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Captain John West - the salmon king

John West canned fish products are known world wide, but how many people know that the founder of the company was born in Linlithgow?

That at least is the claim made by the company itself - and one echoed in many website entries.

His birthdate is given as the 27th August 1809 but actually tracking down his birth records is proving very difficult. An entry in the Daily Mail in October 2015 states, “The original John West was born in Linlithgow, Scotland, in 1809. After working in the fishing industry in Scotland, he emigrated to the USA where he pioneered the canning of fish.” The John West Company’s own website states that “he cut his teeth in the local Scottish fishing trade”.

So, if he was involved with fishing was he born in a coastal town in Linlithgowshire? Another entry in Wikipedia suggests that he had training as a millwright so was he born on a farm – perhaps, it has been suggested, in the vicinity of Ecclesmachan.

No school building existed in that village until the 1830s so did John attend a school in Linlithgow – perhaps the one which stood behind the Burgh Hall?

What is not in dispute is that, at the age of forty, he emigrated to Canada where he married Margaret and set up house near Quebec. He seems to have begun his working life working in a sawmill - perhaps using his mechanical expertise gained while employed in Scotland. The Californian Gold Rush of the late 1840s saw him trying his luck on the American goldfields where, perhaps having no luck with mineral exploration, he operated a sawmill and opened a general store and post office.

In 1853 he moved to the American state of Oregon and took up a 640- acre Land Claim on the Columbia River. He called the community which grew up there, ‘Westport’. Could that be a tribute to his birthplace in Linlithgow?

He used his entrepreneurial skills to set up a sawmill from which he exported timber to Australia. As a side-line, he also began exporting salmon which migrated up the Columbia River in their thousands. Initially, the fish were salted, packed in barrels and shipped to California from where they were transported to Great Britain. In the late 1860s he set up his first canning plant – an operation which, by 1873, was producing 22,000 cases of salmon yearly.

Using his technical expertise, he invented an automated can-filling machine and a process for turning salmon waste into oil and fishmeal. During the period when salmon were not so plentiful his machinery was used to can beef, mutton and brambles. By 1882, thirty-nine of his factories were in operation. Some 1700 fishing boats supplied the products he required.

In 1882, he commissioned a 118-foot propeller-driven steamer which he, rather egotistically, called the “John West”. Captain West, as he liked to be called, died in 1888 a very wealthy man.

The company continued under the name “John West” but in the 1920s it was taken over by Unilever. In 1997 it was bought by Heinz who sold it to French-based MW Foods who in turn passed it on to the Thailand based Thai Foods Group.

Further research may come up with more details of John West’s birth and upbringing in, or near, Linlithgow. Meanwhile we can but admire the story of a local lad who became a household name across the world.

John West's headstone in West Port Cemetery
John West's headstone in West Port Cemetery


Published in Konect March 2021

Author: Bruce Jamieson


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