Working Lives

The Life of the Land (1940-1997)

Location: Aylsham

John talks about his experiences working on the land before and after the Second World War including his extensive work in horticulture.

I lived next door to a working farm and so I remember quite a lot of the old ways of Norfolk farming and my father being a nurseryman with glasshouses. I also know a bit about horticulture which I took up later in my life. My first recollection of the farm was a lady who had lost her husband and had taken the farm over from him. We only lived 50 yards from the farmhouse and she would come and take me to help feed the chickens. When I was about four she used to sit me on the back of the old farm horses.

Holdgy boy

One of the things would be harvest time, and I would be sitting on the horse’s back and I was what they called a ‘holdgy boy’ and I did this from a very early age. Shocks were the sheaves of corn put together like the roof of a house and each time you loaded one shock onto the wagon, or the tumbrel, the holdgy boy would shout ‘Holdgy!’ and the person on the tumbrel would stick their fork into the shoves on the tumbrel to steady themselves and then the horse and vehicle would move forward to the next shock, and he would then stop and they would load the next shock on, and this would continue right through the field. At the end of the load the chap on the top would hold tight and the horse would be led away and taken to the elevator which would load the corn sheaves up onto the stack. You would then have a stacker who would make the stacks. I always thought how interesting stacks were because it’s not just a bundle of corn thrown together to make the form of a house. The base is usually formed by a thicket of what we used to call brush which were the trimmings of the hedges which were cut in July, a month before harvest would start, laid on the area where the stack would be, so you started off with perhaps a two foot layer of brushwood. It was done that way to keep the corn off the ground, because if the corn was on the ground and got damp it would germinate and once the corn has germinated that’s no good.

Then the stack was made with what the old farmers used to call ‘arse end outward’, which was the butt, the bottom of the shoof would be out towards the weather, the corn ear would be towards the centre and you always build, or start, from the outside and work inwards.The ears of the corn were always higher than the butt end so if rain drove onto the outside it wouldn’t run in’ards. So you always filled the middle of the stack first and then worked outwards towards the row that you’d already put round to make the shape.That is an art. and ‘course then after you’d finished you’d do the topping up, and again it was in the form of a roof so that the water always ran to the outside. Then at a later date, which I didn’t actually see done for quite a lot of years, was the actual thatching, when the roof was thatched with wheat straw.


Harvest came first, and you always had to fight against the weather, didn’t you? You had to get that done while you got the chance, and then you waterproofed it with a thatch later. And then in the winter time when there weren’t too much on, the farmers would have a few extra hands from perhaps the neighbouring farm, and perhaps one or two chaps would go round with a thrashing machine. I mean I can remember they always used to have a few stacks right here, where this bungalow is, and they’d bring the thrashing machine and there’d be two, perhaps three, men’d come with the machine. One to look after the steam boiler, one to look after the thrashing engine and cut the bonds, the strings round the sheaves. He had a knife and he would stand on the top of the thrashing drum and as the sheaves were thrown to him he would quickly slip this curved knife upwards and outwards and cut the string. This had to be done because the corn and straw couldn’t go through the drum in a lump. It had to be fed evenly, preferably crossways of the machine, and that was done so that the rotating part in the drum scrubbed the corn out of the ears.

And ‘course all the time when they were harvesting the rats and mice would be running, so all the local boys had their little lurchers and greyhounds and Jack Russells and they used to catch the rats. Some of the farmers used to put a wire netting about a yard high all the way round away from the stack, so that they couldn’t get out and then the dogs had fun! Of course the old-fashioned engines were all fuelled in those days by steam coal, which were huge lumps, I suppose some of them must have weighed a couple of stone a piece, these great big lumps, and they were fed into the machine, into the engine. Always surprised me, the size of those massive engines, they were only about eight horse power. You know when you think of a little Fiat car the engine power weren’t more than that, but they were geared down that much they had terrific power.

Driving a tractor in the 1940s

We’ll now go forward a bit till I was 10 or 11 and then I helped on the farm, and that entailed driving an old Fordson Standard tractor, again as holdgy boy, but I had by that time got up to cultivating and harrowing. I can always remember my boss borrowed one from his dad and he had one of his own and the one he borrowed from his dad was a Standard Fordson but it was an American one, and they were brought over from America I assume just before the War and instead of having ‘petrol’ on the cap they had ‘gasoline’. Then another job I did at 10 or 11 was sitting on the back of a self-binder, tractor driver on the front with a Fordson tractor and I would sit on the back. I had two operations to perform, one was to drop, raise and lower the cutter bar of the binder to get the right height for cutting and the other one was a foot pedal which when the shoof carrier. This was like a massive rounded fork almost like a semi-circle of tines bolted on the side of the self-binder. Every time you got about six or eight shoves in it, which was the equivalent to a shock, you’d push your foot on the pedal and it would drop them in one place, so that the farm workers who were then, perhaps, shocking behind you didn’t have to walk about for them, which would have meant a lot more time So that was one of the first time-savers, I suppose. And I can remember my boss buying that, which was quite an innovative thing at the time. My boss, not only was he a farmer, he was a contractor and we went a wide radius cutting the corn. I used to bike there in the mornings for seven o’clock and call in the farm on the way to get a Corona bottle full of petrol to start up the tractor. He would then come later with a five gallon drum of paraffin or kerosene.

