Chapter 10.06.01 Oake Woods & Co., Ltd., Rapid – and Auto Cured Bacon

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.

Oake Woods & Co., Ltd., Rapid – and Auto Cured Bacon

16 April 1892

Dear Lauren, Tristan and Oscar,

In the history of meat curing of the 1800s and early 1900s, one particular group stands out head and shoulder above the rest namely the Wiltshire curers. For a long time, I thought that C & T Harris was the only excellent cure from the area, but I was so far from the truth! There were many legendary companies from Wiltshire and the surrounding counties. When we talk about Wiltshire curers, it is particularly people from this area who cure the entire side of the pork which is referred to as the Wiltshire cut.

Back at our lodge from an unforgettable evening with the Harris family, two men stayed with us from a firm that also cures meat. The firm is Oake ‘ Woods & Co. Ltd from Gillingham located in the neighbouring county of Dorset. They were in Calne to visit service providers who sprang up around C & T Harris. One of the men is an engineer, Will Dean. The other guy is a curing expert. It was this meeting that made me realise that the curing world in England is much bigger than C & T Harris.

I learnt an important lesson namely great industries develop where there is fierce rivalry. It was the case in England related to meat curing. British firms were competing with Irish, Danish, Canadian, Scandinavian and maybe more importantly, with other British firms. This fierce competition created an environment of innovation and competitiveness. Even though John Harris knew about mild curing and the re-use of the old brine it surprised me that C & T Harris were so eager to learn the Danish way of curing of me. My surprise was well-founded when I learned that mild curing arrived in Wiltshire many years earlier through a company whose main method of curing has become, not mild curing but what they call Auto Curing.

Conversation with the two gentlemen from Gillingham was fascinating, and one of the most electric revelations was that the man who brought mild curing to Wiltshire and who invented Auto Curing was none other than William Harwood Oake, the son of Willing Oake from Limerick in Ireland who, as a young chemist, invented mild cured bacon. Our discussion did not start with auto curing. They insisted that we talk about mild curing first. Back at the Harris factory the next morning, I researched both mild cured bacon and auto cured bacon. It allowed me enough background to engage them on the subject for the rest of the week that they stayed in Calne. The information I got from them and what I discovered in my own research painted an amazing picture!

From Worth, R. N.. Jan 1888. Tourist’s Guide to Somersetshire: Rail and Road. E. Stanford

Re-Visiting 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. To my great surprise, I discovered that the information about mild cured bacon was also published in a South African journal, as it was done in Australia and presumably around the world.

From the Cape of Good Hope (Colony), Dept. of Agriculture (1896) they quote 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. The report begins as follows: “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, 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 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 the 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 he makes the somewhat enigmatic 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, “antiseptic properties of salt [are present], (were) found in nature apart from chloride of sodium (salt).”

Before this meeting, 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 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!

For a long time since I discovered the work of William Oake, the furthest I was prepared to go in explaining why mild curing worked so well 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 after repeatedly looking at the description of the process and having had much time to reflect on it, I am finally prepared to concede that by far the biggest feature in his new system was the repeated re-use of the old brine.

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!

Its Roots

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 focused 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 the Thread of Reports About Oake and his Son: Mild Cured Bacon Arrives in Wiltshire

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.

So it happened that mild cured bacon arrived, not in Wiltshire at first but in Dorset, a county bordering Wiltshire. It is from here that the technology spread to the rest of the region which later became known as Wiltshire curing. So, Wiltshire cure, as far as the curers in this county are concerned, came from Dorset!

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.


The bacon factory was opened next to the station in Gillingham. 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)

Auto Curing

Auto curing was a revolutionary process that reduced the curing of bacon to times that was thought to be impossible. Due to this, it became an immediate success, not just in England, but across the globe. A report says that by 1861 it was already in use in England, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada. 

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 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 Gillingham, Dorset Operation and Oake-Woods’ Patent

William 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 pioneered 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. One of the men who stayed with us at the lodge was 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.

