The British Refrigerated Meat Trade, 1880-1930

There were 8.2m city dwellers in Britain in 1850, dwarfing the 2.6m in the United States, and the 1.6m in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Ireland and Denmark combined. At the very peak of British self-confidence, when everything was going for Britain, the London carnivore was deeply unhappy. He had heard too much already about British innovation, about the so-called industrial revolution going on up north, and about the promised bounty of ghost acres. He just didn’t see it. What he really wanted was prime beef and the choicest lamb. No more animals could be fattened on British soil, even on imported grain. European lands were running out of surplus to ship to Britain on account of the growth of their own appetite. Denmark and Ireland were still reliable but both were as close to carrying capacity as the home counties. So … the ghost acres. The Londoner’s problem at mid-century was that livestock shipped 3000 miles from New York suffered significant erosion of quality and weight loss. Put bluntly, it was shit. It did even worse coming 16000 miles from the antipodes. Even the choicest cuts from imported livestock always sold at a significant negative premium against British prime. In any case, the settlement of the Anglo newlands had only just gotten underway.

Over the next half century, human and slaughter-animal (cattle, sheep and pigs) populations of Belich’s Anglo newlands (the American West, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) would triple, cleared cropland there would quadruple, and pasture would expand by a factor of seven. But most of the meat bounty was destined not for the plate of our insatiable Londoner; urban populations in the Anglo newlands also expanded by a factor of seven (pointedly more in Oceania than Canada). New York in particular developed a voracious appetite for Mid-Western meat, which would soon leave little left over for the mother trade. Deliverance for our hungry Londoner would come in the form of chilled prime beef from Argentina. But I am getting ahead of the story.

Vitals of the British Meat Trade.
Urban population (million)
Britain US CAN AID
1850 8.2 2.6 0.4 1.1
1900 17.4 17.5 2.6 3.4
Population (million)
1850 27.2 23.6 3.2 9.5
1900 41.2 76.4 10.0 11.7
Pasture (thousands of square km)
1850 10.8 26.7 0.7 12.8
1900 14.2 138.3 53.2 33.9
Cattle (million)
1850 2.9 19.0 3.2 22.9
1900 7.5 59.7 13.7 30.0
Pigs (million)
1850 2.1 20.6 0.9 1.2
1900 2.9 51.1 3.4 3.4
Sheep (million)
1850 21.6 6.8 0.5 3.7
1900 21.5 7.6 20.5 4.1
Cropland (thousands of square km)
1850 5.1 23.8 6.3 3.8
1900 7.0 75.6 22.9 6.4
Source: Clio Infra. CAN=Canada, Australia and New Zealand, AID=Argentina, Ireland and Denmark.

Before the meat could be shipped, the slaughter animal had to be fattened. Above all this required the opening of Belich’s Anglo newlands to dense settlement. That in turn required tens of millions of migrants from the Anglo oldlands. But the land had not only to be cleared. Until midcentury, the American interior could not be densely settled on transport networks confined to water. Cincinnati’s water-borne pork hegemony was thus precarious.

Packing MidWest 1840s

It was rail that opened up the American interior to dense settlement. It was rail that created Chicago. It was rail that solved the concrete problem of feeding the Chicago-New York-London pipeline. This central feeder belt of the British meat trade in the 1880s was dependent on rapid transport further inland. The American railway system was financed by London bondholders. British bond finance was also critical in the Dominions proper, as indeed, Argentina. Some £20m of British capital was invested directly in the Argentine meat-packing companies.

But the population history and the rail network weren’t enough. Even if the capacity to produce that much meat is assured, the technical problem of mechanical refrigeration on transoceanic ships had to be mastered. Straightup freezing worked for mutton and lamb. So frozen New Zealand lamb was accepted as prime by our London carnivore when it arrived in the 1880s. After the turn of the century, New Zealand shipped more than one hundred thousand metric tons of frozen lamb every year to Great Britain. Argentinian and Australian lamb provided an additional one hundred thousand. New Zealand would ship an extraordinary one-fifty thousand in 1922. The years after the world war were marked by the violence of British bloodletting in a bid to return to the Gold Standard. But at least our hungry Londoner could score some prime New Zealand lamb. Even the lamb from Argentina and Australia could be top-notch.

The unit on the Y axis is metric tons.

But beef did not take well to freezing. For as Perron (1971) explained:

Frozen meat is kept at a temperature of between 14ºF and 18ºF, but between the temperatures of 31ºF and 25ºF large ice crystals form between the muscle fibres of the meat and this process ruptures some of the small vessels of the flesh. When the meat is thawed this gives it a sweaty, discoloured appearance and it loses a certain amount of moisture, making it less juicy when cooked. This effect is more noticeable in large carcases like beef; having a greater bulk than mutton and lamb they take longer to pass through the critical range of temperature where the large ice crystals are formed and the damage done. But meat can also be chilled, that is, kept at a temperature of 30ºF which is just above its freezing point and this means that the ice crystals do not form in the carcase.

