William and William Harwood Oake By Eben van Tonder 10 July 2021
This article is also part of Bacon & the Art of Living. Read it at Chapter 10.06.01 Oake Woods & Co., Ltd. and their Auto Cured Bacon.
From Worth, R. N.. Jan 1888. Tourist’s Guide to Somersetshire: Rail and Road. E. Stanford
It’s been a while now since the early hours one Monday morning when I learned the name of the man who invented mild cured bacon, William Oake. All I knew about him is that he was a pharmacist from Ulster in Northern Ireland. I was reviewing my book on the history of bacon curing, Bacon & the Art of Living. I had just worked through the chapter where I give my historical review of bacon curing, Chapter 12.09: The Curing Reaction. I worked through the progression of mild cured bacon to pale dried bacon and tank curing. Just before tank curing, I included Auto Curing in the review. Something about the timing and the sparse description of the process did not sit well with me. I knew that the re-use of old brine was in its infancy in England in the 1820s and 1830s from a quote from The Complete Grazier where the reference speaks about it in very tentative forms and says that the brine can be re-used twice. In 1852 Youatt gives a far more confident reference to the reuse of old brine. I knew that that reusing old brine was part and parcel of the auto curing system of bacon production which, by 1861 was already in use in England, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada.
The adoption of the mild curing system by C & T Harris only took place in the second half of the 1800s. By 1861 auto cure was already in use in England which relies on a complete re-use of old brine. Why did they not work the concepts of tank curing out long before the end of the decade? Besides these, I was still wrestling with the question if Oake was the one to rely on a continual re-use of the old brine. Was this his invention, so to speak? If I take that out of the equation, then it reduced the uniqueness of the mild curing system and it would mean that there was not much of a difference between mild curing and the sweet cured system of C & T Harris.
These questions plague me. I was sure I am missing something. If Oake was the one who started re-using the old brine repeatedly and if this is one of the features of auto curing, I wondered if there is a link between Oake and auto curing. There had to be! It was around 19:00 on Tuesday evening, 6 July 2021 when I started searching a combination of auto curing and William Oake and an explosion of information followed. Unfortunately for me, I had just figured out that the Maillard Reaction was responsible for unexpected results in my MDM replacement product I was working on and the rest of the night was spend intermitted searching for information on Oake and Auto Curing and frantically reviewing the Maillard reaction! Needless to say that I did not get much sleep that night, but what an absolutely glorious night it has been!
I dedicate this article then to William Oake and his son, William Harwood Oake. William should be celebrated and I share what I have been able to uncover about his life. I also reveal that his son was the inventor of auto cured bacon. I want to immediately extend an invitation to anybody with more information to share it and in particular to their extended family who may have valuable source material. The English factory started by Howard Oake only closed in the 1980s and there should still be many people from Gillingham who have first-hand recollections of the process and his factory.
Mild Cured Bacon
William Oak invented mild cured bacon and the essence of the invention centred around the power of the salts he used in the brine. The initial information came to me from The Journal of Agriculture and Industry of South Australia, edited by Molineux, General Secretary of Agriculture, South Australia, Volume 1 covering August 1897 – July 1898 and printed in Adelaide by C. E. Bristow, Government Printer in 1898. By the time of writing in 1897 and 1898, William Oake has already passed away.
A second reference comes to us from the Cape of Good Hope (Colony). Dept. of Agriculture, VOL . VIII . 1896. Published for the Department of Agriculture, Cape of Good Hope by WA Richards & Sons, Government Printers, Castle Street, Cape Town. It quotes the same paper published in Australia in 1889. It refers to a paper that was read at a congress of the South Australian Agricultural Bureau on pig-breeding and bacon-curing by Mr TN Grierson of Bodolla, New South Wales.
“There is at the present time a new process coming into vogue, which is attracting considerable attention amongst bacon-curers. The process is called the “mild cure.” The discoverer of the new process of curing was, it appears, an eminent chemist – the late Mr William Oake, of Ulster. In the course of an experiment, he discovered that the antiseptic properties of salt were found in nature apart from chloride of sodium (salt) and that the obnoxious effects of dissolving the albumen in the curing process could, therefore, be avoided. This is really the key to the new system of curing. By the new process of treatment, it is said that the bacon and hams, although thoroughly cured with the very essence of salt, still retain all the albumen originally in the meat, and yet do not taste salty to the pallet. By the new process, the lean of the cured bacon remains soft and juicy, and natural in colour; and the best proof of the value of the system is in the fact that where mild cure has been adopted the bacon and hams will keep for any length of time in any climate. A great deal of labour, it is said, is saved by the new process, while the article put on the market is declared to be much superior in taste and flavour quality to bacon cured on the old system.” ( Department of Agriculture, Cape of Good Hope, 1896)
A definition of albumen from 1896 defines it as follows. “Albumen is a substance found in the blood and the muscle. It is soluble in cold water and is coagulated by hot weather or heat. It starts to coagulate at 134 deg F (57 deg C) and becomes solid at 160 deg F (71 deg C).” It is distinguished from fibrin which is the substance in blood that causes it to coagulate when shed. “It consists of innumerable delicate fibrils which entangle the blood corpuscles, and from with them, a mass called blood clot. Fibrin is insoluble in both cold and hot water.” (Farmer, 1896). Albumin, with an “i”, in the modern use of the term refers to “any of a class of simple, sulfur-containing, water-soluble proteins that coagulate when heated, occurring in egg white, milk, blood, and other animal and vegetable tissues and secretions.” (Dictionary)
Albumen, therefore, refers to meat juices in particular. It is then the opaque fluid found plentifully in eggs, meats, fish and succulent vegetables, especially asparagus. (Gejnvic) It is the red substance that oozes from our steaks when we fry it and is mostly myoglobin, a protein from muscle tissue.
