Beef industry history: The secret codes used by 1940’s meatworks cattle buyers

Jon Condon, 08/05/2020

LONG before texting, smart phones, faxes or even public pay-phone boxes existed, Australia’s meatworks livestock buyers used an elaborate system of code to relay important messages back to head office about their buying activity and prices paid.

With literally dozens of meat processing plants operating across eastern Australia in the post war years, every livestock sale across the country attracted a large gallery of company fat stock buyers, and large runs of bullocks and cull cows would be sold out of the paddock annually on handshake deals.

Meat companies had to find a way to transfer this information back to head office, without nosy competitors finding out what number of stock had been bought, and what price paid. In reverse, instructions at times had to be relayed back from head office to buyers about buying strategies, bidding limits, and where to go next.

Seventy years ago, telegrams were apparently the primary source of communication between buyers and head office. After each sale, each company’s buyer would race down to the nearest post office to send telegrams back to head office about what he had purchased, what was paid, and other commercially sensitive information.

The fear was that a loose-lipped telegram operator in a small country town could easily be bribed for information about a competitor, for a few shillings

Keeping all this secret was the challenge. The fear was that a loose-lipped telegram operator in a small country town could easily be bribed for information about a competitor, for a few shillings.

Former Thomas Borthwick & Sons meat sales executive John Urquhart recently sent Beef Central some images from a 1947 vintage Borthwicks Buyers’ Private Code book. The book – copy number 48 – was issued to his father, Alec Urquhart, who bought cattle, sheep, lambs, pigs and even rabbits for Borthwicks Portland abattoir for 37 years. He died in 1970.

In the post-war years, rabbits in fact played an important role in filling the protein gap caused by rationing in Australia, which extended into the early 1950s.

Borthwicks at the time ran plants at South Brooklyn, Portland, Moreton near Brisbane and Bowen in North Queensland.

The elaborate series of four-letter codes contained in the book (see examples in scanned images below – click on images for a larger view) ran to 72 pages in length, covering an incredible range of topics from livestock descriptions, price, weight and condition, to buying strategies, agency identities, meat company and wholesale identities, mustering and trucking issues and intentions, delivery dates, and personnel movements. The code book was clearly intended for use Australia-wide.

The list of stock and station agency identification codes, alone, ran to 109 entries. Some are well-known firms that exist to this day, such as Schute, Bell, Badgery, Lumby Ltd; others are long-lost in the sands of time.  The predecessors to today’s Elders, for example, are clearly evident, through precedent companies like Elder, Smith & Co; Goldsborough, Mort & Co; Australian Mercantile Land & Finance; Australian Estates; and MacTaggarts Primary Producers Co-op.

Property names, alone, run to more than 15 pages.

In a sharp contrast with today, just five breed-types are referenced in the codes: Aberdeen Angus, Devon, Hereford, Polled, and Shorthorn.

The fact that the code book comes from the period soon after WW II suggests there may have been a military connection in its development, in encrypting messages in such an elaborate and organised way.

Similar code books were apparently in use among other meat companies, and the fact that the codes and code books were frequently changed suggests the process was taken seriously by all involved.

By the 1950s, telephones became more widespread, and the need for secret coded messages started to dissolve.




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  1. Frank Gilbert, 01/09/2023

    Good report.

  2. Anne Atkinson, 12/08/2020

    I am currently writing my grandfather’s history and desperately need some help. In early 1941 he arrived in Western Austrlaia and bought a farm at Margaret River in the hope of raising and selling `prime Illawarra Shorthorn cattle’. I am trying to find out how much a head would he pay for them in 1941.
    (p.s. He didnt have the cattle for long as someone left the gate open to the uncleared paddock of poisonous weed. They developed rickets and were all shot). He had to replace them with dairy cattle and earn his money through milk sales and hard work.

  3. Dick Morgan, 09/05/2020

    Apart from the telephone if you needed to communicate a message quickly you used a telegram, sent from a local post office, or a cablegram from the OTC (Overseas Telecommunication Commission). You were charged per word so to keep costs down you coded your message into five letter groups. Each group was a complete sentence. There were various codes available, the principal one being Bentleys. Most importers and exporters had private codes.

    Just to clarify, Dick appears to be talking about meat trading here – not livestock trading. Editor

  4. Bernie Gannan, 09/05/2020

    A code shortens the words in a telegram so it’s easier to write and costs less.
    I did a couple of months as stock clerk in Borthwicks Head Office in 1955 before booking up for buyers at Newmarket Saleyards etc and then back to Stanbroke station.
    I’ve never seen or heard of that code book.
    Buying for Tancred Bros in the 1970’s it was a long wait for the public phone at the Longreach Post Office at night, so I suggested a code for each cattle category in a telegram sent soon after the sale, and phone in the morning.
    It worked.

    • John Urquhart, 11/05/2020

      Bernie Gannan – gosh that name rings a bell, You would have pencilled for Andy Brown , Col Steadman and maybe the Crowe brothers. I think Dad’s edition was probably the last. As SW Victoria is a small region c.f. Queensland regions, Dad was rarely on the road for long periods. He would phone in after the evening meal. Our home phone was the busiest private number in Portland. He rarely, if ever, used the book. I suspect there would have been some prewar editions. Most likely the same code phrases would have been used in cables back to London.
      Can anyone give an estimate of the proportion of livestock purchased at sale yards versus private purchases direct direct from stations in that era? It would be interesting to compare it with today’s practice.

      • Michael Kerr, 31/08/2023

        Hi John l remember the days in Hamilton when you served up a beautiful meal in Grey street . l also remember your father l sold him bullocks in the late 60 th around Hawkesdale and Warrnambool give me a call some time we talk about old times 0438 528246

      • Bernie Gannan, 13/05/2020

        I was with Andy and/or Col at all Newmarket sales and at Ballarat and Bendigo sales.

        • John Urquhart, 13/05/2020

          Bernie, I now live in Ballarat. The sale yards moved out of town about 18 months ago. This weekend is a clearance sale of all the infrastructure. Do you want a souvenir??? In the late 1940s Colin and Don Bridgeford spent a year at Portland with Dad learning buying. They were virtually family members. Sometimes would carry me to bed on the shoulder.

  5. John Mohr-Bell, 09/05/2020

    It always amazes me that Sir Sydney Kidman used telegrams to amass his fortunes/herds when needing drovers to move new purchases, and be informed of where the good grasses were at the time in outback Australia. How communication has changed in the past half century when compared to the previous full century.

  6. Val Dyer, 08/05/2020

    History is wonderful as it helps us not only understand the past but make some predictions for the future.
    As an agent back in the 60’s, my husband, John, appreciates this.

  7. MICHAEL KELLY, 08/05/2020

    I wonder wether Alan Turing would have cracked the code?

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