Tank Curing Came from Ireland
By: Eben van Tonder
11 March 2019
For the latest update regarding the exact nature of the invention of William Oake, see William and William Horwood Oake. As time becomes available this article will be updated.
Also, see Bacon & the Art of Living, Chapter 08.01 – Mild Cured Bacon
I have been researching the history of bacon curing now for many years. Evidence led me to conclude that tank curing originated in Denmark, I suspected, at the end of the 1900s. It was called “the Danish Method” and I know for a fact that the Harris operations from Wiltshire got the technology from Denmark. Many years ago I came across one old reference that certain bacon technology was taken from Ireland to Denmark in the mid-1800s. The reference was so vague that I did not once include it in any of my many articles. Despite much time spent on following it up I found no corroborating information. There was no reference of what the nature of the inventions could have been that was taken to Denmark,
In researching tank curing in Australia for my article, The Mother Brine, I suddenly had, not only the clearest and most complete description of tank curing but also a detailed account of its history. What is more, I had the name of the inventor, Mr. William Oake of Ulster. All this information came to me, courtesy of 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, Mr. Oake has already passed away. According to the reference, he was a prolific chemist. The reason why I found no information is because I was looking for tank curing and the Irish called it “Mild Cure.”
Meeting Mr. William Oake of Limerick
It was 4:00, Monday morning, 11 March 2019 when I found the Australian reference and if I had any hope to get more sleep, it was gone! Having discovered that Tank Curing (Mild Curing) came from Ireland, I was now looking for corroborating evidence to verify this information. I started searching through old newspapers and immediately brought up fascinating results. There is a reference 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.
The information from Australia is clear that William Oake who invented tank curing is from Ulster but from this newspaper report it seems that he was based in Limerick which is in Munster, but I was unfased – we are definitely on the right island.
A notice was posted in Manchester Weekly Times and Examiner (Manchester), Saturday, 28 September 1889 of the death of William Horwood Oake from Gillingham, Dorset “elder son of the late William Oake of Limerick“, aged 49. This means that WH Oake was born in 1849 and if we presume William Oake from Limerick had him when he was 20, William was probably born around 1829. I later revised this estimate, taking more information into account and it seems that he was born around 1807. I give the full argument later in this article.
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 (Horwood??) 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. What is fascinating is 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 presumably produced using tank or mild curing.
The circumstantial evidence is strong. William Oake had a substantial bacon curing operation and was able to do it at prices so substantially below curers in Britain and much higher quality (mild as in not as salty) 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 if 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 Ireland’s 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.
Events in Denmark and Ireland
A very strong third set of circumstantial evidence would now come to us from Denmark indicating that the Irish invention was first of all exported to the one country in the world who had as a national priority, the need to be able to do bacon better and at better prices than any other nation on earth. This country was Denmark.
It is curious that one of the first countries to received this Irish technology was in many respects similar to Ireland and in many respects better prepared to capitalise on the invention then even the Irish themselves. A fascinating article appeared in the Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) of 3 October 1897 entitled Why Ireland is in Want. The Recess Committee, established by the British Parliament to consider the creation of a department of agriculture and industry for Ireland, set out to look at the Danish model of agriculture as a possible solution for turning the Irish industry around. A comparison was made between Ireland and Denmark’s economies based on the fact that both countries are dependent on exports to Great Britain with more or less the same mix of agricultural products being pork, butter, and bacon.
It sets the development of the bacon market in Denmark as having taken place beginning in 1889. Before 1888, Danish farmers relied on selling their pigs live to Germany. Swine Fewer hit Denmark in the autumn of 1887 which halted the export of live pigs. Exports to Germany fell from 230 000 in 1886 to only 16 000 in 1888. The creation of large bacon curing cooperatives was born out of the need to switch from exporting live pigs to processed pork in the form of bacon.
This was stunningly successful. In 1887 the Danish bacon industry accounted for 230 000 live pigs and in 1895, converted from bacon production, 1 250 000 pigs.
The Parliamentary Committee made another interesting observation that may shed light on a possible progression of events namely that due to the impoverished nature of the economy of Ireland, many people were forced to emigrate to seek a better life elsewhere. The people who emigrated were described by the committee as “the more energetic elements of the population” emigrated, taking with them skills that in the past were responsible for making Ireland a formidable rival of Great Britain in commerce and manufacturing. The committee examined the causes for the change of fortunes of the individual Irishmen and the lack of competitiveness of its economy. It sought to juxtapose this with the much smaller and imminently more successful Danish economy.