The reason why the meat juices do not leach from the meat is simply a function of the brine which surrounds the meat and comes down to the matter of partial pressure. Bristow gives us the real reason for the effectiveness of the system in terms of the speed and consistency of curing when he says “the same pickle can be used for many years – the older the better; it only requires, when it becomes somewhat muddy, to be boiled and clarified.” He follows this statement by saying that he has “seen pickle which had been used in one factory for 16 years, and that factory produces some of the best bacon and hams in Australia.”
There is no question that the preservative that William Oake observed is saltpetre, reduced to nitrite. In the detailed process description given, Oake insisted that the blood be drained properly. I give the full system as described by Bristow in note 1. The meat is cut up and notice that Oake’s system called for “the portions [to be] (are) laid on the floor of the factory (which should be made of concrete or flagged), flesh uppermost, and lightly powdered over with saltpetre, so as to drain off any blood.”
Here he does not use salt. He only uses saltpetre. After this step the pork cuts are “placed in the tanks” and he now introduces salt (NaCl) for the first time. He writes, “for salting. . . — sprinkle the bottom of the tank with salt, then put in a layer of sides or flitches, sprinkle saltpetre over them lightly, and then salt and sugar. The next layer of sides or flitches is put in crosswise and served in the same way, and so on until the tank is full. Then place a lid to fit inside the tank (inch battens 3in. apart will do); fix an upright on top of the lid to keep the bacon from rising when putting in the pickle.”
Now let’s consider the makeup of the pickle. He says that it is prepared as follows: “To every 10lbs. of salt add 8lbs. of dark-brown sugar, lib. of spice, and 1/2lb. of sal-prunella. Make it strong enough to float an egg; let it settle for some time, then skim, and it is ready to go on to the meat.” Let us pause for a second and clearly understands what is meant by sal-prunella. Sal-Prunella is, according to Errors of Speech or Spelling by E. Cobham Brewer, Vol II, published by William Tegg and Co, London, 1877, a mixture of refined nitre and soda. Nitre, as used at this time was refined saltpetre used in the manufacturing of explosives.
Let us again quote Oake through Bristow when he says that “in the course of an experiment he (Oake) discovered that the antiseptic properties of salt were found in nature apart from chloride of sodium (salt) and that the obnoxious effects of dissolving the albumen in the curing process could, therefore, be avoided. This is really the key to the new system of curing.”
Based on these statements I am convinced that what William Oake was testing for was to identify the exact substance which is responsible for preservation of the meat. He tested the salt and that is not it. Salt preserves primarily through the drying effect it has on meat. He no doubt tested saltpetre and as experiments from the 1920s confirmed, by itself, it is a very poor preservative. However, there was a preserving power that developed in the brine which he clearly did not understand. It is due to this, I firmly believe, that I make the vague statement that he “discovered that the antiseptic properties of salt were found in nature apart from chloride of sodium (salt).” He knew it was something that was added to the salt and based on the priority he gives saltpetre in the application of the different salts, I believe he had a suspicion that it had something to do with the saltpetre but by itself, he knew that it was not it! Still, there is an “antiseptic” mechanism at work that is from nature but his vague wording at this point clearly shows that he is uncertain as to what it is exactly. In the cure, there is “antiseptic properties of salt were found in nature apart from chloride of sodium (salt).”
When I started this journey, I was very reluctant to say that Oake’s main characteristic of his mild cured system is the repeated re-use of the old brine. I could not come to that conclusion precisely because I very dearly wanted that to be the conclusion. I, therefore, forced myself to find other options besides this and I refused to concede the point until such a time arrives when I am forced by the overwhelming weight of the clear evidence to say that to Oake goes the credit for using the power of old brines in a system of curing where the older the brine is, the better! Such a time has now arrived where I can say that the preponderance of evidence forces me to make this one simple conclusion that William Oake came to the understanding of the power of the repeated use of old brines albeit that being achieved without a full understanding of the mechanisms which was not understood at that time. This is absolutely and comprehensively remarkable!
Therefore, look at my handling of the matter in my 2019 article when I was first introduced to Oake, Tank Curing Came From Ireland. The best explanation I could give of exactly what made mild curing so revolutionary was the overall system that he developed by taking known techniques from his time and ordering it in a better way so that the outcome of the work would be better. You can see how I tried to avoid the conclusion that Oake pioneered the multiple re-uses of the old brine! I now believe that the former statement is still correct related to his ordering of the different components in the work of curing bacon in a better way and that it holds up to evaluation and scrutiny, but by far the biggest feature in his new system was the repeated re-use of the old brine. For this reason, I now choose to retain the original articles I have written and I will simply amend it with a note referencing this article and my better and fuller conclusion on the matter.
Another point that must be made and which is probably far more important than I ever realised is that the genius of Oake was not just what he used in his brine, but what he omitted. From the Sessional Papers, Volume 34, Page 204, Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons,1902, we have the statement about Oake’s invention “to meet the increased demand for mild – cured goods without the use of modern preservatives.” This means that Oake is not just responsible for the repeated reuse of the old brine but for omitting any other preservative from bacon. It was then his work that was directly responsible for steering the course of the development of curing technology away of artificial preservatives and keeping the process, unbeknownst to him, close to the natural processes which take place in meat in dead matter and in living animals and humans. Sure, at this time Oake and Harris used borax or boric acid as preservatives in their hams, but Oake identified another preserving principle from nature which we now know as nitrite!
