|The laying of the foundation stone of the St. Edmundsbury Co-operative Bacon Factory, Ltd., by the Marchioness of Bristol, in the company of a large assembly of people at Elmswell, on Tuesday afternoon, marked the inception of the first cooperative factory of its kind to be established in England. Interest in the event was manifest by the considerable number of farmers, breeders and agriculturists generally, who gathered to witness the opening ceremony. Divers opinions, it will be remembered, were expressed when the question was first mooted, as to whether it should be an enterprise run by the shareholders of a limited company or on co-operative lines. Numerous meetings were held, at which farmers and breeders turned up in extremely large numbers, and ultimately the co-operators prevailed. The St. Edmundsbry Cooperative Bacon Factory, Ltd., was conceived, and whole-hearted in sympathy were the farmers and breeders of the county, in the scheme that at the opening ceremony on .............................................. reported. The Vice-Presidents include the Lord-Lieutenant of the County, Sir Courtenay Warner, C. B., M.P., and Mr. A. S. Wakelin is secretary of the energetic Committee, which comprises practical men of the county. Five and a half acres, situate quite close to the Great Eastern Railway line at Elmswell, is the site of the factory to be erected. It is understood that the Great Eastern Railway Company intend to construct a siding from the line into the yard of the factory.|
Sir Courtenay Warner said they had met there that day on a very auspicious occasion. It was his pleasant duty to introduce to them one whom they probably knew as well as he did, or perhaps better - and who was well known through those parts, and the whole of Suffolk, for her kindness. Lady Bristol was there that day without Lord Bristol, who was absent on account of his having to sit as chairman of an important committee in the House of Lords. He was pleased to see that his better half was there. That day they had a very representative body collected together, not only consisting of Peers and M.P.'s - but something much better than that - the real agricultural element, a good representation of farmers as well as landlords. (Applause.) They were gathered together that afternoon to say that they meant business, and were going to do something in the way of pushing forward their agricultural interests in West Suffolk and East Suffolk too. He thought that a most auspicious inauguration of that most necessary principle for farmers - co-operation - which they hoped would lead to much greater prosperity in all agricultural interests. They also hoped that that effort, that they were beginning that day would be the foundation stone, not only of the bacon factory, but also of the future prosperity of agriculture in that part of the country. (Applause). The Lord Lieutenant asked Lady Bristol to come forward and do the important part of the day’s work, that was to lay that stone on which they were going to build so much. The Most Hon. The Marchioness of Bristol, formally, with a silver, trowel, then laid the stone of the building, which, in future, will be known as the St. Co-operative Bacon Factory, Ltd.
Cut out on the stone, which was not of very large dimensions, was the following inscription:-
The Rector of Elmswell, the Rev. J. R. George, having offered prayer, cheers were given for Lady Bristol, and the large company then adjourned to a marquee situated in the vicinity, where a buffet luncheon was served.
Great enthusiasm prevailed when Mr. A. Corner read the following letter: "I am directed by the Lord Steward to inform you, in reply to your letter of the 22nd inst., that His Majesty has been pleased to accede to your request to receive the first samples of bacon from your Co-operative Factory." Immediately followed cheers for the King.
The Chairman's announcement that Lady Bristol and himself had requested that they ..................................... bacon was the occasion of more cheering.
Continuing, after the cheering had subsided, Sir Courtenay Warner said he would like to say a few words upon what he knew of the history, of that meeting. Sometime ago it was recognised, not only amongst the farmers, but by everybody in the neighbourhood, that they were not getting quite good enough a price for their pigs, considering the price of ham and bacon. A good many of them set to work to see what could be done. A bacon factory was suggested, and as a result many meetings were subsequently held. The Marquess of Bristol took a great interest in the matter, and a fiery petrol, in the form of Mr. Corner, a great organiser and writer on co-operation, came amongst them and said they must have a co-operative factory. All farmers rallied to his standard, local men, stood side by side - their Secretary had done excellent work in collecting the farmers together, and he hoped in the future there would be no disunion in their ranks. (Applause.) He believed if all farmers joined together, if all worked side by side with one another, they would not only get the benefit of good fel- lowship, but the solid benefit of profit. (Applause). He wished the scheme every success, and anything he could do for the success of such co-operation as that, and any future co-operative movements that might take place, he would always be ready to do. He could not take the responsibility of any of those cooperative movements, he could not be chairman of the company or association, because he did not think anybody ought to vouch for any business that he did not manage himself. He did not care whether it was a large or small company, if they did not run it themselves they were not directly responsible for it. But still there were a good many things in the world that one could not manage directly, but at the same time would like to put out the hand of help. The scheme which they had initiated was one of them - it was a step in the right direction - to join hand-in-hand for the good of agriculture. (Loud applause.)
