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Mitchell Families Online

genealogy of my mitchell families - and a lot more besides!

The Harris Family's Bacon Empire!

... a crackling good story!

The Wiltshire town of Calne's best known industry was the Harris Pork processing facility that dominated the town architecturally and provided employment directly and indirectly to many of the residents until the early 1980's. At its closure in 1983, for example, it employed over 2,000 people out of a town population of 10,000. At it's peak, each week, C&T Harris (Calne) Ltd processed 5000 pigs and produced 100 tons of meat pies, 150 tons of sausages, 50 tons of cooked meats and 70 tons of canned and miscellaneous products! Anyone born in the UK between 1775 and 1975 will probably be familiar with the Harris family, perhaps without realising it! If you ate pork products like sausages, bacon and pork pies, then you will, with all likelihood, have eaten the produce of Harris' factories. This hugely successful family business was producing pork products for the best part of 200 years, and this is their story.....

Sarah Harris founded Harris' in 1770. Even before then, pigs were being imported from Ireland and surrounding farms. Pigs from Ireland arrived by ship in Bristol and then were walked by drovers all the way to London. Calne was a convenient stop on the long walk and this was one factor in the success of Calne as a market town. Sarah's son James, became a civil servant but his twin brother Henry, married Sophia Perkins in 1813 and managed Perkins Family Grocery and Butchers in Butcher's Row, Calne. The childless couple looked after at least 4 of Henry's older brother John's children. In fact, upon their death, the business was willed to their nephew, George Harris.

John Harris married Mary Perkins in 1808 and opened a butcher's shop and bacon curHarris Brothersing business in Calne High Street. They had 12 children, most of whom were to become involved in the bacon curing and /or pork products business. (To see who they all were, click here). Notable exceptions to sons following in the family business were eldest son Joseph and second son Henry. After starting a career as a Master Butcher, Joseph became a farmer in Gloucestershire, whilst Henry became a successful cheese factor in Buckinghamshire.

John Harris died at a young age in 1837, and his wife Mary continued to run the business until eventually handing it over to her sons, Charles (Picture 1, right) and Thomas (Picture 2, far right). Charles and Thomas were to become the driving force of the business in the years that followed. Thomas Harris married Sophia Mitchell in 1855 but sadly she died in 1864. Four years later, in 1868, Thomas married Elizabeth Tarrant.

Harris' had become famous for their ability to stay ahead of developing technology. They introduced the "sweet cure process" which resulted in sweet bacon, a refreshing change from salted. However, by 1847 the potato famine in Ireland had resulted in a huge reduction in the availability of pigs and this called for drastic action.

George Harris undertook a bold trip to the USA to investigate the possibility of breeding pigs there for export to the UK. This was to prove impracticable but before leaving America, George was interested to see the use of ice to preserve meat. Realising the implications of being able to process meat all year round, he took the idea back to England. On his second visit to the USA, George took his brother Charles and a number of other bacon curing experts.

Upon his return to England, George built an "ice house" at the rear of his shop in Calne High Street and shortly after, his brother Thomas did the same. The ice house was to become a successful addition to the business, not only for the processing of Harris' own products, but because their competitors had to pay to use the facility! Ice wasn't manufactured in those days of course - well not by machine anyway. It was cut from frozen ponds in the winter and stored in the heavily insulated ice house. A huge step forward took place in 1887 however, when Harris' became one of the first to install a fully mechanical refrigeration plant.

After the deaths of Henry and Sophia, Charles and George became partners in Butcher's Row, Calne. Both brothers were well known bacon curers and their process had become known as "The Wiltshire Cure". Their brother Thomas, had also expanded his business in the High Street. George took his sister's son, Thomas Edward Redman, into the business in 1861 and to gain experience, he worked in all departments. George saw his potential and made him Business Manager of his shop.

After George's death in 1861 - the business having been willed to his partner and brother Charles - Thomas and Charles became partners. However, they maintained their own separate shops until they officially amalgamated in 1888 and became known as "Charles & Thomas Harris & Co Ltd" and later as "C & T Harris (Calne) Ltd". By then, Charles had already died (1871). Some years later, Charles' sons, Herbert James and Henry William decided to withdraw from business life. This left only Thomas who maintained his position as the driving force of the business until his retirement in 1907.

Thomas was a great benefactor to the town of Calne. He gave it it's recreation ground in 1891 and in 1896, the enclosure and planting of the Central Gardens. He held the position of Mayor of Calne five times and retired as a Justice of the Peace.

As a result of the Harris business success, in 1863 the railway came to Calne. This provided both passenger transport and much needed freight transport and marshalling yards for the import and export of Harris' products. The entrance to Station road and the station and yards was almost opposite the Harris' factories. The line was closed in 1965 after 102 years of service, having achieved the dubious distinction of making the biggest loss per mile of track of any line in the country!C&T Harris (Calne) Ltd

In 1919, Harris's were operating their own power station and producing electricity not just for the factory, but for the town of Calne too, until 1948.

Prior to the 1920's, Harris' had operated from not much more than tin sheds. Now it was time for some serious expansion! Factory No.1 and Factory No.2 were built furbishing extensive modern machinery and equipment for the time. The photograph (right) was taken in 1932. The wing in the right of the photograph was built in 1919/20 and the wing on the left nearing completion on 5 July 1932. In 1929-30, a factory to process the by-products of the bacon industry was built near the station and a cattle market was set up beside it. Almost all the residents of Calne will remember the horrendous smell that this factory produced and although expanded in 1939, public protest resulted in it's closure and demolition in the early 1960's.

The Farmers Meat Company Ltd was first incorporated in 1960 with an authorised share capital of £100. In 1962, on acquiring the business of The Fatstock Marketing Corporation Ltd., it became a public company and changed its name to FMC Ltd. Becoming a public company in 1962 provided access to much needed funds to acquire the businesses of Marsh & Baxter and it's now subsidiary, C & T Harris (Calne) Ltd. The meat stock industry as a whole suffered badly from rising costs brought about by increasing regulation. Despite a £1M investment in the Harris business in Calne, FMC decided to close down the business in 1981 with the loss of the jobs of 20% of the townspeople of Calne. With a backdrop of huge unemployment and the social issues brought about as a result, the Harris factories were demolished in 1984 to make way for a massive redevelopment of the town centre. Calne continued to decline for many years but now, it faces a promising future as a modern 21st century town.

Acknowledgements:

Sincere thanks for the photographs and for the help provided by Sue Boddington and the Calne Heritage Centre