The first clue I got that there was something distinctly different to Oakes system of continued reuse of the brine from anything that was in use at the time came to me from an 1830 edition of The Complete Grazier. The report says that wet cure is more expensive than dry cure unless the brine is re-used. First, the meat is well rubbed with fine salt. A liquor is then poured over the meat and “though the preparation of such brine may, at first sight appear more expensive than that prepared in the common way, yet we think it deserves a preference, as it may be used a second time with advantage if it be boiled, and a proportionate addition be made of water, and the other ingredients above mentioned.” (The Complete Grazier, 1830: 304)
The concept of reusing the power of old brine is something that has been known in England from at least the 1820s or possibly many years earlier. The Complete Grazier (1830) says that liquid brine may appear to be more expensive than if it is done “in the common way” which in the context should refer to dry curing or rubbing a mixture of dry ingredients onto the meat. The edition of the Complete Grazier referred to is from the 5th edition which means that by this time, the description may already be 5 years old if it appeared in the 1st edition. Notice the comment that the brine can be used “a second time.” The continued reuse of the brine was not what the author in the Complete Grazier was describing. The practice of reusing old brine in England of 1820 and 30 was a far cry from the complete system of William Oake from the same time in Ireland where the multiple (continues) re-uses of old brines were part of Oakes complete mild cured system.
I must also add that in the system that Oake developed the brine was no longer boiled after every use which has a major impact on the microorganisms responsible for the reduction of saltpetre which is added before the brine is re-used. By not boiling the brine after every use, a distinct microflora develops.
The inspiration to re-use old brine was European with its roots in Westphalia in Germany. William Youatt who compiled the Complete Grazier restates this process in his 1852 work, Pigs: A Treatise on the Breeds, Management, Feeding and Medical Treatment of Swine; with directions for salting pork, and curing bacon and Hams. He says that “the annexed system is the one usually pursued in Westphalia : — ” Six pounds of rock salt, two pounds of powdered loaf sugar, three ounces of saltpetre, and three gallons of spring or pure water, are boiled together. This should be skimmed when boiling, and when quite cold poured over the meat, every part of which must be covered with this brine. Small pork will be sufficiently cured in four or five days; hams, intended for drying, will be cured in four or five weeks, unless they are very large. This pickle may be used again and again, if it is fresh boiled up each time with a small addition to the ingredients. Before, however, putting the meat into the brine, it must be washed in water, the blood pressed out, and the whole wiped clean.”
Youatt repeats the re-use of the brine in the publication just mentioned. He writes, “In three weeks, jowls, &c, may be hung up. Taking out, of pickle, and preparation for hanging up to smoke, is thus performed: — Scrape off the undissolved salt (and if you had put on as much as directed, there will be a considerable quantity on all the pieces not immersed in the brine; this salt and the brine is all saved; the brine boiled down [for re use].” Notice that his 1852 description is far more “matter of fact” and he does not go into all the explanations and caveats he did in the 1830 description and his reference to pickle . . . used again and again is a progression from the 1830 reference.
The incorporation of this facet of curing brines was undoubtedly not as advanced as it was in Ireland in the 1820s and 30s. Mild cured bacon was separately listed in newspapers of the time related to price and market conditions. The very first reference goes back to 1837 to a report from Antrim, Northern Ireland. It is fascinating that following this initial reference, Antrim completely disappears from the map and Limerick and Waterford takes over. This report simply said about bacon arriving from Ireland and that the Bacon market was dull the past week but (except) for “a small parcel of mild cure.” (Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) 21 July 1837)
Before this date, mild cured bacon is not mentioned. Remember that bacon was a commodity with prices regularly quoted in newspapers like maize and other farming commodities in certain publications. The second reference is in 1842 reported in the Provisions section of Jackson’s Oxford Journal which would regularly report on bacon prices from Ireland. In a mention about produce from Ireland, it says, “in the bacon market there is no great alterations; heavy bacon is more inquired after, and all fresh mild cure meets a fair demand.” Heavy bacon seems to be used as opposed to mild cure. (Jackson’s Oxford Journal (Oxford, Oxfordshire, England) 17 September 1842, p4)
The progression in the references, all related to bacon from Ireland and all focussed on amongst other, Limerick and Waterford. An 1845 report said that “choice mild-cured Bacon continues brisk.” (Jackson’s Oxford Journal (Oxford, Oxfordshire, England) 26 July 1845, p4.)
An 1853 report from Ireland itself is very instructive. From Dublin, a report says “We are glad to observe that several Dublin curers are now introducing the system of mild cure in bacon as well as hams, in consequence of the great difference had in price. (The Freeman’s Journal, (Dublin, Dublin, Ireland) 11 Feb 1853, p1)
From this, it would seem that we are justified in retaining the most likely place for the invention of mild cure to have been in Northern Ireland, sometime just before 1837. (see my addendum to this work, Addendum A, Occurrences of “mild cure” in English Newspapers.