The Chairman, previous to calling on MR. A. C. Beck, said maney years ago ... and Sir Edward Strachey got into .... with the late Lord Tweedmouth for.... the lobby and advocating that .... measure which they had inaugurated, ......which had been so heartily cheered ...way. (Laughter and applause).
The Mayor of Bury St. Edmund's (Mr. J. Ridley Hooper) said he felt honoured to be asked to second that vote of thanks. They were there, he remarked, in the course of his speech, to wish the very greatest success to the new company. Co-operation, NO doubt was the right thing in many ways and for a business of that kind it seemed to be the one thing necessary.
His first job was in the accounts department of a margarine factory in Cheshire. Then he got his chance as a book-keeper in St. Edmundsbury Co-operative Bacon Factory, Elmswell.
That was a half century ago, and this week Mr. Julius C. Andreasen retired after 48 years' service at the factory, the last 24 years as general manager and secretary. In his new home in St. Edmund's Drive, Elmswell, only a stone's throw from the factory and within sight of the manager's house which he vacated three months ago, he said: "I'm going to miss my job very much but I shall go to the factory regularly just for a chat and to see how things are going along."
The location chosen for the factory was at Elmswell, a small village in the heart of Suffolk being equidistant from Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket and within easy reach of all farmers who were planning to become members. The site consisted of five and a half acres of land situated quite close to the Great Eastern Railway line, with the idea being that a siding could be run directly into the factory yard to allow easy transportation of bacon sides to London.
To ensure that the factory developed along the required lines Mr J Wendelbo, a Danish Architect, was brought to Elmswell to draw up the plans. All construction work, excepting machinery installation, was undertaken by a committee of farmers under the supervision of Mr N Kirk- ebjerg, another Danish expert. And so it was that the planning and construction of the factory was based entirely on similar types of factories that existed in Denmark at that time.
The laying of the foundation stone took place in May 1911, the ceremony being performed by the Marchioness of Bristol; among the many eminent guests were politicians, businessmen, local dignitaries and some 300 members of the co-operative. A luncheon was then held in a large marquee on the grounds and among the many telegrams of congratulations was the following, "I am pleased to inform you, in reply to your letter of the 22nd inst. , that His Majesty has been pleased to accede to your request to receive the first samples of bacon from your Co-operative factory". And so it was that the first samples of bacon produced at the factory were presented to the King of England.
When the building was complete, the plant consisted of a slaughtering area, cutting room, chilling room, lard making room, sausage room and despatch area, the total cost including machinery being £7,000. The first farmer owned co-operative of its kind in England had now been established, and it was hoped that this type of factory would not only ensure a better return for the pig farmer but also help educate the farmers in the best ways of feeding, breeding and grading of their pigs. The whole concept of the factory was to take pigs from its members by arrangement and at competitive market prices, to process and sell the bacon at a profit and to return this profit to its members; firstly as interest on their shares and secondly as trading bonuses related to the value of pigs supplied. In March, 1942, these members totalled 408 supplying about 300 pigs per week to the factory. These pigs arrived by rail, on foot and by horse drawn cart, and after arrival at the factory were killed and cured as whole sides of bacon. The bacon was then despatched via the railway to be sold on the London Provision Exchange, the main bacon trading concern in the country; a few pies, sausages and blocks of lard were also produced and sold through a small shop at the factory.