Wages and perks

I’d just turned about 17, still at school, and I was driving a Ferguson tractor, rolling, cultivating and harrowing, and also did a harvest on the farm. I remember working two days and my boss gave me an air rifle, which I suppose that was good pay at the time.

I think I used to probably earn about £2 a week, which in the 40s weren’t that bad. I mean, early 40s I think a farmer was only getting about £3 or £4. There were certain benefits which some farm workers had. Some lived in tied cottages, but if you fell foul of the farmer you were out on your ear and nowhere to go. You got a few benefits like eggs, the odd chicken. A lot of the farmers diversified during the war and went into growing top fruit crops, blackcurrants, strawberries and things like and anybody that went to pick the fruit got extra rations. My wife earned eight shillings and that bought me a pair of shoes. Everybody did the potato harvest. They were either cultivated or spun out with a potato spinner, and mostly picked up by ladies, single ladies and married people, who wanted to earn a little bit more, and they would get extra sugar, tea and jam. The people who picked the currants and that were paid with a little thing like a cinema ticket, years ago, and you were paid per basket, either four lb chip or a 12 lb chip.

Sugar beet

The potatoes, a lot of them were picked piece work and they were paid by the ton. Sugar beet were drilled with tractor or horse and then the harvesting. When I first went there you went into the corner of a field so that you didn’t crush and spoil the sugar beet, you dug them by hand. A little two-pointed fork, and one-handed you pushed that into the ground, got hold of the top of the sugar beet, pulled it out, and when you got two you knocked them together. And you laid them in neat rows with the pointed end of the sugar beet facing one way, and you would do four rows like that and lay them all on one single row, you would turn round, do four rows coming back and lay them the opposite way, so that the two lots were pointing inwards. Then, after they’d been done like that, you’d then go along with a sugar beet hook, which was a curved hook with a point on the end and you did a swing which got the hook end, the pointed end, into the sugar beet, lifted it up,grabbed it with your left hand, cut the top off and threw the sugar beet in the gap between these rows of sugar beet. But they weren’t put indiscriminately; they were put in piles, so that after the field had been done, or the farmer wanted to get a truck load out, you then went along with a tractor and trailer, which would run the wheels over the sugar beet tops. Not on top of the tops, but spread wider, each side of the tops, and two men would be able to fill one from one side and the next row of piles of beet from the other side, and they were thrown onto the trailer. And on the farms where they also had cattle those tops would be collected and fed to the cows. The only thing was at certain times of the year you could taste the sugar beet in the milk. Oh yes, you always knew they had started feeding sugar beet tops.

The sugar beet were then taken mostly in this area to the stations and they were then loaded onto trucks, which would hold anything between 10 and 16 ton of sugar beet. If you dropped a 10 pence piece, or two shillings as it was then, to the head porter he’d make sure that you got a truck what they called ‘in dock’, which was in a siding which had got high sides so that you could walk straight into it virtually, so you only had to throw your sugar beet sideways and downward, rather than upwards. But the boss wouldn’t always come up with the two bob piece! They went to Cantley and they were then sliced and whatnot and then in about 1951 my boss bought a lorry and I used to take sugar beet through to Cantley, and that weren’t too bad. You either went up the highest slope and threw the sugar beet down into an area where they’d be taken into the factory, or you went into the flumes, I think they called them. You went down a slight slope, opened the back of the lorry and they had two guns, water guns, which blew them off.I think they were working under about 40 lb pressure, and they looked as though they had about a four inch aperture where the water came out and that really rocked you know, if you were sat in the lorry when they were done that really jumped up and down. That really hit the springs! And that only took a few minutes and then you just drove out and the next one came in. You could get through there and out again in a matter of minutes whereas at the station you were throwing the lot into a 16 ton truck. You’d just loaded them on by hand with a sugar beet fork. The old sugar beet forks, they’re not like an ordinary fork, they’ve got little round knobs on the end so that they don’t stick into the sugar beet.

