods producer in the world. Five million herrings were canned every year by 1903. The Pan Yan Pickle trademark was registered in 1903.
Between 1900 and 1905, Maconochie Brothers was the largest single food supplier to the British Army, with contracts worth a total of £1 million. At one point, 1,500 people at Maconochie Brothers were engaged in British military contract production. Maconochie Brothers supplied around 45 percent of British army rations during the Second Boer War. By 1914 the Fraserburgh factory employed 300 to 400 people.
The army food supply contract remained in place throughout the First World War. Best known at this time for its tinned stew, “Maconochie” became shorthand for a meat ration. Maconochie Brothers was probably the largest supplier of food to the British armed forces during the war. The tinned "meat and vegetable rations" were welcomed by some troops but others described them as a "man-killer". They also had an unfortunate side-effect.
The cans proclaimed the contents contained the "finest beef", potatoes, haricot beans, carrots and onions. But one account from the time described it as “a tinned ration consisting of sliced vegetables chiefly turnips and carrots in a deal of thin soup or gravy. Warmed in the tin, Maconochie's was edible. Cold it was a man-killer”.
The directions on the can stated "contents may be eaten hot or cold" and that the unopened can should be heated in boiling water for 30 minutes. This was a pretty ridiculous recommendation under most frontline circumstances. When hot, Maconochie was described in letters and reports as anything from barely palatable to good. But eaten cold, as it all too often was, it was a different story. The contents included quite a lot of animal fat which would congeal if cold. It was not easy to heat meals. On the whole it tended to be eaten cold. The accumulation of a lump of fat on top of barely recognizable chunks of meat and vegetables led one reporter to describe Maconochie as "an inferior grade of garbage".
Apart from its "vile" taste there was one other unfortunate quality possessed by the Maconochie's stew. Some versions contained turnips and when combined with the beans it had an unfortunate and side-effect. One Private serving in the Middle East, said: “One of the features of the night marches was the frightful stink. The Maconochie's stew ration gave the troops flatulence of a particularly offensive nature. So we marched along on air released by hundreds of men breaking wind.”