Throughout the 1914-18 War, the factory remained open and indeed flourished; cattle, sheep and calves as well as pigs were slaughtered. In 1919 a profit of £10,007 - 12 - 8d was recorded and this type of profit remained consistent in the early years, proving to the many people who had originally been sceptical of the idea that a farmer-owned co-operative could indeed prove a viable proposition. By 1925, St Edmunds branched out into the pork product market with the idea of providing another outlet for the farmers' pigs. Three retail shops were also opened in Gt Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Gorleston, where goods under its own "St Edmunds" brand were sold directly to the consumer. In the first year these shops recorded a loss of £1,058 - I - 6d and indeed were only open for three years before being sold due to their unprofitability.
The factory continued making a profit until about 1927 when competition suddenly became tougher and it was found that the main reason for this was the amount of imported bacon being consumed in the UK. A breakdown of imports at that time revealed -
In 1949, due to the nationalisation of all transport coupled with heavy increased freight charges, the factory acquired a fleet of road vehicles to carry its products, a garage was built and facilities for maintenance and overhaul were provided, and from this point the reliance on the railways as a method of despatch vanished.
Rationing controls ended in 1954 and St Edmunds tried to return to its old pre-war lines, but trading conditions had changed with foreign producers supplying even more bacon to our markets. The Danes again proved the biggest problem with their considerable skill and heavily financed advertising campaigns. The British producers found it very hard to compete, many small bacon producing companies went into liquidation and the staff of St Edmunds realised that a complete overhaul of their marketing methods was required if they were to stay in business. Indeed, a complete change was soon in evidence-, the company diversified, modernised and improved its products, the amount of bacon sold on the London market was reduced and sales were now aimed at the retail and wholesale markets. Sales staff were employed to sell directly from vans thus promoting a direct link with the customers, new products were produced, pies, gammons, sausages and pre-packed bacon were the main lines.
All this was very well, but the staff at St Edmunds also realised that to compete with the imports the consistency of product was also a vital factor; the great problem with British Bacon at that time was that one week it could be first class but the very next poor. The only way they knew to overcome this was to ensure the raw material was of a consistent high quality, but no method existed for grading the pigs according to the amount of fat they contained, but St Edmunds introduced a scientific measuring device that was to rectify this. Based on the war-time Asdic principle, an ultrasonic machine called an introscope was introduced which could measure the amount of fat to within 2 mm; this coupled with paying the farmers higher prices for leaner pigs, ensured a high quality product could be consistently produced. Here the fact that St Edmunds was a farmer owned co-operative was very important because they were able to find ideal rearing facilities to produce the required pig. The result of all this work was that grading standards were agreed with leading British Bacon Curers and the County Quality Bacon Federation, and British Bacon was now able to compete in terms of quality with most of the imported bacon.
As a result of these moves, the St Edmunds van fleet was expanded from three to thirteen, and by 1962 a flourishing wholesale trade had been established in London and the Midlands. The Farmers were also made aware of this change, and for the first time since the factory opened they were encouraged and rewarded for producing some of the required pork type pigs.
In 1964, St Edmunds commenced trading with Marks & Spencer Limited, as was noted in the Annual Report: "During the year we made arrangements with Marks & Spencer Limited which we hope will be to our mutual advantage". This relationship has now progressed for fourteen years, and was the beginning of trading with large multiple companies that is so important today.
In 1970, St Edmunds faced its biggest crisis in its short history - an outbreak of Salmonella Panama, a form of food poisoning. The factory was closed for two weeks, with pigs being diverted to other plants and considerable disruption being forced upon the customers. Although the factory was generally accepted as amongst the most hygenic in the country, this was, indeed, a testing time. A loss of £40,000 for the year was recorded, against an anticipated profit of £60,000, but such were the ties already created by the company that all its suppliers and customers returned when production was finally resumed.
Another example of the company reviewing its marketing policy arrived in the early 1970's. In 1971 the factory changed its brand name to Farm Kitchen Foods in the hope of progressing more van sales under this new title. In 1972, when large losses were being incurred, an analysis of product margins was the reason for the complete with- drawal from the production of bacon sides; after a period of sixty years, no more Elmswell bacon was to be sold on the London Market. Indeed a loss making situation remained to such an extent that in 1974, due to severe cash flow problems, the company had no alternative but to put itself forward to be taken over by a larger concern, or go into liquidation.
