Population growth and rising living standards increased demand for meats in Britain during the Industrial Revolution; however, diseases that reduced cattle herds meant more imports were needed to satisfy demand. Some of this demand was met by imports of fresh beef from America. This was extraordinary considering that up to this moment in history, fresh meats were always consumed near where the animal was raised. Existing international trade in other agricultural commodities did not extend much to livestock or meats. However, the development of railways and refrigeration together with excess capital accumulation in Britain allowed for both more remote and larger cattle ranches, a centralized meatpacking industry, and a much more global supply chain for meat products like fresh beef.


            Beef consumption was already higher in Britain than in the continental European countries and demand grew further as the country prospered. Real wages almost doubled in the second half of the 19th century. Annual British consumption of meats overall, of which beef was the largest part of the diet, rose from 75 pounds per capita in the 1850s to 127 pounds by 1898. The population was also growing; increasing 40% in the last half of the century.

            It was proving impossible for the demand to be sustained by local agriculture alone. Even more so when, in the middle of the 19th century, British and Irish cattle herds were reduced by anthrax infections that had spread from continental Europe, where Britain had been sourcing cattle. While the disease spread to America as well, the effects there were milder. From here, cattle herds in Britain in the last three decades of the century were expanding again, but only modestly, though this was compensated for to a meaningful extent by surging herd sizes in Ireland. Still, the British Isles together needed more meat from abroad.

            Whether because of the disease or otherwise, beef made up a declining part of British meat consumption but, given growing meat consumption overall and a growing population, remained so important that prices, and British demand for American beef, rose. The ‘domestic’ Irish supply bound for Britain, while much larger in proportion than the American supply, was insufficient. So, a transatlantic trade in cattle and beef took hold.

            Prior to about 1870, British imports of American beef were negligible. Only 2% of British meat consumption between the early 1850s and 1870 came from the United States, and this was mostly in the form of preserved pork products. Prior to the 1870s or so, shipping fresh meats internationally, or even long distances within a sparse country like much of America, was not feasible. So, trade in live cattle or preserved meats dominated the early trade rather than fresh meat. Britain imported live cattle from America but this required large freight expense on specially-designed vessels and animals would inevitably be lost during the transit and the surviving ones would surely lose weight. Besides this, a trade in salted beef is also worth noting.


            Among the developments that allowed for a transcontinental and transoceanic trade in fresh meat was the railway. American railways were expanded after the end of the American Civil War, especially in the Midwest and West. British investors provided a lot of the capital for this construction as capital accumulation in Britain exceeded local investment opportunities. The prevailing flow of capital in the 19th century was a westbound one from Europe to America.

            The railways connected ranches with consumers, first on the east coast, and later across the Atlantic. They opened more western land to cattle ranching and made the operation of these ranches more efficient as new breeds could be introduced and cattle shipped more easily. In the last three decades of the century, cattle and beef would be marketed and transferred at Chicago, Kansas City, Fort Worth, Omaha, and Denver, exported from ports in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York and received in London, Liverpool, and the Clydebank. British capital was also important in developing the stockyards and marketplaces for this growing trade.

            The railways even allowed for product innovation in the beef trade. For example, English palates preferred marbled beef at a time when fattier beef was not the American preference. The railways allowed ranch cattle which had been fed grass diets to be shipped corn from elsewhere to be fattened just before they would themselves be sent to slaughter in St. Louis or Chicago.

            The concept of slaughtering and packing meats in cities far from where the cattle was raised was itself a practice made vastly more efficient by railways. Otherwise, far less efficient and long ‘drives’ of cattle would have to be resorted to, as they had in the past. By allowing cattle and meat to be transported in larger quantities more quickly, fresh meats could be consumed far from the slaughterhouses as well. The market for beef was being transformed from a local one, to a national and international one. This allowed for the emergence of centralized meatpacking industries, harnessing the power of economies of scale, most notably in Chicago.

            Starting in 1868, live cattle began to be shipped from America to Britain on trips involving long traverses over land and sea on railcars and ships. This too relied on the emergence of new technologies, namely faster vessels that cut down transit times for freight. By 1879, nearly 76,000 head of live cattle were being sent to Britain from America each year. The volume doubled the following year. By comparison, just a bit earlier in 1875, the number of live cattle shipped to Britain amounted to only 299.


            Refrigeration paved the way for even more trade in meats, specifically chilled and frozen beef. An American inventor, John I. Bates, hung carcasses in rooms loaded with ice and containing a large fan for circulating the cold air; in June 1875, he shipped ten carcasses to Britain, which arrived fresh, using this method. By year-end, this technology was being commercialized by a meatpacker named Timothy Eastman and over 200,000 pounds of beef was sent to Britain. By the end of the following year, volumes had reached three million pounds per month. Refrigerated train cars, introduced by Gustavus Franklin Swift, appeared around the same time.

