Chapter 10.02.02: Robert Henderson and the Invention of the Smokehouse

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting.  Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.

Robert Henderson and the Invention of the Smokehouse

February 1892

Dear Kids,

Last night at Bowood was volcanic. Susan is a force of nature! An inspiration. I got to know Mrs Smith and Fife better and the evening was most enjoyable.

Hendersons Bacon & Ham Curing Operation (Australia)

Since I arrived in England, I used every opportunity to read up on the progression of curing technology. One of the remarkable stories of bacon is the invention of the smokehouse by the Scottish farmer, Robert Henderson. What makes him unique was the fact that he was a formidable hog trader and a man of unusual intellect. He wrote about himself that “having been at a good deal of pains, by corresponding annually with dealers and intelligent farmers, almost in every parish in Annandale, and having myself formerly purchased the most part of the swine fed in the parishes adjoining to my residence. . ..” His account offers a great insight into the system of pork trading at the beginning of the 1800s and looking back into the 1700s. His attention to detail offers us unique insights. What I discovered was intriguing!

Henderson’s Earliest Record of Swine Husbandry

I like Robert! Like me, he too found a need to trace the subject he was studying to its earliest roots. His subject was pigs and he set out to discover the earliest record of swine husbandry on the island. The earliest date he could find took him back 2673 years from when he wrote in 1811.

A large herd of swine was kept by a royal prince in the vicinity of Bath. Baldred was the eldest son of Lub Hudibras, king of Britain. He spent 11 years in Athens studying liberal arts and sciences. When he returned home, he contracted leprosy. He was isolated to prevent the spread of the disease. Frustrated, he disguised himself and in a remote part of the country, found employment. After he fled the palace he found employment in the small town of Learwick as a swine herder. He was to drive them from place to place to feed on acorns, etc.

This is how it happened that he found himself one day in the vicinity of Bath looking after a herd of swine. A strange event occurred. Part of the drove of swine ran down a hill into an elder-moor to the place where warm came up out of the ground. When they returned, they were covered with mud. It was winter and Baldred was interested to find out why the pigs who like water in the summer to stay cool, decided to run into this water in the winder. He could see steam coming from the water and made his way there. The water was warm!

He noticed that after the pigs wallowed in this mud, the sores and scuff marks on their skins healed. The prince wondered if it would have the same healing effect on his skin and he tried it. It healed his skin and he declared who he was. He later succeeded his dad as ruler and created the baths on the spot where the pigs wallowed. A statue was erected in 1699 of King Baldred. The inscription on the statue reads, “Baldred, son of Lud Hudibras, eighths king of the Britains, from Brute a great philosopher and mathematician bred at Athens and recorded the first discoverer and founder of the baths, 863 years before Christ.”

Robert Henderson was an amateur historian and earned a living as a pork trader. Even more than this, he was an inventor. Here is his story.

Introducing the Pork Trade to Scotland

Pig husbandry was large in the south of England in counties such as Wiltshire and Kent where there were large dairy operations. Henderson recalls that in 1766 pigs were brought into Annandale in Scotland for the first time. Farmers bought them more out of curiosity than to make a profit. The pigs were small with bristles on their back. Between 1775 and 1780 both bacon flitches and hams became a considerable trade in this part of Scotland. By 1790 the pork trade was well established with buyers travelling throughout the region to buy pigs. Several markets were established for pigs. One such market was established at Dumfries where the Annadale curers meet the Galloway farmers. Events allowed Robert a birds-eye view on the birth of an industry!

Decentralised Bacon and Ham Drying/ Smoking

Robert Henderson was a formidable pork trader. He distributed the carcasses among the farmers to dry and smoke them in the farmhouses. In one season he would cure no less than 500 animals in this way. He wrote, “I practised for many years the custom of carting my flitches and hams through the country to farm-houses and used to hang them in their chimneys and other parts of the house to dry, some seasons to the amount of 500 carcases.”

The system was accompanied by many difficulties. For starters, he often had to provide his own wood for hanging the flitches and hams on. This was only the start of the trouble. He wrote, “for several days after they were hung up, they poured down salt and brine upon the women’s caps, and now and then a ham would fall down and break a spinning wheel, or knock down some of the children; which obliged me to resort to the shop to purchase a few ribbons, tobacco, &c. to make up peace.”