The larger concern that was forthcoming, proved to be Eastern Counties Farmers, the major Ipswich based Co-operative which has dealings in almost every aspect of the farming world. Cash was immediately injected into St Edmunds and all shares in the Company were exchanged on an equal value basis for Eastern Counties Farmers shares. This takeover meant that the first farmer-owned co-operative bacon factory was now part of the second largest co-operative in the country but still the farmers retained some say in the running of the business. Indeed, St Edmunds retained its own Board of Directors which, at present, contains five farmer Directory but it was now responsible to the Main Board at Eastern Counties Farmers.
During these difficult times, came the inevitable changes in the business itself; at the time, the factory was losing about £10,000 per week and drastic changes had to be made swiftly. Many internal changes were effected, especially to the information systems, but once again the marketing aspect quickly came under the microscope. All products that were earning low profit margins were withdrawn, including the complete range of pies that had, by now, been built into a major line. Sausages were sold frozen as opposed to fresh, thus cutting deliveries from five to one or two per week. All outbased depots were closed, except the London depot, and the van sales fleet was cut from 35 to 10, with a minimum delivery of £10 per customer being included. The whole idea of these changes was to move away from small unprofitable deliveries and to increase trading with the multiple and wholesale customers who took bulk deliveries, which would, obviously, contribute greater profits. The importance of added value was again stressed, and production was now geared around high profit-earning goods such as cooked meats, pre-packed bacon and cured bacon joints and steaks. A result of these changes was a reduction in the company workforce from 500 people to 310, but again the company had reacted quickly and hoped to see improved profits as a result.
These profits did not materialise in the first year, indeed in 1975 the company recorded a loss of £150,000, but the benefit was certainly seen in 1976 with a record profit of £301,000 being made. The latest figures for 1977 indicate a profit of about £375,000, so once again the company appears to have made the right decisions at the right time.
In April 1976, as a result of these changes, the pig requirement was again revised. A pig somewhat lighter than previously purchased was required and a Syndicate of Producers was set up to ensure the correct quality and, more important, that required numbers could be procured.
The main factor when determining the type of pig required, is the products for which it is to be used: in the early years only one type of pig, the baconer, was required. This produced the best and leanest sides of bacon, and the farmers were suitably rewarded for its supply. In later years bacon pigs were still required as was the cutter type pig - a lightweight pig from which pork cuts and pork manufactured products could be produced. Prior to 1970, when about 2,600 pigs per week were being killed, the ratio required was 1800 bacon pigs and 800 cutter pigs, and prices were set to attract a pig of 120 - 160 lbs (deadweight) with additional reward for the 140-160 lbs pig. Any pig purchased below 120 lbs was not suitable for processing and was sold, at a reduced price, as a carcase.
Today, the factory kills 2,600 - 2,800 pigs per week, with the emphasis being towards a pig slightly heavier than the average bacon pig, about 75 kgs as opposed to 68 kgs. Approximately 90% of these are purchased on contract, with the odd 10% being bought on the open market (flat rate pigs). Contracts are set up with the producers on an annual basis, being made up of six periods; each producer contracts a certain number of pigs each period and is allowed a 10% tolerance on this number. This method allows a consistent flow of pigs throughout the year and also allows the producer some lee-way on his contracted number.
Prices are worked out on a fixed formula on a weekly basis, bearing in mind price trends, competition, requirements and the current profitability of the company,with the overall aim being that of giving the farmer the best possible return, whilst also allowing the company to remain profitable. Contract pigs fall into two categories, high weight being72½ - 80 kgs and low weight being 64 - 72 kgs, with approximately 75% of the weekly kill being high weight and 25% being low weight; pigs falling outside these weight ranges are penalised and the price paid is reduced. Within each range the price paid depends on the amount of fat contained on the animal. The fat thickness is measured at a point on the pigs back by Government approved Inspectors, and can vary from under 10mm to over 30mm with the highest being paid for under 18mm, and the lowest for over 26 mm. This grading and payment method is, obviously, a way of rewarding the producer who sends the highest quality pigs, and is both beneficial to the factory and the producer alike. Flat rate pigs cannot be subjected to such close scrutiny, with the prevailing market price being paid for any animal up to 25 mm, and only after this can any penalty be imposed.