As I say in 1948 I was full time on the farm.Sugar beet in those days,the seed, was drilled very thickly and after they came up and were horse hoed they then had to be cut out, which means they had to be spaced and you had quite thick rows of sugar beet and you had to leave one tiny weenie plant every nine to 10 inches. Then a few weeks later, this was all piece work, you got so much an acre, and then so many weeks after you had to go in your own time to go and get the weeds out. It was called scoring. It would be included in the cost of the chopping out. So much would be allowed for the chopping out, which was the biggest job, and if you made a good job of the chopping out, which mean you took out all the weeds with it, you could leave a small amount for the clearing of the weeds a few weeks later. So the better job you did to start with the more money you made. I probably got paid £4 an acre. Roughly a farm worker could cut about a quarter of an acre a day. A good farm worker, a REALLY good one, could do half an acre, but he had to have a very, very strong back.

Back breaking work

Well, I’ll come to the back-breaking work now. When I first went on the farm the corn was cut with a self-binder – the first year. And that would have been 1948. That was cut with a self-binder. The following year a contractor, Richard Stevens from Aylsham, bought a Massey Harris 726 combine with an eight foot six inches cut, which meant that’s the width of the cut of the corn and it was brought into the field and he started it up and before he could move it the engine seized up, because it should have come with oil in it and it didn’t! So we ended up cutting the corn with the self-binder again. The following years my boss decided that he would buy his own combine, and that combine cost him £750, and that had a Perkins L4 diesel engine in it, and that never had a fault. And I can remember we were cutting the corn late, the forecast was good, and the pressure had got very high so my boss said ‘We’ll work into the night.’ And he told the others to drive the combine and fix the lights on and don’t stop. The front of the combine was lifted up and down electrically and I was sitting underneath it on some crossbars fixing electric wiring to the battery, with lights up on like a handlebar where the steering wheel was and we worked that night till about one o’clock.

Health and Safety

Well, Health & Safety I don’t think had been invented then. I can tell you one thing, when my boss was planting blackcurrants just up here, we were preparing the land and I was disc harrowing with a Ferguson, and he shouted to me ‘It’s your lunchtime. I’ll take over.’ So I stopped the tractor, he got on, I got off and I came home to lunch, which was not that far because I only just lived round the corner. And I came home to lunch and when I got back he was still disc harrowing and instead of stopping the tractor he just jumped off, expecting me to jump on, which I tried to. My left foot went onto a little stud thing what you put your foot on, just a little tiny bar about three quarters of an inch wide with a little round ball on the end, and it slipped off, and the tractor, as I went down crawled up my leg, over my back, pressed me into the ground and just as my foot touched the disc harrows which would have cut them, probably minced me as well, the boss managed to jump on the opposite side, and he stalled the engine. I weren’t injured. I just carried on. He went home and he told me that night he shook like a leaf. It didn’t seem to affect me. The ground was soft, pushed me into it, you see. But when you’re now saying about Health and Safety, I was working on potato harvest, ‘cos my boss was ahead of his time, and he had a prototype one that was made at St Albans, called a Globe, and it was a trial and error one. A jolly good machine, and all the modern ones are based on that. That had one inherent fault, that was the gear box and that just kept giving out. And we were using it one day and the foreman started shouting, and when I looked, I was on a tractor running beside getting the potatoes, and we managed to stop .I believe I blew the hooter on the tractor and managed to stop the one that was pulling the harvester because the foreman had got his tie, and there was a belt drive that was running the elevator for the potatoes, and he’d got it in there and it wound it round and round the shaft and, by the time that stopped, his chin was on the top of the guard. He could hardly speak and as I always, still do, carry a knife, I cut his tie off.

Another time I was working at my boss’ workshop sharpening knives for one of the cutters, and a lady come running across shouting ‘Help’, and I ran out to see what had happened, and one of the other tractor drivers was getting up potatoes with what they call a potato hoover. It’s a machine which goes into the ground under the bulk of potatoes and there are metal elevator rods going round and round, but the whole thing is driven by a power shaft from the tractor. And he’d got that blocked. He didn’t stop the tractor, he left the tractor running, jumped off, went to kick the soil and weeds off the front of this, and he got his jacket on the power shaft and he was wound completely round the power shaft. And again I got my knife out and I cut his jacket, his pullover and his shirt right down to the skin to extricate him from the power shaft. He was in a bit of a state! Bruised ribs, he’d gone black and blue, and I ran across, and the boss weren’t there, and his wife said ‘Take my van and get take him to the doctor’s.’ So I brought him up to the Aylsham doctor’s. He was lucky to be alive. Because the tractor, he’d slowed the engine down to short throttle, and then there was enough power there to wind him round it, but that stalled. But he couldn’t breathe, that was the trouble you see.


