Working Lives

Memories of Sheringham and Overman, Seed Merchants (1950s-1990s)

Location: Fakenham

Peter grew up on the Norfolk coast at Brancaster. After studying agriculture and horticulture, in the early 1960s he joined Sheringham and Overman’s agricultural seed merchants firm in Fakenham as a bookkeeper. He describes changes in the seed business which diversified from supplying local farmers, who themselves grew herbage seed, to include one of the first garden centres. He trained as a crop inspector at the NIAB in Cambridge.

I consider myself a Yorkshireman, because my father had a job as an RAC motorcyclist and in 1936 was transferred from Norfolk up to Doncaster. We were in Doncaster until I was eleven years old, when my parents decided they needed to come back to Norfolk and moved back to Brancaster on the coast. This was a fantastic revelation for me. I’d hardly ever seen the sea before, and to be able to have a bedroom overlooking the sea was really quite wonderful.

I was an only child. I always regretted that I didn’t have brothers and sisters. Particularly, I would have loved to have had a sister but that never happened. Unfortunately when I was born I was all Mother was able to have.

First jobs and college

My first job, after I left school at Brancaster, was to work for a summer on a nursery in Brancaster Staithe. It had many acres of apples, lovely orchards. In Brancaster itself there was a large greenhouse enterprise where tomatoes and, if I remember, scabious flowers were grown. Beautiful flowers. That set me on the way to going to King’s Lynn Technical College to take up a two year agricultural and horticultural course. Unfortunately I hadn’t done very well with my examinations so I was a little bit undecided as to exactly what I was going to do with my life. Although I didn’t come out of the course with flying colours, I nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed it.

After my two years at Tech my parents were setting out on a new venture opening a nursing home at East Bilney Hall; it had considerable grounds there. The idea was that I was going to stay at home, work, and help with the garden produce so that the home could be self-sufficient. There was plenty of space for animals. We kept pigs, goats and fowls. Unfortunately I didn’t get on too well with my father and it didn’t work out. I had to look elsewhere for a ‘proper job’, as I put it.

In 1958 I applied to R J Seaman and Sons, North Elmham. They were general agricultural merchant dealing in grain, malting barley, and all aspects of agriculture, chemicals and fertilisers. I was interviewed by one of the directors at Seaman’s and he was obviously impressed enough with me to offer me a job at Elmham Mill, where they were producing animal feedstuffs. They decided to open an office at the Mill so that they could have a stock clerk there to keep records of all the different commodities that they had to have, both in and out of the Mill, so that they never ran out of any of their stocks.

Beginning at Sheringham and Overman

In 1961 I was thinking about families and marriage and I decided to get married. Before that actually happened I was offered the opportunity of joining a company called Sheringham & Overman. I have to admit that I didn’t know anything about them, but the person who spoke to me about it was a fellow member of Fakenham Round Table and that was how we got to know one another. They were looking for someone to work in their office, particularly on the book-keeping side, which I certainly didn’t think I was well-enough qualified to do. They said it was a very simple manual system and that if I liked to have a go they’d be pleased to set me up.

From that moment on my life changed significantly. Sheringham & Overman were agricultural seed merchants growing and contracting, buying and selling, all types of herbage seed, clover seeds, and anything to do with that type of agriculture. I became greatly interested. I soon learnt that the basic business they conducted was all within a 25 to 35 mile radius of Fakenham, which was nothing but agricultural land.

Sheringham & Overman had been based at Holt Road, Fakenham since 1959 having previously been based in the town centre. They had found that as the company increased it was not easy to operate within the town centre, particularly with the vehicles that were coming and going. In those days there was no such thing as bulk handling and everything had to be manhandled in sacks. The weight of the sacks varied from 25 kilos upwards, and, at that time, items such as clover seed was only handled in 18 stones, which was an enormous weight. Men in those days were able to handle such things.

