Tinplate has a long history. Before its use for food packaging, it was used to make various domestic goods including buckets, boxes, and pots and pans. In the manufacturing process, a coating of tin was laid over iron sheets, protecting the iron beneath from corrosion and rust. The iron was eventually replaced by steel sheet. The craft developed in Bohemia and southern Germany in the 16th century and was introduced to Britain in the mid-17th century. Wales became a centre for tinplate manufacture, using tin mined in Cornwall.
The material was first used in food preservation in 1810, when an Englishman, Peter Durand, patented the first tinplate food container. He sold his patent to Bryan Donkin and John Hall, who produced the first canned goods for the Royal Navy in 1813. Early cans were hand-made, large and had their lids soldered on. Opening them often required a hammer and chisel. Canning of meat and other foods was slow to get underway in Australia but, by the late 1860s, the industry was well established.
For nearly a century, all Australian canneries used imported tinplate. Broken Hill Proprietory Ltd. (BHP) established a steelworks in Newcastle, New South Wales, in 1915 but the Australian canning industry was not large enough to warrant the investment required to establish a tinplate operation. By the mid-1930s, though, the BHP management was considering the development of a plant. The decision was postponed pending the investigation of the new “strip mill” continuous manufacturing process that was, at the time, being adopted overseas.
In 1939, BHP developed a proposal to begin manufacture in either Newcastle, Port Kembla or Whyalla, South Australia. Depending on the location, the estimated capital expenditure involved was between £4590.000 and £4,690.000. To offset the significant cost, the company asked that the government impose protective tariffs on imported product. Unsurprisingly, British interests opposed the plan. According to one report:
The attempt being made to establish a tinplate industry in the Commonwealth is facing what may be termed virulent hostility by British industrialists, accompanied by a threat to retaliate by refusing to buy Australian goods.
Despite a favourable response from the Tariff Board, the proposed plant did not go ahead and the outbreak of World War II put the plans on hold. It wasn’t until 1948 that BHP announced a plan for major extensions to its Port Kembla works, including a tinplate plant. The Herald reported:
The scheme now begun, embracing a hot-strip mill, a cold-strip mill, and a tinplate plant, is entirely different from the tinplate scheme proposed before the war – and far larger. The previous proposal envisaged tariff protection for 10 years; but several factors suggest that protection is not likely to be needed if present conditions continue….When the previous tinplate plan was mooted, Australian consumption was about 60,000 tons a year, and one of the problems was whether such a small market would permit economical production, in view of the large and expensive plant required. Today the local market would take 130,000 tons a year – if it could get it!
In the event, the new plant did not begin production until 1958. Developed at a cost of some £8 million ($16 million), the plant was planned to produce around 72,000 tons of tinplate a year – some 60 per cent of the Australian consumption. At that point, Australian can makers were producing more than 1000 million cans per year, with 75 per cent of the canned fruit, preserved milk products, meats, jam, vegetables and miscellaneous foods being exported.
In 1962, BHP took to the media with a consumer campaign promoting the benefits of steel cans. Using the catch cry “Nothing seals like steel” the advertisements claimed that cans delivered the goodness, preserved the flavour, were more economical and were easy to store. In 1967, a new mill was installed at the Port Kembla facility, increasing capacity. Despite the inroads made by aluminium drink cans from the 1970s, the flourishing food canneries provided a ready market.
However, by the early 2000s, profits were down. Bluescope Steel (originally a subsidiary of BHP but now an independent operation) announced in 2006 that the tinplate plant at Port Kembla was to close. The last production run was in April 2007. Now tinplate is no longer produced in Australia and processors must import it through Visy Group and Amcor.
Bluescope blamed the closure on the increasing use of alternative packaging such as plastic, PET, Tetra Paks and pouches, as well as the trend for food companies and retailers to pack their products overseas or source imported canned goods. Conversely, food processors were critical of the canning companies and Bluescope for failing to promote the benefits of steel cans and claimed the closure would cost them millions and would drive them to source and pack more products offshore.
The price of canned goods, however, has remained relatively stable compared to fresh produce. Although we’re not likely to go back to the store-cupboard cookery of the 1940s and ’50s, cost-of-living pressures and the desire for convenience means there’s always likely to be a tin of tuna or a couple of cans of tomatoes in the pantry.