The Life and Times of George Samworth: Prepared for Greatness! Eben van Tonder 3 September 2021
One of the iconic food producers in England is without question, the legendary Samworth Brothers. As an amateur food historian, my interest in the company is obvious. They owe their existence to the visionary work of 4 generations of Samworth brothers of successive generations beginning with George Samworth who, born in 1868, as a young man entered the business world as a member of a consortium of Birmingham pig buyers. As will be seen in this article, their legacy actually started at least a generation earlier with Georg’s dad, also named George. Twenty-eight years later, in 1896, George junior set up his own business as a pig dealer in Birmingham. Their existence spans a time in England when the English pig breeds were established, the industrialisation of the meat processing trade took place and when the English producers had to weather the storm of the intense onslaught of foreign firms trying to wrestle slices of the lucrative English meat market from their hands. In the immortal words of Charles Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness,” and in the life of George Samworth, it was his spring of hope.
Despite the lack of information on his early years I pressed on to glean insight into the times he lived and the man he was. I ordered my copy of A Taste of Tradition: The Story of the Samworth Family Business (1896 – 1996) yesterday and will receive it before the end of the month. Still, there are two distinct but highly productive avenues of investigation open to me while I wait for the right source material.
The first is to take the two-dimensional pictures so often presented by historians and create a three-dimensional view of George Samworth by getting into his mind. What was the burning issues that occupied his thoughts?
The second approach is to make the best use of the time while I still have limited information available. While I wait for the avalanche of information to arrive, I can focus on seemingly less important information. I hope to see things that I would otherwise have missed in the context of too much information. The implications of a seemingly unimportant reference can be interrogated longer and with focus and in the process of looking, it often happens that you start to see something you would otherwise have missed.
Both these approaches will be valuable in our first look at the founder of Samworth Brothers, George Samworth.
The first question is if it is possible to know what the discussions would have been around the dinner table of a pig trader in Birmingham towards the last half of the 1800s.
Birmingham Above Knockcroghery
Before we delve into the question of dinner conversation in the Samworth household, let’s first set the scene generally by highlighting the importance of Birmingham. Birmingham, at this time, was and remained a key hub for the hog trade, linking the central and northern counties with the all-important southern counties well into the 1900s. The south with its dairy industries took the lead in hog production but this does not mean that the north and centre of England were not important and the key hub in this epic drama was Birmingham!
An example of its importance into the first half of the 1900s can be seen from a comparison that was made between Birmingham and the Irish village of Knockcroghery in the county of Roscommon almost right in the centre of Ireland. In a 1939 publication (Díosbóireachtaí Párlaiminte) the author mentions that if pork producers from this Irish town would bring their pigs to the Birmingham market, they would leave with £2000 more in their pocket than if they sold it in their home town the next day.
Joseph Harris, writing his epic work on pork husbandry in 1885 writes about the Birmingham pig market and says “Birmingham has long been one of the greatest pig markets in the kingdom, and the pig breeding of the district has been not a little affected and improved by the winter fat-stock show which has for some years been held here at Bingley Hall, with great success.” This places George Samworth in a city, as important to the hog trade as Calne and Gillingham.
Getting into the Mind of a Hog-Man in the late 1800s
Besides confirmation of the importance of Birmingham, Harris’s writing gives us a glimpse into the mind of a hog man in the late 1800s and by extension, into the mind of George Samworth. This was his world and these are the times when he was growing up and when he started his career. In the dinner conversation with George and his family, these are exactly the kind of things that would be discussed.
The development of pig breeds through the incorporation of Chinese hogs into the English pig herds, the migration from lard pigs to the development of bacon pigs and re-organising the way pig husbandry was being done were all central issues at this time. See a series of articles I did on the subject The Old and the New Pig Breeds and The English Pig, the Kolbroek and the Kune Kune in Bacon & the Art of Living.