Capital Structure

Uncle Jeppe taught me that in meat curing, the corporate structure is of the greatest importance as it is a capital hungry operation. 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 Morning Post (London, Greater London, England) 23 Nov 1889

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.

American Rapid Cure

It is probable that the Americans were amongst the first to take the process up. In the 1878 work, Meat Production by John Ewart, he records one method of curing used by Americans. It sounds exactly like auto curing. He writes that “a pneumatic process in the salting is [being] adopted, and of which the following is a description, viz.: – the pork is placed in an air-tight vessel in which a vacuum is formed by means of an air pump, and then a saturated solution of salt with a small proportion of saltpetre injected, by which every part of the pork becomes very highly charged with the saturated brine. The exterior of bacon or hams when salted by the process described on being dried becomes covered with re-crystallized salt having the appearance of hoarfrost.” (Ewart, 1878) It is a full 11 years after the invention was featured at the 1867 show in Paris.

Why did it not have the same effect as did the Oake Woods invention of reducing saltiness? Ewart comments that the process just described results in overly-salted meat. He says that “the greater portion of the cured article from that part of the world (the USA) is almost intolerable from its excessive saltness” and the describes the vacuum curing process.

It may be that Ewart is misinformed as the overly salty meat was typical of the barrel pork supplied by the Americans to the British. If he confusing barrel pork and auto cured bacon? His description that after drying, the exterior of the bacon has the appearance of hoarfrost as salt crystals cover the surface of the meat shows that he bases his assertion on more than casual information. So, what could be happening here?

If is referring to Auto Curing, it is possible that they realised that shipping bacon from Denmark vs shipping bacon from America is not the same thing. It is possible that the meat still did not “keep” and the system was adapted to include more salt. It may also be that they are referring to a system that was developed simultaneously with auto curing and that what he describes is a parallel but different process.

It was left to people like the Orthodox Jewish master curer Aron Vecht to combine a mild curing system with the correct temperature to be able to send cured meat from Australia and England. This quest was taken up by all Australian curers. So, either auto curing was in use by 1878 in many packing plants in the US or a similar but independently developed simultaneously in the USA.

Clues as to the possible origin of the American report comes to us from an 1848 report in the Sydney Morning Herald. The author begins his explanation of a certain American curing system with an interesting statement. He says that “they (we) desire considerable satisfaction in promulgating the discoveries and inventions of our fellow labourers in the field of science, no matter whether they be transmitted to us from the shores of the Neva or the banks of the Mississippi, and we, therefore, hasten to lay before our agricultural friends an important American invention, which promises to with the greatest benefit in a particular branch of domestic economy, as well as in a commercial point of view, and which we are certain requires only to be generally known to be usually adopted.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 1848) In this, the author is completely right that adopting and adapting inventions are for the most part not very difficult. It clues us into something of the possibility that Auto Curing may well be an improvement of an American invention.

The author then turns his attention to a certain Mr Davison. Paul (1868) records that Mr. Robert Davison attended the food committee meeting as a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, in order to give information on the subject of desiccation as a preservative process which he studied since 1843. Robert was of No. 33, Mark Lane, in the City of London, Civil Engineer, and James Scott Horrocks, of Heaton Norris, in the County of Lancaster, registered a patent for improvements in the means of conveying and distributing or separating granular and other substances.” The patent was sealed. “The importance of hot blast had been discovered in the melting of metals, and it occurred to him that impelled currents of hot air might be advantageously applied to other processes of manufacture, especially as a purifying and desiccating process. In reference to its application to the purification of brewers’ casks, the question arose, in the first instance, as to the effect it would have upon the strength of the wood. He experimented on the subject, and found that, so far from deteriorating the wood, it gave increased strength to it to a large extent. He saw that impelled currents of hot air were a valuable thing which had been overlooked, and he then turned his attention to the desiccation of vegetable and animal substances. He was successful in the first instance in desiccating potatoes and other table vegetables, which were preserved for a very long time; and he afterwards operated upon a quantity of rump steaks, and by depriving them of all their moisture, they were preserved in a perfectly sweet and wholesome condition for several months. At the time he was engaged in these experiments an intelligent young man, brother-in-law to Dr. Livingstone, who was then his pupil, mentioned to him that he was doing by an artificial process precisely what the North American Indians did with their buffalo meat and venison by the natural heat of the sun in preserving their provisions, and at the same time he gave him an extract from Catlin’s work on the subject. The Indian method of drying their meat was to cut it up into thin strips, which were hung upon the branches of trees for several days in the heat of the sun. The moisture was entirely evaporated. The meat was then stowed away, and would keep good for years. Salt they never used, notwithstanding the country abounded with it. What the Indians did by natural means, he did by artificial, by the employment of impelled currents of heated air. He cooked some of the steaks desiccated by this process three or four years after they had been operated upon, and they were perfectly good, and retained their flavour. After it had been soaked in water the meat recovered nearly its original bulk. In the process of desiccation nothing but the water was removed, the albumen being all retained in the meat.” (Paul, 1868)

