Ella Gasking (1891-1966)

Born: Ella Hudson Batchelor. Also known as Mrs Cyril Gasking

Sector: Food Manufacturing

In 1939, the Sheffield Telegraph ran a series of articles on ‘Who’s Who in Sheffield’.  One featured Ella Gasking, Chair of the food group, Batchelor’s. ‘You probably think that “business woman” means somebody elderly, soullessly efficient, vinegary, and wearing a high blouse with a collar tie,’ wrote the journalist, ‘P.G.B’.  ‘I did until I met Mrs Gasking. Then I was disillusioned. Although she is one of Sheffield’s most competent and prominent industrialists – for that matter one of the outstanding business women of the country – there is nothing hard or soulless about her at all.’  Two months later Ella was the first woman to be invited to lunch by the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, after which she was given a public performance review by the President, who said she made ‘some very valuable contributions’ to the post-lunch discussions.

Tall, auburn-haired and self-assured, 48-year old Ella was used to being treated like a curiosity in the business world.  Often the only woman in the room, her appearance was critiqued, her behaviour scrutinised, her words dissected.  She had been leading Batchelor’s for more than 25 years, transforming a small dried food business operating from the basement of a disused Methodist chapel in a Sheffield side street into a listed company with turnover of nearly £1m running the largest pea canning factory in the world.   

Many newspapers described this story as ‘romantic’, but it was rooted in sadness.  Ella’s father, William, had founded Batchelor’s in 1899 after leaving his job in a railway company in 1895 aged 35 to sell tea.  Ella’s eldest brother, older sister and brother-in-law all joined the family business which started to specialise in packing and selling dried peas. Ella had originally intended to train as a teacher when she left school in 1909 but instead followed her siblings into Batchelor’s. She was not considering a long-term business career but in August 1913, her father suddenly died after catching pneumonia during a family holiday to Bridlington. He was just 53.  

Ella’s mother Annie was an invalid and the reins of the business passed to Ella.  In November 1913, the company was incorporated as Batchelor and Co, Sheffield Ltd, ‘to carry on the business of pea, tea, coffee, seed, corn, flour, provision and grocery dealer, café keepers etc.’  Ella had 50% of the shares and was Chair. The remaining 50% was held by Edwin Brown, a corn merchant from Bingham in Nottinghamshire. From these modest beginnings, Batchelor’s became a household name throughout Britain: if William Batchelor was the architect of the Batchelor’s business, Ella was its builder. 

Ella Hudson Gasking by Elliott & Fry, bromide print, early 1930s,
NPG x89357 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Ella led the company through the First World War, marrying Cyril Gasking, a 25-year old doctor, in 1915.  In 1919, Ella was joined in the business by her younger brothers, Maurice and Fred.  The three divided up the responsibilities between them.  Ella remained as Chair and was in charge of buying and costing, Maurice managed sales and Fred took responsibility for advertising and internal organisation.
The canning revolution
Canned food was an innovation triggered by the Napoleonic Wars: in 1795, the French government offered a 12,000 franc prize for a way of preserving food so that its far-flung armies could be better fed.  Nicholas Appert took up the challenge, at first storing food in glass containers (initially champagne bottles), which he sealed and heated, and then experimenting with tins.  A British merchant, Peter Durand, registered a patent for tin cans in 1810.  The can opener was not invented for another thirty years.  Large-scale campaigns like the Crimean War, the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War all drove huge demand for canned food and innovations continued, including the invention of the double-seam process, still used today to seal tins safely.  The First World War disrupted the flow of food imports and exports and led to high levels of food waste in Britain.  When the war was over, food merchants like Ella and Samuel Smedley were keen to investigate the opportunities offered by canning and travelled to the United States to understand their methods. 

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In 1930, Batchelor’s opened their first canning factory in Lady Bridge and the business rapidly grew.  They set up distribution depots in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast and in 1935 acquired two more businesses.   However, to expand their canning operations further more money was needed and the decision was made to list the company.  When it floated in 1936, the company had turnover approaching £1m a year and profits of £76,100.
The next year, Batchelor’s opened the largest pea canning factory in the world at Wadsley Bridge just outside Sheffield.   Standing on a twelve-acre site, between the road and the railway, the buildings themselves covered three acres.  The factory could produce 1,500,000 cans of peas a week as well as packets of peas, vegetables and other fruit.  Sun-dried peas were canned and packed all year round and fresh garden peas were canned when in season. 

Advertisement for Batchelors Peas Ltd., Underhill Lane, Sheffield, 1947
Source: http://www.picturessheffield.com, Image y11880.

The factory had been designed by the architect, Birmingham-based Samuel (S.N.) Cooke, to admit the maximum amount of light and sunshine for the staff working away in their green caps and overalls.  William Batchelor had a strong social conscious and even as it grew, Batchelor’s continued to retain an intimate family spirit.  Ella, or ‘Mrs G’ as she was known, was a member of the National Committee on Industrial Welfare and was proud to have a factory where all 1,000 employees could work in healthy surroundings and under ideal conditions.  She ate in the staff dining room with everyone else – ‘If I can’t eat the dinner, the girls can’t’ – and it was rare for her to have a day on site where she did not make a tour of the factory. 

