Bryan Donkin, the world's first canmaker

2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the first canmaking and canning plant being established and Bryan Donkin helped make it happen.

Many people contributed to the development of preserved foods in the early years of the 19th century as demand for healthy and nutritious provisions increased from armies, navies and expeditions which were engaged in wars in Europe and exploration around the world.

Frenchman Nicolas Appert first showed that meat and vegetables could be preserved safely for long periods in bottles and published his work in L’Art de Conserver soon after being awarded an ‘encouragement’ of 12,000 francs (about £500 at the time) from the French government early in 1810.

Possibly having been inspired by Appert’s work, another Frenchman, Phillipe de Girard, started experimenting with preserving food, not in glass bottles but in iron canisters and, no doubt because of the difficulty of registering new innovations in his home country, engaged a London-based agent, Peter Durand, who filed an English patent covering the techniques on 25 August 1810.

Many in the canmaking industry regard this patent as the moment when canned foods as we know them were conceived, and the event was celebrated with a series of articles on the history of canmaking in The Canmaker magazine in 2010-2011.

Durand’s contribution didn’t end with the registering of the patent, because he went on to publish an English version of Appert’s work which alerted many others to the potential opportunities it presented.

One of the first to grasp its importance was English engineer Bryan Donkin, who acquired the Durand patent in 1811 and started experimenting with food preservation techniques. Within two years in 1813 he collaborated with two business colleagues and formed a company to manufacture canned foods in south London.

Research by The Canmaker and others has revealed that the creation of the company was early in May 1813, so the 200th anniversary of the world’s first commercial canmaking and canning operation starting up was in May 2013.

The canmaking and canning industry therefore owes something of a debt to Bryan Donkin. Some might say that canned foods would have been developed in due course, and there is no doubt that the industrialisation of canned food techniques would have been slower but for the enterprise of food growers and businessmen in North America.

But Donkin’s connections advanced the early stages of the process, with Royal approval accelerating awareness of the benefits of canned foods in the corridors of power, leading to significant orders from the British Admiralty.

While it would be easy to call Donkin the father of canmaking and canning, and for some that would be enough for posterity, such a title would fail to do him justice.

An energetic and broad-based engineer, Donkin’s work was also key to the development of metal pen knibs, textiles, paper making machinery, road and bridge building, tunnelling and canal construction. He became a member of the Royal Society of Arts and a founding member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, through which he rose to be vice president.

Donkin was born at Sandhoe in Northumberland in 1768, and from an early age had an interest in mechanics, setting up his own workshop. Donkin was initially trained as a surveyor by his father John who was a land agent for the Duke of Northumberland.

He moved south to Kent and worked for four years as a land agent for the Duke of Dorset at Knowle Park near Sevenoaks before at the age of 24 being apprenticed to John Hall, a millwright in Dartford who was installing machinery at paper mills.

Donkin, who later married the sister of Hall’s wife, became involved with the development of a patent covering continuous paper-making machines, which had been brought from France by John Gamble and exploited by associates of a London stationary firm run by the Fourdrinier brothers.

In 1802, the Foudriniers leased a works at Fort Place, Blue Anchor Road (since renamed Southwark Bridge Road) in Bermondsey (shown on maps of the time as a ‘engine manufactory’) and later transferred the lease to Donkin who by 1810 had made around 18 machines. From Donkin’s accounts the Bermondsey works did well the following year in 1811, making a profit of more than £2,200 under his direction.

That year, Donkin arranged to buy the Durand patent No3372 for £1,000, and using Appert’s techniques started experimenting with the preservation of foods. In May 1812 his diaries show that he had been cooking and sealing milk, soups and meats, firstly in ‘white jars’ and later in tinned wrought-iron containers. These would have been made using established tinsmith skills including soldered assembly, which until then had been used for making fancy goods and ‘toys’. Tinplate containers had also been used for packing cooked fish in fats, though without heat preservation.

Samples of his canned foods were sent to key figures in the military and early in 1813 Donkin received a letter on behalf of Lord Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) which said that his Lordship found the preserved beef “very good”. Canned foods that had been sent in January 1813 to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, had been opened and consumed, and the contents were “declared by the unanimous vote of the party present … to be in a perfect state of preservation, and had not lost any nutritious qualities”.

It was time for Donkin to properly establish the canning business, and he took out a mortgage with John Hall and John Gamble to expand the factory at Fort Place to accommodate the operations. Study of Donkin’s journal shows that ownership of the Durand patent wasn’t completed until Friday, 30 April 1813 when he paid his lawyer “£15 on account of his bill for the transfer of the patent for the preservation of animal and other food etc”.

The following Monday, 3 May 1813, he records that “Mr Hall called today at the same time with Mr Ackland the butchers to whom he gave a check for £100 on account of the preservatory”. That same day they decided to have new business cards engraved in the name of ‘Donkin, Hall & Gamble’ and started setting up a network of agents for their products.

A month later in June, two ‘cases of meat’ were shown to directors of the East India Company who “expressed themselves highly pleased with it and promised to recommend it”.

However, no better recommendation could have been obtained than from British Royalty. On 28 June 1813 Donkin and Gamble travelled to Kensington Palace where, according to Donkin’s journal, they “opened some of our provisions before his Royal Highness the Duke of Kent, the Prince Regent, who examined and tasted the meat and milk”. The Duke of Kent (pictured in 1816 right) would become King George IV in 1820 on the death of his father George III.

Donkin wrote: “He declared both to be perfectly good and seemed highly pleased with the discovery. He requested us to send him a case of every kind of food we had [put] up”.

Two days later a letter arrived from the Prince Regent’s secretary Tom Parker at Kensington Palace which Donkin recorded thus:

“I am commanded by the Duke of Kent to acquaint you with his Royal Highness having yesterday procured the introduction of some of your patent beef on the Duke of York’s table where it was tasted by the Queen, the Prince Regent and several distinguished personages and highly approved. He wishes us to furnish him with some of your printed papers in order that His Majesty and many other individuals may according to their wish expressed have an opportunity of further proving the merits of the thing for general adoption.”

Donkin, Hall & Gamble, and canned foods, had arrived. The first canning and canmaking factory was in action and began supplying the Admiralty for a number of expeditions, many exploring the North West Passage in the Arctic to the Pacific. The canned foods would have been too expensive for general consumption as revealed in a later catalogue of products published by John Gamble, and shipment contracts. The average cost of the canned foods was 2s 4½d per pound, making the cost of most of the canned products around 10 shillings, or more than the weekly wage of a labourer at the time.

In 1821, Donkin, who had continued to pursue his successful papermaking machinery developments amongst other enterprises including the air pumps which are made by the company in Chesterfield that maintains his name, wound up his association with Hall & Gamble, who then expanded the range of canned foods, and later in 1830 moved the company to Ireland.

The Bermondsey works that were the cradle of canmaking were used for a number of Donkin’s engineering activities which continued until at least 1893 before moving north to Chesterfield where the company that bears his name still operates. The Fort Place factory site was redeveloped and became a school and playing fields that are now the Harris Academy. A plaque was mounted on the school’s gatehouse in 1960 commemorating the site as the location of the world’s first canning plant (although incorrectly dating it as 1812).

Donkin’s eminence as an engineer – he worked with among others Marc Brunel, father of I K Brunel – culminated in his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1838: of his six sons, John (1802-1854), Bryan (1809-1893) and Thomas (1819-1894) followed him into the engineering profession.

Retiring in 1848, Donkin died in 1855 and was buried in the family memorial at Nunhead Cemetary in south London.