Following Reports About Oake and his Son
Report from The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Dublin, Ireland) 23 Sep 1853, Fri, Page 4
There is a reference in The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Dublin, Ireland), 23 September 1853 reporting that the previous Wednesday, letters from London “announced the disposal of the provisions contract for the royal navy, 12 000 tierces (casks) of pork and 4000 tierces (casks) of beef.” The short notice says that “we have the satisfaction to add that half the pork contract was taken for Irish account, and a considerable portion will be made up in Limerick, by Shaw and Duffield, William G. Gubbins, William Oake, and Joseph Matterson.” The article is quoting the Limerick Chronicle and shows that Oake had tremendous commercial success.
We also know that at least one of his sons was involved in the business with him, but not in Ireland. A notice was posted in Manchester Weekly Times and Examiner (Manchester), Saturday, 28 September 1889 of the death of William Harwood Oake from Gillingham, Dorset “elder son of the late William Oake of Limerick“, aged 49. This means that WH Oake was born in 1840 and if we presume William Oake from Limerick had him when he was 20, William was probably born around 1820. I later revised this estimate, taking more information into account and it seems that he was born around 1807.
From Daily News (London, Greater London, England) 18 Jul 1885, Sat Page 3 about the dissolvent of the partnership of the firm Oake Woods Waring. The new firm Oake Woods was created from this.
In The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, Western Countries, 18 July 1885, page 8, a notice appeared for the dissolution of a partnership between William Howard (Harwood??) Oake, John Woods, and William Waring trading as Oake, Woods, and Waring, at Gillingham, Dorset. If the address is not a clear link to the son of William Oake from Limerick in Ireland, the commodities they traded in is the final proof and a picture is emerging of an imminent “bacon” family. They were, according to the notice, bacon and provision merchants. The partnership was dissolved due to Waring retiring. At first, I thought that if (and there is good reason to suspect this), that William Oak from Limerick is the inventor of tank curing, this would indicate that by 1885 the process has not been exported to England since his son is selling the bacon which is, probably being imported from Ireland.
The circumstantial evidence is strong. William Oake had a substantial bacon curing operation and was able to do it at prices so far below curers in Britain that they were able to secure a large part of a lucrative Navy contract. The cost compared to dry salt curing is one of the main benefits of tank curing is compared to dry salting. The driving force for these was then, as it is today, cost and quality, but mainly cost. The other one that goes hand in hand with cost, is speed. Tank curing or mild curing is much faster than dry salting.
Britain was the main market for Irish bacon and it stands to reason that the Irish would have been very protective over their technology. It makes sense that he set his son up to trade their bacon in England and did apparently not export the technology to England.
I discovered that my conclusion is only partly correct. His son and partners may have started selling Irish bacon produced by his dad but it quickly changed into a fully-fledged bacon curing operation itself. It turns out that the Gillingham, Dorset was a curing operation where auto curing was employed.
Talking about the Gillingham station, The Dorset Life reports that “the effect on agriculture was the rise in the number of Gillingham farmers; 12 in 1842; 34 in 1859; 45 in 1875. In 1860 and 1893 the station platform was extended to cater for the vast numbers of milk churns that were brought in each day. Close to the railway was Oake Woods & Co., bacon curers. Pigs arrived in cattle trucks to be delivered just yards away to the bacon factory. Next to Oake Woods was the Salisbury, Semley & Gillingham Dairy which acted as a collection depot and purchased milk from farmers whose production was in small quantities.” (Dorset Life. 2016)
This factory became intimately associated with Wiltshire bacon curing. They won first prize as well as the silver medal at the annual Dairy Show held in the Agriculture Hall, Islington. (Cassell, 1894)
William Oake, his Son and Possible Relatives
Information that I could find about William Oake, his son and possible relatives. I will continue to update this section. A death notice appeared for Harriette Oake who passed away on 27/07/1844, Henry Street. She was the wife of William Oake who was the Commander of the Eleanor which was a trader between the port and London port. This could be the parents of William Oake from Limerick.
There is a record of the death of William Oake on 24/08/1859 Thomas Street, a provision merchant, buried at St. Munchin’s
William Harwood Oake from Gillingham Dorsetpassed away on 28 September 1889.
There is an interesting reference to William Oake, a master butcher who lived in Perth, Perthshire, in Scotland referring to records for 1939 and 1940. A direct descendant? (Leslie’s Directory,1939-1940)
So far the timeline that was fixed in my mind was that the continued re-use of the old brine was adopted by C & T Harris in the last half of the 1800s or possibly the very early years of the 1900s. The one fact that did not fit my timeline was auto curing. I learned that reusing old brine was part and parcel of the auto curing system of bacon production which, by 1861 was already in use in England, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada. If this was the case, how did Harris only got introduced to the system so late?
Let us first understand what auto curing is. The process is described as follows. The pig is slaughtered in the usual way and the sides trimmed and chilled. After chilling, it is laid out in rows on a sort of truck that exactly fits into a large cylinder of steel 32 feet long, 6 feet in diameter and which will hold altogether 210 sides. When the cylinder is filled, the lid, weighing 3 ½ tons (7000lb. Danish) is closed and hermetically sealed by means of hydraulic pumps at a pressure of 3 tons to the square inch.
A vacuum pump now pumps all the air out which creates a vacuum of 28 inches. It takes about an hour to pump all the air out. The brine channel which leads to the brine reservoir, holding around 6000 gallons of brine is now opened. The brine rush into the chamber and as soon as the bit of air that also entered has been extracted again, the curing starts. It happens as follows.
