Mrs Ball bottles a rich history

If you ask any South African living abroad what they miss the most about South African food, their answer will probably be biltong and Mrs Ball’s chutney.

Mrs HS Ball’s chutney has probably been a “guest” at many tables in the valley, and although it is commonly known that her world-famous chutney was produced in Fish Hoek, very little has been written about how the business started and the journey she took until her death in 1962.

The history of her life was shared with the False Bay Echo, the Tatler’s sister paper, by Audrey Ball, the widow of Thomas “Tommy” Saddleton Ball, the grandson of Amelia Ball. He died two years ago.

Henry and Sarah Adkins, Amelia’s parents, arrived at East London from Nova Scotia, Canada, by ship and settled at Fort Jackson near King Williams Town where Amelia Ball (* ée Adkins) was born in 1865,

In the early 1870s, Amelia’s mother began making chutney on a small scale from a recipe she had obtained from the ship’s Indian chef.

The word “chutney” is derived from the Hindi word “chatni”, which means made from fruit and spices.

Amelia and her sisters learnt to make chutney, which they called Adkins Chutney, and it became well known in the Eastern Cape.

Amelia later married Herbert Saddleton Ball, and the couple had six sons, Thomas, Clement, Henry, Ernest, Harald and Herbert jnr and one daughter, Mildred. Thomas sadly died at the age of 8.

Her husband, Herbert, was born in Burwell, England.

Today the Ball Manor house is a private school and from the coat of arms, a griffin was used as the logo on Mrs Ball’s chutney.

Herbert worked as a goods superintendent in Cape Town for South African Railways, and as a result, the couple moved around a lot and eventually settled in Plumstead. Amelia continued her chutney making wherever the couple went.

In the 1930s, the family decided to settle in Fish Hoek and moved into a home on the corner of Orlando Road and 11th Avenue.

The couple became concerned about how they would stretch Herbert’s pension as he neared retirement, and that is when Amelia suggested they start selling chutney more commercially, which they did. Most of the couple’s sons also worked on the railways, but their youngest, Herbert jnr, took an interest in the business, and eventually his eldest son, Kenneth, joined his father in making chutney. The chutney was made in the garage on 12 Primus stoves and large tins the size of paraffin tins.

The eight-sided bottles were hand washed and filled and sealed with corks until Amelia’s eldest son, Henry, made a gadget with a lever to push and seal the cork in to the bottle.

Metal tops were introduced a few years later. Customers would receive tuppence (2c) if they returned an empty bottle and a free bottle of chutney if they returned 13 empty bottles.

While travelling to work on the train, Herbert met Fred Meter, one of the directors of Meter and Koenefes Manufacturers Representatives. He offered to market the chutney, and Amelia agreed.

When Mr Meter asked Amelia what her chutney should be called, she responded: “Mrs H S Ball’s, of course.” Back in the day, women would use their husband’s initials, so the chutney actually carries her husband, Herbert Saddleton’s name. He died in 1935.

A marketing representative was appointed to market the chutney, and it sold so well that he was eventually fired as the small factory in the garage could not keep up manufacturing.

It was then that Herbert jnr started looking for new premises, and the factory was relocated to Kuils River then later to Woodstock. It is said that when they first moved into new premises, the plaster fell off the walls and the room had to be retiled from floor to ceiling in order to withstand the chutney manufacturing process.

Herbert jnr then imported a bottle-washing machine, one of the first in South Africa, which caused financial strain on the company.

Herbert jnr then sold his 49% shares to Mr Meter to protect his mother’s investment. This caused the relationship between Herbert jnr and Mr Meter to sour and Herbert left the chutney-making business.

He died of a heart attack a year later, in 1953, at the age of 46, at his Kildare Crescent home in Fish Hoek. The factory then moved to Steenberg, where one of Amelia’s grandsons, Edward, worked until he retired.

A great-grandson, Desmond Ball, also worked at the factory during holidays. After a brutal attack by two men at her home at the age of 94, Amelia lived until the age of 97 and died in November, 1962.

BrookBondCompany offered to buy the company. Mr Meter agreed as the Ball family always suspected that this would happen after Amelia’s death.

However, there had to be a unanimous decision. Because Amelia’s son, Ernest, gave his son, Ronny, power of attorney to attend the board meeting on behalf of his father, the offer was declined as Ronny felt the offer was too low.

A new, better offer was later made which was accepted.

Lever Brothers later took over Brook Bond which marketed the chutney internationally. In 2012, Lever Brothers, now Unilever SA, sold the business to Tiger Brands for R475 million.

It was reported that the business had a R189 million turnover in 2011 before it was sold.

This article first appeard in the False Bay Echo’s 65th anniversary edition last month.