My boss had a big sandpit at Skeyton from years gone by, probably about an acre. It was 14 or 15 feet deep and he gave permission for Westwick Frosted Products, which is now Heinz, to put their waste from their operations into this pit. Well, what waste food does is to encourage rats and in no time at all we had thousands and thousands of rats. And the trouble was they were getting everywhere. They went down into the farm itself and they were running along the beams in the pigs’ house and they were also getting into an old farmhouse which had nobody living in it, so we filled it full of sacks of corn. Now the boss said one day ‘I’ll give you chaps six pence for every tail of a rat you can catch’. He only did it once because I think we only went the once because we weren’t getting paid for it after that. We got masses! I borrowed a little 2-2 shotgun, which is something you don’t often see now. It’s not with a solid bullet. It had dust shot in, and this dust shot you could shoot in an enclosed place, and you could shoot at a piece of asbestos and it wouldn’t break it. That’d kill a rat. So we bought 50 cartridges, and I think we probably got 40 odd rats. Well then we went round to the back of the farm and at the back of it, they called it the Mill Piece, it was a 14 acre field on which there was a building consisting of a corrugated roof and no sides and at one time a previous farmer used to mill wood, timber. That was a saw mill, and, of course, all the sawdust was tipped into this field and so the field was covered in sawdust and the rats used to run just underneath the sawdust. They had their holes, but they were very, very shallow. So what we used to do, we used to get one of these wire traps where they can get in but can’t get out, we put at the end of one hole, and then he had a huge water tank which was filled by the rain off this roof, and we got the water and we tipped a bucket of water in one end of the hole and, ‘course, they’d all run out the other where we’d got the trap. And it’d be nothing to get about 10 rats in a trap at a time. So we made a lot of money that day.


Blackcurrants were picked into chips and then they were put into wooden trays which were supplied by Norfolk Fruit Growers at Wroxham for distribution. These were probably sent to Ribena and other manufacturers that made jellies or whatever wanted blackcurrants in. We also sent a lot of the strawberries that we picked to Norfolk Fruit Growers and gooseberries. That’s the job that weren’t very nice because when you’re picking gooseberries they weren’t the gooseberries what don’t have prickles, they were the ones that you knew when you picked them.

Not many farmers at this particular time were growing wheat because our ground at that time weren’t good enough to grow wheat, and most of the crops were spring barley and some oats, and some grew kale and cabbage for seed. Autumn sown wheat came in more popular later when they could get heavier crops, shorter straw and they were easier to combine. Didn’t have such a job with the straw because some of the time some of the straw was burnt until the law came in banning that. The corn was all bagged up into coomb sacks. Now coomb sacks are quite high, not too wide, but they were very, very strong. A coomb of oats weighed 12 stone, barley 16 stone, wheat 18 stone, and peas and beans I think were about 23 stone in weight; 24 stone was three hundredweight, and a man carried that. There was no mechanical lifting until about the last year I was on the farm when there was mechanical lifter worked by the hydraulics on the lorry when we could drop a coomb onto the lifting device and that lifted it up so that the chap on the lorry could then lift it off and stack. My boss had a barn where we would stack four or five coomb high. The first two rows which were put on the ground were stood up and then you backed up to that with the second row high, which were then leaned up against the wall. When you got out further away you would drop a sack flatways, so that you used it as a step and you’d probably have to step up about a foot before you could get your next foot on top of that sack, and that was done like that progressively across the floor of the barn. And boy, did you know it! That’s why I’ve got bad knees!

Going into horticulture: heating and irrigation

I finished the farm in 1957 when I then went into horticulture. I was born not just next to the farm, I was born on a working nursery. My father had four wooden greenhouses, 100 foot long and three of them were built round about 1926 and 1927. They were low and they had very small glass in, nowhere near as much light as nowadays. The glass in one of them was only 16 inches wide and the height of the glass was 20 inches, so you had an awful lot of glass there to make up any area. They were heated by coke fired hot water through four inch cast iron pipes. They were quite low, they were all manual ventilation, which meant you had to open the lights and the watering and the heating was all manual. On the bigger nurseries they had a fireman where he would look after several boilers, and that was his job day and night, because, as my wife will tell you, I would go last thing at night. We’ll start in the morning, I’d go at perhaps half past six, seven in the morning to clear the clinker out of the boilers. We had two boilers. Clear the clinker and put fresh coke on, draw the damper to get the fire going again and depending on the amount of heat you’d want during the day you would open or close the damper, and stoke accordingly. And then after tea, half past six, seven o’clock, I’d go over, clear the fire, all the clinker and muck and build the fire up right, the damper on, to get the heat in the pipes. At 11 o’clock at night I’d go and bank the fire up completely and shut it down. The pipes would be hot. You’d clear the fire again, fill it up with coke and shut the damper. And you’d do that to both boilers in the winter, early spring, and then you’d get half way home and think ‘Did I shut that damned damper up?’ And the time I did that is unbelievable!