The biggest problem of this system is related to weight loss. Henderson wrote, “there was a still greater disadvantage attending this mode; the bacon was obliged to hang until an order came for it to be sent off, which being at the end of two or three months, and often longer, the meat was overdried in most places and consequently lost a good deal of weight.”

In 1811 Henderson noted that this was still the way that bacon was cured in large quantities in Dumfriesshire. He lamented the fact that people are slow to abandon old ways of doing things in favour of better alternatives.

Invention of the Bult-For-Purpose Smokehouse

Robert Henderson claims that twenty years earlier, in 1791, he designed a simple, dedicated smokehouse for smoking hams and bacon. This simple statement would become my earliest reference to a smokehouse. He describes it as being twenty feet square (1.8m2) with the walls about seven feet (2.1m) high. Each wall allowed for 6 joints. Twenty-four flitches can be hung together in a row without them touching. Each one of the flitches was resting on a beam. There are five rows, allowing for a total of 120 flitches in the smokehouse. The flitches were hung between 21/2 to 3 feet (900mm) from the floor which is covered with sawdust of five or six inches (100 to 150mm), kindled at two different sides. (Henderson, 1811)

The door is kept closed with a small hole in the roof for ventilation. Bacon and hams smoked in this smokehouse were ready for dispatch within eight to ten days. An advantage of this system is that there is only a little loss in weight. (Henderson, 1811)

So, the system was that the bacon was kept in the salt-house till an order is received. At this point, it was moved to the smokehouse for drying and smoking before it was dispatched to the client. (Henderson, 1811)

During this time, the invention of the smokehouse by Robert Henderson had a dramatic impact on the quality of the bacon. One of the consequences of too much drying is very salty meat since water escapes, but salt is left in the meat.

This invention was “in the air” already since Henderson’s 1791 invention of the smokehouse. Losing weight results in more salty bacon as a large weight loss reduce the volume of meat to salt, making the remaining meat saltier. Smoking, at this time, was exclusively cold smoke.

Apart from better-tasting bacon, there was a significant reduction in cost. Henderson wrote that he “found the smoke-house to be a great saving, not only in the expense and trouble of employing men to cart and hang it through the country, but it did not lose nearly so much weight by this process.”

Who was the First to Invent the Smokehouse?

It is extremely unlikely that Robert Henderson was the first or only person who did away with the farmhouse-drying/ smoking of hams and bacon and opted for a built-for-purpose smokehouse. The following hundred years would see a plethora of ideas being shared and taken up by various companies and individuals, many claiming priority for their invention or progression. It is possible to get close to the people who pioneered these different progressions based on the dates for their inventions but if we are ever able to identify the very first person related to each invention is highly unlikely. It is, however, fascinating how close we can get to the first instance of an invention or progression.

It is interesting that the 1791 reference of Henderson (when he first designed his smokehouse) is still the earliest reference we can find anywhere to smokehouses. Following the indirect reference of Henderson, the next reference I was able to find was a 1796 reference to a smokehouse being part of an estate for sale. (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1796) Several advertisements for properties in Pennsylvania with smokehouses on occurred in the 1790s and into the early 1800s. There is an 1813 reference to a smokehouse by a reader who complains that his measures against insects are not working. (Buffalo Gazette, 1813)

