A piece of meat

By Juliana Adelman

Today I sat down to an unexpectedly exciting read.  In 1891 Daniel Tallerman published a slim volume entitled “Railway abattoirs” and other papers relating to meat distribution.  Not everyone’s cup of tea, but Tallerman was a gold mine for me.  Finally here was someone who wrote about the livestock and meat trade as though the reader would know NOTHING!  Frustratingly, it wasn’t just the primary source literature on meat that assumed levels of knowledge I did not have.  Even historians seemed to think that I would know something beyond the fact that beef and pork come from different animals.  I was beginning to think I would have to apprentice myself to a butcher for a week (although that’s probably not a bad idea either).

But why oh why should I care about a piece of meat?  By the 1890s, Ireland was exporting over one million animals annually to feed booming British towns and most of them passed through Dublin.  Meanwhile, in Chicago, refrigeration and the disassembly line had turned a cattle distribution centre into a ‘dead meat’ one almost overnight.  American meat was even shipped to Britain.  [The image is from the Chicago stockyards].  Curiously, the Irish trade remained almost immune to these changes.  Instead, Irish cattle were shipped to Britain where they were often ‘finished’ (grazed or stall fed for a final fattening) and then sold as Scottish or English animals for slaughter.  I’m still trying to understand exactly why this happened, in complete contradiction to what happened almost everywhere else.  I suspect it was a combination of economic and cultural factors, not least of all the power, influence and conservatism of the Irish cattle salesmasters.

Like a good Victorian, Tallerman was appalled by the waste and inefficiency he saw as inherent in this system.  He calculated that Irish beasts lost more than 37,000,000 pounds of flesh in the stress of transit thereby depreciating in value by over £1 million.  There were also losses in terms of manure not recycled to the farm and offal discarded or sold off cheaply in Britain.  His suggested remedy was to slaughter beasts as close to the farm as possible and then to process them by an intricate system, extracting every last bit of value.

Tallerman put his money where his mouth was by setting up ‘The Irish Meat Company’ in Dublin.  In a kind of model slaughterhouse he created a processing depot to produce prime cuts of dead meat for sale in London and cooked or preserved products such as spiced beef.  Not content to profit from his own enterprise, he proposed the creation of a teaching train to travel around the country spreading the new gospel.  The 14 car train was to exhibit the most efficient means of conducting each stage of processing an animal from slaughter to steak.

Contemporary advocates of ‘nose to tail’ eating would find much to admire in Tallerman’s zero waste system.  Reading it made me almost viscerally aware of the trail of refuse created by a single supermarket steak.  In case you are curious, here is how Tallerman suggested that a cow or ox should be processed:

1. Slaughter (collecting blood for later use)

2. Division of the carcass into prime cuts for roasting and everything else

3. Prime cuts sold to butchers

3. ‘Boiling joints’ and edible offal to be made into a number of products including sausages, soup bases and cured meats

4. Bones to be digested into their various mineral components for use as fertiliser

5. Hides to be tanned, horns and hoofs to be made into a number of products including glue, buttons, etc

6. Entrails cleaned for sausage skins and gut cord

7. Blood separated for conversion into albumen (used in a number of chemical processes, including photography) and fertilizer

Conor McCabe has written a piece on this trade in the twentieth century (which remained one in live animals) over on Dublin Opinion which you can read here.


19 Responses to “A piece of meat”

  1. Póló Says:

    It is really amazing how long the live cattle trade lasted. It was completely against our interests and I remember in the late 1950s and the1960s people strongly advocating doing all the processing within the State.

  2. bjg Says:

    Conor McCabe’s book *Sins of the Father* is also worth reading (although I felt his argument didn’t entirely hang together).

    As it happens, I’m looking at the not-quite-origins of the Irish livestock trade, and specifically at the Great Trade Route initiated in the 1830s, which used the new technology of the time (steam navigation) to carry agricultural produce from the west of Ireland, across the country and then the Irish Sea, to feed the starving citizens of Liverpool and Manchester (Britain was by then, IIRC, producing only 5/6 of the food it required, and most of its imports came from Ireland. That’s off the top of my head, though).

    Produce was carried from as far west as Kilrush and Tarbert, up the Shannon to Limerick, then by barge along the Shannon and Grand Canal (horse-drawn to Killaloe; steamer-drawn to Portumna and Shannon Harbour; horse drawn to Dublin; extra cargo being picked up along the way) before being loaded on to steamers for Liverpool. When cattle from Ballinasloe reached Liverpool in three days, without having set foot on dry land in between, it was sufficiently novel to be mentioned in the House of Commons. Transport at all stages was by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company.

