Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

A work in progress with no end in sight


The story of canning, fish in particular, and why young herrings can no longer be called sardines, either in the United Kingdom or Europe.


The initial imperative that led to canned food was military. As C.L. Cutting points out in Fish Saving (1955), Marlborough’s army at Blenheim in 1704 numbered only 54,000 men, who could almost live off the land. Napoleon invaded Russia in 1811 with over a million, and a highly organized food commissariat was required.

Nicholas Appert

In 1795, a prize of 12,000 francs was offered by the French Directory for a means of preserving not just food, but a significant proportion of original taste and texture. Nicholas Appert won the award in 1809 for a bottling process.

The Book for All Households, or the Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years, which he published in 1810, was translated into English the following year. Appert was supplying the French government by 1814 and preserved fish was among the products.

The Dutch were already selling salted, juniper-smoked potted salmon in tinned-iron boxes and in 1810, the British merchant Peter Durand speculatively patented a tin-plate container, which could be adapted for Appert’s new technique.

When applying for an American patent in 1818, Durand coined the term tin canister, from the Greek word κάναστρου, meaning a basket of reeds – something regularly used for holding foodstuffs in the early C19th.

The Americans & The French

From 1819 Thomas Kensett and Ezra Dagget began preserving seafood in New York, later extending the business to Baltimore. They patented an improvement to the canning process in 1825. From the early 1820s William Underwood was preserving salmon, lobster and other products in Boston.

Canisters became cans in 1839, an abbreviation introduced by Underwood’s book-keepers.

The Maine or Brunswick Sardine, first successfully canned in 1876 by Julius Wolff and Herman Ressing in Eastport, Maine, is an immature Atlantic herring, just as European sardines are immature pilchards. All sardines from the North American Atlantic coast are herrings that were renamed in order to break into the market developed from the 1820s by Joseph Colin in the French Atlantic port of Nantes.

The French sardine canneries spread to Brittany, but then, in search of more reliable supplies, to Portugal and Morocco. Wolff and Ressing’s breakthrough led to a rapid expansion of canneries along the coasts of Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

In 1871 immature menhaden, a gastronomically unpopular species of the Clupeidae, were marketed in New Jersey as shadines, but it didn’t catch on.

In 1874, A.K. Shriver of Baltimore had come up with a steam kettle, using superheated water, which by maintaining pressure outside the can prevented bursting. In 1900, Joseph Sutton Clark invented the can opened with a key, but it wasn’t until 1932, in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, that Henry T. Austin developed the iconic sardine tin with a detachable key.

Ring-pulls have now superseded this wonder of twentieth century technology, but Blacks Harbour is home to Connors Bros., the largest ‘sardine’ cannery in the world, a business begun with fruit, clams and scallops in 1885. It was the Brunswick Sardine and a commitment to mechanisation that transformed the fortunes of Lewis and Patrick Connors.

Legal wrangles over what may or may not be called a sardine long predate the establishment of the European Community. During the Second World War, Britain was happy to import Maine or Brunswick sardines under any name the producers liked, but even before the war it had accepted the French case which underpin EU rules:

In the case of hermetically sealed canned sardine and sardine-type products, only fish of the species Sardina pilchardus can be marketed (labelled) in the EU as ‘Sardine’. Sardine-type species can only be marketed (labelled) under a trade description consisting of the word ‘Sardines’ joined together with the scientific name of the species. A description of these marketing standards, and the species of fish subject to them are found in the Commission Regulation (EC) No 1181/2003 of 2 July 2003 laying down common marketing standards for preserved sardines.

My Life By Angus Watson

Angus Watson

My grandfather gave me a signed copy of My Life by Angus Watson. It’s one of those books which probably only survives in signed copies. It sat unread on various bookshelves for maybe 40 years and, one day, my wife was insisting on a clear-out of unwanted books. I put My Life by Angus Watson in the crate for the Oxfam shop.

Several months later my wife and I were visiting the Norwegian Canning Museum in Stavanger. Suddenly, I was looking at the story of how Angus Watson, a grocery entrepreneur from North East England, had transformed Stavanger’s herring canning industry. I swore I would never throw away another book. I tried second hand book searches online, but it was no use.

A few years later, searching for another book on our overloaded shelves, hiding behind a pile of other volumes, there it was. I had put it in the crate, but then, obviously, I had thought again. There is such a thing as redemption.

The Skipper Brand

Watson had been shown a can of Norwegian Sardines by a Tyneside grocer. He doesn’t date the incident, but it seems to have been in the late 1890s. The fish, though crudely packed, were dainty and attractive. They were small sprats or brisling. They were cheaper than French or Portuguese sardines. Watson suggested that it might be worth going over to see the Norwegian canners, but his employer wasn’t keen. Watson bought a frock coat and a silk hat and went himself.

Helping the Norwegians develop their production capacity, by the early 1900s he had his own Tyneside business and was putting his mind to marketing the tins for which he was the sole international representative. Together with a colleague he hit upon Skipper as a brand name and, on a visit to London, saw what was to become the brand image in a photographer’s window in Oxford Street.