Smokehouse Construction in America – 1820

This is the first reference I get where smoking and drying steps are separate. They begin by hanging the bacon till it is dry. Only then smoke it. The construction of the smokehouse is as follows: “Build a chimney with a very low fireplace, exactly as for a sitting room, and when the chimney is carried up 4 feet, close it at top. A small grate made with hoops or small bars of an older gridiron, at four inches from the hearth will assist the burning of the wood. By having a chimney thus constructed, the blaze of the fire can never injure either house or meat, and no pieces can fall into the fire when a string or nail gives way. Houses have been burned by pieces of meat falling into the fire, and dispersing it to the wood work. All these accidents are thus prevented, and whilst the blaze and smoke ascend the blind chimney, the smoke must descend again and pour into the smokehouse. A small chimney in brick houses on the corner of the wall may be useful to let out the smoke, but no holes in the wall to admit a ray of light. Some chips and a few billits of hickory makes the best smoke – this will also keep the house warm, which is very important; for if the smoke house is cold as will be the case when the smoke is carried by a flue from a lower story or another house, all our former care will be lost: a damp will settle on this bacon and it will have a bitter flavour.” (Newbern Sentinel (New Bern, North Carolina), 1820) It seems as if the author is not necessarily speaking of a completely separate smokehouse as I imagined, but maybe an addition to an existing house (dwelling) for the purpose of smoking bacon and hams.

The author elaborates on the experience of his teacher who warned him about damp which leads to bitter-tasting bacon. He uses an interesting phrase to describe Mr A of Baltimore namely a man who “followed smoking for gain.” He is therefore squarely set in a commercial mindset.

The author continues. “one good fire per diem will smoke the pieces exactly in the same time they were salted viz. hams 4 weeks, shoulders 3 weeks, other pieces in two. When the bacon is smoked and all returned to the smokehouse, a floor, if not laid before should now be laid on the joist; by this means rats will be prevented from descending on the bacon, and the heat of the sun will be moderate so that the bacon will not drip in the summer heats. Darkness and coolness are necessary to preserve the bacon from flies – it may there hang in perfect safety till wanted!” (Newbern Sentinel (New Bern, North Carolina), 1820)

Smokhouses in Ireland and Westphalia in the 1840s

The fact that smokehouses was a new progression in the 1840s is seen from a newspaper report from Northern Ireland in 1841. The article points out that due to the misconstruction of the smokehouse and because the surface of the meat is not properly wiped dry and there is still saline matter on the outside of the meat, these cause the meat not to dry out but remain moist. Because of this a “pyroligneous acid taste and smell” is left on the meat.

The author gives the requirements for a good smokehouse:

  • it should be perfectly dry;
  • not warmed by the fire that makes the smoke;
  • the fire shall be sufficiently far from the meat so that any vapour from the smoke shall be “thrown off” and may be condensed before reaching the meat;
  • yet, close enough to prevent flies, mice, etc from feasting on the meat.

The art of building a proper smokehouse was still being disseminated through the British Isles by 1841. Not only Britain but also in Germany smokehouses were not universally used to smoke bacon. The same article refers to smoking meat in Westphalia. Smoking Westphalia hams was done at this time in “extensive chambers in the upper stories of high buildings, some of four or five stories.”

In the constructions in Westphalia, the fire was made in the cellar and the smoke was directed to the meat through pipes in which the heat was absorbed and the moisture removed. The smoke was dry and cool when it came into contact with the meat. The meat is, in this way, perfectly dried and had a flavour and a colour far superior to meat smoked in the “common method.” (Belfast News-Letter, 1841)

The strict aversion to heat of any kind in the smokehouse would not last and subsequent authors and experts found that a bit of heat produces a better environment for drying (less moist). The Westphalia method of smoking was called “cold smoking” as early as 1864 but there was also a method of smoking called “wet smoke” or “moist smoke” as opposed to “dry smoking”. The complete quote related to Westphalia hams is: “Westphalia Hams. —These usually come by way of Hamburg, and owe their fine flavour to their being “cold smoked.” The hams are hung in the upper part of tin building; the smoke is generated in the cellar and carried up to the smoking-room through tubes. During its ascent, it deposits all moisture, and when it comes in contact with the hams it is both dry and cold so that no undue change occurs in the meat while being smoked. —Newspaper paragraph.” (The English and Australian Cookery Book, 1864) I am sure that during these years there was intense experimentation with different heat during smoking. It soon becomes obvious that there was a wide variety of approaches.

The English botanist, Richard Bradley sent a letter to James Petiver seeking information on the secret of salting, drying, and blackening bacon, gammon, or ham in the west German way as early as 1714.

The 17th- and early 18th-century methods of preparing these, delicacy eluded him until his great friend John Warner of Rotherhithe went to Germany and wrote him a letter on the subject in about 1721. I quote the entire letter.