    Peter Solar’s article *Shipping and Economic Development in nineteenth-century Ireland* (Economic History Review 2006) says that, at least in the early part of the century, cattle were often fattened in Leinster before being shipped; certainly steam made an enormous difference to the cost of shipping, the frequency with which ships sailed and thus the number of cargoes that could be carried in a year. (My favourite statistic is that in 1850 Liverpool received 90 million eggs from Ireland.) Steam allowed Ireland to become integrated into the UK economy, an agricultural region taking (many of) its manufactures from Britain.

    Roger Scola, in *Feeding the Victorian City*, has a paragraph (p62) that may be more immediately relevant to your concerns, and may suggest that conservatism was not confined to this side of the Irish Sea:

    “There were sound economic reasons why the live trade was preferred by railway companies and traders alike. On the whole, it was cheaper to send the same quantity of meat live rather than dead, for the simple reason, as the cattle traffic manager of the London and North Western pointed out, that it ‘loads and unloads itself’. But the main barrier to any dead-meat trade developing in Manchester was a reluctance on the part of local butchers to give up their customary practice of doing their own buying and slaughtering. As we shall see, it was for the same reason that a wholesale trade in meat was slow to develop in Manchester, and traditionally-minded butchers were even more wary of accepting meat that came from a distance in slaughtered form. They were, in this respect, quite unlike their fellows in the capital. […]”

    Ireland served (mostly) Liverpool and Manchester, and it may be that folk on both sides of the Irish Sea were happy with a long-standing arrangement that seemed to work well.

    Have you seen John O’Donovan “The economic history of live stock in Ireland” (Cork UP, 1940)? I haven’t been able to get hold of it as no public library in Ireland has a lending copy, alas.


  3. Póló Says:

    Slightly off topic. My relations used to send crates of eels to Billingsgate market in London from the Upper Ballyellin lock at Goresbridge. They manned the lock there and the eels were a lucrative sideline.

    This is Larry Medlar, who was raised on the lock, telling the story. It was recorded by his son in law on Larry’s 90th birthday in 1978. Larry died in 1986.
    [audio src="http://photopol.com/larry/lock.mp3" /]

    And this is the lock:

  4. Davoren Says:

    I’d be interested in knowing what is it about Dr. McCabe’s argument in Sins of the Father that doesn’t quite hang together. I haven’t read anything else by Dr. McCabe but I do know he’s a labour historian of some repute and it is obvious that his training and research in that area informs the work. I think it hangs together quite well. Also, it is immensely readable – and when was the last time we could say that about a history book on Irish economics?

  5. Davoren Says:

    By the way, Dr. McCabe makes an amusing, but entirely accurate, analogy between the cattle industry in Ireland and the car industry in Detroit. He devotes an entire chapter to the cattle industry, explaining that,

    ‘it is simply impossible to discuss the history of the Irish economy without discussing beef and live exports. Up until the 1980s, cattle was to Ireland what the car industry was to Detroit, and although the Irish Free State gained partial independence in 1922, its economy via the cattle industry remained intertwined with that of the United Kingdom.’

    This would seem to concur with your own point here, Juliana.

  6. bjg Says:

    Perhaps I shouldn’t make asides if they’re likely to result in my hijacking someone else’s thread and taking it in a different direction …. If Juliana doesn’t mind, I can expand on my views later, but for the moment I’ll just make three short points.

    First, I agree that the book is highly readable, and I’ve said so on my own blog.

    Second, I am not at all unsympathetic to the general thrust of Conor McCabe’s argument, and my own reading about the early years of the steam-carried livestock trade incline me to the view that (as I said above) Ireland was an agricultural region of the UK economy (which, to my mind, is not necessarily a Bad Thing).

    Third, in saying that the argument didn’t entirely hang together I didn’t mean that I found individual chapters unconvincing, but rather that the drawing together of the individual strands was the weak point. I would have liked the material in the Conclusion to be expanded into a full chapter with an integrated overview of the Irish economy as of (say) 2000, that chapter to be placed before the Bailout chapter. As it is, the link between, for instance, the Agriculture material (Ch 2) and the Bailout is not clear, and indeed the Ag coverage seems to stop around 1957. Even in the Conclusion we read of the dismissal of a policy that would create “a viable and profitable food-processing industry”, and we’re left with the impression that Larry Goodman (who is not in the index) never existed.

    I just like to see the nails hammered home fully. But I have been recommending the book to all and sundry.


