Curry Powder Heroes

An advert for Vencatachellum’s curry powder from a 1930s recipe booklet, which warns against the perils of inferior curry powders.

Today we can be pretty snobby about curry powder.  How can a single blend of spices do justice to an enormous range of dishes from a huge geographical area?   Clearly it can’t, but curry powder did encourage the British to start cooking curries and for that Mr Sharwood and Mr Vencatachellum are heroes in my book.

Recipes for curry appear in 18th century British cookery books and Queen Victoria had Indian chefs working in the royal kitchens.  This early interest is hardly surprising given British activities in South Asia but, until the 20thcentury, curry was a minority taste.  It took some enterprising individuals to bring curry into mainstream eating.  The British Raj (1858- 1947) meant that plenty of British people returned home with a taste for spicy food. Some wrote Anglo-Indian cookery books, for example Col. Kenney-Herbert who wrote under the pen name of “Wyvern”.  His Culinary Jottings for Madras  was republished fairly recently.  Others opened restaurants, the Veeraswamy in London was one of the earliest and, many more followed in the second half of the 20th century.

In the 1890s a salesman called James Allen Sharwood (1859-1941) realised that there was a market for exotic chutneys, pickles and spices.   One of the products to come under the Sharwood’s umbrella was Vencatachellum’s curry powder. The Vencatachellum business had been operating in Madras since 1860 and a British patent for Vencatachellum’s curry powder was registered in 1894.  This mixture of saffron, turmeric, cumin, coriander and chillies, was sold well into the 20th century before Sharwood’s replaced it with its own blend.

Towards the end of the 20th century it took other food heroes and heroines to teach us to appreciate the finer points of spices.

Tin Can Pioneers

Bryan Donkin. The creative brain behind the first tin can factory.

The history of tinned food begins around 200 years ago.  The discovery that food could be preserved in airtight containers is normally credited to the French confectioner, Nicolas-François Appert (1749-1841).  He wrote a book about his experiments L’Art de Conserver Pendant Plusieur Années Toute les Substances Animales et Végétales  (The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years) and, in January 1810, he won 12,000 Francs for his invention.   A scientific understanding of bacteria didn’t come until the mid-19th century so Monsieur Appert’s method was based on knowledge of traditional preservation techniques and careful observation.  Despite his cleverness, I think that, the real heroes of tinned food were the people who developed his idea.

First there was Peter Durand who suggested metal instead of Appert’s glass jars.  He filed a patent for his tins in August 1810.  Next there was Bryan Donkin (1768-1855) who, with two partners, John Hall and Mr. Gamble, acquired this British patent.   In 1813 the firm Donkin, Hall and Gamble set up the world’s first tin can factory in Blue Anchor Lane, Bermondsey, London.  The tins they made were large, heavy and sealed by hand soldering.   There is a photo of one of their tins here.  During the 19th century the process of making tin cans was mechanised and later automated.  These changes meant that tinned food moved from being something bought only by polar explorers and the armed forces and became an everyday domestic staple.

An early tin can factory, possibly Donkin, Hall & Gamble. Image from

Rather bizarrely the tin opener did not appear until 1855 when Robert Yates, a cutler and surgical instrument maker based in Middlesex and my final tin can hero, made a lever or claw tin opener.  Before then tins were often opened with a hammer and chisel.

The First School Dinners

Margaret McMillan, campaigner and writer. Image from

British school dinners do not have a good reputation but when they began they were a lifesaving initiative.  Just over 100 years ago a number of people in Bradford played an important role in introducing and promoting school meals.

After 1870, when primary education became compulsory, it became clear that many poor children were attending school hungry.  What was not clear was whether public money ought to be used to feed them.   In Bradford two members of the School Board, Fred Jowett (1864-1944) and Margaret McMillan (1860-1931), argued that if the state required children to attend school it also had a duty to feed them because education on an empty stomach was a waste of money.

Fred Jowett, MP for Bradford East. Image from

Fred Jowett explained that “ In September, 1904, such distress existed in Bradford that the teachers under the education authority were called together to give advice and impart knowledge as far as they were able, as to the extent of under-feeding among the school children, and they reported to the education committee that in their opinion some 3,000 children in the Bradford schools were insufficiently fed…Such was the feeling of the education committee, on the facts being stated, that they immediately passed a resolution to the effect that they would feed such children as needed to be fed out of public funds, and run any risks that they might be running thereby…”. [1]

The risk was that Bradford City Council was not entitled to use public funds for this purpose.  This changed with the 1906 Provision of School Meals Act.  This Act allowed, but did not require, local authorities to use taxpayer’s money to provide food for school children.  In Bradford they got stuck in.  Not only did they feed the children breakfast and a mid-day meal, they also ran an experiment to show the effect of doing so.  Extracts from the report  can be read on the National Archives website and there are some evocative photos from the early days of school meals in Bradford here.

[1] Hansard 7th December 1906.

The King of Golden Syrup

The classic green tin was introduced in 1885 and the design has hardly changed since then.

Abram Lyle (1820–1891) was responsible for producing and selling an awful lot of golden syrup.

Abram was born in Greenock, a Scottish port near Glasgow, which was heavily dependent on the sugar trade.  He attended a good local school until he was apprenticed to a lawyer at the age of 12.  Later Abram joined his father’s cooperage firm.  In addition to barrel making Abram developed a shipping business with his friend, John Kerr, which grew to be one of the largest in Greenock and made both men rich.  Abram and John expanded into sugar refining in the mid 1860sIt was probably at  the Glebe Sugar Refinery that a syrup by-product of the refining process, originally known as “Goldie” was first made and sold to staff and locals.

Abram Lyle by an unknown artist. Image from Wikicommons.

In 1881, Abram bought land in Plaistow, East London and began building a sugar refinery.   His sons managed this refinery on the banks of the Thames while Abram remained in Scotland.  In 1883, as the Plaistow refinery was getting established, Lyle’s and Sons suffered large losses due to a dramatic fall in the price of raw sugar.  The value of the sugar they were importing collapsed while en-route to Britain.  The Lyles’ businesses looked shaky.  Abram sold the cooperage business, his only steam ship and persuaded the bank to extend their credit.

Golden syrup was their salvation. Abram insisted that the refinery pushed ahead with production and Golden Syrup was profitable.  Part of the Plaistow refinery was devoted to making this partially inverted sugar syrup.  The Plaistow refinery became part of Tate & Lyle in 1921 and continued to produce Golden Syrup.   In 2010 it was sold to American Sugar Refining.

For more about the worker’s lives at Plaistow in the 20th century see the recently published book The Sugar Girls.