“Friend Bradley,

Thy favour of the 30th ult. I receiv’d; in answer to which, I send thee the method used to cure bacon in and about Hamburgh and Westphalia, which is after this manner: Families that kill one, two, or three hogs a year, have a closet in the garret joining to their chimney, made very right and close, to contain Smoke, in which they hang their Bacon to dry out of the Reach of the heat of the fire, that it may be gradually dried by the smoke only, and not by heat; the smoke is conveyed into the closet by a hole in the chimney near the floor, and a place made for an iron stopper to be thrust into the funnel of the chimney about one Foot above the hole, to stop the smoke from ascending up the chimney, and force it through the hole into the closet. The smoke is carried off again by another hole in the funnel of the chimney above the said stopper, almost at the ceiling, where it vents itself. The upper hole must not be too big, because the closet must be always full of smoke, and that from wood fires; for coal, or turf, or peat smoke, I apprehend will not do so well. The manner of salting is no other than as we salt meat in common; sometimes they use our Newcastle salt, or St. Ubes, or Lisbon Salt, and a Salt that’s made at Nuremberg (not so good as Newcastle) made from salt springs; in those parts they do not salt their bacon or beef so much as we do in England, because the smoke helps to cure, as well as the salt; for I have seen when dry’d flesh hath not hang’d long enough in the smoke, it would be green within, when if it had hung its time, it would have been red quite through; for as the smoke penetrates, it cures the flesh, and colours it red without any salt-petre, or any other Art. As to the feed of their swine, I saw no difference between their Feed and ours here if any have the preference, I believe the English, and our bacon would be full as good, if not better than the Westphalia if cured alike.

I have here above answered thy desire, and wish it may be approved by our Bacon Makers; for the bacon will not only be not so salt, but relish better every way,

Thy Friend,

John Warner.”

In another letter addressed to Bradley, John Warner makes an interesting comment on the method of salting. Even though it’s not our topic of interest here, it is noteworthy that he did not observe them using the same brine twice, or at least, he did not report on it.

Back to the topic of smoking meat, Bradley gives the most satisfying news that two people in England took him up on his description of the Westphalia smokehouse. “I am obliged to Mr John Warner, a very ingenious gentleman of Rotberbith, for the first just account of preparing bacon in the Westphalia manner, and from whose letter to me, I have already communicated to the public the principles of the art; since which, my learned and curious friend, Dr Corbet of Bourn-Place near Canterbury, has built a bacon-house capable of drying (as I am informed ) sixty large hogs at one time, and has even improved upon the Westphalia method, viz . by drying so large a quantity by one fire, when the drying-rooms or closets abroad do not cure, perhaps, above five or fix hogs at a time.” (Bradley, 1732)

The construction in Westphalia was a closet that was installed in the attic for ham or bacon smoking. Dr Corbet of Bourn-Place constructed the largest dedicated smokehouse that we are so far aware of in the early 1700s, capable of accommodating 60 large pigs. I assume the reference to be of Dr John Corbett of Bourne-Park who married the eldest sister of Sir Hewitt, Elisabeth. (Godfrey, 1929) He was a swindler and a manipulator but, he was apparently prepared to gamble big on pork production!

That the development took place mostly in the 1700s in England is born up by the oldest references to smokehouses. They referred to drying rooms or houses and smoking closets or smokehouses.

Read this fascinating article of how John Corbett gained control over the Manor of Bourne, not to any credit of his name. Painting from this article.

Heating the Smokehouse – 1833

There is a reference from Lancaster Intelligencer (Lancaster, Pennsylvania), 1833 which states that during smoking the smokehouse should be warm but after smoking, it should be cool and dark. This “heating” of the smokehouse is an interesting reference and was by no means universally practised as we saw from the construction of the smokehouses as described from Westphalia. Another report from 1840 states that the smokehouse should be of a moderate temperature. The purpose is given as it will prevent dampness on the meat. (New England Farmer, 1840)

The Harris operation would progress this concept years later when they invented pale dried bacon where the bacon is dried in specially constructed ovens but not smoked (Harris Bacon – From Pale Dried to Tank Curing!)