  7. Juliana Says:

    I’m glad to have engendered some debate. I do request, however, that when opinions are expressed on a particular author or text that we move away from anonymity. This applies to either promoting or criticizing their work. That means you, Davoren and bjg!🙂

    I am happy to take bjg up on the offer of a piece on the Irish livestock/meat trade.


  8. bjg Says:

    I’m sorry if I appear to be anonymous. I too have a WordPress account, and commented on your blog by logging in to mine, so I didn’t realise I was unidentifiable. My name is Brian J Goggin. I am not in any way related to a former employee of the Bank of Ireland (save that both of us are having to get by on less than €2m a year). I write and edit stuff for a living. My main interest (from which, alas, I derive no income, although I hope to produce a book at some stage) is in inland steam navigation in Ireland in the 1830s and 1840s: not the boats and such but the economic, political, legal, technological, organisational, social and geographical context, much of which comes down to feeding Britain. I don’t know Conor McCabe (or any of the proprietors of this site); I bought his book, as a consumer, because I knew he was covering the livestock trade.

    Can you see my email address?


  9. Juliana Says:

    HI Brian: thanks for that! I just find in general that when people start discussing opinions on a particular author or text it is nice to have names. That way we can be sure (to some degree) that none of them is the author in disguise, etc. No need to give a bio, but much appreciated! And no, we can’t see your email address. That’s just required for spam filtering, I believe.

    Maybe you’d like to write us something on inland navigation sometime.


  10. bjg Says:

    Thanks, Juliana. I can see email addresses of folk who comment on my site, but maybe that’s the way I set it up …. It’s all a bit of a mystery to me: I don’t really understand the technology.

    I would be happy to write as much as you like (indeed more than you like) about anything I know about. I think I can see your email address on t’interweb so I’ll contact you direct to ask for guidance.


  11. John Derwin Says:

    Interesting comments from bjg, but if I may I think he has missed the point of the book. It is not a description of the development of the irish economy up to 2000, but an analysis of the decisions which shaped the economy. The agriculture chapter ends in the late 1950s as that is when the push towards foreign investment as the main plank in irish economic growth really takes place. It was the state of the economy in the 1950s – as well as the change in the needs and demands of the british economy – which saw the development of that tactic, one which gave rise to the developer class. McCabe’s decision to leave the story of irish agriculture at that point is ruthless but necessary. We know why the industrial grants and tax-breaks were given out, so time to move onto the next phase.

    The story of larry goodman et al, while interesting and, indeed, important in a general history of the irish economy, would almost be waffle given the focused terms of the book.

  12. bjg Says:

    @John Derwin: the problem is that, as I said, the threads are not drawn together: you have a set of disconnected descriptions. An achievement in itself, certainly, but I felt that there was an opportunity missed. bjg

  13. John Derwin Says:

    I find it hard to believe that you do not see the connections, as McCabe makes them quite clear in both the introduction and conclusion. He set out to explain why we have the elites we have, and he does it with aplomb. The reviews so far on the web have all been able to pick up on exactly what Dr. McCabe is saying, which makes it all the more curious as to why you are unable to do the same.

    You have read the book. yes?

  14. Patrick Maume Says:

    I have a research interest in the Irish Party MP William Field (who was the president of the Dublin Cattle Traders’ Association – he features in Ulysses addressing an indignation meeting about official precautionary measures against foot and mouth disease so this is all very interesting.
    The Cattle Traders’ weekly meetings (at a premises in Prussia Street) were reported in turn-of-the-century papers, so it might be a good idea to work through them systematically and see what sort of concerns they had. Field was also involved in a UK-wide publication called the MEAT TRADE JOURNAL, but I don’t know if any copies survive.

  15. Juliana Says:

    @Patrick: just seen these comments now. thanks for the great suggestions. I have been meaning to look at Ulysses for references to animals and animal trades. I suspect there is a 19th C version of the Cattle Traders’ association. Ciaran Wallace has done work on fin de siecle Dublin politicians and cattle men, butchers and publicans are foremost among them. I won’t be writing the definitive work on this subject, it certainly seems to only get bigger the more I look at it!

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  17. irish van importer Says:

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  18. Bacon and the art of living: Preface | Eben van Tonder Says:

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  19. eben van tonder Says:

    I love this article!! I love the pic! Ive read the booklet and you are right – its fascinating! Im researching the history of curing of meat (pork in particular) against the back drop of the development of the meat trade at the cape of Good Hope. (I live in Cape Town). – http://ebenvantonder.com/bacon-and-the-art-of-living-0/

    Im definitely using material from the booklet. The use of the offal as fertilizer! In Cape Town they buried it on the beach in the hope that the tide would take it away! Its amazing!

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