Hot topics at this time were the development of the Berkshire and Tamworth breeds and here Birmingham played a key role. Harris writes, “The town of Birmingham unites Staffordshire and Warwickshire. The old Warwickshire breed was a white or partly-coloured animal of the old-fashioned farm-yard type and has never been improved into a special breed. The Staffordshire breed was the “Tam worth.” At present, the Tamworth is rapidly going out of favor with farmers, from the want of aptitude to fatten, and are being replaced by useful pigs, the result of miscellaneous crosses of no special character. The best is the middle-sized white pigs, a cross of the Cumberland-York with local white breeds, often called the Cheshire. The northern cross improves the constitution, and gives hair of the right quality, hard, but not too much or too coarse.” (Harris, 1885)
“At Bingley Hall, the class of Berkshire breeding-pigs under six months old generally brings from twenty to twenty-five pens. At present, however, the Berkshires in the Birmingham district are chiefly in the hands of amateur farmers, tenant farmers not having taken very kindly to them.” (Harris, 1885)
“But the breed must be spreading rapidly if the ready sale of the young pigs at the Birmingham show be taken as evidence.” (Harris, 1885)
“Mr Joseph Smith, of Henley-in-Arden, one of the most successful exhibitors of Berkshires, keeps three or four sows, and sells all their young; and others find the demand for young pigs constant throughout the year.” (Harris, 1885)
“Mr Thomas Wright, of Quirry House, Great Barr, (who did so much toward founding the Bingley Hall show) considers the cross of the Berkshire with the Tam worth produces the most profitable bacon pigs in the kingdom, the Berkshire blood giving an extraordinary tendency to feed, and securing the early maturity in which alone the Tamworth breed is deficient. The cross of the Berkshire boar with large white sows has been found to produce most satisfactory results to plain farmers. My own notion with regard to all agricultural stock is, that we should abandon crosses and stick to our pure breeds, adapting them to our particular wants by careful selection.” (Harris, 1885)
“The Tamworth breed is a red, or red-and-black pig, hardy, prolific, and the best specimens well-shaped, but slow in maturing. It seems a near relation to the old Berkshire; but modern Berks breeders carefully exclude all red-marked pigs from their breeding-sheds. Reddish hairs at the tips of the ears of Essex would be permitted and admired. Mr Alderman Baldwin, of Birmingham, is a noted breeder of this hardy, useful pig, which, however, does not seem to have any success as a prize winner. At the Royal Agricultural Show at Warwick, 1859, the Yorkshire and Berkshire breeds divided all the honors.” (Harris, 1885)
Improving the breeds was the talk of the town and George Samworth found himself in the middle of these developments.
Birmingham with its close proximity to Oxfordshire would have been up to date with developments from this productive part of the country. The information is fascinating as it gives us the mechanism of introducing foreign genetics into the English hog gene pool.
An Essex Boar (Harris, 1885)
Harris writes about the Improved Oxfordshire the following: “These black pigs,” says Mr Sidney, “although they are scarcely numerous enough to enable them to claim the title of a breed, are interesting, because representing a successful attempt to unite the best qualities of the Berkshire and improved Essex. The old Oxfordshire breed was very like the old Berkshire. The first great improvement is traced to two Neapolitan boars imported by the late Duke of Marlborough when Marquis of Blandford, and presented by him to Mr Druce, senior, of Eynsham, and the late Mr Smallbones, in 1837. These Neapolitans were used with Berkshire sows, some of which were the result of Chinese crosses. Two families of jet black pigs were formed by Mr Smallbones and Mr Druce. On the death of Mr Smallbones, Mr Samuel Druce, jun., purchased the best of his stock, and had from his father, and also from Mr Fisher Hobbs, improved Essex boars. The produce was a decided “bit,” and very successful at local, Royal, and Smithfield Club shows. The improved Oxfords are of fair size, and all black, with a fair quantity of hair, very prolific, and good mothers and sucklers.” (Harris, 1885)
“Mr Samuel Druce writes me: ‘I have recently raised one of Mr Crisp’s black Suffolk boars. In fact, wherever opportunity offers, I obtain good fresh blood of a suitable black breed, with the view of obtaining more lean meat than the Essex, better feeding qualities than the pure Berkshires, and plenty of constitution. I have never been troubled with any diseases among my pigs. Without change of boars of a different tribe, if of the same breed, constitution cannot be preserved. Where breeding in and – in from a limited stock is persisted in, constitution is lost, the produce of each sow becomes small in size and few in number. ‘The Oxford dairy farms have a first-rate market for pork in the University. Porkers at thirteen to sixteen weeks are wanted to weigh 60 lbs. to 90 lbs.; bacon pigs at nine to ten months, 220 lbs. to 280 lbs., but at that age, the improved Oxfords are easily brought to 400 lbs.” (Harris, 1885)
Essex Sow (Harris, 1885)
These were some of the things that were important to hog-men in Birmingham when George Samworth was cutting his teeth in pig dealings. It is clear that there was a lot of technical developments taking place at this time. It is strange to think that pig breeding was at one point the “Silicon Valley-style” cutting edge technology that grabbed the attention of young people but such were the times when George Samworth started his career. He certainly had the mind to understand it and the skill to put his knowledge to use.