South Caroline Smoke House Structure – 1855

American smokehouses are often constructions set in wooden frames, exactly as many parts of the country build their houses. Next, we look at an interesting report about the construction of a smokehouse in the American South which follows this pattern. “It is a frame building, with large sills, large corner-posts and a great many studs, some of them very large too. Its dimensions are 17 feet (5m) wide, 20 feet (6m) long and 16 feet (4.8m) high. Beneath the sill is a foundation laid with bricks, 7 inches (18cm) deep. It is shingled and weatherboarded as every house, except that the weatherboarding has considerable lap and is put on with unusually large nails to prevent light entering through cracks. The upper joists rest upon the plates, a second tier being securely attached about 51/2 feet (1.6m) lower down. As yet, there is not a hole for light and scarcely for air, in the building. Perhaps we shall have some made before we are done with it – perhaps not!

The floor is thus: After filling in with dirt nearly halfway up the sill, we put down one layer of bricks. and this we covered with a heavy coat of Roman-cement mortar. A small basin as it were, rased in the middle of the floor for smoking purposes. The door is made to fit tight and this (with a good lock) finishes the job.”

They list the benefits of this construction. “It is roomy; It is dark; It is cool; It is cleanly; It is rat-proof.” (Edgefield Advertiser (Edgefield, South Carolina), 1855)

The rapid progression of smokehouse designs is evident in our short consideration of the time between 1792 and 1855 in the USA.

Smokehouse as the Storeroom for Finished Bacon

One system of storing the bacon was to keep it in the salt house till its sold. Then, smoke it and dispatch it to the client. Another system was to use the smokehouse as the storeroom for finished bacon. The system described in Winchester, Tennessee in 1856 calls for the bacon to be removed from the curing vats and the salt to be scraped off. Rub the bacon all over with hickory ash and hang it up for smoking, hock down. Smoke moderately for four weeks with only two fires a day made from hickory chips. On about the 1st of March, take them down, rub them with hickory ash again and hang them again. Here they remain the whole year. It makes an interesting comment that if little green mould appears on the outside of the bacon, it only insures against spoilage. (The Home Journal (Winchester, Tennessee), 1856)

The hams and bacon can be wrapped in cotton bags for storage during the summer. Before use, dip the bag in strong salt brines to protect against insects. The next season, while bacon and hams are being smoked, hang the cotton bags in the middle of the smokehouse. The smoke will preserve the cotton.

During the summer, the bacon should not be hung against the roof, due to the heat, but in the middle of the smokehouse where it is cooler. The smokehouse should be dark and in the summer the ventilation holes must be closed to keep insects and rodents out.

Was this customary in Wiltshire in the 1840s?

In asking this question, we look one more time at the possible nature of sweet cured bacon invented by Harris in the 1840s. (Sweet Cured Harris Bacon) An article from the Yorkshire Herald and the York Herald (1840) reports on the following method of curing used in Hants, Wilts, and Somerset.

The pork is singed by packing straw around the carcass and burning the bristles and hair off. Scalding tends to soften the meat and this method ensures the meat is left firm. The carcass is left to cool after which it is cut into flitches and salted and treated with saltpetre. The flitches are left for two to three weeks and turned three to four times. They are then wiped dry and suspended over a chimney over a wood or turf fire to dry out. A note is made that coarse sugar is used in Hampshire bacon but not in Wilts and Somerset. Hampshire bacon is imported with its particular flavour by the wood and turf smoke. During smoking, the flitches must be taken down and inspected for bacon-fly.

The 1840 newspaper report does not claim to be exhaustive, but it nevertheless creates the picture of a simple non-industrialised process and most certainly there is no mention of a dedicated smokehouse or salt house. In a dedicated butchers shop, as was run by the Harris family, one would expect a smokehouse and a curing room.

Comparisons with William Oake’s Mild Cured System

We dealt with the mild cured system of William Oake in great detail (Mild Cured Bacon) and since he invented what later became known as tank curing, it is important that we reference his system again.