Several important observations must be made from this very important section. Davisons initial work related to steam injection and the drying of meat. He believed correctly that a close correlation exist between water content in the meat and spoilage. This view of water would extend into his work on curing chambers. In gereral it is important to also note that vacuum chambers were being commercialised around the world in various applications.

Take special note of his views on the nature of what causes spoilage in meat and vegetables. “By depriving them of all their moisture, they were preserved in a perfectly sweet and wholesome condition for several months.” Mr. Davison said that “he had not entertained the idea of preparing meat in this way (through drying) for the tables of the gentry, but his idea was to have the meat cut into thin slices, thoroughly dried, and packed away for use as we should biscuits. In this way, he thought an excellent article of food might be prepared for shipping purposes, and for the poorer classes.” Not just is it clear that he targeted the moisture of the meat but also his method of work required cutting the meat into smaller cuts and inserting it into the apparatus manually.

“Mr Davison remarked that three or four years ago an article appeared in the Times, expressing a hope that some plan would be devised for desiccating meat in a better manner than had hitherto been done. The results of the process he had described were decidedly superior to any charqui (drying of meat) that he had seen. He had long since parted with the last portion of the steaks he had experimented upon. The apparatus for desiccation was at present largely in use for other purposes, such as the seasoning of wood, the purifying of casks, &c. It was extensively used for the former purpose in the royal dock-yards. He had no doubt he should be able to make the experiment for the satisfaction of the Committee, and should have great pleasure in doing so at the earliest opportunity. The heat of the air in his experiments this was 180°, but he believed the desiccation would be effected equally well at a temperature of 120°, when the albumen would not be coagulated.”

Let’s park Davison’s views of preservation which we know he worked on since 1843 for a minute and return to the Sydney Morning Herald’s 1848 article. Davison is described as, “prior to his present occupation, was long connected with the manufacture of salt.” We also learn that he resided in South America for a time, in a country “with greater capacities for the production of the hog and the ox” and his attention was turned to the preservation of meat. Mr. Davison drew upon his knowledge of salt and after much investigation invented a method of curing which will sound very familiar to us. He is described as possessing an “inventive genius,” well educated and assisted in the matter of science by Dr Lardner, “whom he consulted upon his arrival in the United States.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 1848)

The apparatus is very simple, consisting of a cylinder made airtight. It has a “mouthpiece” through which meat is loaded into the machine and closed with a lid that is screwed onto the machine. The lid has two air vents which are opened and closed by screws. Next to the machine is a large wooden vat holding the brine, connected to the machine through a pipe and elevated higher than the cylinder. A lifting pump circulated the brine from the cylinder back to the vat.

Meat is cut and placed into the cylinder. Brine is allowed to fill the cylinder which is then closed. Brine is now pumped back into the vat till all the brine is out and a vacuum is formed in the cylinder with the meat pieces in. Blood, air and gasses are thus removed from the meat also. Brine is now run back into the cylinder. The air vents are opened and the liquid brine expels all air from the vessel. As soon as the vessel is full, the air vents are closed again, the brine pumped into the vat again and the meat is left in a vacuum. Again, blood, air and gasses are pumped out. The cycle is repeated. The initial intervals between the cycles are short but eventually, as all the blood, air and gasses have been removed from the meat, the brine is allowed to remain in the cylinder for as long as between 6 and 8 hours. The entire process is completed in about 12 hours.