The Pig Buyer
It is true that companies and people who excel in bacon and ham production have an intimate knowledge of pork farming and nutrition. The different disciplines go hand in hand. Over the years I have become familiar with most positions held related to the pork trade by, at some point, doing every conceivable job in the processing plant. I spend many days on pork farms as we integrated the requirements from the processing plant with what is delivered to the abattoir by the farmer. The one position which I never gave a second thought to and that suddenly became the focus of my interest after started doing work on the life of George Samworth is the role and life of the pig buyer.
The key function is fairly obvious – they bought pigs as intermediaries between the farmer and the factory. We get a glimpse of the role of the pig buyers from Ruth Guiry (2016). She is writing about life in another key hog-town, Limerick in Ireland, but the function and role of the pig buyer could not have been much different in Birmingham. She writes that “the number of pigs produced by ‘small man’s industry’ in the city’s lanes could not meet the constant demands of the bacon factories, so a constant supply of good quality pigs from elsewhere was necessary to ensure the continual working and profitability of the bacon factories. The pig buyers … therefore played a central role in the success of the bacon industry, linking the farmers who produced the pigs with the factories that processed them. While many buyers were independent, others were employed directly by the bacon factories to source pigs at fairs..” (Guiry, 2016)
The pig trader was a skilled person. Guiry gives the following insight on the skill of the pig buyer which dovetails beautifully with the preceding section where we tried to glean insight into the dinner conversations in the Samworth household. She writes that “these pig buyers were known to be skilled, knowledgeable men who were able to quickly and accurately estimate the value of an animal …. They ensured a high quality of animal for the bacon factories, checking that a pig wasn’t too fat or too lean, that its limbs were of the right proportion and the health of the animal adequate.” (Guiry, 2016)
She mentions that the pig buyer often had to travel through the country in the course of their work. The “pig buying” happened at the station, at shows and also in the country. She describes the comradery among the pig buyers. Again, her focus is on the pig buyers in Limerick, but it is easy to see how it could be transferred to the buyers in Birmingham. She writes, “The Gores, they were from Waterford, now I know some of the Cork people, in rugby, and there’s one of them there, but Noel Murphy people were in Cork Rugby, they were pig buyers as well from Cork…well involved, they would all book into the same place …. these nights away … before the fairs, were sort of rousing affairs, you get all the pig buyers from … in the one boarding house … the crack was good like.” (Guiry, 2016)
The pig buyers often had their own lorries to transport the pigs to the abattoirs. Pig buying was a lucrative business with many pig buyers owning large properties so that they could keep some of the pigs in their back yard or somewhere else on their property. One of their other duties became the calibration of the scales. Falconer (1916) reports that it became customary for the pig buyers in Birmingham to calibrate the scales every morning. They would place half a cwt* or cwt* on the platform and then they adjusted the index till it showed a cwt* or half a cwt*.
The legendary Phil Armour from Chicago generated the funds required to start his packing plant through retail stores he started after selling equipment at the Californian gold rush. Sir David de Villiers Graaf of South Africa secured the funding for his meat enterprise through clever legal footwork after the Cape government forced him out of his shop to build the Cape Town Railway station. George Samworth, I suspect, did this through pig buying! Far from being a peripheral function, I now understand that the role of the pig buyer was key to the success of the meat processing trade and there was a lot of money in this line of work.