I can remember one night in particular. I got over there and I’d drawn the clinker which is the molten mass which comes out of the coke, and I’d drawn the clinker and got overcome with the smell of sulphur, because burning coke releases sulphur fumes, and the sulphur got on my chest. I had a policeman come to see me that night and he walked over to see what I was up to. And I just couldn’t breathe. We then went on to some anthracite, which lasted longer, you didn’t have to bank up so much, but it was quite expensive, and we used to have that come direct from Ebbw Vale, a lorry load at a time. I then went on to automatic coal, which is a boiler which you filled up with, I should think, about 10 barrow loads of this small Mansfield Singles, which are little nuts about three quarters of an inch wide of a high quality coal, and at the time it was costing a fiver a ton delivered. The local blacksmith used to come and buy some off me, because that was better coal then he could buy. And I took a contract out for five years with the firm I was dealing with, and it was the first two and a half years it was guaranteed no increase in price of coal or transport, the second two and a half years the coal would be the same but the transport would go up if it went up. And that went up from five pounds, to £15 a ton. We then decided that was too costly and in about 1970 I bought another boiler, a new boiler, which was a high efficiency oil-fired boiler, and we put that in, and a diesel tank and we had a fully automated system, with heating.

Then we came to the winter of discontent, and, ‘ course, by that time everything ran on electricity. My father in his time, and even when I first started, the wife and I, we did 10,000 boxes of bedding plants and we used to go over the old nursery with Tilley lamps, didn’t we? Even before we got married. That’s how we used to earn a little money. And we used to prick out these bedding plants by Tilley lamps. I then put in electric, but ‘course during the winter of discontent you sort of had four hours on and four hours off, and I managed to buy two second hand diesel generators. We had one over the old nursery and one at this nursery. I had two nurseries going at the same time. Not to start with. I started with my father’s nursery and then we started building here. The first one went up in 1965 and we built one or two a year for several years. We ended up with, for the time, fully automated aluminium glasshouses. Of course the difference in all the growing techniques: to start with wooden glasshouses, small glass, heating coal-fired, hot water through 4 inch cast iron pipes, low houses, manual ventilation, watering and heating. The modern glass, wide span glass, all aluminium, high speed hot water through small bore piping, automatic ventilation and irrigation. Irrigation was all hand watered, and on the old nursery we used to have a pump, a deep well bore. When Father first had it in 1926 he put the bore in and it was 80 feet deep but by the end of the War he couldn’t get enough water and they put down another 40 feet; 120 feet, and we used to pump that up into a tank and that was just the height of the tank was a railway sleeper high, so the flow of water weren’t very great. We had all one inch piping and our hoses were all pure rubber, three ply antimonial hose. That’s what they were, and at the time I bought my first ones they were £10 each, and a farm worker, when I finished on the farm in 1957, a farm worker’s wage was seven pound and a shilling a week, so they were quite a costly item. I think on the old nursery we had four. When I came up here we started with the big hoses but then when we started getting the aluminium houses. We put up a quarter acre block of aluminium followed by another one a bit smaller a third of an acre, and then we had eight wooden houses. The automatic irrigation was an entirely different thing.

Growing tomatoes and diversifying

How we used to grow tomatoes when I first started was you make the hole, put the plant in, which’d be a foot high. You then tie a string round the base, but you had to tie it in such a way you didn’t strangle the plant or you didn’t get a slip knot. They had to be reef knots and you then twisted round this little plant and tied it up to a high wire. But I read an article where they were experimenting with string. Now to start with we always used to use three ply fillis twine, and then a chap came round with some polypropylene string. My father said to me, ‘Don’t you buy that! You don’t know whether that’s going to last. You don’t know whether that’ll hold the plant. It’ll cut the plant’. Being me I decided to buy it! We used that and that’d got an 80 lb breaking strain whereas our ordinary string only had a 30 lb breaking strain.

Then I experimented with the tying. I think I must have been about the first one about here to ever do it. Make the hole, we had what we called a plantool which made the hole for the tomato plant to go in, we dropped the end of the string into the hole and planted the plant on top. Never moved! Then we went into a more modern way Instead of tying the string up to a high wire we used to wind a piece of string, your polypropylene, round a former 30 times and that would give you 30 foot of string. It had a hook on and you hooked the hook on the high wire, undid six or seven feet of the string and tied it to a low wire 20 inches above the ground and the plant then came up onto the short wire, you kept twisting all the way round, when it got to the top you took three or four rounds off the bobbin and the plant then laid down at an angle. You then twisted it and trimmed it all the way and then as it got up towards the top again you took another three or four winds off. So eventually it laid down on the low wire and, as you laid it you made sure that one truss of tomatoes went one side of the wire and one went the other. This bottom wire was held up with short posts every 10 feet. When you got to the end of the row you took the hook off the wire you were on, hooked it on to the wire next to it 18 inches away and went round the corner. So you ended up with your tomato plant would perhaps get seven feet of tomato. We ended up with 30 odd feet. Probably 27 odd trusses. ‘Course the varieties of tomatoes have altered so much. We had open pollinated varieties such as Moneymaker, Ailsa Craig, JR6, which were ordinary open pollinated ones. Then we went on to hybrids, the F1 hybrids, which gave us a much greater crop.