The new site at Holt Road had been designed by the then Managing Director, who was really a seed machine expert. Holt Road had a state-of-the-art seed processing plant and became quite the envy of seed merchants throughout the whole of the country. The bulk of the business by Sheringham & Overman was conducted within quite a short radius of Fakenham. Seed contracts were agreed with local farmers to produce seed up to a certain standard in order that it could be re-cleaned and sold back to them, and of course to many other people.

Innovation in seed processing

The seed cleaning plants were very specialised pieces of equipment for cleaning the cereals wheat, barley, oats, rye, and herbage seed including rye grasses, cock’s-foot, meadow fescue, and clover. Clover was a very much-used commodity in those days. It was a valuable crop, particularly for seed growing customers, because you could contract to grow cereal seeds behind clover and be guaranteed some very good results. Not only were the machines very special but the men who operated them were also. Most of them would only be trained up by actually working. There didn’t seem to be courses for these men to go on as there was not anywhere set up to provide such facilities. The labour of Sheringham & Overman consisted of about thirty men from Fakenham, all with various special jobs such as seed cleaning and chemical treating. They knew that the end product had to be of a very, very high standard. Sheringham & Overman set their targets as high as they possibly could.

The seed process entailed all the grain coming in in sacks. It had to be tipped into a hopper, which was then elevated to the top of a very tall tower. This was quite a spectacle in Fakenham because it stood way above most other premises in the town. Once the seed was up the elevators the method of cleaning was by a gravity system. The seed, as it gradually fell, went through various sieves to extract all the rubbish that was in the seed, passed brushes to polish the seed, and finally ended up in the bulk one ton bins which Sheringham & Overman had invented themselves. It had never been heard of before, the locally made one ton bins permitted the seed to be stored until such time that it was required to be processed and dressed with a chemical treatment, if that’s what had to be done.

When I began in the office I really was thrown in at the deep end. I was taken on as someone to work in the office on the accounts side and I distinctly remember on my very first day having to write the cheques, that had been received in the post that morning, into the cash book. Somehow or other I made a mighty mess of it, and it almost reduced me to tears, but I persevered.

A new Managing Director was appointed and from then on the whole business of Sheringham & Overman seemed to step up a grade. It became more involved in international seed trading which became a real asset to the firm. It was a great benefit to the company to be able to process all sorts of seed. Consequently they were able to attract local farmers to grow special types of seed, rather than just growing ordinary commercial grain, and more often than not there would be a healthy return. But of course, that did mean that the growers had to be very well selected. they were people who the company knew were good farmers, farmers who took care of their growing crops. as a result of that, crops such as rye grass, timothy, meadow fescue and clover were able to be contracted and processed at holt road. this enabled the company to produce some quite significant quantities of herbage seed which was then traded to other seed companies spread across the British Isles.

Seed growing

One other very important aspect of the company’s business was actually the seed dressing of both cereal and herbage seeds. The product, Ceresan, was a chemical used to dress cereals to prevent various diseases. The Ceresan dressing plants, of which there were two at the company, were in great demand, especially as at that time farmers were paid well by the Government to have their own seed treated. I have to say that the workmen who were applying the seed dressing to the actual corn, to the grain, had to do it in conditions which were not particularly pleasant.

The demand for herbage seed seemed to grow every year and consequently the company started looking a little bit further afield than East Anglia for the growing of their contract crops. The Managing Director and I ‑ by this time I had been promoted to Company Secretary ‑ had become very much more well acquainted with the actual business of herbage seed. We went to Sweden and Denmark, two countries which were prolific herbage seed producers, and were able to arrange contracts for seed to be imported into Fakenham. We were also to arrange exports out of Fakenham back to the continent.

Growing herbage seed is not particularly simple and the weather conditions were absolutely critical at the time of harvesting. Originally, seed was ‘swathed down’ and laid on the ground to finish ripening. If the weather turned against us as it laid on the ground it would re-shoot, and as a consequence become quite unusable. It was imperative that the conditions at harvest time had to be almost ideal. We found that many of the growers of herbage seed were unsure as to which was absolutely the best time, the prime time, to harvest and they depended very much on the advice of  the Managing Director and myself to advise them exactly on when the work should be done. As time passed that method was given up and combines were used to combine the crop direct, which was a significant advance and helped to produce much, much more seed.