Quick to criticise, equally quick to encourage and always decisive, Ella wanted to hear about issues promptly.  Her brother, Maurice, reinforced this commitment to an ‘open door, open phone’ policy, writing in the staff magazine that he could be contacted any time.  ‘Any personal troubles you may have are also troubles of the company.  If we are informed of these troubles we can no doubt help you overcome them’.  There were sports clubs and social clubs, whist drives and dancing classes.  Music played while they worked and at lunchtime, some fox-trotted across the factory floor.   Batchelor’s soon became a major tourist attraction, with over 100,000 visitors in its first two years of operation, including the singer Jessie Matthews. 

Still, there was always room for improvement and in 1938, Ella set off on a ten-week tour of the United States to do more market research.  She joined 17,000 canners and canners representatives who were packing out the world’s largest hotel in Chicago, The Stephen, where she was less concerned about being the only woman and more worried about the fact that nobody seemed to have heard of Gin and Tonic.

The war years
The financial year ending in 1939 saw profits up again and another dividend increase.  

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New lines were being added when another war broke out and the spotlight quickly swung to building up food supplies.  The factory had to respond to unexpected deliveries of fresh food for emergency canning.  After the sudden arrival of a huge shipment of plums, 160 women were drafted in by the local labour exchange in less than three hours to stem and sort them.  Lines ran night and day and in one week, 5,000,000 cans of plums left the factory.   Batchelor’s put on classes in first aid and air raid precautions (ARP). 

Ella considered that the depressing days of the war were the right time for a ‘jolly’ to boost morale. She launched a company in-house magazine, called the Pea-Pod and set up a concert party to give lunchtime shows. Among the artistes who appeared was Ella herself, playing a piano-accordion solo. When Sheffield was blitzed, she opened up the factory basement to provide temporary shelter for homeless people and arranged for the canteen to provide them with hot meals.  

Ella, already Chair of the Fruit and Vegetable Canners’ Association, was made Chair of the Executive Committee of the Canners’ (Wartime) Association.  In 1943, Batchelor’s was bought by Levers Ltd (now Unilever).  The deal left her in a very strong position financially, with a payout of c £6m in current terms.  Ella was retained as Chair for five years and  became Chair of another Lever subsidiary, Poulton & Noel.  In 1948, aged 57, she left Batchelor’s, intending to retire and was awarded an O.B.E. in the Birthday Honours list. 

Rail nationalisation
During the war, the railway network was taken into state control and on the 1st January 1948 the railway companies were formally nationalised to create British Railways, managed by the British Transport Commission.  Ella’s retirement proved to be short-lived as she was soon drafted onto the new Hotels Executive, set up to manage catering across the rail network. This included hotels and saloons on steamers as well as railway refreshment cars and station refreshment rooms and buffets. Refreshment rooms across the rail network sold 225,000 cups of tea and coffee, 80,000 cakes and pastries and 4,000 packed meals every day.   

It was initially a part-time job, paying just £500 a year, but in June 1950, Ella went full time.  This was the moment Claud Morris at the Daily Mirror chose to run an exposé of the state of catering across the rail network.  His team of mystery shoppers had found countless examples of poor food, sloppy service and hygiene horrors and he sent the report to Ella, ‘the newest (and I suspect the brightest) member of the Railway Hotels Executive’.  Top of the list of challenges he set her was to transform ‘the wish-wash of stewed leaves, impolitely served as a hot drink’ into a drinkable cup of tea. 

Ella immediately got to work, understanding customer needs and spending evenings doing her own undercover investigations to assess the operations.  Without her experience at Batchelor’s, working across every department – marketing, publicity, costing, finance, buying, organisation, personnel – she admitted later that she ‘could never had tackled this job’.  

In 1951, Ella held a press conference at Waterloo station to announce some of her new measures.  the customer has a choice of 25 articles by simply inserting coins’. Although vending machines were not new, this was on a different size and scale and as well as standard items like cigarettes, chocolate and soft drinks it included fresh food options like packed meals and cheese and biscuits so passengers could find something to eat at any hour. 

She had taken the tea challenge seriously, working with an expert from the Tea Bureau to find a better tea blend, which was then supplied to every refreshment room with detailed instructions for how to make a good pot of tea.  She upgraded the tea-making equipment and brought in new platform trolleys and mobile motor buffets. In London, a centralised depot was established to make and distribute sandwiches, with hourly deliveries to terminals for freshness.  Catering managers were also empowered to ensure their local customers got what they wanted by buying savoury pies and cakes on the open market. Takings at the newly refurbished canteen in Victoria station increased ten-fold within a few weeks.

Work hard, play hard
Ella did not let her demanding jobs take over her life.  William Batchelor had been a strict Sabbatarian and a temperance advocate.  Ella’s reacted with philosophy of ‘work hard, play hard’.  She was a keen golfer, playing off a handicap of 12, and on a weekday when the weather was good and nothing needing her urgent attention, she would take the morning off and head for the fairway. 