The brine enters the cylinder at a pressure of 120 lbs. per square inch. It now takes between 4 and 5 hours for the brine to enter the meat completely through the pores which have been opened under an immense vacuum. When it’s done, the brine runs back into the reservoir. It is filtered and strengthened and used again. This is very clearly the continued reuse of old brine. I was baffled.
A feature of the system is that it allows the bacon to be shipped overseas immediately, assuming that maturation would happen en route as was usual. The time for the total process is around three days. On day 1 the pig can be killed, salted on day 2 and packed and shipped on day 3.
There are two brine reservoirs. The one is used with a stitch pump to inject brine into the sides as usual before they are placed in the cylinder and the second tank is used. The largest benefit of this system is the speed of curing and many people report that the keeping quality of the bacon and the taste is not the same as bacon cured in the traditional way.
The system cured the meat in a short time, partly because of the vacuum and the penetration of the brine into the muscle, but also because it too used the power of the old brine which is based on the reduction of nitrate to nitrite. The vacuum had an impact in rather keeping the brine inside the meat and sealing the meat fibres over the areas where holes were created during injection and brine normally leached out again.
It clearly is a progression of the mild cured system but who invented it? The brine is distributed into the meat through step one and not primarily by what they call the “opening of the meat pores.”
There is a reference from another source that meat cured in this way is more tender. The system allowed for a 3% to 4% brine pick up which would have added to the bacon being much more tender than with dry curing.
The following article appeared in The Morning Post (London, Greater London, England) 23 Nov 1889 reporting on new companies (Limited) which has been registered recently. The firm opted for public funds to finance the imminent international expansion.
The Gillingham, Dorset Operation and Oake-Woods’ Patent
Oake’s son and partners were responsible for setting up the curing operation in Gillingham, Dorset, making it clear that they were not just re-selling Irish bacon cured by Oake’s father, but they actually used the auto cure technology.
The Journal of the British Dairy Farmers’ Association (1887) reports that Oake, Woods and Company won a bronze medal for their British Mild Cured Bacon. This being the case, we know for certain that mild cured technology, including the repeated re-use of the old brine which was the cornerstone of the system, was in wide use in Britain by 1887 which hones in on the time when C & T Harris acquired the technology. It must have been well before 1887. The second important point to note is that Oake, Woods and Company not only used auto curing but also mild curing.
An article appears in The Age, Melbourne, Australia in 1898 which describes the proliferation of the system. It reports that the leading factories in Canada, Denmark and Sweden are all adopting the new auto-cure process because the article produced by it means is superseding all other brands in the largest market in the world” which at this time was England. The author of the article gives us a date when the curing operation of Oake, Woods and Company, Ltd was started in Gillingham, Dorset using auto curing. He refers to them as “curers of Wiltshire Bacon” which was in operation for 18 months by 1895 taking the establishment of the auto curing line to 1896. We know that by 1861 it was already in use in England, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada. It was, however in the 1890s when international patents were taken out and it would appear as if the expansion plans were truly global including the Scandanavian countries just mentioned but also the USA, South Africa and New Zealand.
A certain Mr Down, “the patentee of the process” described the process in his own words which are reported in great detail. It is a tedious description and the reason why it was so successful is attributed to incorrect factors, but it is nevertheless instructive and gives the full description of the process. Those who are interested can read the full article at https://www.newspapers.com/clip/80931212/auto-cure/. I received a mail from Will Dean who writes that Mr Down was the managing director of Oake Woods in the 1890s. His full name was Evan Roberts Down.
Stanier elaborates on this information provided by Down. He says that the factory and offices close to the railway station was established in 1847. Vitally he credits William Harwood Oake, son of William Oake from Limerick for the invention of auto cured bacon. He writes, “Oake (referring to William Harwood) invented the ‘Auto-Cure’ method of curing bacon under pressure in cylinders, for which the Danes paid a £4,000 annual royalty. It seems then, that the factory was established in 1847 and sometime between then and 1861 he invented auto curing. Very importantly, the Danes who obtained the system of mild curing which was invented by his dad paid him a royalty for the use of his technology. This fact along with the reference to Mr Down as the patentee, informs us that he very well protected the invention. By 1896 it was in full operation in Gillingham.
Dean who looked at the actual patents told me in private communication that he “had always thought [the process patented by Oake Woods] sounded extremely similar to the “tanalising” process for treating timber – amusingly this is actually mentioned in one of the patents.” He also provided me with copies of the actual patents.
Auto Cure Patents
Special thanks to Will Dean who sourced these and sent them to me.
The fact that Down is clearly listed as the inventor in these patents is of considerable interest. It may be that he takes the place of the inventor, who had to be listed as filing the application simply on account of William Harwood Oake having passed away on 28 September 1889. Down may in fact have been responsible for improvements to the system in addition to the reality that Oake was not around in the 1890s to file the application.
We return to product quality briefly and an observation related to the Gillingham site is in order. We know that water quality was very important to William Oake. Stanier mentions related to this site that “water was pumped from a well, and extensive cellars beneath the factory were said to be the best in the country for curing-by hanging bacon in the smoke of smouldering hardwoods. 150 were once employed but the factory closed in about 1980.” He makes it clear that he is talking about the same factory we referred to above when he writes that “the United Dairies milk and cheese factory remains next door along Station Road.”
Food Flavourings, Ingredients, & Processing, Volume 1, 1979 likewise confirms the 1861 date of the invention of the auto cure system. The invention was featured at the Paris show in 1867. The 1897 Diplomatic and Consular Reports, Morocco, Harrison and Sons, mentions that the system was brought out not just by Oake but by his company, Oake, Wood & Co.