The Sardine Litigation

In his autobiography, Watson spends a few pages recollecting the case which lasted from 1911 to 1915.

It was in the seventh year of the business that we became involved in litigation which caused much interest at the time, and became known as the ‘Sardine Litigation.’ To explain the issue fully it is necessary briefly to outline what the question involved really was, it being limited to the United Kingdom alone, and it may be mentioned here that the same issue was raised unsuccessfully by the French canners in one or more of the minor courts in France, In Washington, U.S.A., and in Victoria, South Australia.

The process of making sardines almost certainly dates back to the period of early Greece, when historians referred to this product as a dish prepared by the pouring of boiling olive oil over small tunny fish, after which they were served as a delicacy at the royal tables.

More than a hundred years ago the French nation began packing sardines on commercial lines, no doubt using the name ‘sardine’ because they first caught the fish off the coast of Sardinia. There is a diversity of opinion as to what fish was actually used, but there is little doubt that they were pilchards, a small fish which is scientifically known as the Clupea Pilchardus, being one of a small class of fish which are described as ‘Clupeoids’, because they collect their food by swimming through the sea with their mouths open, filtering the food through their gills from the sea-water.

The Clupeoids may be divided into three main classes – the Clupeoid Pilchardus, the Clupeoid Harengus and the Clupeoid Sprattus; the first including pilchards of various kinds, the second some twenty-six different varieties of herrings, and the third some six or seven different types of sprats. In some cases different kinds of small mackerel were also used for the manufacture of sardines, including a well-known one called ‘Chinchard’ which is caught in the Mediterranean. Included in this mackerel group is the red mullet, and some authorities consider that this fish was the first used in the making of sardines by the Greeks, the word being derived from the Greek word ‘sard’ meaning ‘red’, as for example in ‘sardine stone’, which is, of course, a red stone.

The French canners themselves at one time used several varieties of fish in their process of canning, but the pilchard was in later years generally claimed by them as the true sardine, although no fish has this name scientifically applied to it, the term being loosely used in different parts of the world to denote a number of varieties of small fishes. Indeed, there is caught in the Sea of Galilee, a small fish which is so named by the local fishermen. There is also a fish called ‘sardine’ caught off the coast of Peru and also in the St. Lawrence River. I write from memory, but I’m nearly sure that at the first Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace ninety years or so ago there were exhibited tins of sardines from Canada – caught in the St Lawrence – which certainly were not pilchards. This was – I write again from memory – proved by the catalogues of the Exhibition which were put in as evidence. I have not now the catalogues to verify this.

When the Norwegian industry became a formidable competitor to the French and Portuguese packs, they decided to attempt to limit by law the application of the name only to sardines manufactured from pilchards, and as the attempt to set up this standard was first made by them in Great Britain we were involved in testing the question through litigation.

The Norwegian canners were using for their process a small fish, extremely plentiful in the Norwegian fjords during the summer-time, called ‘brisling’ (a member of the Clupeoid Sprattus family), this fish owing the delicacy and richness of its flavour to a minute crustacea which is found in enormous quantities in the fjords and upon which the brisling feed. Here was an issue entirely after the heart of the lawyers: it was a very involved scientific question and there was no fixed standard applied by which it could be tested.

Broadly speaking, the case of the French canners, who were subsidised by the French Government, was that the term ‘ sardine’ could only be legally applied to sardines made from pilchards. The Norwegian case was that the term was not applied to a fish (which was indeed true), but to a process of manufacture in which a large number of different fish were used.

One morning our Company was served with a summons to appear at the Guildhall in London to answer a charge under the Merchandise Marks Act of applying the term ‘sardine’ to a product which was incorrectly so described. At the time I did not regard the issue at all seriously, for I knew that we were carrying on an industry that had been conducted on the same lines without change since the late ‘seventies, and when our solicitors began the necessary trade enquiries there appeared to be ample evidence throughout the country with which to support our interpretation of the facts.

After an interval our defence was prepared, and a great deal of trade and scientific evidence on both sides was given at the first hearing. The issue was a long-drawn-out one, lasting more than three months, but at the end of that time a verdict was given in our favour on a technical point. It then remained for the French canners to renew their action if they desired to do so, and this they did again in the London Courts, when after a protracted hearing the verdict was given against the Norwegian canners. We decided to appeal against this decision, and a third hearing was begin at the London Quarter Sessions before Sir Robert Wallace. He gave an unqualified verdict in our favour.

But that was not the end of the case, for the French canners again brought the issue to the Divisional Court, as they had the right to do, and it came before Lord Reading (Lord Chief Justice), Mr. Justice Darling and Mr. Justice Avory. This fourth hearing took place in July 1915, each of the judges deciding in favour of the French canners, though Mr. Justice Darling expressed some doubt. There was no further appeal on this decision.