Plant diseases

You were then getting built in resistance to a lot of diseases they were picking up. One in particular TMB, Tobacco Mosaic Virus, which you notice if you went into your crop they would slow down, an area would slow down. You’d see the other ones growing away. The top of the tomato plant would be more like a nettle. It would throw a truss and then abort the fruit and you might get three. And then they would wilt. The old word was ‘sleeping sickness’. And to stop it wilting you would shut the vents and spray water, and we had what they call whirlybirds, sprinklers which whizzed round and sprinkled the water to bring up the humidity, and the humidity would rise and the temperature would rise and that would make them turgid and then you would gradually open the vents. You might lose three trusses. Going back to the 1920s the first truss paid for the labour, the second truss paid for all the other input besides the labour, the rest was profit. Some of them only used to grow five trusses. Another nursery down here at Aylsham, bigger than us, they only used to grow five trusses. Finish! Then they could get over some of the diseases, the root diseases. One they couldn’t get over was one called corky root and you couldn’t get over that one. They wilted and you got the same sort of problem you got with the TMV, but there’s not much you could do with that. They would dwindle off. The centre of the root, if you think of a needle, and then think of it as a sausage and you push a skin over it, corky root turns that skin into a hard substance and it breaks off like pieces of cork, just leaving the centre which can’t take up any food, moisture. So we got over that one on our nursery here and over father’s by grafting the tomatoes. Now you graft them onto a root stock which originally had been a wild tomato from Brazil or somewhere and that didn’t get corky root. And you grow the seed of the root stock and the fruiting stock side by side. When they get the thickness of a match stalk each in the fruiting variety you make a slice with a razor blade, into the side of the skin and upwards, and the opposite, into the side of the skin and downwards in the rooting variety. You then slide one into the other and then a lady with a deft pair of hands will get a piece of inch sellotape and pull it round it and stick the two sticky bits together, because as they grow and expand it will undo the sellotape. If you put it right round it’ll kill the plant because it can’t go anywhere. So we got over it like that.

Nowadays, since just before I finished, they started going in for various substrates to grow the tomatoes in, instead of growing them in the soil. The first one, I think, was the grow bag, the second one was the nutrient film technique. Now I saw that at Burlingham Horticultural Station and plants were grown in a plastic trough, not in any soil, nothing. They were just plants poked through a hole in something, and their roots went through into the liquid which was passing by, which was the nutrients. So they never saw soil, nothing. Nowadays they all grow in rock wool, which is an expanded form of volcanic ash or something. It’s more like oasis, and you grow the plants in a small pot of rock wool, and then, when they get bigger and want to be re-potted, you put them into another pot which has got the hole in there already the size of your first pot. You just drop it into there, and then you drop them into the block when they’re ready and they are then fed with this nutrient solution. More modern ones, now we had high speed hot water pipes going between each double row of tomatoes. Tomatoes 18 inches apart in the row and we had double row of inch and a quarter high speed water. High speed pipes are now used as rails and they have little trucks go on the rails and some of them have got electric motors in, so when you’re trimming your tomatoes you don’t have to keep walking along. You stand on the little truck and you go along.

Other horticultural plants

When I first started I followed in my father’s footsteps. We grew early cucumbers, tomatoes and chrysanthemums. My first year or two I just grew late chrysanthemums for the Christmas trade. Now these ones were all planted outside in April in little pots. Used to call them tins. Little metal pots with no bottom and they were lifted in, put in barrows in October, brought into the greenhouses and you’d dig a hole and put it in and cover it up. They were then fed and watered, sprayed and you cropped them for Christmas. I then decided to go into mid-season, so I grew a house of ones which started coming into bloom in October, a variety called Loveliness. The winter ones were all White and Gold Favourite. Nowhere can you find White & Gold Favourite now. We’ve been trying to get them because they were very low in the needs of heat and today mostly chrysanths need quite a bit of heat in the winter time to keep off the diseases.