Is there any clue from history of the kind of man that the young George Samworth was? Not just generally as we have been considering till now, but specifically linked to the man himself. I believe there is and it comes to us courtesy of the Birmingham Daily Post, 3 December 1892.
A Great Heritage: George Samworth, Sen.
An article appeared in 1892 about a pig dealer from New Canal Street, Birmingham, who was summoned for selling ten pigs at the cattle siding of the London and North-Western Railway in Fazeley Street in violation of the markets clauses of the Consolidations Act. Mr Bell (from the Town Clerk’s office) appeared to prosecute, and Mr O’Connor defended. Mr Bell said that inspector Wiltshire went to the Fazeley street siding on the 27th of October, and from what he heard went to the defendant and asked him if he had sold any pigs there. He said he did not, but the inspector subsequently saw a man named Laxton, of Coventry, who would be called, and who would state that the defendant sold him the two pigs remarking that he was fairly caught. Mr Bell then read the 90th of the Consolidation Act of 1883, under which the summons was taken out, however, because it was a fact that dealers carried on business in the cattle siding, which was an improper place, whilst the Corporation had provided a pig market at an expense of some £34 000.
– “Mr Brame: Is this part of the new pig market that the pig dealers themselves have provided?”
– “Mr Bell: Oh, no.”
– “Arthur Wiltshire, an inspector, gave evidence bearing out Mr Bell’s opening statement and said that defendant remarked “They tell me you have fairly caught me, but I will not let you do it any more. I am not going to sell any more pigs on the sidings.” The new market was open at the time“.
– “Mr Carter: It is not customary to allow pigs to be sold in the sidings?”
– “Mr Laxton also gave evidence“.
– “O’Connor: Was the old market crowned?“
– “What was it moved for? Because they wanted it for vegetables.”
– “Mr O’Connor said that there was no intention on the part of the defendant to commit an offence, and he would ask the Bench to bear in mind that the new pig market had only been opened on the day on which the offence was committed, and the Act required, and the Act required that the market should be opened before the offence could be committed.”
– “The Bench fined defendant 10s and cost.”
The pig dealer in question was nobody else than George Samworth (sen)! The fact that he is said to have lived in New Canal St, Birmingham, almost certainly makes him the father of George Samworth, the founder of Samworth Brothers. In the 1891 England & Wales Census, he is listed as a pig dealer and was 41 at the time of the census. His oldest son is also named George Samworth and was 22 at the time. His wife was Mary Samworth. They had 10 children and one servant. The kids were George (22), Charles (19), Ernest (14), Louisa (12), Sara (10), Helen (8), Emily (7), Edith (5), William (3) and Sydney (8 months). The fact that he had a servant is the first clue that he was successful in his trade and a man of means. The 1891 senses list the occupation of George Samworth, son of George Samworth also as a pig dealer which all seems to confirm that we are indeed dealing with the protagonist of our inquiry.
The Back Story – Curtesy of Kieron McMahon**
If the fact that George Samworth had a servant and lived in a comfortable dwelling in Birmingham are signs that he was a well-off pig trader, more information came to light which confirms this and gives us remarkable insight into the man he was, his character and abilities and the environment where George Samworth, his son, grew up in. It comes to us in the form of the back story to the events described in the newspaper article above, courtesy of Kieron McMahon, a world-class blogger from England and his site, Midlands Pubs, Birmingham.
Old Pig Market, Bordesley St & Allison St, courtesy of Google Earth.
Stone in Bordesley Street, laid by Joseph Horton, Esq. on 16 February 1892.
On the corner of Bordesley Street and Allison Street, Birmingham is a three-gabled brick building that was erected in 1891/2. It is the old pig market. Joseph Horton Esq. was the man responsible for identifying a suitable pig market. Two sites were identified, one being in Montague Street and the other in Albert Street. The pig dealers preferred the latter. Due to problems obtaining the properties, the Bordesley & Allison site was seen as a good compromise by the pig dealers. The Corporation did not see it their way and so started what became known as the Pig Market Dispute.
