All across the world, millions of South Africans are digging into homemade curry or bobotie accompanied by a generous dollop of a perennial favourite – Mrs Ball’s chutney.
But what is the story behind this beloved brand? Well, it all started in 1852, when the SS Quonza was shipwrecked off East London en route to Australia. A Canadian couple, Henry Adkins and his wife Sarah, were lucky to escape with not only their lives but also the blueprint for what was to become one of South Africa’s most unique and priceless culinary icons.
The pair settled at Fort Jackson near King William’s Town, where Amelia (who would later become known as Mrs Ball) was born in 1865. Chutney (derived from the Hindi word chatni) was all the rage of Victorian England and Amelia’s mother began making it on a small scale from a recipe she obtained from the ship’s Indian cook. Later, Amelia and her sister Florence began making what they dubbed Adkins Chutney and it soon became a hit among the Eastern Cape locals.
Amelia later married Herbert Saddelton Ball, who worked as a goods superintendent in Cape Town for South African Railways. Due to the nature of Herbert’s profession, the couple moved around a lot and Amelia continued making her ever popular chutney. After moving to Fish Hoek in the 1930s, they were wracking their brains on how to stretch Herbert’s pension, which is when Amelia came up with an inspired plan: to sell chutney on a commercial scale. Starting small, they cooked the chutney in large tins on a row of Primus stoves in the garage.
As was the custom in those days, Mrs HS Ball’s chutney is named after Amelia’s husband Herbert Saddleton Ball. According to Chris Steel from the corporate communications branch at Tiger Brands, demand continued to soar, so they sought the assistance of Cape Town businessman Fred Metter, who procured both the distinctive oval label and the now iconic eight-sided jar. The label bore a crest with a gryphon from the Ball family coat-of-arms and on the back of the bottle, a glowing endorsement from none other than C Louis Leipoldt himself. The celebrated doctor, poet and gourmand had the foresight to know a good thing when he tasted it.
The bottles were hand washed, filled and then sealed with corks until Amelia’s eldest son, Henry, invented a gadget with a lever to push and seal the cork into the bottle. In an early form of a recycling drive, customers were paid two pennies upon returning an empty bottle and if they returned 13 empty bottles – they received a bottle of chutney for free!
Herbert Jnr made a bold move by importing a bottle-washing machine, a first in South Africa, which caused financial strain on the company. In order to secure his mother’s investment, Herbert Jnr was prompted to sell the majority shares in the company. But Herbert senior was so disillusioned by the outcome that he left the chutney making business for good. Family members continued to work at the factory however, with great grandson Desmond working at the factory during the holidays. One of Amelia’s grandsons, Edward worked there until he retired.
After being bought by three different companies, Mrs Ball’s became a wholly owned subsidiary of Tiger Consumer Brands Ltd. in 2013. With a reported R189 million annual turnover a year before it was purchased, the brand is growing from strength to strength. It now stands proudly alongside other heritage brands in the same family, such as Tiger Oats and Black Cat peanut butter. Says Chris Steel: “Tiger Brands has upheld the legacy in that we have not changed the original recipe of South Africa’s most loved chutney but have kept with the changing times by introducing modern and relevant flavours such as sweet chilli sauce.”
Amelia’s grandson Ron Ball was born in Fish Hoek and grew up living just a block away from his granny Amelia. At 86 years old, Ron is probably the only surviving grandchild of Amelia. To keep the family name alive, Ron passed the name Saddleton as a second name to his three children, Colleen, Michael and Deborah.
He describes Amelia, a mother of seven children, as “a very strong willed, independent woman” yet soft-spoken and a real homebody as she hardly ever left the house. Very knowledgeable regarding world affairs, up to the age of 95 she would read the daily newspaper every day without fail. “She was slightly built and always immaculately dressed in a conservative way,” he recalls. “Her life was her business, her children and her grandchildren.”
Ron remembers popping in every day after school to visit his gran. “The first thing she would say is ‘Ron, help yourself to something to eat.’ There were always three different roast meats in the fridge at the same time, as well as plenty of freshly baked cakes and pastries. She was a wonderful cook and baker – she loved to feed the family!”
Every Christmas was a traditional family gathering held at her son Henry’s home, with the whole family attending an enormous dinner party hosted by Amelia. She ordered all the provisions to be delivered by bicycle from various local businesses. “Also, she was known to tip very handsomely so all local delivery boys would compete to complete her order!” says Ron.
In 1962, Amelia Ball passed away at the age of 97, having lost her husband to heart failure over 30 years prior. Two years before, she had been brutally attacked in her home by an intruder and severely beaten. She suffered from a stroke from the shock, falling into a decline.
Says great-grandchild Colleen: “We are all very proud to be related to Amelia who started a small business that has now grown into an international world famous brand. Don’t we all love Mrs Ball’s chutney? It’s just the best!”
READ the full article in this month’s issue of FOOD AND HOME ENTERTAINING magazine…