Two personal sidenotes are in order related to Down. Will Dean tells me that his family own the house which belonged to, and was built for a “certain Mr Down.” This is the same E. R. Down who filed the patents for Oake-Woods and who ran the firm in the 1890s. A second note is that Evan Down’s son was killed in WW1. I include the information because throughout my work on bacon I strive to link the human story to the profession and art of meat curing. It goes hand in hand and is the basis for the double emphasis in my work on the history of bacon, Bacon & the Art of Living. For this reason, I site a reference also given to me by will Dean that provides fascinating background information on the Down family where the story is told of Captain William Oliphant DOWN MC. For his actions he received the military cross and including this reference in a work on bacon is an honour! In Bacon & the Art of Living, I include many stories from the Anglo Boer war. It seems as if there is nothing like war to remind us about the value and joy of living! A distant second is the epic story of bacon!
The matter of international sales of this patented system is very interesting. Henry, M. (1897) reports in a section called “A tip to Bacon Curers”. “SINCE the beginning of May this year experiments have been going on with a new method of curing bacon at the Ystad bacon factory in Sweden, and the results that have been attained have been so successful that it has been adopted at the Landskrona factory also, which belongs to the same owner. Mr Philip W. Heyman, of Copenhagen, the well-known curer of bacon, is adopting the same method, too, at two of his Swedish factories, and five of his Danish factories, and other bacon factories in Sweden and Denmark are making arrangements for having the same method introduced. The auto-cured bacon is treated in the following manner: The meat is cooled in the usual way and placed in large strong iron cylinders that can hold about 200 sides of bacon at one and the same time, and the lids are closed and can be kept closed by water pressure. The advantages claimed for this method, which is patented, are, besides others, the following: The auto-cured bacon will retain the juice of the meat, by which it becomes more nutritious and tender and of milder and more agreeable flavour than bacon cured according to the usual method, and it is easier to digest and keeps for a longer time than the latter so that it need not be ” forced off ” in sale even during hot weather. It will lose no more in weight than other bacon when smoked. Swedish auto-cured bacon has been sent “unbranded” for some time to London from the above-mentioned factory, together with other bacon cured according to the usual method, and has been referred to the latter, having attained about a couple of shillings per cwt, higher price. The first bale of branded auto-cured Swedish bacon, marked “Down’s auto – cure patents, Sweden, ” has been forwarded to the official representative for Sweden, Dr Hugo Wedin, of Lancaster Avenue, Manchester, ” for showing, ” having arrived last week, and has been inspected and tested by a number of merchants interested in the bacon trade here. It is expected that this bacon will soon find an increased sale on its own merits.” (Henry, 1897)
The elaborate quote gives us an insight into the extent of the propagation of the system due to international interest. I retained the description of the process to remove all doubt that we are talking about William Harwood Oake’s system and the advantages have been re-stated. From the quote, one wonders if the annual royalty of £4,000 paid by the Danes for the system was paid by Mr Philip W. Heyman or by some Danish association. The publication in 1897 seems to point to the system being introduced into Scandinavia closer to the end of the 1800s.
There is a report from the Queensland Agricultural Journal: Volume 2, Jan 1898, Queensland Department of Primary Industries which says that “A NEW process of bacon – curing ( says the Australasian ) has been brought under the notice of the Minister for Agriculture in Victoria, named the “ Auto – cure Process of Bacon – curing, ” which has been adopted by some of the large bacon factories of Sweden, and by Messrs . Oake, Woods, and Co., Gillingham, Dorsetshire, who have employed it for the last eighteen months in the production of Wiltshire bacon.” The article then makes the interesting statement that “the new process will be used on a considerable scale in Canada and Denmark”
A year later, The Journal, Volume 2 by South Australia’s Department of Agriculture (1899) reports that “in Sweden and Dorsetshire (England), at the factory of Oake, Wood & Co., at Gillingham, a new process under the name “auto cure” has recently been adopted. About seven hours only is required to cure meat, which retains its albumen in an almost unchanged condition, so that the meat is tender, mild, and sweet. The process is carried on in air-tight cylinders of considerable capacity. The meat is then impregnated with brine under considerable pressure. The cost of apparatus to treat 150 sides at a time is said to be £780 in Britain.”
From New Zealand comes information that the same patent was lodged on 3 September 1896 number 8750 E. R. Down from Gillingham, Dorset, Eng. for cylinder or vessel for curing bacon and hams. (Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives of New Zealand) It seems likely that similar applications were filed around the world.
An 1893 reference from the NZ official yearbook mentions that a very definite expectation existed among farmers that the trade of raising pigs will meet the demand of local meat curers and the trade is expected to increase rapidly. It reports that an unnamed firm, referred to as “one of the largest suppliers in the UK of mess pork to the navies of the world and the mercantile marine operations” sent an agent to New Zealand in order to investigate the viability of setting up a branch in the colony. The agent was there a couple of months and was making inquiries as to the prospect of opening up a branch establishment. Reference is made to a trial that he ran to test the quality of the New Zealand pig for their purposes. The trial was done by preparing some carcasses by a process patented by the firm. It is this last statement that makes me suspect it to be Oake-Woods that is referred to. Market research, done clandestinely before the patent application is lodged seems very plausible. It would fit the scenario where an actual application was done and granted three years later in ’96. I am sure that like today, foreign patent applications was an expensive process and the approach would seem reasonable. The close time between the report of the clandestine work and the actual granting of a patent, the reference to an existing international footprint to supply the navies of the world and the fact that the head office was in England makes it almost certain that this reference is to Oake-Woods doing market research before filing the application.
