Wednesday 23 November 2022

Stephan Goldner and the Billion Dollar Corporation


I was amazed to discover recently that it is now ten years ago, in November 2012, that I had the privilege to travel to Nelson Mandela Rd, Kidbrooke, London to view the Goldner cans in the National Maritime Museum's reserve collection. That visit, and a follow up, in September 2013, ultimately led to the fully functional replica cans which I used in my Victorian Victualling simulation in 2019.

Sometimes when researching history you come across surprises. In this case the rare example of a business rooted in the distant past which, astoundingly, still exists and even thrives to the present day.

Who would have believed it that a man proudly named on the above label and who filed what is arguably one of the most important patents in the history of food preservation also founded a commercial enterprise which has not merely survived for nearly two hundred years but has grown and developed into a billion dollar business empire.

It is well known that Stephan Goldner's food canning business collapsed as a result of the Naval preserved meats scandal of 1852. However, the business I'm teasing you about is not even food related... 

Look closely at the bottom left corner of the can label at the top of this page. It carries the words "Wertheimer & Co., Printers". Surely it would be very unusual for a printer to put his name on something so utterly prosaic as a food label? - I certainly can’t recall any other example. In fact John Wertheimer was one of the most respected printers in London. Much of his output can be found by searching Google Books for "Wertheimer printer" or variations thereof. In 1844 he began printing the fortnightly "Jewish Chronicle and Working Man's Friend" whose print run is unbroken to this day as the world's oldest and most influential Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle. Wertheimer built an international reputation, printing books in various languages, but probably the most celebrated work he printed was in 1858 - the original edition of a book called "Anatomy, descriptive and surgical" now universally referred to as Gray's Anatomy - a major technical challenge and a work of global significance.

Close up of Goldner can, reference AAA2276

Goldner's well known patent, Number 8873, was filed ("sealed" in the terminology of the day) on 8th March 1841.
STEPHEN GOLDNER, of West Street, Finsbury Circus, Merchant, for improvements in preserving animal and vegetable substances and liquids.
The very next patent in sequence, number 8874, was filed on the same day, with the same title, but in this case the applicant was “John WERTHEIMER, Printer”, the address was also given as "of West Street, Finsbury Circus" and it was noted as "Communicated from a foreigner residing abroad". The foreigner in question can be identified as Louis Amédée Fastier, a Parisian marchand de comestibles.

Wertheimer had filed an earlier patent, also a "communication", No 8378, on 8th Feb 1840. This is the one I regard as the most significant as it introduced the key concept of the can being heated after being sealed – the essential step in the process still in use today. On the 2nd July 1846 the patent was amended to disclaim some of the other parts of the patent which had proved not to be useful.

Drawings from Wertheimer's patent and Fastier's brevette d'invention

The 1841 Census data shows printer John Wertheimer and his family residing at No. 5 West Street, Finsbury Circus. Presumably "living over the shop". Lodging with them was a certain Stephen Goldner, aged 30, "Ind" - meaning "of independent means".

As a foreigner residing in Great Britain, Goldner was constrained in certain aspects of business such as the purchasing or leasing of real estate.To overcome these restrictions he filed an application for Naturalisation dated 24 December 1845. The application consists of a series of sworn petitions attesting to Goldner's character. Wertheimer declares:

... that I have known and been acquainted with Stephan Goldner of Houndsditch in the City of London, Merchant, for a period of seven years and upwards, since May 1839

 and later:

... to the best of my knowledge and belief the said Stephan Goldner has resided in London from the month of May One thousand eight hundred and thirty nine to the present time excepting a period of eight months during which the said Stephan Goldner was abroad on commercial transactions but during which period the business in which the said Stephan Goldner is engaged in London namely the manufacturing and vending of preserved provisions according to a process to a process as I have been informed and believe protected by Her Majesty's Letters patent was carried on by the attorney or agent of the said Stephan Goldner

While Stephen Goldner's food business, and the man himself vanished in the 1850s,  John Wertheimer's printing business flourished. John Edward Lea joined the firm in 1866 and they became Wertheimer Lea & Co.

New premises were established at 46 & 47 London Wall and a new print-works, Clifton House, constructed in Shoreditch. the building now serves as offices for the National Health Service.

