Friday, 22 June 2018

A Hazard of Early Tinned Food

We have all heard many stories of the dangers faced by our ancestors coming to Australia on the early sailing ships, but this week I came across another danger faced by Francis Scammell, a bounty immigrant travelling to Port Phillip in 1841- contaminated tinned food! How could this happen? It got me researching the history of the tin can, something we take for granted today, with all of us having cans of food in our pantry.

The humble tin can is just over 200 years old and the idea of preserving food was encouraged by the French Government, in 1795, by offering a 12,000 franc prize to anyone who could preserve food to feed its far flung military. A French chef, Nicolas Appert experimented for many years, firstly with champagne bottles, something he had, sealed with cheese and lime , then wide necked glass containers which were too fragile and finally tin cans of meat which he soldered closed after heating. He watched the cans for months and those that didn't swell he deemed fit for consumption! After glowing reports about his canned food he was awarded the prize in 1809 on the condition he published his method, which he did the following year.

This tin can process was bought to England by another Frenchman, who used an agent to patent the idea, which was then sold onto Bryan Donkin who set up a business, Donkin, Hall & Gamble in Bermondsey. After successfully feeding his canned beef to nobles, who gave him glowing reports, his business took off.

An Early Tin Can

Early cans were made of tin-plated iron and very heavy. The process was labour intensive with cans made by hand. Food was heated in sealed cans for 6 hours, then opened slightly and re-soldered closed with lead solder. Preserving food in these cans was an expensive business. The main market was the British Army and the Royal Navy. By the 1820s, several expeditions to the Arctic had used canned food as well. Early cans weighed between 4 and 20lbs and as no can opener had been invented, a bayonet, hammer and chisel or a rock was advised to be used to open them!  By 1821, more manufacturers entered the field and Donkin dissolved his partnership.

As the early process of canning food was a hit and miss affair with no real understanding of the process, there were many cases of contaminated food. Louis Pasteur's development of pasteurization wasn't until 1864.

Francis Scammell left Bristol on 26 August 1841 aboard the Ward Chipman(sometimes also called Ward Chapman) and arrived at Port Phillip in mid December 1841. A shipping speculator, J P Hinton had purchased the ship and fitted it out for the voyage. He decided to use tin food, provided by John Gillon & Co, instead of the usual food loaded. The seals on the tin food were defective and much was spoilt. Even before rounding the Cape of Good Hope many of the passengers were ill and eight passengers were employed to help tend the large number of sick. By the time the ship reached Melbourne 19 children had died of food poisoning from defective cans. This was just another obstacle faced by those coming to Australia in the early days.

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