She also took full advantage of her self-made wealth. She owned racehorses, her jockeys bearing colours of yellow with green spots to represent peas.  She liked a bet, writing to Caroline Haslett in 1949 ‘I am more busy than ever but enjoying myself.  Have been to Holland and had a week’s racing in the North. Net result: £400. Why work?’  Since that was the equivalent of c.£14,000, it was not an entirely idle question.

Ella c. 1950s from a feature in the Batchelor’s in-house magazine

Her clothes came from Norman Hartnell and the women journalists who interviewed admired her style, one describing her ‘exquisitely simple grey dress, the tailored crispness softened by a double row of grey and white pearls, diamond stud ear-rings and an artlessly pinned clove carnation’.  When she crossed the Atlantic in 1938, she travelled on the Queen Mary.  In 1940, one of Country Life’s motoring columns featured a photograph of Ella’s custom-built Rolls Royce Wraith with a special sports saloon and electronically operated screen between her and her chauffeur.  She had an apartment on Park Lane and kept up a 600 acre farm in Lincolnshire where she bred pedigree cattle. Ella loved travelling.  Thanks to her job at the Hotel Executive, she was the only woman in the country with a Gold pass that gave her an automatic right to free rail travel when she was on duty.  Holidays saw her in Europe, particularly the South of France and in South America.

Ella knew that ‘for a woman to climb the industrial ladder is still a hundred times harder than for a man’ and with so few reaching the top, their visibility was such that ‘one act of foolishness is a let-down for the whole world of business-women… So to a great extent, we have by our conduct to support each other every second of our lives.’   She was a member of the Women’s Provisional Club and an Associate of the Women’s Engineering Society, becoming friends with its secretary and later President, Caroline Haslett. She willingly contributed to a gift for Mavis Tate M.P. in 1943 in recognition of her work on the Equal Compensation Act and was serious about having women on the succession plan for senior roles. She saw that women faced systemic barriers, for example, more difficulty in accessing capital, and experienced first-hand ridiculously gendered expectations of behaviour, with male colleagues at the British Transport Commission expressing surprise that she did not cry when she lost an argument.  

However, Ella also perpetuated some of the sticky stereotypes about women in business.  Ella was not only married, she was a working mother, with a daughter, Lesley, born in 1928, who went on to pursue an acting career in Australia.  In 1949, Caroline Haslett, who was not married, challenged whether women really had to choose between a family and a career and used Ella as an example of someone who had combined both.  Six years later, Ella, while acknowledging her own happy marriage, positioned this choice as a real one and claimed that since 90% of women would choose marriage over career it was not surprising there were so few women in senior jobs. 

Writing in the 1950s, Ella also declared herself to be ‘no feminist’, a not uncommon stance during this period.  She claimed that ‘women have to remain women and never forget that we are’ and thought that women’s success in business depended on them remaining ‘feminine’ and making the most of their ‘wiles’.  ‘Women can get anything out of men by tactfully concealing the fact that he is giving something. She must never put him at a disadvantage.’   She warned women against turning into ‘battle-axes’ or throwing themselves so whole-heartedly into their jobs that the lost ‘the habit of playing’. She saw lack of ambition as one key reason for there being so few women in high-level executive jobs.  ‘I have built women up to take over big responsibilities but..I have found that when it comes to the point, they nearly all shirk from accepting those responsibilities.’  Although she clearly wanted to see more women succeed, she felt that if women were not getting traction in the business world, it was because of their own behaviour and their own motivation.

In 1956, Ella went back to a part-time role at the Hotel Executive.  She and her husband had by then settled on the Isle of Wight where Ella was President of the local branch of the Electrical Association of Women, in which she showed a keen interest.  Her death on 17th December 1966, aged 75, was widely reported, with many tributes paid to her for making Batchelor’s into such a successful food production business. 

In its obituary, the Batchelor’s in-house magazine wrote about Ella in glowing, genuine words and noted that ‘after her retirement she came back to open the new Head Office block.  Passing through the different departments, she was obviously looking for old friends and colleagues. She found many.’

The Batchelor’s brand is still going strong, now owned by Premier Foods, and if you are interested in seeing the pea canning process in action, there is a video here.

With special thanks to Anne Locker, Library and Archives Manager at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) for giving me access to the letters between Ella Gasking and Caroline Haslett. 

Sources include: Sheffield Daily Telegraph 7/8/1913; Sheffield Independent 20/7/1936; Dundee Evening Telegraph 17/11/1936; Sheffield Independent 5/10/1937; 19/10/1938; 29/10/1938; Sheffield Evening Telegraph 26/1/1939; Sheffield Daily Telegraph 17/3/1939; 26/7/1939; 24/8/1939; International Women’s Suffrage News 3/1/1941; Daily Mirror 26/6/1950; Yorkshire Evening Post 29/6/1951; Britannia and Eve 1/9/1953; 1/1/1955; The Sketch 25/4/1956; The Times

The Woman Engineer, Vols 4, 5 and 6; Batchelors Magazine Summer 1967 Vol 18 no 1

‘Problems have no sex’ by Caroline Haslett (1949)

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