The state of its bacon industry is of particular interest. The committee compared it to the Irish butter industry where the newest technology was introduced, but despite this, never achieved the competitiveness expected due to structural shortcomings in the system of agriculture. Bacon, it reported, was in a similar situation. The reason for the decline in bacon exports was due to the ability of the cooperatives of the Danish farmers (the chief competitor to Irish bacon) to produce better breeds of pigs, “a more rational system of feeding while the quality of the Irish pig has remained stationary.”
Another reason for the poor showing of Irish Agriculture, related to the pork trade, was the large trade between Ireland and Great Britain in live animals. Switching to dead meat would be far more profitable for Ireland due to the inherent inefficiencies in selling live animals. The Danes were forced to move from live animals to selling dead meat due to the swine flu, but Ireland had no such restrictions and the logic of the benefits of dead meat to live animals, as was clearly seen by all, was not enough to get the farmers and traders to make the change. This in itself is an enormous lesson!
Does this fit the Timeline?
The switch of the Danish pork industry from selling live animals to producing and trading bacon happened from 1887, which would have been the perfect impetus for getting the new tank curing method from Ireland. It fits the timeline very well for the development of tank curing by William Oakes which would have been before 1853 when he and his partners secured the large contract for bacon from the British navy. But are these dates the right ones?
My suspicion was that they got the technology from Limerick simply because William Oake settled there.
Denmark getting hold of the Technology
In the end, the Danes did not get the curing technology from Limerick, but from Waterford in Ireland. The account comes to us, courtesy of Mr. T. P. Gill who was quoted in a letter that appeared to the editors by Peter Ryan in the Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Dublin, Ireland), 8 October 1895, page 7 regarding cooperative agriculture.
Mr. Gill gave a lecture at the first general conference of the Cooperative and Agricultural Societies held at the Leinster Lecture Hall on the 25th, presumably of September 1895, on how the first cooperative bacon curing company was started in Denmark in 1887. Seven years earlier, in 1880, the Danes visited Waterford and “taking advantage of a strike among the pork butchers of that city, used the opportunity to bring those experts to their own country to teach and give practical and technical lessons in the curing of bacon, and from that date begins the commencement of the downfall of the Irish bacon industry. . . “
The Irish probably “exported” mild curing technology to Australia even before it was taught in Denmark in 1880, yet no other country capitalised on the technology as did the Danes. Their system of cooperative farming, slaughtering and bacon curing allowed them to standardise not only the curing technology but also the pig breed best suited for bacon curing.
In what city was it invented?
This is a fascinating question. The Danes got the technology from Waterford, but is this where it was invented? The Journal of Agriculture and Industry of South Australia says that invention was done in Ulster, Northern Ireland. There is another account of the invention of Irish Mild Cured bacon I stumbled upon from a 1913 reprint of much older work from the Times. It says that Irish mild-cure was discovered by accident when a curer in Limerick, hard-pressed for money, took his imperfectly cured bacon to the market before curing was completed. The short-cured bacon was apparently an instantaneous success and the method was soon developed. (Ireland of Today).
Of course, this account may be true, but I have serious doubts. I give the full mild cure method below as note 1. The account of not being able to complete the normal hard curing method does not fit any of the technical aspects of mild curing except being completed in a shorter time. I do not even think it influenced the actual invention.
I did a survey of the uses of the phrase “mild cure” on the online platform newspapers.com where all of the major newspapers from Britain and Ireland linked to the platform dating back several hundred years. There are many references from Limerick and Waterford from the 1840s and 1850s onwards. The very first reference, however, 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 take over. This report simply said about bacon arriving from Ireland and that the Bacon market was dull the past week but for “a small parcel of mild cure.” (Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) 21 July 1837)
Before this date – nothing. No mention at all! Remember that bacon was a commodity with prices regularly quoted in newspapers like maize today in South Africa in certain publications.
It is interesting that from this first reference, we have a steady increase in its prices being reported in newspapers.
The second reference is in 1842. Reporting in the Provisions section of Jackson’s Oxford Journal which would regularly report on bacon prices from Ireland. In a mention of produce from Ireland, it reports, “in the bacon market there are 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 others, Limerick and Waterford. A 1945 report said that “choice mild-cured Bacon continues brisk.” (Jackson’s Oxford Journal (Oxford, Oxfordshire, England) 26 July 1845, p4.)
A 1853 report from Ireland itself is very instructive. From Dublin, a report that 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.