Then I started to diversify. We grew tomatoes, lettuces, cucumbers, peppers,10,000 trays of bedding plants, chrysanthemums, stocks, gyphsophila, misty blue, Dianthus Barbados, spray carnations, pinks, cyclamen and various pot plants. We grew various things under glass and outside, which, perhaps we only tried for a year or two and then gave up. We increased the amount of glass we had. We opened the new nursery in 1965 with two 15 foot wide greenhouses here. On the old nursery we had four of various widths but over 100 feet long. Then we started with two, then another single, another single, a double, Dutch lights, and then we put up the two blocks of aluminium. We had lots of tunnels, because we didn’t borrow money, did we? We could always finance, because the first two, that financed heating, which we put in big enough – which was a hot air heater – which was big enough for four greenhouses and we put that in after we built the first two and that built the third. And then, as I say, we built the fourth and then another double, followed by a double Dutch lights, followed by the big aluminium ones. We took on staff all the time except towards the end, because a lot of people didn’t want the hot, dirty jobs in the glass houses. We’ve had women start here in the morning and by lunchtime they’d had enough. Too hot, too dirty. We had one young girl start here and we said ‘Come in your old clothes.’ She turned up in high heels and a white dress! Well, I don’t think she lasted the morning, and she went home. But one funny side, which I always thought funny: When we had the bedding plants, the 10,000 trays we used to have, women come in, and they used to prick them out, piece work. When I first started you used to put 60 plants in each seed tray, pricked out in each seed tray and they would get six pence per tray for pricking out, of which we would pay them four pence followed by the other two pence if they had to come back and gap up, because some of them wanted to do it quick, but not very well. And if you, instead of getting hold of the leaves to put the plants in, you got hold of the stalk you’d cause trouble on the stalk, you would crush and then they would die off, so you had only part trays. Now you can’t sell part trays, so we said ‘You’ll get the rest when you’ve gapped up’. So that made sure they did the job right. But one young lady came and I think she was with us about a fortnight. She suddenly started fainting. Well, I hadn’t got a clue what was wrong with her. The other girls said ‘We know what’s wrong with her.She’s pregnant. But she hasn’t a clue how she got pregnant!’ And she thought that was the heat. Perhaps that was God planted a seed! I do get some of them come up with some funny things.

We used to grow two tons of peppers a year. Now you know peppers don’t weigh very much. Takes an awful lot to get a ton of peppers. They were mostly green. If she missed some they turned red. We never had any of the coloured ones. But she could really, really pick them, and I said to her ‘You mustn’t smoke when you’re in the greenhouses, because that can transfer a virus from the tobacco into the tomato plants, (TMV) Well, she used to wear a tabard, and in the tabard they had a big, wide pocket Well, when she left us eventually I got this tabard and I thought ‘what on earth? Has she left something in there?’It was full of stubs, cigarettes!


We had a foreman who’s just died, and then I had two more, younger lads with him and also a woman. They were sort of full time. At pricking out time we would probably have another four to six depending on what had to be done at any one particular time. But I’ll just tell you one story: the bulk of the pricking out as I learnt it and as most of the other women did it was they had benches in front of them, the soil would be tipped on the bench or we would bring them the boxes already filled. Mostly if they were potting up they would have the soil, if they were pricking out they would have the trays full of soil all levelled out, and they would prick into there. But I was offered a woman, I was selling plants to another nursery in Norwich and I said ‘It’s hard to get good women’. And he said ‘Well I’ve got one you can have for so many days a week’. And he said ‘I’ve just about finished. You have her.’ I used to have to collect her from up near the cemetery in Norwich, bring her home. She used to take her child to school, I’d collect her at quarter to nine, I’d have her here about ten past nine. She wanted all her trays put on the ground in rows with just one pathway between ‘em, both sides of the house. She had a flat board with a stool screwed to it and she had a cigarette in her mouth well, it didn’t matter for bedding plants and she’d start one end and she’d work backwards, and she could do twice as much! I had to get her home to pick up the child at half past three. She would do twice as many with not a mistake. She didn’t need a former which you just press onto the trays to just make little holes to put the plants in. She didn’t need one of them. You could say ‘I want 48 plants in these ones, that variety. We want 54s or for John at Norwich, he wants 60s’ and she could do it and they’d be exact. Cor, she was wonderful, wasn’t she?! It was hot and dirty. At one time, perhaps when wages weren’t very good, benefits weren’t very good and someone was struggling with two or three little kids. I mean, one woman who we had here, she had two children another one had two children. Sometimes they used to bring them with them. They needed the money. They couldn’t go and say to the Social ‘Well, I want this, that and the other’, like they seem to now. That’s just one of the things .It’s as it was at the time. It weren’t easy work. It could be hot, and tomatoes are filthy things to work with. You get the stain into your hands, and we used to mostly wear old pyjama jackets. And that gets into your hands, into your skin.