Refrigerator Car Design, c. 1870 (Source: Wikimedia)

            Owing to refrigeration, chilled and frozen beef was replacing tinned beef in American beef exports. In the early years though, a lack of refrigerated storage at U.K. ports meant the cold meat had to be marketed while the product was still in the Atlantic to prevent spoilage. This was gradually solved for with construction of cold-storage facilities after 1880. The sale of fresh American beef in Britain had grown from zero at the start of 1875 to well over fifty million pounds per year in 1879 and over seventy million pounds in 1880

            In 1890, animals, meats, and lard comprised 30% of total U.S. exports; about half of this went to Britain. Despite the advances in refrigeration, live cattle continued to be exported in large and growing quantities, in part because fresher meat sold for a premium price. These exports were twice the value of manufactured goods exported from America at this same time.

Ranches and Corporations

            Earlier in the 19th century, British cattle were sent to the United States to seed new herds of farm cattle. Now, attracted by opportunities in the industry, British capital was being invested in American ranches. British financiers and investors were becoming more familiar with certain parts of the American West because of the beef trade. Drawn by the possible returns, the boom sparked some emigration to America among those Scots and Englishmen eager to try their luck as ranchers in the west, from Kansas to Colorado to California.

            The profits were appetizing. American ranchers in the west could use public lands for grazing at no cost. Cattle happily took to the sufficiently nutritious native grasses. A steer could be bought for $8 and cost just fifty cents per year to raise. At just four years’ old, the animal could be sold for $7 to $12 per hundred pounds. That would make $50 to $100 for an entire cow, a large return on investment.

            Some British investors in American land built large country houses on their estates to which they would travel in summers. Moreton Frewen, the English co-founder of the Powder River Land and Cattle Company in Wyoming, built a large house for himself on his company’s Powder River ranch. The property was visited by his titled and wealthy friends and co-investors from across the Atlantic. Frewen married into the family of a prominent New York banker, would later become a Member of Parliament and the uncle of Sir Winston Churchill. Visits like these provided for some of the few interactions between the American managers of the ranches and their British financial backers in this burgeoning long-distance trade.

Moreton Frewen

            British firms, formed by English and Scottish bankers and others, invested in ranches and cattle. These included the Anglo-American Cattle Company, the Colorado Ranche Company, the Prairie Cattle Company, and the Texas Land and Cattle Company. The first of these, the Anglo-American Cattle Company, was formed in 1879 with a capital stock of $350,000. This was used, together with financing provided by the seller, to purchase land and some 27,000 head of cattle. The Colorado Ranche Company raised $350,000 of its own and bought 10,000 acres. In 1880 and 1881 respectively, the Prairie Cattle Company and Texas Land and Cattle Company were formed with about $3 million each.

            In 1882, nine more companies, with a combined capitalization of more than $8 million, were formed in Britain to invest in American cattle. A similar number of new firms and amount of capital was added the following year and even in 1884, the capitalization of new firms, while letting up somewhat, remained strong. Common destinations for this investment were the states and territories of Texas, New Mexico, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, and Nevada.

            Only in the mid-1880s, as prices were now on a downward trend, would the boom soften. There was no crash moment where the business transformed overnight but many of these firms would fail to realize anticipated profits and most would shut down by 1910 having experienced losses overall. Still, by the end of the century, American exports of meat supplied 30% of British meat consumption. About 50% of this trade was in beef. American beef comprised 85% of British fresh beef imports from all foreign countries and British imports of American live cattle and fresh beef in 1900 were valued at $62 million.


            Though trade in foodstuffs became more globalized in earlier centuries, perishable goods still had to be consumed locally until the late 19th century. Infrastructure and technological improvements allowed even perishable foods like fresh beef to be packaged hundreds of miles from where it was raised and marketed and sold further away still. However, implementing these improvements required large investments in railways and refrigerated shipping and storage.

            Much of the capital for these improvements came from Britain, where the appetite for American beef encouraged the investments in the first place. In the last quarter of the century, the direct effect of this globalization was an enlarged cattle ranching industry in the American West, one of the first industries on the frontier and the vanguard for further development. However remote, these ranchers were of course connected to a global market.

More from the Tontine Coffee-House

           Read how an international trade in fancy chickens changed the poultry industry and how an economic depression in New Zealand ended with a new boom brought on in part by advent of the frozen meat trade. Consider subscribing to this blog’s newsletter or checking out book recommendations, which include many of the sources often referenced in my posts. 

Further Reading

1.      Brayer, Herbert O. “The influence of British capital on the western range-cattle industry.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 9, no. S1, 1949, pp. 85–98.

2.      Huttman, John P. “British Meat Imports in the Free Trade Era.” Agricultural History, vol. 52, no. 2, Apr. 1978, pp. 247–262.

3.      Newman, Kara. “Chapter 7: Cattle Call.” Secret Financial Life of Food: From Commodities Markets to Supermarkets, Columbia University Press, New York, 2014, pp. 94–106.

4.      Perren, Richard. “The North American beef and cattle trade with Great Britain, 1870-1914.” The Economic History Review, vol. 24, no. 3, Aug. 1971, pp. 430–444.

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Comments (1)

  1. Mert


    Funny thing, cattle already means capital. Cattle: From Middle English catel, from Anglo-Norman catel (“personal property”), from Old Northern French (compare French cheptel, Old French chetel, chatel, also English chattel) from Medieval Latin capitāle, from Latin capitālis (“of the head”) (whence also capital, from caput (“head”) + -alis (“-al”)). For the sense evolution, compare pecuniary and fee. Doublet of capital and chattel.

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