The Details of his Tank Curing System
From The Journal of Agriculture and Industry of South Australia, the following can be observed related to tank curing. He mentions that older brine is better and that that old brine has been used in one bacon factory which is 16 years old. This means that tank curing must have been in use in Australia at least by 1880. The reason is simple that it will contain more nitrites.
He confirms the process of boiling the old brine and straining them once they get too muddy. Bacon curing was being thought through in terms of industrializing the process for high factory throughput. The person who wrote the article on Mild Cured Bacon in Australia makes the point that a very good way to overcome the barrier to entry of high equipment and factory cost is the cooperative system. In this comment, it seems that by 1897/ 1898 the cooperative model was widely marketed around the world and tank curing found an ideal corporate form in the cooperative model.
The use of the term mild cure is interesting. It is clear that it came to be used as a technical term describing tank curing. The term “milder cure” could have started as a description of the addition of sugar for the purpose of achieving a “less harsh cure”, i.e. a milder cure, but by 1830s it is clearly infused with a very particular technical reference to tank curing. The author of the Australian reference mentions that this kind of bacon is being preferred in all the large cities in Europe which possibly indicated the extent by which tank cured bacon of Denmark, Ireland and by this time, of England (through operations such as the Harris bacon plants) were being exported to other cities and, I am sure, that tank curing was being practiced in all these cities and replacing dry salt curing around the globe. A comment must be made about the Harris operation at this point, that they continued to make the best of every available system and merged it into what remained a complete system with its own unique character.
I quote the entire section on mild cure from the Australian publication in Note 1 below.
Does the age of Oake and his son fit what we know?
As promised, we return to the question of the likely age of Oake when he invented the cure and if it firs what else we know. We know that the invention must have taken place very close to the shipment of a small parcel of mild cured bacon to England from Ireland. Let’s assume that it happened 5 years before that date, in 1832. Let’s also assume that William, if he was the inventor, was 25 when he completed his studies and invented the system. That means he must have been born around 1807. We have the fixed date of the death of WH Oake. To make both sides work, this would mean that William was 33 in 1840 when his first son was born. It seems a bit late, but if his first three or four children were daughters, it works well. Here is my suggested timeline for William Oake: Born: around 1807; Invented mild cure: around 1832 (aged 25); WH born in (known date) 1840 (William, aged 33); 1889 WH passes (aged 49; known date and age; William, his dad would have been 82 if he was still alive). By 1897/1898 when the account is given in Australia, we know that William Oake was deceased. If he was still alive, he would have been 90.
The dates we know fits very well this likely recreation of the life of William Oake.
Evidence points to William Oake from Ireland as the inventor of the mild curing system or tank curing sometime before 1837. He was probably from Northern Ireland and trained as a chemist. That he set up a very successful bacon curing operation based on this system in Limerick, Ireland. The British firms, using dry salt curing were unable to compete with the lower cost of the new system. The UK was their largest client and his son, WH Oake, had a business selling his dad’s bacon in England for some years prior to 1885 in Gillingham, Dorset. The British Navy bought much of their bacon from Oakes bacon in Limerick.
The Danes imported the system into Denmark already in 1880 and when a large national drive transformed their pork industry from selling live animals to producing and exporting bacon in 1887, mainly to the UK, they were already well versed in the new technology. It is quite possible that the Harris Bacon Company changed to the same system during this time. The British Journal of Commerce reported in January 1889 that Calne was ‘the chief seat of the bacon-curing industry of England’. Harris bacon was being exported to many parts of the world including most European countries, America, Australia, India, China, the Cape of Good Hope, and New Zealand. There seems to be little doubt that they learned the technique, not from the Irish, but from the Danes.
Ten years later, by 1897/1898, mild cured or tank cured bacon was available at all major cities in Europe and Australia. It was probably taken to Australia by immigrants from Limerick. During the gold rush in the 1850s and 1860s, many Irish immigrants came to Victoria from amongst others, Limerick. It would not surprise me if such an immigrant was the source for Molineux or whoever wrote the section on Mild Curing in the Journal of Agriculture and Industry of South Australia. The descriptions are too vivid and crisp not to be from someone with intimate knowledge of the origin of the system. It may have been that the account came from someone who saw the system in Northern Ireland. I wonder why Limerick is not used instead of the reference to the northern Irish province?
My work is cut out for me as I have to dig deeper into the mystery and follow the various rabbit trains. I have already contacted several researchers and journalists in Limerick to assist me in my quest to learn more about William Oake.
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 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 slaughterhouse. 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 saltpeter 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.”
All references are properly given in the text except,
Ireland of Today. Reprint with some additions. 1913. The Times. John Murray Albemarle Street, W..