1881 – A great year for corned beef lovers … and sceptics

THE security geezer at Gatwick Airport was utterly nonplussed when he found six tins of Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies in my hand luggage.

“I’m not sure if these are allowed on a plane,” adding: “In all the years I’ve been here I have never seen anyone trying to take pies out of the country.”

So I explained how they got into my bag. Before leaving Brighton to return to Benidorm last November I’d put them in my suitcase, then weighed it using VERY accurate digital scales.

The read-out said I was well within my allowance of 20 kilos. To be doubly sure, I borrowed a friend’s scales, which gave precisely the same reading. But when I placed the suitcase on a check-in belt at Gatwick a machine advised me that I was 1.5 kilo over the allowance, ordered me to remove the case and pay a £10 surplus fee at the customer service desk. “Your scales,” I told an assistant, “are rubbish and I flatly refuse to pay.”

“In that case,” he said. “your luggage won’t go into the hold.” “Oh yes, it will and I’ll show you how,” I bellowed.

I opened the case, seized the pies and – for good measure – my toiletries bag, and hurled them into my hand luggage. Of course the toiletries bag was a huge mistake. It contained creams and liquids in measures not permitted on a plane, plus a prized cut-throat razor. I ground my teeth as these items – worth well in excess of £10 – were consigned to a trash can.

But the pies were put to one side while the security man sought a second opinion. A colleague was just as perplexed, so along came a third, then a fourth. After a lengthy debate the consensus was that the pies were good to go, and I was sent on my way.

While I was waiting for a verdict, and wondering if I’d get on the plane, I noticed a banner on the cans that simply said ‘since 1881.’

Now for me this is a hugely significant date, for in May of that year a young fellow called George William Foote, born in Plymouth in 1850, began publishing the Freethinker, a weekly atheist journal priced one penny.

Its combination of humour, illustrations and articles debunking religion and related subjects played a big part in its popularity. It had weekly sales of 10,000 in 1882 and circulation never fell below 4,000, a fascinating phenomenon given the importance of religion among Victorians.

In its second year, Foote went too far with a mix of humour and anti-religious argument and, following publication of irreverent cartoons in the Christmas 1882 edition, he was prosecuted for blasphemy and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment with hard labour.

The publication, however, continued without further hindrance. I was appointed its editor 20 years ago, and am still doing the job. But back to the pies.

When I saw 1881 on the Fray Bentos tins, I immediately began to research the product and discovered via Wikipedia that in 1865, Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company was founded in Britain by German chemist Justus von Liebig.

The company established a factory in Uruguay to manufacture a beef extract product that would later be sold under the name Oxo.

In 1873, the factory began manufacturing tinned corned beef, which was sold in Britain under the name Fray Bentos, the town in Uruguay where the factory was located Fray Bentos was trademarked by Liebig in 1881 for the principal purpose of marketing corned beef.

In the immediate post-war years, the Fray Bentos products were a staple food in Britain. The range was expanded to include canned meat pies such as steak and kidney and minced beef and onion, and I was delighted to discover last month that they are sold by Dealz at La Marina for just €1.50.

Now which pie shall I have tonight for dinner? The chicken or the steak and kidney?

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