Throughout the United Kingdom there were some very big companies operating in herbage seed, and much inter-trading was done between them. This developed into being far and away the biggest part of the business at Sheringham & Overman. The cereal side continued to grow but not at such a rate as the herbage seed. At that time, after the cereal seed had been cleaned, processed and dressed, Sheringham & Overman used one hundredweight hessian bags. These hessian bags were a special item in as much as they were described as being circular woven, which meant they had not got any seams that would stretch and lose the seed. By being circular woven and tied by hand you could ensure that every little grain would stay in the bag. The 50 kilo sacks, or 112 pounds net weight, were printed with the Sheringham & Overman name on them and were produced by a company in Ipswich who were very well known in the hessian seed business. Again, as time passed, the bags became expensive as hessian was difficult to obtain. More and more seed merchants were looking to use paper sacks. When they came into operation the size of the sacks was reduced to 56 pounds, 25 kilos, which was a much more manageable and stackable commodity, going on to pallets with a ton and a half on a pallet. Much more manageable.

The whole business at Sheringham & Overman was very labour intensive, warehouses did not lend themselves to have machines in to move seed about. When Sheringham & Overman started using pallets the forklift trucks had to come into operation. They had to be particularly selective about which trucks they could use within the warehouse. For me, as a layman, the whole business at Sheringham & Overman was quite fascinating. You have to remember, we didn’t trade in any other commodities apart from seed, and the only time seed was required by our customers was at the Autumn and Spring drilling times. So consequently, at both those periods work was very intense and long hours had to be put in for producing and dressing the seed to fulfil the farmers’ requests and orders. Anyone involved in such business would realise how many farmers are reluctant to order their seed until the very last minute, and, when they’ve done that, they want the seed on the farm the next morning. It meant working long hours at difficult times. Because of the facilities we had at Fakenham we were able to fulfil all of our commitments.

The NIAB and the OSTS

One part of the business that Sheringham & Overman was not involved in is seed breeding, promoting new varieties. There were many companies within the United Kingdom who were specialising in this. All of the seed development in the trade was organised by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, the NIAB, at Cambridge. Consequently we had many visits to Cambridge, and it was there that I was able to train as a qualified crop inspector, both for herbage and cereal seed. For that purpose, many trial plots were grown at Cambridge. Courses were held, in which qualified crop inspectors had to go and advise what particular varieties there were. You were taken to a blank plot and you had to rely on the information you’d been given. Each particular grain had certain characteristics, you had to check these out and try and diagnose exactly which was which. If you failed to report satisfactorily to the Cambridge Inspectors your name was deleted from the list of crop inspectors and you had to start the process all again.

The NIAB specialised in every single type of crop, such things as lettuce and cucumbers. Anything that grew that was edible, and was needed in agriculture, was all organised from Cambridge. There were many seed companies, spread around the whole of the United Kingdom, who were involved in seed breeding and were wholesalers and retailers. After gaining NIAB approval of varieties that were newly bred they needed to display and sell their produce to the general farming population. To do this, on many occasions, seed merchants such as Sheringham & Overman were asked to send representatives to special days when the attributes of the new varieties were explained to all. And, of course, there was great competition between the companies to outshine one-another. We had some very special days out, both in this country and abroad, to celebrate when the new varieties were introduced.