Pig buying in Birmingham was monopolised at this time in the hands of a few men who were known as the Birmingham Pig Salesmen’s Association. One of them was George Samworth who was one of the men spearheading the development of the Bordesley & Allison site. It was a private enterprise. The other men who took the lead in the construction with George Samworth were Daniel John Foster, Joseph Doolan, Patrick Long, Joseph Gosling and John Jones. The design of the building was done by Owen & Ward.
The Corporation preferred the Montague Street site which the pig traders never liked. They nevertheless pressed on with their development and the two sites were effectively constructed at the same time. The Bordesley & Allison site was completed first in what was a race to see who would finish their construction first and was opened in 1892.
The Corporation responded with legal action against George Samworth, Daniel John Foster, Joseph Doolan, Patrick Long, Joseph Gosling and John Jones to stop pig trading at the site, claiming that it “infringed the manorial rights and statutory rights of the Corporation who collected tolls on the sales of livestock.“( McMahon) And so the Pig Market Dispute went on for some time. Essentially, there could not be two pig markets in Birmingham and sales at this site ceased in the late 1890s.
Fazley street where George sold the pigs which landed him in a spot of trouble is 0.3 miles away from the Bordesley & Allison site from where they were already selling pigs.
From the trial of George Samworth, one sentence in particular with the accompanied exchange between the Mr Bell, appearing for the Corporation and Mr Brame now takes on new meaning! Let’s look at it again. It reads that “it was a fact that dealers carried on business in the cattle siding, which was an improper place, whilst the Corporation had provided a pig market at an expense of some £34 000.” Mr Brame then asked, “Is this part of the new pig market that the pig dealers themselves have provided?” to which Mr Bell replied, “Oh, no.”
Here we have a clear reference to the two pig markets which existed and it seems as if the one which the Corporation provided was in operation by October 1892. George clearly did not see himself confined to either of the two locations to ply his trade.
The technical requirement to be a good pig buyer gives us insight into the mental aptitude and alertness of the young George Samworth. It was simply a requirement of the job to be very sharp with an uncanny attention to detail!
His dad was a formidable man a leader in his trade. Reflecting on the incident of the sale of the ten pigs on 27 October 1892 and the leadership he took in the creation of the pig market in Bordesley Street which was completed in the same year, but before October, shows clearly him to be a formidable leader and driven for success which he, no doubt, passed on to his son. In his dad, George Samworth Jnr. saw a drive for business, clearly seen from the legal problems he got himself into from selling pigs from a different site to the two recognised sites which existed in Birmingham for pig trading at the time. It gives us a remarkable glimpse into the Samworth household and answers the question as to the topics that would have been discussed around the dinner table, especially in the middle 1890s.
Four things stand out which he no doubt passed on to his son who also followed in his footsteps as a pig trader namely skill, business acumen, a fierce drive to succeed and leadership! There is, however, another remarkable observation to be made. George Samworth, the son of George Samworth, did not sit back and enjoy the spoils handed him by his dad. He took everything his dad taught him and he used these to excel even further when he started his own Pig Buying company soon after these events.
This trait would become characteristic of the Samworth Brothers and that of future generations. From the first time I started learning about this family, it is something very peculiar that struck me. The ability that each son had to carve out his own unique success, built upon the success of his dad. As if there is a built-in drive to do better than the previous generation! It is remarkable and something we see right here from the founder of the company himself! His ability to transcend the achievements of his dad.
George Samworth who created Samworth Brothers was perfectly prepared for greatness! Both nature and nurture played an indispensable part in preparing the young pig trader to take everything his dad gave him and set future generations of Samworth brothers and children up to create a legend! An utterly unique feature of the story that continues to run through the veins of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren is the absolute focus to build upon what has been handed down to them and to do better than what previous generations achieved.
This is a great start in our enquiry into the life and times of George Samworth, the founder of Samworth Brothers! In every way, this is a perfect beginning of what becomes an even more remarkable story!
(c) Eben van Tonder
* CWT Definition
CWT refers to a centum or cental weight, meaning hundredweight.