1920 and 2020

John Henry Williams bought into the company after John Wertheimer's death in December 1883. The name remaining as Wertheimer, Lea and Company until 1916 when wartime anti-German sentiment necessitated the change to Williams Lea and Company.

Williams Lea grew strongly throughout the twentieth century, the business developing from straightforward printing into the realm of business services outsourcing.The Company remained in family ownership until 2006 when Deutsche Post AG Group bought a 75% stake for 370m euros ($440m, £253m), a proportion of which was used to endow a charitable trust. Later the same year The UK Government's official publisher, The Stationery Office, was acquired.

Design agency Tag Worldwide was acquired in 2011, and the combined business was rebranded as Williams Lea Tag. Revenue was 1.41 billion euros ($1.7 billion) in 2014, hence the reference to "Billion Dollar Corporation" in title of this blog post.

Deutsche Post sold Williams Lea Tag to Private equity group Advent International in December 2017. The business was then described as employing over 10,000 people and operating in more than 40 countries globally.

Current Williams Lea Group brands:

In conclusion, the existence of a present-day entity with a link to Stephan Goldner is a fascinating curiosity. Of greater interest to the serious historian is the information that archives from the company have been preserved and that I have hopes, in due course, to use them to fill in some more gaps in the story of Stephan Goldner.

Wednesday 9 November 2022

May we be Spared: Four talks in eight days.

The last week of October was, for me, a mad week of travelling, book launching, talking, and meeting old and new friends.

It started with an early morning flight to Ireland West Airport Knock and a drive to Rosses Point County Sligo for the Maritime Heritage Weekend organised by the wonderful Medbh Gillard.

I had been humming and hawing about attending this year but it was always my answer when asked, during the pandemic, where did I want to go when travel restrictions were lifted.

It was a good thing that I did decide to go in the end as, a few days prior to setting off, Medbd messaged to say that one of the scheduled speakers had tested positive for Covid, and would I be able, at short notice, to fill the gap in the programme. I was delighted to step in, and in return I was officially declared a saint. I made it a fairly introductory explanation of the Franklin expedition, and what it meant to me, finishing up with a plug for the book with a couple of example paragraphs. 

Back home Monday morning, with a few days to spare before Thursday's for a trip up to Greenwich by car and train for a get together at the Trafalgar Tavern and the evening's lecture at the National Maritime Museum. The talk went extremely well with an excellent introduction by Jeremy Michell with Russell, Mary, and myself onstage taking it in turns.

Gina joined us for book signing, meaning that the lucky recipients of these books will have, so far, the only copies signed by all four editors.

Friday morning dawned, meaning another early morning run to the airport, this time for a flight to Dublin, then on to Athy, home of the Shackleton Museum. Our book was launched in Ireland at 9 pm in O'Brien's Pub, or, more precisely, in the covered yard attached. This was particular fun due to the informal setting and the absence of any visual technology meant it was just a question of stand up and wobble on about the subject. This all went very well due to the receptive audience, the subject being close to the speakers' hearts, and plenty of drink.

Saturday after lunch was the more formal version, with Russell's excellent PowerPoint slides and the three of us taking it in turns to read excerpts from the book and explain several aspects of the story of how it came into being. This again went down very well, with many compliments received afterwards.
Sunday afternoon was a shared taxi back to Dublin and an evening flight resulting in arrival back home a little before midnight.

All in all, a most memorable and enjoyable week of madness. I am very keenly looking forward to going back next year!

Wednesday 7 September 2022

May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth - The voyage begins!


At last! Our book, May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition, has now been released!

The title is from the 175th letter in the collection in which Sarah Hartnell, mother of two members of the expedition, expresses her hope of being reunited with her sons but recognizes and accepts that  her hopes may not be fulfilled:

“if it is the Lords will may we be spared to meet on earth if not God grant we may all meet around his throne to praise him to all eternity”.

Steve and Mary Williamson hosted a wonderful launch party on Sunday at their beautiful home in East Sussex.

The centrepiece of the show was the cake cutting ceremony in which I can be seen wielding Sir John Franklin's sword (ineffectually) while Mary actually divides the cake which is brilliantly decorated with a full sized reproduction of the book's cover. You can be assured that I took home the piece with my name on it and that it was truly delicious. 

