Skip to main content

When We Had Meat To Spare

July 2024
1min read

David Lowe, a frequent contributor to these pages, has come across an ebullient celebration of America’s littleknown part in bulwarking the British Empire.

In the 1870’s and 1880’s Chicago’s meat-packers finally perfected methods of canning beef and thereby opened up vast new markets abroad. Among their best customers were European governments with armies and navies in tropical countries. England, in particular, was a steady and enthusiastic purchaser of the new product. To supply the 1884 expedition sent to crush a self-proclaimed prophet called the Mahdi, who was leading a revolt against British rule in the Sudan, Her Majesty’s government ordered no less than 2,500,000 pounds of tinned provisions. (The campaign is remembered now chiefly because of the death of General “Chinese” Gordon at Khartoum.) This dependence of beef-loving England upon American stockyards inspired an anonymous Chicago rhymester to celebrate the fact in verse. “P.D.A.” is, of course, Philip Danforth Armour; “W.E.G.” is the British Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone; and the “Mackay-Bennett line” refers to the Commercial Cable Company organized in 1883 by John William Mackay and James Gordon Bennett.

The roast beef of old England Is famed in song and story Without it where was English brawn That won old England glory? But in these days of England’s gloom, When war’s dread notes alarm her, What does she send to save Khartoum? Corned beef canned by Phil Armour. When Gladstone first resolved on war, No lack of ammunition Delayed the movement up the Nile, The problem was nutrition. “Our cannonade,” the Premier mid, “Must needs be sharp and brief, Our cannonade, therefore shall be Phil Armour’s canned corned beef.” “To P.D.A.; Send p.d. quick, Care John Hull, London docks, Two million pounds of canned corned beef, Ox tongues, pig’s feet and hocks.” “To W.E.G.: (Send C.O.D.)” Swift flashed the ready answer, Wired per Mackay-Bennett line, “I will, because I can, sir.” At every mile along the line Fanatics like El Mahdi Will soon be skirmishing to find A soul to fit a body. The prophet had a host of Khans, And some were brave and able; But then, vow see, they couldn’t win— They lacked the Armour label.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.