The chilling solution (obviously) was articulated by American meatpackings giants. The big four American meat-packers dominated the British chilled beef trade in the 1880s. Meanwhile, the British lamb trade was a definite Kiwi monopoly. The great sucking sound of the London market—London relied disproportionately among British cities on imported meat—had reoriented Belich’s Anglo newlands. The first big suppliers were Belich’s American northwest and New Zealand.


There was a major epidemiological panic arising from the discovery of diseased frozen shipments at the turn of the century (that’s the crash in the graph for Beef imports in 1901). This would prove to be a hiccup in the real story: the rise of chilled beef from Argentina that would more than replace the Americans in the British beef trade. Argentina’s market position by the end of the decade outrivaled that of New Zealand’s in the British lamb trade. Of course, British lamb and mutton predominated in the national market. But by 1914, imported meat accounted for 40 percent of British consumption. More than any other great power in history, Great Britain came to rely on ghost acres for its meat.


In the overall scheme of things, our hungry Londoner was finally satiated at the turn of the century when British imports of refrigerated beef, lamb and mutton stabilized in the ballpark of one billion pounds a year. In 1922, the British refrigerated meat trade as a whole peaked (at least locally) at more than a billion pounds (around half a million short tons).


In the 1890s, Argentina emerged as a major player in the British meat trade. Argentina was the solution to the problem posed by New York’s growing appetite for Chicago beef (increasingly joined by other American cities). In the 1900s, Argentina displaced the United States in the chilled beef trade and emerged as a near-peer of New Zealand in the lamb trade. Already by 1903, Argentina was supplying more refrigerated meat to Britain than any other nation.

Selected exporters only.

Britain’s refrigerated meat trade could survive the rise of the American carnivore and the reorientation of the American West to point to New York. But this was far from an automatic process. In the six principal suppliers besides the United States, during the second half of the nineteenth century, some 30 million additional people would help clear 270 thousand additional square kilometers of land for pasture and 89 thousand square kilometers more of cropland on three continents; allowing them to raise 30 million more sheep and 45 million more heads of cattle a year. A vast portion of world ecology was thus transformed to suit the taste of the British carnivore. Indeed, New Zealanders replaced their sheep with breeds more attractive to the London palate. Argentinians did the same with cattle. As did Australia and Canada; even old Ireland and Denmark had to keep adapting to Metropolitan tastes. Only the American West served the other pole of the Angloworld. Everyone else served London.

The British refrigerated meat trade began in 1875. By the turn of the century, the supply of meat to Britain had expanded and diversified well beyond the American North-West. It came into its own and lasted until well into the twentieth century. It was only in the 1950s that the British share of New Zealand lamb exports fell below 50 percent. The timing of the core phase of expansion of the refrigerated meat trade, 1880-1910, suggests that we must file this under the secondary industrial revolution. Britain’s ghost acres came to finally bear in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The increased availability of prime meat may be directly responsible for the vanishing of the settler premium in Anglo-Saxon stature in the early twentieth century.

Stature (cm)
Britain US Canada Australia
1810 169.7 171.5
1820 169.1 172.2 171.5
1830 166.7 173.5 171.5
1840 166.5 172.2 170.4
1850 165.6 171.1 172.5 170.0
1860 166.6 170.6 172.0 170.6
1870 167.2 171.1 171.2 170.1
1880 168.0 169.5 171.2 171.1
1890 167.4 169.1 170.7 171.3
1900 169.4 170.0 169.9 172.3
1910 170.9 172.1 171.5 172.7
1920 171.0 173.1 173.0 172.8
1930 173.9 173.4 172.7
Source: Clio Infra.

This interpretation would be consistent with the evidence from life expectancy. British life expectancy was falling as late as 1870. And it is only after 1900 that it really picks up. No doubt indoor plumbing, penicillin, urban sanitation, and personal hygiene were all implicated in the transformation of everyday living standards recorded in stature and mortality data. But the growth in per capita meat consumption from 91 lbs in 1880 to 131 lbs in 1909-1913 definitely played its part. What this meant in practice was that compared to 1870 our London carnivore was eating meat twice as often on the eve of the world struggle. And not only was the quantity greater, the quality of chilled beef from Argentina and frozen lamb from New Zealand was finally up to the demanding standards of our discerning Londoner.




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