My sincere thanks to Russell Potter, who led the book project superbly, fellow editors Regina Koellner and Mary Williamson, Sir Michael Palin for the foreword, and everyone else who had a hand in making it a reality. I am humbled to have been allowed to join in.

Sunday 6 December 2020

Three visits to 137 Houndsditch

In January ‎2019 Gina Koellner and I made a pilgrimage to the site of Goldner's preserved provisions manufactory.

The site is now partly occupied by a somewhat stern faced office building named Five Acre Square with the nominal street address of 133 Houndsditch.

Supimposing the footprint of the McCall & Co warehouse from Charles Goad's 1887 insurance map on a Google Maps image of the present day street layout shows how the new road, Stoney Lane, was driven through the site of the largest building in the range.

A different kitchen once occupied this spot

A cosy hostelry for City workers

The corner of the new building which overlies the Goldner site contains a bar called CBK, for City Bar and Kitchen. It would have been wrong to visit the location without popping in for a coffee, or a cheeky beer in my case.

Illustrated London News, Page 93, 31 January 1852

The Illustrated London News paid their own visit in January 1852. Their article concluded:

Our sketch represents the establishment of Messrs. Ritchie and M'Call, of Houndsditch, whose preserved provisions are excellent, as we can testify from experience, having examined the contents of canisters taken at random from their stores.

The Parliamentary Inquiry reported that Thomas Thorp, who had been employed by Goldner at Galatz for five or six years, had stated that Goldner still had an interest in Ritchie's business. 

The interior scene depicted exhibits quite a close correspondence with the plan of the Southern building in the complex. It should be remembered that the map is from many years later so it is likely that there may be some differences. I take the figures "1=2" in the corner to mean a single story building with the height equivalent to two stories. In other words, a double height space. The shaded rectangles in the corner are steam boilers, presumably to heat the preserving vats. The forty foot tall chimney shown in the plan was the cause of a notice of a nuisance complaint being issued in 1853 due to emission of opaque smoke. The proprietors promised to take greater care in feeding the furnace and no further action was taken.

Although not mentioned in the article, at the time of the ILN's visit, the three storey warehouse on the Northern side of the complex was in ruins as it had been gutted by a fire in November 1851. Several local newspapers carried the following report:

Fire at Aldgate Old Workhouse. — A fire, attended with much destruction of valuable property, broke out shortly after twelve o'clock on Saturday morning, in the immense range of premises formerly Aldgate Workhouse, but at the present time in the tenure of Messrs. Ritchie and M'Call, household provision manufacturers, situate in Cock and Hoop-yard, Houndsditch. The flames originated from some unknown cause in the staircase of the north wing, and very speedily three of the floors became fired almost simultaneously, and for some time nothing short of the complete destruction of the premises could apprehended. Numerous engines of the London Brigade and West of England Office, with the Royal Society's fire escapes, were remarkably early it arriving, and no time was lost in setting the machinery to work, but, in spite of the most strenuous exertion of the firemen, it was nearly three o'clock before the fire could be extinguished. The damage done is thus officially reported :— Three floors of warehouse and store rooms burned out; greater part of roof burned off of one half of the north wing. The floors adjoining, together with their contents, considerably damaged by water, and the furniture in dwelling-houses by water and removal. The building was insured in the Sun, and the contents in the Phoenix offices.

The report of the Parliamentary Inquiry contains a record of the earliest documented visit to the factory at 137 Houndsditch although the author's imperfect memory substitutes Shoreditch for Houndsditch.


The witness, Commander George Farquhar Morice, RN 1792 - 1868, was Master Attendant of the Victualling Establishment Deptford from 1833 to 1850. He mentions two senior officers, William Henry Shirreff (1785–1847) and Sir John Hill (1774–1855), in charge of the Navy's most important victualling establishments at the time of the Franklin expedition. The fact that William Henry Shirreff retired in 1846 indicates that the visit must have been earlier than the five or six years remembered by Commander Morice in 1852. It seems a reasonable inference that the reason this inspection happened was connected with the provision of supplies for Franklin's ships.

The inevitability that Goldner's reputation would be destroyed had been predictable many months before January 1852 when the shocking revelations of the Navy's preserved meats scandal would erupt from the pages of The Times. Those months were not wasted: "Goldner's Patent" preserved provisions would be rebranded as Ritchie and McCall's. Ritchie would subsequently depart to set up a business in Australia leaving the business of McCall and Co. to thrive for nearly a century, being finally wound up on 14 April 1964. That is not the end of the story though as there was another business associated with Goldner which played a part in the production of the canned provisions for the Franklin expedition. Remarkably that business has survived to the present day with the most recent report of annual earnings being greater than 500 million US Dollars.