The approach of protecting the process with a patent, followed by appointing local producers to use the system under license is an extremely effective way of expanding internationally. Oake-Woods was one of the only firms that could do it based on the fact that their process was highly patentable. The reason for this is that theirs was not only a process as was the case with mild cured bacon of William Oake but involved very specific equipment. A process is impossible to protect as the case of William Oakes mild cure system illustrated beautifully. The moment unique equipment enters the equation, the entire situation changes and it becomes highly patentable! No other firm to my knowledge had both a totally unique process as well as totally unique equipment going along with the process at this time. A process is only protected till your staff leaves. It was true then as it is true today! To my knowledge, Oake-Woods had the most expansive international coverage of any bacon and ham curing company at the time by far!
The agent of the company in question in New Zealand ran the trails and then shipped these to his principals in England. He received a cablegram which stated that the meat and the curing were done to “perfection.” As a result of this, arrangements were made for extensive trade throughout the colony. The English firm was prepared to erect factories at a cost of £20,000 each in areas where they have a reasonable expectation to secure 2,000 pigs per week. (The NZ Official Yearbook, 1893) I wondered if this was not C & T Harris for a long time but Oake-Woods fits the profile of the unnamed company in question much better.
Through a Gillingham, Dorset Facebook group, Helen Shorrocks contacted me with the following interesting recollection of a South African operation. She writes, “My Grandad worked for them (Oakes William & Co.) all his life, I believe he was head butcher and was offered a job in South Africa as a young family man with the company as they had a factory out there. My Grandmother wouldn’t go.” The same modus operandi would have been used in South Africa where a local company was granted a license to use the technology after it was patented.
The Oak family is responsible for giving us two powerful and historically significant systems of curing. The first being mild curing by William Oake and the second was auto curing by William Harwood, his son. The key feature of both systems is the repeated re-use of the brine where the microflora is retained for as long as possible and the brine was only boiled under very specific conditions. The second, auto curing, adds vacuum and pressure with the accompanying befits. This is a remarkable journey and we salute the work of William Oake and his son.
(1) Mild Cured System
I quote the entire section from The Journal of Agriculture and Industry of South Australia. A better treatment of tank curing of that time is as far as I know, not in existence. I can only imagine the Irish immigrants who brought this technology to Australia. After quoting it, I will make a few comments on the system.
“Bacon-Curing under the Factory System.
Like the dairying industry in the latter years, the manufacture of bacon and hams has undergone great changes. The old expensive system of dry-salting has been almost entirely superseded by the less expensive method of curing with pickle in tanks. This method is not only less expensive, but it is the safest and most profitable for the climate of the Australian colonies.
There is at the present time a new process coming into vogue, which is attracting considerable attention amongst bacon-curers. The process is called the “mild cure.” The discoverer of the new process of curing was, it appears, an eminent chemist — the late Mr William Oake. of Ulster. In an experiment, it is said he discovered that the antiseptic properties of salt were to be found apart from chloride of sodium (salt), and that the obnoxious effects of dissolving the albumen in the curing process could, therefore, be avoided. This is supposed to be the key to the new system of curing. By the new process of treatment, it is said that the bacon and hams, although thoroughly cured with the very essence of salt, still retain all the albumen originally in the meat, and yet do not taste salty to the palate. By the new process, the lean of the cured bacon remains soft and juicy, and natural in color; and the best proof of the value of the system is in the fact that where the mild cure has been adopted the bacon and hams will keep for any length of time in any climate. A great deal of labor, it is said, is saved by the new process, while the article put on the market is declared to be much superior in taste and flavor and quality to bacon cured on the old system.
Whatever may become of the new process, whether a success or not, it is certain that the time has now gone past for farmers to kill and cure for sale their own pigs to best advantage. The trade now requires an article well got up and of uniform quality to bring the highest prices, and as a rule, farmers have not the convenience for such work, and therefore are unable to compete against factories where they have all the latest appliances. It is therefore advisable for farmers either to co-operate and build a factory or to sell their pigs to some individual or company in the trade.
A factory with a capacity for working from 120 to 150 pigs per week, with refrigerating room and all machinery required, can be erected for about £1,000, and pigs of an average weight of 125lbs. can be killed, cured, smoked, and made ready for placing on the market at a cost of 4s. per head. In these times of keen competition and low prices, to make bacon-curing a profitable industry- no bacon should be held longer than from six weeks to two months, and hams from three to four months — the longer it is held the more weight it loses, and very often does not improve in quality.
The following is the system adopted in curing bacon with pickle. It is necessary to have a number of tanks, either built of brick and cement, slate, or wood. If timber is the most easily got, 2 1/2 in. planks well put together will answer. These tanks, if made 5ft. square by 40in. deep, will hold fifty ordinary sized pigs. Tanks sufficient for one week’s killing, with one spare tank for turning over the bacon, will be required.