The author explains that it was believed that the blood, air and gasses in the meat created some kind of a “resisting power” to the brine which had to seep into the meat. The blood had an affinity for the brine and left the meat for brine to fill it. The pressure created by the elevated brine created relative pressure greater than the gasses and air. When the meat is under vacuum, the reporter writes that the meat is “swollen, its fibre distended and pores open and it readily admits the brine even at the pressure of the mere quantity of brine which the cylinder will hold.” One atmosphere was sufficient and where double and triple that was used, it would respectively close and completely close the pores.

The process cures the meat in hours as opposed to weeks and he patented it. The process is described as Rapid Cure.

The principal advantages, besides the speed of curing, are given as:

  • The apparatus is described as “extreme simlicity;”
  • The solution salt and brine is inexpensive to cure both meat and wood;
  • The brine not used is returned to the cistern and re-used;
  • If need be, sugar is used which is also not expensive;
  • The apparatus is made from metal which means it lasts long. It is very easy for any mechanic to fix it if it breaks down;
  • It’s easy to use, even by a boy of 13 years;
  • Producing it is not very expensive.

This means that Mr Davison’s invention or the application of a vacuum and pressure in curing has priority in terms of the Oake Woods invention which is a progression of the Davison invention. In all likelihood, what Ewart refers to in his 1878 publication is the American invention that was widely in use in America. The key object of the invention was the speed of curing and not the production of mild cured bacon as was the case with the Oake woods patent.

The primary method of obtaining “mild cured bacon” from the USA was through the addition of sugar. Ewart writes that “it should, however, be stated, that American bacon, in its several forms of flitch, roll, and ham, and any of them of small and moderate weights, are also mildly cured in which sugar is in a considerable proportion an ingredient in the curing mixture used; and the article when so prepared is deservedly held in the highest esteem.” (Ewart, 1878)

Ewart also reports the formation of a bluish-green mould upon the flesh-cut portions of the flitches and hams from bacon or ham that are “perfectly cured and becomes thoroughly dried.” He states that the mould “most effectually prevents the rusting of the fat on these parts.” (Ewart, 1878)

It is clear that Aoto Cure for the meat industry is a progression of Rapid Cure, developed by Mr. Robert Davison which had huge success in the USA. Auto Cure quickly developed an impressive list of countries who partisipated in the technology.

Further International Expansion

The matter of international sales of this patented system is very interesting. Henry (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)

Mr Philip W. Heyman according to the Gasconade County Republican (Owensville, Missouri) 08 Jul 1898, from Copenhagen owned nine of the factories that adopted the system. Two was in Sweden and seven in Denmark

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.

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. It is fascinating that the technology was already exported to South Africa!

Tank Curing

There is another interesting point related to how the curers from Wiltshire were introduced to the system that became known as tank curing. On the one hand, we know that tank curing came to England through William Harwood Oake. The “diffusion” of the technology, so to speak, was undoubtedly a long and tedious process as bacon companies are notoriously secretive. There can be no question that Oake Woods & Co, Ltd is the main source. I also spoke to you about the influence of the Harris operation in establishing tank curing amongst the curers of Wiltshire. It is uncertain exactly when John Harris will be introducing this system into his operations but there can be no doubt of the impact this will have on the acceptance and establishment of the method of curing in the area.