Comments are welcome here or on the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook page.


Tuesday 24 November 2020

The other "137 Houndsditch" - Stephan Goldner's Factory revealed.


My previous post concerning the Nag's Head pub was something of a tinned herring - an appetiser intended to gently tease the readership' historical palate and leave them hungry for more. I hope it did that! Now look closely at the map above. Starting from the street outside number 137 Houndsditch, the Nag's Head, you can go through the wood ceiling-ed passage into Cock and Hoop Yard. Continuing on to the end, the number 137 appears again. This "137 Houndsditch" really is Goldner's establishment although by 1889, the date of this map, it is M'Call's Preserved Provision Warehouse. A quadrangle of buildings roughly 110 feet square, with the central courtyard covered over by a glased roof, it has by far the largest footprint of any property in the block.

The map is extracted from  Insurance Plan of City of London Vol. III: sheet 71 courtesy of the British Library.



This slightly earlier map (above) depicts the area as Goldner knew it. It shows the mid nineteenth century layout prior to the extension of the Metropolitan Railway to Aldgate in the 1870s. The quadrangle lies between Houndsditch, which follows the line of the wall of Roman Londinium, and New Middlesex Street, formerly Petticoat Lane, which is the boundary of the City of London. An article in The Builder periodical from February 1872 entitled Homes in the East of London: Jew and Christians, gives a flavour, or perhaps more accurately, a whiff of the vile stench, of the neighbourhood.

This aerial view brings home the relative proximity of Goldner's factory to the heart of the City of London. It is a sobering juxtaposition - the wealth of City institutions and individuals side by side with the grinding poverty and squalor of the poor neighbourhoods of the vicinity. A further twist is that prior to the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, the buildings which became Goldner's factory had been home to the parish workhouse of St Botolph's Aldgate. The new law allowed individual parishes to pool their resources resulting in the much larger Union workhouses with a distinctly harsher regime than the version of Christian charity previously dispensed by the parishes. Houndsditch, for all its dead-dog associations, is one of the main thoroughfares of the City so for commercial purposes the address of 137 Houndsditch has a certain cachet. To locals the address was simply "Aldgate old workhouse".

Next: A visit (or three) to Goldner's factory.

Comments welcome here or the Rembering the Franklin expedition Facebook page.

Monday 23 November 2020

The Secret of 137 Houndsditch


The painting above, dated 1889, shows the ancient Nag's Head pub shortly after some of the adjacent buildings to the South had been demolished to allow for the construction of a new road.

The detailed map below is slightly earlier and shows the layout before the demolition mentioned. The Nags Head is labelled P.H. for Public House and the numbering on the roadway shows that its street address was number 137. It is surrounded by retail shops (S), dwelling houses (D), warehouses, and hat factories.

The address of the Nag's Head pub was 137 Houndsditch in the City of London, an address famous (or, let's face it, notorious) as the location of Stephan Goldner's preserved meat manufactory between about 1839 and 1851. The old pub in the painting looks like it has stood on the site for centuries, so where was Goldner's factory really? The answer to this (hopefully) amusing conundrum will be revealed in my next post.

Monday 16 November 2020

The Official Aquittal of Stefan Goldner


The Report from the Select Committee on Preserved Meats (Navy), Together with the Minutes of Evidence, Appendix and Index,  is a weighty document of nearly 500 pages.

As the title page suggests, it documents in great detail the Government's inquiry resulting from the Preserved Meats scandal which broke in the Times on January 3, 1852.

The examination and condemnation of canned meat at the Royal Clarence Victualling Establishment in Gosport, Hampshire, which the Times reported on was just one episode in the closing stages of an official Admiralty investigation which had already been underway for the best part of a year.

Deep in the Appendices, on page 393, is the document which explicitly exonerates Goldner of any criminality.

On 27 August 1851 Thomas Tassell Grant, The Comptroller of the Navy's Victualling Department, wrote to William Frogat Robson, the Admiralty Solicitor, to ask if any of Goldner's actions rendered him liable to prosecution.