St Edmunds currently procures 30% of its pigs from contracts with Eastern Counties Farmers, United Pig Breeders and Porcofram Limited, and a further 60% come from the eighteen Syndicate Members. The Syndicate has proved to be an enormous success, with regular meetings taking place between producers and the factory management, when any relevant points can be discussed.
This is just another example of the benefit of the very close ralationship that exists between St Edmunds and its suppliers.
The Bacon Factory at Elmswell has seldom been out of the news since it was opened on May 30th 1911, '. . . bringing new jobs to the village. . .'. It also brought the problems of 'industry'.
On 27th December 1918, the Parish Council resolved to delegate 2 Councillors to visit the Factory manager to discuss 'Nuisance from the bacon factory’, and ask that his enterprise, 'consume their refuse or dispose of same without carting it through the village.’ In 1959, the MP for Bury St Edmunds spoke in the house during a debate on the bacon industry to point out that 'I have in my constituency a bacon factory which is working to just under one third of its normal capacity’. Six years later, Mr. Andreasen, who had worked his way up from bookkeeper to General Manager and Secretary in 50 years of service, retired with the words '. . there isn't sufficient profit in the industry to make it attractive’. In his day, the factory had expanded from 18 people handling 700 pigs per week to some 200 employees dealing with 2000 kills and the processing which followed. In 1978, aided by a grant of £444,333 from the EEC, an expansion programme sought to employ 'typists, process workers, technicians, salesmen and managers’... this some 4 years after there had been, painfully, redundancies. The enterprise had, famously, begun as a farmers' co-operative when 'five and a half acres situate quite close to the great Eastern Railway line at Elmswell’, were chosen to house 'a factory modelled on the latest style of the co- operative factories in Denmark’. Eastern Counties Farmers, Harris Pork & Bacon and, finally, Grampian Country Foods were successive owners. In 1995, during Harris's tenure, a familiar headline: 'Families reeling at meat firm jobs axe’. The East Anglian of 7th June that year wrote, 'For workers at Elmswell the problem is compounded because of the factory's village location. . . whole families work there, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law... they are stunned and shocked’.
The Chairman of the Parish Council at the time presciently suggested that ' There is nothing to suggest that this is not a one-off rationalisation move, but it does not stop people thinking that this is the thin end of the wedge’. Our current Chairman was equally wary following discussions with the Factory on news of the recent impending closure: '... only 1 or 2 employees will be offered jobs at the company's other sites’. No-one could have predicted the massive changes in the meat trade, in eating habits or in commerce which have finally closed the Bacon Factory. At the time of the last scare, the concepts of globalisation, out-sourcing, off-shoring and food air miles were mere twinkles in the eyes of the trend predictors. Grampian themselves fly in prepared product from Taiwan. It is the way of the world, a world that is shrunk by the ease of subsidised jet travel, a world that is tilting Eastwards, a world that is unremittingly cost aware and yet increasingly blind to real value.
The response to the end of the Factory, just 5 years short of its century, has been heartening. As much practical help as can be offered to the redundant staff will be available - from the humble scope of the Parish Council's resources to the wider-ranging powers of the East of England Development Agency. And there is hope of a vision which could bode well for the future. A 42-acre site, either within or abutting the existing development envelope of the village, is a very attractive prospect. Elmswell has learned, in recent history, to be wary of those who would like to help 'develop’ the site. Mid Suffolk officers have been commendably quick off the mark in suggesting that only a 'sustainable’ way forward would be acceptable. It would not be difficult to replace all of the 380 jobs, given the scale of the site. The Planning policies exist if the will and determination are there. The Parish Council currently demonstrates those qualities and has the necessary skills and experience to set the ball rolling in the right direction.
But this is a long job. Only within the next decade will the full import of the possibilities, the threats and the opportunities be realised. Within a year there will be a new Parish Council. In June a Government White Paper is likely to suggest a radically new framework for the District and County tiers of Local Government.