Mrs Ball, KWT, and her famous chutney
© Victor, S. 2017 Imvubu, 27:2
The story of Mrs Ball and her famous chutney has been doing the rounds on social media recently. Based on several printed sources and internet sites, the narrative is however, so riddled with errors that it warrants an attempt to waylay some of the fabrications. This is important as Mrs Ball’s chutney is an iconic South African condiment with a distinctive King William’s Town flavour.
A quick search on the internet will tell you that the chutney recipe supposedly originates from Canada, that it was brought to South Africa by Mrs Ball’s mother, Sarah Adkins, and that she, together with her husband, Henry Adkins (erroneously referred to as Captain Adkins), and the recipe for the chutney was shipwrecked on the SS Quanza in 1852. Settling in King William’s Town , or so the story goes, the couple had a daughter, Amelia in 1865. As a young bride Amelia supposedly received the coveted secret chutney recipe from her mother. It is, admittedly, a fascinating story of a shipwrecked family recipe. It’s just the kind of narrative that adds brand value and can sell chutney and probably newspapers too. As the saying goes – never let the truth get in the way of a good story!
The popular narrative is problematic on several accounts. Mrs Ball’s (neé Amelia Adkins) parents were English not Canadian and Henry Adkins held no naval appointment. In addition, the SS Quanza was shipwrecked in 1872 not 1852 and the couple only met in South Africa. Moreover, the original Adkins chutney recipe considerably differs, or at least has been significantly adapted, from the now famous chutney, notably by replacing dried apricots with mixed fruit as well as adding a vital secret ingredient. The Sarah Adkins’ recipe can therefore not be described as ‘the coveted secret chutney recipe’.
Henry and Sarah’s daughter, Amelia Alice Elizabeth Adkins (subsequently Ball), hailed from a family of eleven children, and was born in King William’s Town on 23 March 1865. She was baptised in the Holy Trinity (Anglican) Church, the same church where her parents were married on March 1852. Henry Adkins was an hotelier, general dealer and farmer on the family farm Mount Pleasant, at Fort Jackson. Amelia attended Kingsridge High School for Girls in King Williams’s town.
Sarah Adkins manufactured and sold her chutney, presumably made according to a recipe which is still in the family’s possession in commercial quantities. The Adkins family was to produce bottles of ‘Mrs Henry Adkins Sen., Colonial Chutney Manufacturer’ at Fort Jackson during her lifetime. After Sarah’s death Amelia’s sister, Florence, and subsequently her brother, Harold, continued to manufacture chutney at Fort Jackson.
Amelia married Herbert Saddleton Ball in 1886 at Newlands, East London. He worked on the Cape Railway and the couple was stationed at various places, such as Queenstown, Toise River, Burgersdorp, Johannesburg and Cape Town, where he retired. In between raising a family of seven children, Amelia, who was known as an excellent cook, continued to follow the family’s chutney making tradition, and the condiment became popular at church bazaars at the time of the First World War (1914-1919), it is during this time that Mrs Ball created the famous condiment we know and love today. At the time of her death, this recipe is known to her son and grandson.
Soon the home kitchen was just too cramped, the Balls opened a factory and the name ‘Mrs Ball’s Chutney’ became official. The demand for the palatable condiment grew and in 1936 the Balls commissioned Cape Town businessman, Fred Metter, to assist with the business. He designed the octagonal bottle and the label with the family crest, a signature combination that has been retained throughout the product’s history.
On a more personal note, what kind of person was the famous Mrs Ball? According to her grandson, Richard Ball, Amelia was always ready to sit and chat with her grandchildren and loved talking about the good old days. He remembered one day, around her 90th birthday, when she answered a phone call from a newspaper reporter saying: “No this is NOT the grand old lady, this is Mrs Ball speaking!” He described her as pretty forthright, assertive and used to getting her own way, but she was also very family orientated. Her whole life revolved around her husband, children and grandchildren.
Amelia Ball died at her Fish Hoek home in 1962 at the wonderful age of ninety-seven. The chutney business was sold in the late 1960’s and the brand subsequently came under the control of Unifoods. Today her chutney, with its distinctive King William’s Town flavour, is available in several varieties and is enjoyed all over the world.
Amathole Museum files
Ball, Richard. Norfolk, England
Curator of History