The first major difference with what we have seen so far relates to drying. Instead of hanging the bacon to dry, Oake used pressure when he re-stacked the flitches after curing, on a dry floor. The weight of the bacon is incrementally increased as the flitches are re-stacks with the ones at the bottom now on the top and by stacking them higher and higher every time it is restacked while always rotating the position of the meat pieces.

Oake called for a quick smoking of the bacon. According to his system between twenty-four and forty-eight hours will suffice to properly smoke the bacon if the weather is suitable, after which it may be packed and forwarded to market.” His smokehouse design is in line with what we have looked at thus far. He also used cold smoke.

Samuel Henderson’s Curing Operation in Australia

Painting by S.T. Gill of Henderson House and the activity on the wharves in 1873.

In researching the life and times of Robert Henderson many years later, I came across this 1873 account of the operation of another Henderson in Melbourn, Australia. With the same surname, the tantalising possibility exists for Robert and Samual to be family. What an amazing “full circle” story that would be! More work remains! 🙂

I include it here as it is a fitting example of what a large, high throughput factory towards the latter part of the 1800s looked like. It is reported that Samuel’s operation was established in 1870. The image at the top is a drawing of his establishment. It is interesting to see the developments of ideas and concepts and their progression over many years till they culminate in a large integrated process such as was the case in the Henderson factory in Melbourne. I quote an article from the Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers (Melbourne, Vic.), 15 Jul 1873. It reads as follows:

The author introduces the subject with a general statement that “. . . energy, enterprise, and capital are used in an intelligent manner, in order to ensure that the articles produced shall be equal if not superior to anything of a similar character prepared for the market.” Mr Henderson’s factory is an excellent example of these and I am sure Robert Henderson would have been proud to witness the extent of the applications of principles he helped to establish with his simple 1791 smokehouse design.

“The ham and bacon curing establishment of Mr. Henderson is eminently one of the class referred to. It is situated on the west bank of the Saltwater River, about 400 yards below the bridge, and divided by the main road from the river. The site is about four acres in extent, and the surface is of an irregular character, about half the area being an alluvial flat, and the other half on the top of a high bank of basaltic rock. This inequality of surface has been turned to the best account by the proprietor when planning the buildings.

These comprise three sides of a square, commencing at the western side, which abuts on a street on the plateau, continued along the northern side, and then on the east along the edge of- the bank, which fronts the Saltwater River and overlooks Melbourne.


On entering by a gate on the western side the visitor finds himself in a large paved courtyard and turning to the left he will, first enter the slaughterhouse, a building 90- feet by 45, in which the pigs are killed and dressed ready for curing. The outer walls of this building are of massive bluestone, in which there are a number of large openings fitted with louvres, but the frontages in the interior are of open woodwork. As there has: been most scrupulous care taken to have no openings in the stone facing to the north, it follows that all hot wind is excluded, and the cold breezes from the south, east, and west are freely admitted through the building, and hence even in sultry weather the atmosphere is comparatively cool.

In this portion of the works the pigs intended to be slaughtered during the day are placed first in a large pan, and from thence drafted into a smaller enclosure. Above this blocks and falls are fixed, and when slaughtering, commences each pig has a sling passed round one of its hind legs, and is hauled up thereby out of the pen, and is stuck while suspended. In a few seconds, it is lowered onto a hook suspended from rails, and transferred to the scalding trough, and another raised in like manner, and in a very short time a dozen are ready for cleaning. This is effected in two large troughs in the centre of the building. One of these contains scalding water, to which the requisite degree of heat is imparted by steam conducted from the boiler, through pipes laid in the bottom of the trough. Three or four pigs are placed in this at once, and in a very short time the whole of the hair and outer cuticle is removed with a small scraper, and the carcases are then hoisted over into the adjoining trough of cold water. There the cleansing process is soon completed, and by another block and fall the pigs are hoisted and each hung on gambles.

These hooks, of which there are about 200, are most ingeniously suspended from rails in such a manner that when even a large hog is hung up it can be transferred from one end of the place to the other with the utmost facility, by merely pushing it along in the required direction. There is also a weighing machine in the southwest corner of the building, so contrived that when the hook sustaining a carcass is brought directly over it the weight can be at once seen and noted. As soon as each pig is hung up it passes on to a man who opens it and clears out the interior, and then it remains hanging until thoroughly cold. Each animal is then weighed in the way described, and split down the back, stripped of the lard and kidneys, and left to set.

