A recreation of panels from a Surprise dried beans box, dated some time between 1970-76. I used a picture of a box sold on Trade Me in order to remake the graphics.
Who remembers the Surprise brand? Everyone should. Especially the peas. I recall well how they were heavily advertised on television in the late 1970s and early 1980s – it was on relentless rotation!
However it may have been forgotten that Surprise were around long before that; as far back as the 1950s in New Zealand with pea and bean products – both dried and frozen.
Initially I wrote this article on the premise that the Surprise brand likely started out as a subsidiary of J.R. Butland’s Crest Fine Foods, later Butland Industries, given the logo is prominently displayed on the packaging. Crest was for some time the most successful (mainly canned) food business in New Zealand until usurped by the Wattie’s line (Butland had his initial success with the invention of Chesdale Cheese and was also behind the Goldpack fruit brand amongst others).
History is confusing around how the Crest brand passed from one owner to the next. My research shows that the brand changed hands in 1959 – but that Wattie’s kept producing the frozen stuff on behalf of Unilever until 1961 or so. Another record shows the Crest brand passing via S. Kirkpatrick & Company Ltd (the “K” Brand) to J. Wattie Foods Limited in 1960 (Wattie’s had also bought both “K” and Thompson & Hill’s OAK brands in this year).
A shopper holding packets of surprise dried peas at Merrylands Shopping Centre, NSW, Australia. Taken in 1966 by Ern McQuillan, image courtesy of the National Library of Australia colelction, ref nlapic-vn4984301.
I’d have to see more examples of packaging with notations on company details to develop a better tracking – but I would say that this was referring to the canned business, not the frozen and dried goods portion (Crest also included spices and sauce lines) – as by the early 1970s the Surprise brand, along with hugely popular Wall’s ice cream (covered here in September 2013) – is being marketed under the auspices of Birds Eye Frozen Foods NZ Ltd, a Unilever subsidiary. As the Crest brand died off for good around the mid-late 1970s that part was dropped by Unilever and the Surprise brand was slotted under Continental.
I assumed Surprise was by Crest – and that when Butland had supposedly sold the brand to Unilever (who then added some more product lines like packets of dried “Stockpot Vegetables” for various soups, amongst others) they acquired the Surprise line/ brand from Butland in the deal as well.
Just when I thought I had this all sorted – a Surprise sliced apples box appeared online for sale indicating it was manufactured by “Crest Foods Limited” alone. It’s similar to the box pictured here dated first half of the 1970s – except it seemed to have an imperial price written on it in pencil. Did Crest hold a license from Unilever for Surprise then conceded later? A quick check of records shows that the address for Crest on the box, at Jackson Street, Petone, Wellington – was the same address for Unilever’s Birds Eye.
A recreation of panels from a Surprise dried apples box, dated some time between 1970-76. I used a picture taken of items in a mock grocery store in an unknown museum collection to remake the artwork. It slightly differs from the earlier box at bottom.
A potted Unilever history: William Hesketh Lever launched Sunlight Soap in England in 1885 and it was imported to Aotearoa until operations opened in Sydney in 1899 – at which point importation of the product into New Zealand switched to Australia. However it was not until quite late in the piece, 1919 in fact, that Lever products were produced domestically. In 1920 Lever merged with Dutch fats and oils business Margarine Unie modifying the company to an amalgamation of the two monikers – Unilever.
It’s the usual story with many Trans-Tasman companies – the development was quite separate as is the case with Unilever (until recently). Down under, Unilever spent a number of decades, well into the 1980s, still referring to themselves as Lever Products/Lever Bros (N.Z.) Ltd until they acquired the brands Oxo, Bushells, Faggs (coffee), and John West – and along with their Quality Packers business (including Choysa, Perfit, Red Rose and Q-P) all merged to form Unifoods NZ in 1988.
Over the years Unilever also produced Monkey Brand (household cleaning soap), and Lux was an enduring brand over the decades with soap powder, dish liquid and toilet soap lines. Other toilet soap brands were Lifebuoy, Castilever, Solvol and Knights Castille. Household cleaners Vim and Handy arrived in the 50s and 60s; Marge’s toothpaste and Impulse deodorant debuted in the 1980s. Soups included Continental , Country Style and Slim-a-Soup. There was instant Savoury Rice in beefy onion, Chinese style, and mild curry flavours. The Abel’s brand had vegetable oil, margarine, and copha – and Lucky Whip was a canned aerosol whipped cream. Frying Saucers, which I remember, were a frozen snack for deep-frying that resembled fishcakes but had mince meat inside. They were all the rage for a while when I was a child. Wall’s ice cream was at various times slotted in under the Birds Eye frozen foods subsidiary. The Surprise line was put under the Crest brand for some time. I am sure there were a number more brands that Unilever produced in New Zealand.
A Surprise dried beans box dated early-mid 1970s used to recreate my artwork for the box panels at top. Note the decimal price stamp shows it definitely dates after 1967.
Clarence Frank Birdseye was a taxidermist turned inventor from Brooklyn who experimented with and developed a flash-freezing system for frozen foods in the 1920s after being inspired by Inuit Eskimo methods he observed on assignment in Newfoundland. Within a few short years, after having invested a few dollars in brine, ice and a fan – he had perfected the technique through trial and error (and one bankruptcy) and sold his General Seafood Corporation business for a fortune to Goldman Sachs/Postum Cereals (which later merged to become General Foods in America).