Speaking about the NIAB at Cambridge brings to mind also the OSTS, the Official Seed Testing System. Again, very ably and well controlled from Cambridge. Because of the quality of seed we were handling we had to employ at least one seed analyst  who was able to dissect the samples of cereal, herbage seed and clovers to assess their purity and germination. At Sheringham & Overman we had a very up-to-date modern laboratory where all this work was carried out. To be able to handle cereal and herbage seed it had to be of a certain quality and the Seed Laboratory were the people responsible for letting the company know which was good enough and which was not good enough. Any seed which was not good enough had to be handled entirely separately. It was sometimes possible, for example with a germination problem, that you could blend some seed with a germination of 98-99% with something slightly lower than that to bring it within the actual minimum quality that was required for it to be traded. Any seed that failed to meet the standard altogether, and there was usually some parcels every year because the weather controlled the quality of it, had to be disposed of at absolutely rock-bottom price. It would go to salvage people. Goodness knows what they did with it, we just had to get it off our premises.

To make sure that all the seed in the warehouse was up to standard Cambridge would send official seed samplers. They would call on the Company at any given time, without any notification, and would have access to the warehouse. They would go round, take samples and test it themselves before reporting back to the Company whether or not the samples were up to the standard that we had said they were. This often caused a little bit of a problem because very often samples became mixed with other samples. Very often you would find that as you were processing a parcel of seed you would suddenly come to a section that was… Let’s say we were producing wheat, you would suddenly come to a section where you would probably find a considerable lot of barley in it. It was always difficult to know how much of the wrong seed had gone through the machine. All of these little jobs meant that because of the equipment we’d got at Fakenham we were nearly always able to make the seed up to a saleable standard. In some cases, if the particular variety that you were processing was scarce and it didn’t come up to the specified certification, farmers would be prepared to take it at a much reduced price as they were producing grain just for animal feed.

The new garden centre

Because of the very specialised business that the company was pursuing, and the fact that it only operated to its full extent for two parts of each year, it was thought that the company ought to spread its wings and try and find another form of income. In this respect it was decided to convert part of the existing warehouses to build up a new garden centre. This was in the hope that it would be a business that could carry on throughout all the year and provide a suitable income. At this time garden centres were nothing like as prolific as they are at the moment and the one at Fakenham was very specially built and arranged. On the opening day, I remember, Mr Harold Wheatcroft, the renowned famous rose-grower, gave his services and advice to all of the people who had been invited on that particular day. Our special guest for the day was Mr Richard Todd, the actor, who was performing at the Theatre Royal in Norwich. He came and helped to swell the number of visitors we had on that particular opening day.

Apart from that, there was very little other types of business that the company could be involved with. The Managing Director took it upon himself to get very much involved in the wholesale herbage seed business, which could at times be very volatile while at other times highly profitable. The quantities of seed produced overall in the United Kingdom and in Europe depended on the weather. It often happened that one particular country, or one particular area, had a disastrous result from their seed production and consequently the seed price would increase dramatically. On some occasions, when the Managing Director was buying and selling seed, the same parcel of seed might be traded certainly more than once. Each time the price, because of the scarcity, would be increasing all the time.

There are very few companies actually involved today in contracting and growing of herbage seed. It is a very specialist item. One or two companies are involved with it. The retail herbage seed business is quite profitable but, because of the small amounts that are used, most agricultural companies are not prepared to become involved. They’ll handle the seed, and take an order, and pass it on to their customer, but they won’t have anything to do with the actual preparing and processing of the seed. The Managing Director who I have spoken of carried on in the seed business with a company called Norfolk Seeds Ltd, who are perhaps now one of the only very rare companies who handle herbage seed very well.

Royal approval and special people

One thing I have not mentioned was the great delight the company took in the Royal Warrant for providing herbage seed to the Royal Estate at Sandringham. This was a considerable fillip to the company, and meant that we were able to show the Royal Coat of Arms on all of our correspondence. It was a great asset and a great compliment to the company to be awarded this.

In my 20 plus years, starting as an office boy and finishing up as a director, I have to say that working conditions and the people I worked with were as good and special as any anybody could have wished. The members of staff, whether they were on the warehouse or in the office, were regular and it was a rare occasion for one to leave and for the Company to find a replacement. In this respect, it would see many of them, even when the company failed, still able to find jobs in the district.

Peter (b. 1938) talking to WISEArchive on 25th November 2010 in Brisley, Norfolk.

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