The carcasses are then cut as required for sides, middles, hams, rolls, or mess pork. It is then ready for the curing process, and to effect that the pork is placed on hand wagons, and wheeled into the building on the east side of the courtyard. This is a two-story structure, the walls of which are all of bluestone, and very thick. The upper story is on a level with the courtyard, while the lower one is excavated from the solid rock to a depth of about 15 feet. The dimensions of this lower story are 105 x 40 feet in the clear, divided into two rooms by a wall in which is an archway.

Curing Tanks

A patent hydraulic lift is fixed in one of these rooms, by which the trucks of meat are lowered from the upper floor. Round the walls of the northern room, there are between thirty and forty cemented tanks ranged. In these the first process takes place. When the meat has been sufficiently long in the brine the sides of green bacon are again placed on a truck and conveyed to the southern room, in which there is a low stone bench about five feet wide running round three sides, the surface of which slopes inward towards the walls, and on these the meat is packed after being well rubbed with salt. By the construction adopted all the brine that runs from the huge piles of meat is conveyed to a small reservoir, from whence it is taken to the salting vats. The vats for curing hams are in the centre of this room and are constructed to hold 1000 hams at a time. In this lower story there is room for scores of tons of meat to be passed through the curing process, and owing to the precaution taken to exclude hot air, and the admirable way in which the windows are fitted with louvre blinds and the walls pierced and fitted with ventilators, there is a sweetness and purity in the atmosphere that is surprising. This is the case, indeed, throughout the whole establishment, for all that is offensive is washed away at frequent intervals throughout the day, down underground drainpipes into the river, and nothing is allowed to remain that can create a foul smell.


When the bacon has been cured it is wheeled onto the lift, and round to the upper floor, from
whence it is taken to a part of the northern building and hung up to dry. This building is 100 feet by 25 feet, each ham has three tons of each, from each of which 144 sides of bacon can be suspended (1296).


When the bacon has hung till sufficiently dry, it is transferred into the smoking-houses, of which there are three, each 12 feet square and 30 feet from basement to roof. Each house has three tiers of racks, from, each of which 144 sides of bacon can be suspended, and thus were all the smoking-houses filled at once; there would be 1296 sides undergoing the finishing process at one time. Some idea may thus be formed of the immense quantity of preserved meat that may be manufactured in this establishment during a year.

Other Parts

But in an establishment of this nature there are still other parts to deal with. The pigs’ heads are cured and smoked, and are thus converted into Bath chaps. Large quantities of beef and pork are also used for making German sausages and these are equal in quality to those manufactured in Europe, for the employee who has charge of this portion of the manufacture is a native of Berlin who there learnt his trade.

Other Species

Hitherto only one description of meat has been referred to, but Mr. Henderson does not limit himself to that. He buys vast quantities of legs of beef, of the finest quality he can procure, and the meat from these is transferred to the brine in the lower story and there cured. It is then lifted to the room above and there each salted leg is spiced and tightly bound with ligatures of small cord and these beef hams are then hung up to dry and ripen for the market. Sides of small porkers are similarly cured and formed into rolls of bacon.


The meat for the sausages is chopped in a revolving chopping machine worked by steam and capable of supplying a very large quantity of sausage meat daily.


The steam referred to is generated in a boiler erected in the angle of the buildings in the northwest corner of the courtyard, and it does good service in various ways. Besides heating the water for scalding and supplying the power for the sausage machine, it supplies the heat by which the lard is melted and clarified and is also applied to the boiling down of all the bones and extracting the tallow from them. It also works a machine that crushes the peas with which the pigs are fed, Mr. Henderson having a large depot for these animals on the opposite bank of the river. It will before long be applied to working an ice machine, which has been imported at considerable cost, and will be erected on the premises very shortly.

In fact, for compactness, completeness, and cleanliness, it would be difficult to find establishments of a similar character, even in Europe, to equal Mr. Henderson’s, and in those respects, it cannot be excelled.