“A hundredweight (CWT) is a unit of measurement used to define the quantities of certain commodities being bought and sold. It is used in some commodities trading contracts. Pricing by hundredweight also is a standard option for shipping packages that take up less than an entire truckload. Usage of hundredweight more generally has declined in favor of contract specifications in pounds or kilograms.
The value of a hundredweight differs in its American and British usages. In the United States, a hundredweight is a unit of mass equal to 100 pounds. In the United Kingdom, a hundredweight is a unit of mass equal to 112 pounds.” (investopedia)
** Kieron McMahon
I mention Kieron in particular because the information that he unearthed is not readily available. People deem it somehow “less important” when in actual fact, I came to appreciate the fact that such information is of the greatest importance. The entire sage of the “Pig Market Dispute” in Birmingham is relegated to dark, obscure archives and inscriptions on cornerstones scattered around the city and if someone does not take the time and make the effort to dig these stories up, they will be lost to us forever.
In my research on bacon and meat curing, I deal with this all the time. I want to state it clearly: there is no information available about the pig buyers association in Birmingham, about the Pig Market Dispute or the location of the pig trading site from any of the major English newspapers of the time that I have access to or any of the usual repositories of archive information I regularly consult. I have spent today going through countless old, out of print English journals related to agriculture, trade and industry, many of them from Birmingham and could find no reference to George Samworth, pig buyers or anything that could fill out the information required to change George Samworth into a flesh and blood person. At least, nothing remotely comparable to what Kieron unearthed! His site was relegated to pages 5 or 6 in one of my google searches.
Pubs and pork buying is not something that will be top of the list of school-leavers career choices these days. What we must appreciate is that these were the cutting edge technologies of the time and as far as pubs are concerned, key centres for the exchange of information. Was Lloyd of London, the start of the worldwide insurance industry not formed in just such a pub or coffee shop in London?! Meat curing and preservation was exactly the “global warming” issue of the 1800s. There was a real possibility that the world would run out of food. It was not possible for countries like England to have achieved the enormous advances in feeding their population nutritious food if men like George Samworth and others did not achieve the small victories they did. Nor would that have gone far if there were no reading rooms and pubs around where information could be disseminated and shared. It is the exact premise of my work at the Earthworm Express where I seek to tell small stories of enormous importance to understand our world. In my book on the history of meat curing, Bacon & the Art of Living, I devoted a chapter to celebrating the pub culture of the British and after what I’ve seen from Kieron and his team, I will be doing a major review of not just this chapter but I now want to weave it more deliberately into my entire work!
Today we have other challenges, but one thing I know for certain is that it will likewise take young dynamic visionaries who are able to exploit the latest technology and innovation who will save our planet from catastrophe. Men like George Samworth and the thousands of others I feature in my blog.
We live in a universe where we are in an endless quest for partnerships. In life, business – on every level. Molecules want to connect. That is what they are there for! All of life wants relationships to create and be more effective. Life affirms relationships! The British pubs, coffee shops and reading rooms was the catalyst where these relationships were formed. Like water to chemical reactions, they were the ether that drove these processes of the past! These thoughts elevate the work of Kiron to another universe!
I, therefore, want to give kudos to Kieron McMahon. He is not some pub-mad nutcase who simply write a blog about what he is passionate about – he is a key historian who, against the tide of academia, is able to pick up on what is really important and write about it. Kieron is absolutely spot on in his focus on pubs! Without people like him, these stories will be lost forever and I salute him for this! In years to come people will understand it, value it and talk about it. Why? Because he took the time to research it and to write his work down!
The Irish Pig Buyers seems to have been a breed of people in their own class. Why Ireland excelled in Pig Buyers is something for further investigation. Here is a delightful article from the Limerick Leader, 26 April 1986, entitled, Rise and Fall of Parish Pig Buyers.
Díosbóireachtaí Párlaiminte: Tuairisc Oifigiúil, Volume 78 By Ireland. Oireachtas. Dáil – Ireland
Falconer, J. 1916. The Irish Law Times and Solicitors’ Journal, Volume 50
Guiry, R.. 2016. Pigtown, A History of Limerick’s bacon Industry. Limerick City and County Council
McMahon, Kieron. Midlands Pubs
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