Pigs that are to be killed should be kept without food for twelve or fourteen hours, and during that time should be yarded up adjoining the slaughter house. In no case should pigs be driven or heated in any way just prior to killing. From the yards to the killing pen a small race can be made, where from six to eight at a time can be run in and killed ; and the best method of killing is to stun the pig by a smart blow on the forehead, halfway between the eyes and the top of the head, with a hammer or similar weapon ; then, before the pig can struggle, turn him square on his back, place a foot on each side of the head, facing the animal, holding the head down to the floor by placing the left hand on the snout. Now place the point of the knife on the animal’s throat, at the same time looking over the carcass and pushing the knife in a straight line in the direction of the root of the tail. If you do not stick just right the first time, you will see why when the pig is opened. A little observation will enable you to become an expert pig sticker.
The killing pen should be raised from the ground about 2ft. 6in., and the floor allowed about 2in. fall. The blood will then flow all into one corner, where a receptacle can be placed underneath, and the blood all saved and used or sold for manure. From the floor of the killing pen the pigs can be drawn easily into the scalding vat, which should be placed adjoining the killing pen. A good size for the scalding vat is 6ft. long, 4ft. wide, and 2ft. 6in. high, and if a steam pipe is laid on from the boiler into the scalding vat the water can always be kept at a regular temperature — the best heat for scalding is 160°. Adjoining the scalding vat should be placed another vat of similar dimensions for cold water. After the pig is scraped it should be dropped into the vat of cold water, which will cleanse and cool the carcass and get the final scrape before being drawn up by the gamble on to the aerial tram, where the internals are removed and the backbone cut out, and then run into the factory, where they are allowed to hang till the following morning, when they are cut up into flitches or full sides, according to the size of the pigs.
As the carcasses are cut up the portions are laid on the floor of the factory (which should be made of concrete or flagged), flesh uppermost, and lightly powdered over with saltpetre, so as to drain off any blood. It can then be placed in the tanks for salting in the following manner: — Sprinkle the bottom of the tank with salt, then put in a layer of sides or flitches, sprinkle saltpetre over them lightly, and then salt and sugar. The next layer of sides or flitches is put in crosswise, and served in the same way, and so on until the tank is full. Then place a lid to fit inside the tank (inch battens 3in. apart will do); fix an upright on top of the lid to keep the bacon from rising when putting in the pickle. The pickle to be made as follows: — To every 1Olbs. of salt add 8lbs. of dark-brown sugar, lib. of spice, and 1/2lb. of sal-prunella. Make it strong enough to float an egg; let it settle for some time, then skim, and it is ready to go on to the meat.
Explanatory note by Eben: Note Sal-Prunella is, according to Errors of Speech or Spelling by E. Cobham Brewer, Vol II, published by William Tegg and Co, London, 1877, a mixture of refined nitre and soda. Nitre, as used at this time was refined saltpetre used in the manufacturing of explosives.
At the end of forty-eight hours turn the meat over into another tank, taking care to put the sides that were on top in the bottom of next tank, treating it as regards saltpetre, salt, and sugar exactly the same as at first, and using the same pickle. It can then remain until the seventh day from when first put in. It can then be taken out, and stacked on the floor of the factory, putting some salt between each layer, but do not stack higher than four sides deep, until it has been on the floor for some days when it should be turned over, and stacked higher each time until the fourth week from the day it went into the tanks; the bacon will then be cured.
The bacon can then be placed in tanks containing cold water, and allowed to soak all night. Wash well with a brush, then hang up to dry, and when properly dry it can be trimmed and smoked.
As hams require slightly different treatment from the bacon, separate tanks are required. Before placing the hams in the tank rub over the face of each one a thin layer of brown sugar. When the first layer is placed in the tank sprinkle over with saltpetre and salt, same as with the bacon, treating the balance the same as at first until the tank is full. Make the pickle same as for bacon, and leave the hams same time in tanks. Always retain the same pickle for the hams, and in no case use the bacon pickle for hams. The same pickle can be used for many years — the older the better; it only requires, when it becomes somewhat muddy, to be boiled and clarified. I have seen pickle which had been used in one factory for sixteen years, and that factory produces some of the best bacon and hams in Australia.
Explanatory note by Eben: This means that tank curing or “mild cure” as it was called, was in use in Australia at least by 1880.
Smoking Bacon and Hams.
The smokehouse should be built according to the intended output of bacon and hams, and the walls of the building should not be less than 12ft. high. One of the principal things in smoking bacon is to have the smoke as cool as possible before coming into contact with the bacon and to assist this it is well to put a floor 6ft. 6in. or 7ft. from the ground, just allowing a slight opening between the flooring boards to allow the smoke to make its way up to where the bacon is hung. The flitches or hams should be hung as close together as not to touch, so as to allow the smoke to penetrate every portion. A small slide can be put in the gable of the smokehouse to regulate the smoke as required. A place should be made in the centre of the floor, say 6ft. by 3ft., where the sawdust is placed. This is lighted, and if the door is kept closed there will be no flame, but the sawdust will smoulder and cause a great quantity of smoke. From twenty-four to 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.
Where teatree (Melaleuca) is obtainable it is excellent for smoking ; it imparts a flavor to the bacon which is much appreciated by many people.
A Conclusion is offered
Mild-cure Bacon. — In all of the large cities of Britain and the European continent, the public demand is for mild-cure bacon. The system of cure is very simple and perfect, but requires expenditure of at least £1,000 on the plant for carrying it out. By this process the albumen of the meat is retained and is not coagulated, so that the bacon is devoid of excessive salt, is by no means hard or dry, and there is no loss of weight in the curing. A factory costing £2,000 to construct could easily cure 400 pigs per day. The process takes about a month to complete, but after the first day there is no further labor involved.”
The Age. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia29 Mar 1898, Tue, Page 7
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