Mr. Henderson’s dwelling house occupies a large portion of the upper story over the salting rooms, and in its arrangement, fittings, and furnishing, it affords quite as much evidence of the good taste of its owner as the other portions of the premises do of his skill as a designer and his mercantile abilities. It remains to be noticed that on the south-eastern portion of the courtyard are the stables and sheds, in which are the horses and vehicles necessary in the conduct of the business, and that they are in every respect equal to the buildings and their equipment. We may state that the premises were built by
Mr. A. Kennedy, under the supervision of the proprietor.

Look How Far We’ve Come!

The achievements of the Henderson ham and bacon operation in Australia is impressive. Over the last few weeks, I had the opportunity to revisit the drying and smoking of bacon, ham and sausages again when Daniel from Kerres visited me in Cape Town. It gives me an even greater appreciation for the pioneering work of Robert Henderson in 1791. In the end, smoking and drying are so much more than managing the humidity and applying dry smoke to the product. The smokehouse team looking after the factory is entrusted with the final look and feel of the product along with taste and shelf life (food safety).

I have found the Kerres team to be the best to outsource the final look, feel and texture of the product to. I base this statement on the versatility of their equipment. It is a familiar frustration to all production managers that they buy equipment and lock themselves into a certain processing system which invariably comes to haunt them later when they want to change the production system. In smokehouse technology, it is clearly seen in the choice between a system with vertical or horizontal airflow.

As a case in point, consider the change from natural or artificial casings and the emergence of alginate casing technology. The use of alginate casing technology has become widely available, in South Africa, through the spice supplier Freddy Hirsch, but when drying, the sausages can’t hang and are packed on trays which favours a horizontal airflow and not the vertical airflow systems used when smoking sausages that hang on smoke sticks and are linked together. So, ineffective smokehouses now become an obstacle when the production manager wants to change how the sausages are produced.

Even more, what do you do if you only want to change part of the processing system to alginate casings and still offer the consumers the natural or collagen casings they are used to?

The same applies to bacon processing technology. The traditional way is to hang the bacon in the smoke chamber. However, the latest method of bacon processing using grids to “shape” the bacon, favours again a horizontal airflow system as opposed to the vertical flow systems. The latter is favoured by the traditional way of hanging the bacon. (Best Bacon and Rib System on Earth)

Because drying/ cooking/ smoking is so important in the final product, it is surprising that many owners/ investors or managers base their decision on “an easy deal” or the cheapest option available to them. The wrong smokehouse partners are one of the most expensive mistakes we’ve made at Woody’s!

The Kerres smoker has a hybrid system that incorporates both horizontal and vertical airflow. They offer it as an added option, but in my mind, it is an easy decision!

The Kerres Hybrid system caters for vertical as well as horizontal airflow and smoke distribution.

What amazes me is the level of information available about these matters for people like Robert Henderson and myself who have an interest in the roots of our trade. From the roots in the kitchen of farmhouses to its incorporation into a high throughput factory in Melbourne, Australia, the story of the smokehouse takes its rightful place in the grand tale of bacon and as we look at it, we continue to discover the art of living!

Lots of LOVE,



(c) eben van tonder

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Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland), 26 Oct 1841, Tue

Richard Bradley. 1726. A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening. T Woodward.

Richard Bradley. 1736. In the Gentleman and Farmer’s Guide for the Increase and Improvement of Cattle. . . G. S. Mears

Buffalo Gazette (Village of Buffalo, New York), 01 Jun 1813, Tue

Edgefield Advertiser (Edgefield, South Carolina)

The English and Australian Cookery Book. 1864. By an Australian Aristologist. Sampson Lowson, and Marston.

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Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers (Melbourne, Vic. : 1867 – 1875)  Tue 15 Jul 1873

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Newbern Sentinel (New Bern, North Carolina), 05 Feb 1820, Sat

New England Farmer (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 Jan 1840, Wed

The Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 Jul 1795, Wed

The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 29 Dec 1796, Thu

Yorkshire Herald and the York Herald (York, North Yorkshire, England), 26 Dec 1840, Sat

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