A colourful and fascinating exhibition at Experience Barnsley Museum in 2019 was a new opportunity to explore the objects, archives and stories behind an iconic Barnsley company. Alison Cooper, curator of the exhibition ‘Tins! Tins! Tins! Lifting the Lid on the Barnsley Canister Company’ traces the company’s story from the factory opening in 1919 to its final days in 1992.
From a War to a Peace Factory
Before tins were made at the Canister Company site, workers were producing munitions at a factory there during the First World War (1914–1918). Following the end of the war, with permission from the Ministry of Munitions, Barnsley No 2 National Shell Factory on Sackville Street, was sold at auction as a ‘going concern’ for the value of £14,000 (approx. £400,000 today). It was registered as the Barnsley Canister and Engineering Co. Ltd and opened its doors on 22 May 1919. At the time the company expected to employ 150 employees and agreed that 80% of these would be women to ensure the female workforce from the munitions factory were kept in work.
Boom Time for British Manufacturing
By 1920, the British economy was badly bruised by the cost of war but a pride in British manufacturing flourished. Materials such as sheet metal could now be used for desirable packaging for commercial products and just two years after starting production, the factory showed a profit of £5,695.8s.9d,(approx. £165,000 today). The company was employing ‘upwards of 280 workpeople from the town and out-districts’, but some workers were unable to find a place to live. In June 1920 the company asked if part of ‘Lund Wood Hospital’ could be used temporarily to house families. Barnsley Council agreed and money received would be shared amongst the Borough on the assurance that the hospital would be vacated on the outbreak of smallpox.
A Royal Year Despite All Odds
The 1930s began under the cloud of The Great Depression, a global economic decline. Britain was far from recovered from the effects of the First World War with heavy industry greatly affected. By the summer of 1932 the number of registered unemployed was 3.2 million. Despite the economic situation, Barnsley Canister Company was as busy as ever as demand for tins was high. At the time, tin cans were the only way to keep food fresh or to protect its contents. In 1935, sales of tins and scrap rose to a massive £108,000, (approx. £5.5 million today), a surge possibly created by the demand for tins commemorating the Silver Jubilee Anniversary of King George V and Queen Mary.
Doing Their Bit!
During the Second World War the company produced anti-tank mine casings, respirator canisters for the troops and containers for gas mask demisters. Social occasions continued raising funds for Barnsley’s Fighter Aircraft, YMCA appeal and Barnsley Warship Week. On 17 August 1941, The Barnsley Chronicle reported that ‘Barnsley “Feast” week would be a curtailed holiday on account of War Time conditions and the need for production being as little interfered with as possible’… It is likely that parts of the factory were used as a Home Guard Watch for aircraft spotting. Trevor Wilkes remembers fondly the time of the ‘sample room’ expansion: ‘We went through a wall and it was like an attic room over 40ft long and we found ARP hard hats all hung up in a row – Red Watch, Green Watch’. The Barnsley Juvenile Employment Committee placed 139 girls in employment at the factory and by the end of 1945 over 400 people were working there.
Since opening in 1919 the company’s work force had been mainly women. This ethos continued throughout the entire life span of the factory. Roles for women were mainly in the offices, canteen, or on the ‘shop floor’, on a ‘line’ working as a team to piece together the products. In the 1960s, women were beginning to gain more independence from the traditional domestic role. At a time when married women gave up work to look after the home, flexible shifts were made available which enabled a female work force to do both. In 1962, one month’s basic pay for a woman was £6 (£125 in today’s money). During the 1960s the factory employed over 500 people, 90% of whom were women. It would take another 20 years before a woman would hold a place in the boardroom, when Jane Forsyth became Director in 1980.
Prosperity Built on Tin
The 1970s saw more economic difficulty across the world with a series of energy crises caused by oil supply problems from the Middle East. In the UK the early years of the decade were marked by strikes, power cuts and rapid inflation. Yet the Canister Company saw its work force grow to over 700 employees and a brand new factory built in Wombwell to cope with the fit to burst order book. The new factory would be the main production site for Twinings Tea, a ‘massive customer’ placing ‘thousands and thousands of orders of different blends with exotic names’. Generally male employees took on the heavier roles or worked as artists. When the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 was introduced it meant jobs previously carried out by women were open for anyone to apply. In 1975 the company employed ’12 males to work as press operators and cutters’. By 1977 Florence McNichol, shop floor supervisor, stated ‘I don’t think men can adapt to that type of job. There is only 1 of those 12 males left now’.
From Gift Ware to Home Ware
In the 1980s the factory’s biggest customer by far was an American packaging company called Daher. Also known as The Tin Box Company of America, it is still located on Long Island, New York. Every Monday morning a container load of tins would be packed up bound for the USA. The introduction of Tupperware® and plastic containers in the 1970s meant the company needed new initiatives to remain market leaders. ‘Baret Ware’ was introduced to bring affordable homeware to the consumer. Top artists were commissioned for bespoke projects, including household names such as Jill Barklem, designer of Brambly Hedge, illustrator Gillian Tyler and American designer, Dana Kubick. Gold awards for design and quality were rolling in from packaging and giftware associations including the Hunkydory Bears, French company Charcuterie Alsacienne, and Baret Ware.
End of an Era
In early 1990 Laurence Pritchard and his team of designers were given the prestigious commission to develop a series of tins for the British Museum. The designers studied the sarcophagus at the Museum to ensure each marking on the original was exactly replicated onto the tins themselves. Fourteen operations were used to manufacture the intricately designed tins which won ‘Gold’ in the Metal Packaging Manufacturers Association’s ‘Best In Metal Awards’.
Sadly, these tins were the last to be produced in the factory. CMB, a multi-national packaging company had acquired a controlling interest in 1989. On 22 November 1991, The Barnsley Chronicle announced a ‘shock closure’ and the loss of 206 jobs with CMB blaming a sharp drop in promotional packaging sales due to the recession. Although CMB had a national annual turnover of approximately £100m it was felt the premises and equipment were the least effective forcing it to close. Barnsley Trade Union Council organised a demo to raise awareness of how the closure would affect industrial Barnsley.
By May 1992, there were just a handful of employees left to clear out the remains of what was once a vibrant, friendly workplace. One tin of each design was packed up and placed into three separate containers that would be distributed to CMB head offices in Wales, France and Carlisle.
You can listen to the Tins! Tins! Tins! podcast here: