Find of the month - Feeding Britain's city dwellers - February 2016

Much frozen meat that arrives in England these days comes from all around the world. It can only arrive here in good condition due to refrigeration technology, which started to be developed in the mid-19th century. Two ships that are part of our First and Famous project – Strathleven and Dunedin – were part of the early development of carrying refrigerated meat from Australia and New Zealand to England.


Dunedin, by Frederick Tudgay; image source: Hocken Library

This was the era of the Industrial Revolution, and British urban populations were growing at a great rate. Being able to supply all these people with cheap food would be extremely profitable. As steamship technology developed, voyages across oceans became quicker; engineers and groups of businessmen were also researching and investing in refrigeration technology. Together, steamship and refrigeration technology would enable sea transportation of unspoiled meat from suppliers’ markets in the southern hemisphere to buyers’ markets in the northern hemisphere.[1]

The first experiments were made with ammonia-based refrigeration systems, but unfortunately they did not work. The refrigeration plant on City of Rio de Janeiro, which sailed from Montevideo to London in 1868, broke down en route. On a second attempt in 1879, the refrigeration plant on Frigorifique failed to keep the cargo of Argentine beef in good condition. The first successful experiment occurred in 1878, when French engineer Ferdinand Carré’s invention (pictured below) was used on the Argentine ship Paraguay to bring meat from Buenos Aires to Le Havre.[2]


Ferdinand Carre’s ice-making machine, illustration from the book Water by Gaston Tissandier, 4th edition (1878)

The success of the Paraguay voyage inspired people to keep trying. Some Australian businessmen decided to use the new Bell-Coleman refrigeration system on the Lloyd’s Register-classed Strathleven; she successfully delivered her cargo of frozen beef and mutton to London in good condition in 1880.[3]


First Entry Report for Strathleven, 19 February 1876

A memo published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 17 February 1880 talks about the voyage – one of the authors was Charles Pearson, master of Strathleven during these years and for that voyage. On 7 January he and Mr Campbell wrote to Alfred Brown regarding their progress, noting

“We have tried both the frozen beef and mutton several times on our passage since we left Melbourne on December 6. We had a beefsteak for breakfast and roast beef for dinner yesterday, from the first beef frozen in Sydney on November 18, 1879. Both the beef and mutton are excellent in quality and flavour.”

They also stated that 

“We experienced no difficulty in the tropics in using the warm water for cooling the air.”

An incident on the voyage with the machinery meant they had to stop it for a while to repair it, but they continuously observed the conditions inside and reported that the temperature remained low:

“On the morning of December 19, we stopped the freezing engine (to do some temporary repairs) for 9½ hours, the temperature in the freezing chamber remaining very low, only rising a few degrees. We have since then stopped the engine every day from 12 o’clock at noon to 4p.m., and again from 12 midnight to 4 a.m., that is, eight hours out of the twenty-four.”

They ended stating that

“We have no fear (barring some accident) but that we shall deliver the meat in good condition in London.”[4]

They did make their delivery successfully, which led to a group of Australian farmers persuading the Orient Line to provide a regular service for refrigerated goods. A New Zealand businessman approached Albion Line to run a similar service for New Zealand. The LR-classed Dunedin was the first ship to make a voyage with a cargo of frozen lamb and mutton from New Zealand to England in 1882.[5] The Report of Survey for Repairs of 1881 for Dunedin (pictured below) shows the preparations made for this voyage, stating that

“This vessel has now been fitted out with Bell and Colemans Refrigerating apparatus, for the purpose of bringing dead meat from New Zealand to England.”

The report (pictured below) notes changes in the ship’s structure for this purpose, for example that “the beams of the upper and lower decks have been extra pillared in way of the machinery now added.”