The conclusion was received the next day from Robson's deputy, H Swainson:

There appears to have been repeated quarrels between Mr. Goldner and his servants at the factory, which may account for the bad state of some canisters by the introduction of offal and filth. It is not likely that Mr. Goldner, under the serious penalties of his contract, would make himself a party to so flagrant a breach, which must fall upon himself; and unless he could be fixed with a knowledge of using or conniving at the use of some dangerous ingredients in the mode of curing or preserving the meat, he cannot be held criminally responsible for the acts of others.

But what really happened?

The report states that Goldner had been going on well between 1844 and 1849.

There had been occasional reports of improper substances in the cans but rarely were they anything sinister. On several occasions the cans were rejected for containing tongue. Tongue is classed as offal but is actually a premium meat fetching a higher price than many other parts of the carcass.

As well as these problems, the scale of the business had grown considerably since the original running contract of 1844 so the Admiralty decided to move to annual contracts for fixed quantities open to competitive tender as was done for other foodstuffs.

The real problems began with the 1850 contract which required the meat to be packed in larger pieces and in larger cans than before - 6, 9, and 12 pound cans. The men disliked their meat being served in small pieces and the larger cans were a cost saving.

An additional change was how the weight of the meat was reckoned.
The 1844 contract specified the cans to be packed with raw meat before processing, then on opening each pound of contents was required to provide 12 ounces of cooked meat and 4 ounces of gravy. This had led to many complaints about short measures so the 1850 contract stipulated that each pound must be 16 ounces of cooked meat and only so much gravy as necessary. This change necessitated the meat to be pre-cooked before canning and the cans packed tighter with less room for the liquid to circulate during the heat processing. The net result of these changes was to reduce the margins for error during processing and making under-processing more likely.

The recipe for disaster was compounded by Goldner's combative personality and abrasive management style which from time to time led some of his disgruntled, underpaid, workforce to deliberately sabotage the product.

The final element in the mix was the fact that Goldner was absent from Galatz for considerable periods, leaving his 18 year old nephew in sole charge of the critical preserving process.

The most headline grabbing part of the disaster were the 'filthy substances' found in some of the cans. It is perfectly understandable that they will have provoked feelings of disgust and anger.

Grant estimated that of the meat issued to ships, less than two one hundredth of one percent, or 2 lb in 10,000 lb, matched this description.

The bigger problem was meat which appeared perfectly sound and sweet when accepted into the stores but which spoiled far sooner than had occurred in the past. The fault was far more frequent in the 9 and 12 pound cans introduced in the 1850 contract. The six pound cans were usually satisfactory.

When, prompted by the Admiralty, other manufacturers attempted, at a higher price, to supply preserved meat to this specification they failed too.

The parliamentary inquiry revealed no systemic fault in the system of contracts for supplying the Navy but noted the difficulties with the larger cans. They reported that in the new contracts by then already in force, only 6 lb cans were being used. The report also highlighted the testimony of several witnesses that it would be beneficial to bring the production of preserved meat in-house and this was subsequently done.

Many have assumed that Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition was supplied by Goldner on the basis of lowest cost tender but the report makes clear that this was not the case.

... the arctic ships, "Erebus" and "Terror," were supplied with preserved meats bought specially for the purpose, at a price varying from 7d. to 2s. per lb., and not, as in Mr. Goldner's contracts, at 4 3/4d., 5d., and 5 3/8 d.

That special consideration was given to the preserved meat for the Franklin expedition is entirely consistent with what we know about the other foodstuffs. No effort or expense was spared in providing the best of everything. I do not know whether Franklin's provisions were canned at Galatz or the factory at 137 Houndsditch or a mixture of the two but the fact it was a special purchase makes me suspect it was Houndsditch and that it was probably inspected by the Navy's Victualling Department at the time.

The Parliamentary report clearly shows that the 1852 scandal casts no shadow whatsoever on the integrity of the preserved provisions which Goldner supplied to the Franklin expedition.

Nonetheless, it wouldn't be very long before Goldner would be reviled as a criminal, a traitor, and worse.

Stephan Goldner and the Billion Dollar Corporation

  I was amazed to discover recently that it is now ten years ago, in November 2012, that I had the privilege to travel to Nelson Mandela Rd,...