Auto Curing and Mild Curing: Same Result for Both Processes

We now know the link between mild curing and auto curing. Still, the systems are closely related in design and through the Oake family who gave us both systems. Looking through newspapers I realised that the terms were sometimes either confused or used interchangeably. A good case in point is an article that appeared in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) on 25 Jun 1901. In another article dated 12 Jan 1906 from The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), they still refer to the merits of Australian produce. The article reads, “I could tell you now which goods are required in Africa that Australia manufactures. For instance, bacon in 15 lb. pieces would find a market. The market at present is entirely in the hands of one man – an American, I think who sells ‘mild cured bacon’ but when it is put in a pan it nearly all goes to oil. You make good bacon in Australia, but you hardly ever see it in South Africa except at Durban.” The term was definitely known in South Africa and I wonder if the implications of the author’s words were not intended to infer that “the real deal mild cure bacon is made very well in Australia!”

The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) 25 Jun 1901, Tue

Another fascinating article from The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pennsylvania), 08 Feb 1899, which I attach a clipping off (I add it as Note 2), calls arterial injection “mild cured.” It refers to a young man from Denmark by this date the method was well known in England and we know it was the brainchild of Mr Morgan who became Dr Morgan. The author then reports on another method of curing which was created as auto curing. He then gives a short description of the process and there is no question that it is the process as marketed by Oake Woods & Co, Ltd from Gillingham, Dorset. He then calls this bacon mild cured! (2) Upon thorough research, I found that the term auto cured was almost never used between 1890 and 1905) and the term mild cured was preferred! It seems as if the public called auto cure mild cure and my guess is that it is due to the fact that the end product was very similar. This being the case, it means that William Harwood Oake achieved the ultimate in product development in that he created a product, equal in the outcome but produced in a fraction of the time compared to the class-leading product!


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.

The fact that auto curing has already been introduced to the curers in South Africa is a most significant fact and I will try my best to find more detail about who the company is. The entire experience emphasizes the need for innovation and remaining conscious alert to the latest developments in the field of curing. This is a business where one can not for a moment lose sight of developments around the world!

It taught me a valuable lesson. The world is much bigger and always more complex than the simple models we build in our minds. We must continue to be students, not just of life and the sciences we employ for our daily bread, but also for the complexity of all these areas we find ourselves engaged in. People, our relationships and nature are complex and the biggest mistake we will ever make is to think we know something. On that philosophical note, I greet you will my next letter!

Lots of greetings and love from Calne,

Your friend and dad,


(c) eben van tonder

Further Reading

William and William Harwood Oake


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(1) When I returned to Calne many years later, Michael was still working with them and we conducted an experiment where we added colour to the brine and used one of the smaller autoclaves to evaluate the rate of diffusion. We did not use the injector needle to inject brine as is done in step one. This way we could see the effect of the vacuum on its own. At the end of the 5-hour curing process, we cut the muscle in two and saw that brine entered the meat, but it was not well diffused through the muscle.

We repeated the experiment but this time we injected the meat first as per the prescribed method. When we cut that meat open at the end of the process, we saw that small brine pockets formed in the meat, but not even this distributed the brine evenly. It explains to me on the one hand why there are many problems with bacon cured in this way and on the second hand, it shows the superiority of the tank curing or mild bacon system where brine is allowed to enter the meat over several days. Tank curing, therefore, removes the expensive cylinder and vacuum and it achieves much better brine distribution using time. It can be shown that the distribution of brine through the meat happens through diffusion which is simply the movement of the brine from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration.

The most important contributor of diffusing the brine through the meat quickly and evenly still remains hot smoking. We concluded our experiment by hot smoking and heating some of the bacon in a pale dry chamber after we injected the meat with colour. The results were exactly as we expected. Proper diffusion of the brine took place during smoking. My guess is that it takes place as the meat heats up. This concept of autoclaving the bacon would later be combined with the concept of tumbling or massaging the bacon to create vacuum tumblers.

(2) The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pennsylvania) 08 Feb 1899, Wed Clipping


The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia)25 Jun 1901, Tue

The Age. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia29 Mar 1898, Tue, Page 7


Leslie’s Directory for Perth and Perthshire, 1939-1940, By J. Bartholomew, Edinburgh. Published by the proprietor.

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The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, Western Countries, 18 July 1885, page 8

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The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 February 1848

Stanier, P. 1989. Dorset’s Industrial Heritage. Twelvehead Press

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