Dunedin Survey (1881) noting that refrigeration machinery has been fitted

With the advent and evolution of refrigerating machinery, Lloyd’s Register began to put together Rules for inspecting such machinery. The Rules for Refrigerating Machinery and Appliances were published in 1898. In that same year the first Refrigerating Machinery Certificate was issued to the Wakool, and the notation “+RMC” added to her entry in the Register Book, as pictured below.[6]


The entry for Wakool in the 1898-1899 Register Book

The use of refrigeration technology on ships increased, particularly when improvements in refrigeration plants led to greater efficiency and reduced costs for both traders and consumers.[7] In tandem with improvements in steam engine machinery, trade in refrigerated goods between northern hemisphere nations and countries such as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand developed rapidly.[8] By 1914, 40% of meat eaten in Britain was imported. People began refrigerating other types of food too, from fruit such as bananas and apples (enabling people to eat fruit out of season for the first time) to eggs and shellfish.[9]

Ships that carried refrigerated cargos became known as reefer ships.[10] Nowadays they bring us foods such as oranges from South Africa, bananas from the Caribbean, avocadoes from Israel and Réunion and even flowers from around the world. They have made once-exotic items a part of the daily commodities expected by shoppers.


Reefer ship Diamond Despina at anchor in Newhaven Harbour in the 1980s. Source: MV Diamond Despina; uploaded by Oxyman; author: Barry Lewis, file licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.



Avocadoes from Reunion Island; author B.navez, file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

One problem faced by reefer ships was that different foods – such as bananas and meat – needed to be kept at different temperatures. In the 1960s technology developed that enabled reefer ships to carry a variety of food at different temperatures,[11] once again giving a great boost to the maritime refrigeration trade. In the last couple of decades the development of controlled atmospheres has meant that even more sensitive items can be refrigerated and carried by sea, including grapes and lettuce.


Lettuce fields in the small village of Dos d’Âne, a mountain hamlet of the French commune of La Possession, on Réunion island. Author: B.navez, file licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Containerisation has also helped. An early form of a refrigerated container was tried as far back as the 1950s, with the technology gaining quality and becoming efficient in the 1970s.[12] In recent years the increasing sophistication of refrigerated containers has meant that container ships have begun to take more and more refrigerated cargo.[13]


The reefer ship Chiquita Bremen in Bremerhaven, Germany, with containers. Author: Garitzko.

There are two basic types of refrigerated container, those with their own internal refrigerating machinery and those which are an insulated box with ventilation which can be plugged in to a ship’s ducting system.[14] (Ventilation is needed as food such as fruit give off gases which can cause it to ripen too soon or discolour from that which people expect. Modern containers such as those made by Maersk circulate air, cooling it before it re-enters the container. Such containers can also regulate internal humidity – too much humidity can cause mould or fungi, and too little can cause wilting or shrivelling.[15])

Container ships are now much more common than the conventional reefer ships, hardly any of which are built any more.[16] Refrigeration technology and shipping technology continue to evolve, and over the last 150 years have revolutionised the availability of food, and our diets along with it.


[1] Nigel Watson, Maritime Science and Technology: Changing our World (London: Lloyd’s Register Group Limited, 2015), p. 90. 

[2] Watson, Maritime Science and Technology, p. 91. 

[3] Watson, Maritime Science and Technology, p. 91. 

[4] ‘The Strathleven Frozen Meat Experiment’, Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954), 17 February 1880, p. 7;, accessed 08/01/2016. 

[5] Watson, Maritime Science and Technology, pp. 91-2. 

[6] Nigel Watson, Lloyd’s Register: 250 Years of Service (London: Lloyd’s Register, 2010), pp. 140-1. 

[7] Watson, Maritime Science and Technology, p. 92. 

[8] Nick Tolerton, Reefer Ships: The Ocean Princesses (Christchurch, NZ: Wilson Scott Publishing, 2008), p. 10. 

[9] Watson, Maritime Science and Technology, p. 92. 

[10] Jack A. Somer, Reefership: The Art & Science of Supplying Fresh Produce to the World (Dole Fresh Fruit International, 2000), p. 95. 

[11] Tolerton, Reefer Ships, p. 12. 

[12] Somer, Reefership, p. 100. 

[13] Tolerton, Reefer Ships, pp. vii, 13. 

[14] Tolerton, Reefer Ships, p. 13. 

[15] Maersk Line,, accessed 29/01/2016. 

[16] Tolerton, Reefer Ships, p. 14.