Although the various hearings were both tedious and exhausting there were several amusing interludes in the arid wastes of expert evidence given during the trial.

On one occasion a scientific witness was in the box, when Mr. Walter, K.C., our leader, rose to cross-examine him. He began by reading an extract from a text-book on the subject, without disclosing its title. The article conflicted strongly with the evidence that the witness had just given.

‘What is your view of that article?’ enquired Counsel.

‘It is sheer nonsense,’ replied the witness.

‘I gather you do not agree with the writer.’ said Mr. Walter.

‘Not at all,’ replied the witness, ‘he obviously has never given any study to the subject.’

‘Would you be surprised to hear that he claims to have expert knowledge on the question?’ queried Counsel.

‘I don’t care what he claims.’ said the witness, ‘I only know that he is entirely wrong in his conclusions.’

Counsel paused for a moment, and then handed a slip of paper to the expert in the box.

‘Look at that,’ he thundered, ‘ it is the receipt for the payment of this article, and you have signed it, for the article was written by you.’

The witness retired.

It is only fair to say that he had long forgotten the existence of this contribution, written years before.

Another expert witness was giving evidence, and Mr. Walter again rose to cross-examine him.

‘I understand that you claim to have an intimate knowledge of this subject,’ he enquired.

‘Yes, certainly,’ was the reply.

‘Well, then, will you tell the learned Judge how many links there are in the spine of a pilchard?’

The witness hesitated, and then frankly admitted that he did not know.

‘Very well, let me try once more and see what you know. How many scales are there on the back of a herring?’

Again the witness confessed his ignorance.

‘You surprise me,’ said Counsel, ‘Then can you tell me the approximate number of eggs in the roe of a mackerel?’

‘I cannot give a true estimate as to that,’ said the witness.

‘And you come here claiming to be an expert,’ said Mr. Walter, throwing down his papers and resuming his seat.

Another witness for the French canners was the managing director of a series of stores, who asserted that the young pilchard alone was the true sardine. Whilst he was giving evidence in chief we obtained a tin of sardines from one of his stores near the court, and on its being opened by one of our scientific witnesses he declared the contents to be small herring, though labelled sardines and with a French label. During his cross-examination by Mr. Walter the latter handed the opened tin to him and asked if he – the witness – considered they were correctly described as sardines. He replied in the affirmative, and on being informed by Mr. Walter they had just been purchased at one of his stores and the contents were young herring, he was obliged to admit that he did not know the difference, and he thought his Company were right in selling them as sardines.

It should be added that Counsel for the French canners disputed the contents as herring but did not call evidence to support this, whilst our scientific witness could not be shaken on the point when he gave evidence.

I always found dialogue of this description interesting and amusing, until I remembered that it was costing us about £500 a day!

The Magistrate who took the first case died before the second hearing: Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett (the father of the distinguished Counsel of the same name who died recently) died during the second hearing: Sir John Dickinson, the chief Magistrate, who followed him, died shortly after the resumed hearing: one of the Counsel briefed committed suicide: one of the witnesses died a violent death.

I was in the witness-box on four occasions under cross-examination for seven hours, and was glad to escape with my life. I have suffered from what the doctors call ‘migraine’ at intervals ever since.

This issue, which was continued for four years, and which involved, in all, the hearing of evidence from more than a hundred witnesses, at a cost to ourselves of some £50,000, settled the matter finally. The Norwegian canners contributed £20,000 towards the costs, and the Norwegian King very graciously decorated me with the First Class Order of St. Olaf in recognition of this long and trying litigation.

Curiously enough, this action had the effect of very considerably increasing our sales, and except for the fact that it made great demands both on my time and energy, the outcome of it could only be regarded as favourable to our business. None-the-less, I was more than satisfied when the issue was finally disposed of.

Brisling, Sild, Sardine

Tinned Norwegian sprats in this country became Brisling, their tinned herring Sild. Fresh pilchards tend to be sold in this country now as sardines. In 1961 Angus Watson & Co merged with two other canned fish businesses to form John West, who continue to sell brisling as Skippers.

The French canners didn’t pursue things in other countries and, until the standardisation that came with the EC and then the EU, the UK and France were the only countries which enforced the distinction. The Americans still call their tinned herrings sardines.

Wild Scottish Sardines, Katoomba, Australia, which may or may not have been caught in Scotland’s little known pilchard fishery…

My Grandfather and Angus Watson

Reading My Life it became clear that my grandfather, who in the 1930s had the post office in Rothbury, had met Angus Watson there. Watson had retired to the small Northumberland town. My grandfather had given the book to me clearly thinking Watson would be a good example, because, like my grandfather, he was a teetotaller.

I also realised that with his shipping contacts he had been the person who, when my father was expelled from school at 16 for drinking and playing billiards beneath Newcastle’s City Hall, had found him a berth in the merchant navy. And it was as an injured merchant seaman in the World War II that he met my mother, who was a nurse. So Angus Watson was in some way responsible for this encyclopaedia.