Subsidiary Companies


W. Symington & Co, famous for its dehydrated soups, gravy, custard powder and other foods, was acquired by J. Lyons & Co. in 1969. The forerunner of this company traces its origins to 1827 when it first started in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, England.

The origins of the company are believed to have been started by a young Scot, William Symington. He was a native of Sanquhar, Dumfrieshire, a village 25 miles west of Symington, Lanarkshire - the original home of the family. William Symington is said to have rented a small warehouse in Adam & Eve Street, Market Harborough and began selling tea and groceries in 1827. By 1840 he was classified as a wholesale grocer and took a shop in Church Street. In 1850 he expanded again and bought the first piece of land with some buildings on which the 1969 property stood when Lyons acquired it. In those early years William Symington perfected and patented a process for the preparation of pea flour. Large quantities of it were supplied to the troops in the Crimea. Other patents followed and in about 1865 he was joined in the business by his son, Samuel. the business expanded rapidly and by the end of the century the first of the famous soups - pea - was marketed. Other family members joined the firm, notably a grandson, and in the 1900s the company widened its range to blancmange powder, table creams, granulated gravy improver, custard powder, jellies, fruit puddings and eight varieties of soups. In 1904 Symington supplied pea flour to Scott's first Antarctic Expedition. Fifty years later, when a stores dump was discovered, this product was found to be in perfect condition.

During the Second World War, and before becoming part of the Lyons empire, Howard Symington, chairman and managing director, agreed to cover the printing costs of the first issue of Reveille, a new paper for the forces but enthusiastically embraced by the public. Getting a different advertiser for each issue to foot the printing bill was a technique its founder, W. R. Hipwell, used several times during the paper's formative years. The first issue, dated 25 May 1940, was free to the forces but a penny to anyone else. It was printed by the Church Army Press.

The family business continued to expand throughout the twentieth century until 28 February 1969, when Lyons acquired the whole of the issued share capital for an undisclosed sum. By then Symington's was operating one of the largest factories in Market Harborough, a small market town 15 miles south of Leicester. Situated next to the town's busy cattle market, the three story building made all of Symington's products with a staff of 350. The business was merged with Lyons' Catering Sales Ltd and Symington's sales team of 60 were integrated with the Catering Sales team who were responsible for servicing the catering trade. The biggest selling items to the catering trade by Symington at this time were county soup sold in one-gallon soup mixes, a range of savoury specialities, dehydrated vegetables and desserts. As a unit of the Grocery Sector, Symington continued to handle their own retail business - mainly table creams and gravy mixes - and private label goods for other companies which included Sainsbury, Tesco, Fine Fare, Pricerite, Waitrose, Littlewoods, # Greig, Budgen and the Co-operative Wholesale Society. Sales director A. F. Whittaker who, with sales manager T. E. Satterthwaite, was responsible for private label.

W. Symington always had an export market, although this was modest compared with home sales, mainly to the Commonwealth countries and the NAAFI. They also operated a subsidiary company in Johannesburg, South Africa, producing dehydrated soups for the local market.

Manufacturing preparation was monitored by their own laboratory and the ingredients consisted mainly of dehydrated vegetables, dehydrated meats, starches, salt, sugar, herbs and spices. An important ingredient was hydrolised protein, said 'to contribute to the flavour and food value' of the soup. The company operated their own computer department.

 © Peter Bird 2002


Packing a batch of Oxtail Soup for J. Sainsbury. 1969

Courtesy: Louisa Smith-Hadden

Here's a 1920's Symington Soups Puzzle. If you feel inclined you can print it off and try your hand.

Click on this link for a solution.