Again, the company histories separated out between the U.S. and the U.K. – having different owners in different global territories . The latter is how the brand came to Aotearoa via British Unilever – who bought rights from America to the ‘quick freezing’ patent and Birds Eye brand in the 1930s.
Home refrigeration started to popularise in the 1930s – and gave rise to the ice cream industry catering to this phenomenon – by packing their products for the first time in card quart and pint boxes to take home for post supper treats. Frozen vegetables were a new-fangled thing in New Zealand in the late 1940s but the above groundwork had already been laid for their immediate popularity.
Advert for Surprise peas by Crest, New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, 1964. I think this is the dried version.
In 1947, Unilever of Britain contracted with Wattie’s to produce frozen peas, then a variety of vegetables and fruit under its Birds Eye brand – which I previously mentioned here in December 2011. Wattie’s then established a new plant at Gisborne in 1952 in order to continue accommodate this contract. Subsequently, as soon as their new processing facility opened Wattie’s followed with their own packaged peas and corn; this eventually became a huge range of frozen product that did their competition no harm in the marketplace for quite some time – for Birds Eye were around well into the 1980s before it fizzled out (the business was finally dismantled in 1984). However the brand had a longer and more popular life in Australia, where it continues to this day.
A 1956 still seems to show Birds Eye peas, raspberries and frozen fish (probably fingers, which launched in England that same year) amongst other items. According to Simplot, the current owners of the brand in Australasia – Birds Eye was not launched over the ditch until two years later in 1949 – although I think it’s clear by now that believing what a company writes on their own website about their own history is tantamount to listening to a claim from most politicians.
By the 1980s the Surprise brand had expanded to apples, peas, beans, butter beans, peas and carrots, minted peas, mixed vegetables, and chopped onions. I am sure there was more, this is just what I know of. The brand is still under Unilever and going Strong today, with four products – minted peas, garden peas and peas & corn (all in frozen and dried versions) and dried mixed vegetables ( a combo of pea, potatoes, beans and carrots). To my knowledge Wattie’s (now Heinz Wattie’s Ltd) continue their association with Unilever for production.
A Surprise dried apple box, likely dating between 1961-1966. I conject that by this time the ownership of the brand had transferred to Unilever, and product was being manufactured in their Wellington plant, hence the Jackson street, Petone address on the side.
However right at the end of writing I ran across a U.K. radio advert archive which lists an ad for Surprise garden peas circa 1960 – suddenly making me wonder whether they were either exported to the U.K for sale by Unilever – or simply originally a Unilever brand all along . Something wasn’t right with my story.
Further to that, In an online discussion about the Surprise brand one person remembers “…Batchelor’s “Surprise” peas . My father devised the name and designed the packaging…” I’d love to follow up on this line of inquiry but the conversation was unfortunately archived. Some further digging into Unilever history in the U.K. revealed that in the early 1940s Van den Bergh Foods/Unilever had acquired a fifty year old British company named Batchelor’s which specialised in processing peas.
Then I ran across a 1966 promotional photo in the National Library of Australia archive of a woman holding a few packets of Surprise peas – almost the same package design I’ve featured in the 1964 advert here. However the brand name was different and after a lot of squinting I realised the product was under Rosella, not Birds Eye. Unilever were successful in a takeover of Rosella in 1963 and remained owners until 2002.
With Unilever’s Surprise line in New Zealand appearing under Crest just after the acquisition of that brand, then their Surprise line in Australia appearing under Rosella just after the acquisition of that brand, I started to see a pattern. I conject that Surprise was never a Crest brand and Unilever acquired the product and technique with their purchase of Batchelor’s in the U.K. They just threw it under whatever was the most popular brand in the marketplace at the time in a corresponding country – hence it’s move to Continental when Crest was given last rites in Aotearoa.
L: Surprise dried peas box from a 1977 Four Square stores brochure. R: Surprise frozen and dried peas packets from an IGA stores shopping-themed board game issued as a promo for the 14th anniversary of the brand in New Zealand, in 1969.
The conclusion is fairly clear that Surprise was never originally a Kiwi brand at all. The research still took me on an interesting journey, though. Although, – it seems that, despite my best efforts – this story is not quite wrapped up yet.
I’d date these particular boxes I’ve recreated at some time between 1970 and 1976 (closer to the former date) based on regular changes to the packaging, as well as being evidenced by the decimal price of 25 cents.
Update June 2015: Katherine Milburn, one of the Ephemera Librarians at the Hocken Library Collections archive, saw this article and was kind enough to contact me with some data on the frozen foods industry, as well as these scans of Surprise brand bean boxes. They definitely date after 1972 as the printer’s mark is ‘Whitcoulls.’ This company wasn’t producing items of packaging until that year, after a merger of huge printing and publishing businesses Whitcombe & Tombs and Coull Somerville Wilkie. However since I’ve established dates for the boxes in the main article as being in production as late as 1976 when they were still marking packaging of items with dual imperial and metrics for those slow on the uptake, that gives us a pretty good start date.
As for a cut-off date, well our only clue is the complete absence of a barcode, so probably prior to around 1982. I also remember this Whitcoulls logo in use in the late 1970s to early 1980s. So, two versions of a box for the same product. Obviously the yellow one is earlier at 32 cents. Plus the mustard theme just screams of the decade they call ‘the one that style forgot’ (I beg to differ on this point). So I’d say late 1970s for this one; the green version shows the price has now risen to 41 cents so a guess of the very early 1980s.
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