And another thing that’s so different nowadays to my first operations in both farming and horticulture were sprays. My dad used to use a mercury spray. He had a thing like a gun. You put the mercury spray into the handle and in the back you had one of these sparklet bulbs and you screwed the sparklet bulb up until you got the gas in the handle and then you pressed the trigger. It used to run down his arms! Well, I mean he lived till just on 80, but it make you wonder how on earth he lived. That was for tomatoes for Cladosporium and Botrytis, which are two mould growths on there, and that would kill that. And what you used to do, as you went into the house you would put a sparklet bulb down, you knew the length of the house and you divided it up, so many cubic feet, so as you got to it there was one. And you’d start at the furthest end, you’d load your machine, press the trigger, work backwards till you got to the next sparklet bulb, and then you filled up again and you went along like that. And I mean there was all sorts of chemicals that we were using. On the farm my boss was one of the first ones about here to use metasystox. Well, metasystox is a systemic insecticide for aphids, and if I did a day’s spraying of metasystox he’d give me a half day off ‘cos it used to make me sick, ‘cos you didn’t have masks! It’s the same as the combines, the Massey 726, the Massey 780 and the other Class, I can’t remember the number of that one .You were outside in the air breathing all that dust and as you see now a combine goes across the field the dust rising, you’d get that all in your lungs! Use an air-conditioned, sealed cab now.

Marketing near and far

When I took over from my dad, his tomatoes during the War had to go to what they called a pool, because tomatoes weren’t actually on ration but a grower had to account for what he grew. He was only allowed to sell to the general public five hundredweight a year and that was broken up in months. And I shouldn’t say this, but he sold more than he was allowed to and that’s how we managed to get the butter and the various things little bit of black market! Well then he used to sell to Pordage, Sexton, who were wholesalers in Norwich, and then another independent one, George Smith in Norwich. The first year or two I started I was selling to George Smith but I then built up local shops and we were delivering tomatoes to Cromer, Sheringham, Holt, Aldborough, some into Norwich. Local was quite wide! And then when we grew chrysanths Father sent all his to one man J C Lucas in Sheffield. They were the market, and he always got a reasonable return, he was always happy with it. I then thought well perhaps I ought to try somewhere else, and it was very fortunate, one of the women that worked for me part time also made wreaths, and she was talking to one of the stalls on Norwich market. That particular stall isn’t there now, but they were the biggest. Cary is the biggest now. And this woman said ‘Where you getting your chrysanths from?’ She said ‘I get them from where I work at Aylsham’ so she said ‘Do you think he’d sell some to me?’ She said ‘I don’t know. I’ll give you his phone number’ Well, she phoned me up and said ‘Can I come over?’ I said ‘Yes, you can come over.’ My father said ‘Cor,’ he say, ‘you want to be careful of these Norwich traders’, he say ‘they’ll have you if they can’. Well, she came over and saw the flowers that we’d got and she liked them. ‘Can I buy some for cash?’ ‘I said ‘Yes, I’ll give you a receipt for it.’ And I always think first day Father said to me ‘You want to watch out’. Well we decided on a price which was a very, very good price, because it was the year when we had a drought and there were very few chrysanths about. And I hit lucky because I’d got an irrigation sprinkler and I’d got mine but there weren’t any about and ‘course they literally had doubled in price. And so I said to her ‘well, if you want them, they’re a shilling each’ She turned round, put her hand up her skirt and she’d got these great long bloomers down to just above her knee, and she brought this wad of notes out and she put her thumb in her mouth and then she peeled ’em off. And then she said ‘Can I have some more tomorrow?’ I said ‘Yes’ and never sold another one anywhere else for, I should think, six or seven years. She took the lot. Then I had another nursery couple come up here, and they’d been buying flowers off me for wreath work, and they said to me ‘Will you sell us some cuttings?’ ‘How many cuttings do you want? Just enough for your wreaths?’ ‘No, no. We want to sell some.’ I said ‘Yeah. On one condition: You don’t sell them to the one I was dealing with. Now their nursery is probably a lot warmer than mine. I’m up on a hill here. And she said ‘How much are yours?’ Oh I believe they were 10 pence or something like that. ‘I can buy them cheaper than that’. I said ‘Not like mine you can’t. ‘Cos there’s no-one else got ‘em’ ‘Oh yes there is’ ‘Well’ I said’ the only person that I’ve sold my plants to, and some of them, one particular variety was what they called a Sport which threw a different colour entirely, I knew I was the only one that’d got that, because I’d bulked it up. And she’d got them on her stall. And I said ‘I know where they come from’ and she said ‘Well I bought them for eight pence’. I said ‘You either pay me 10 pence or you don’t have them.’ She said ‘I’ll buy ‘em off them’. I knew they’d only got the earlier ones, the October variety. Come Christmas she phoned me up ‘Are you going to let me have some chrysanths?’ I said ‘Yeah if the price is right.’ She couldn’t get them, could she? So I named my price and we dealt with her until something went wrong and I wouldn’t supply her any more, but during that time I had got 13 shops I was selling flowers to.

When we got even bigger see, all this old stuff that we used to grow, we used to grow them outside and bring them in. But then, when we got more and more glass we were going for the more modern type, which they call all the year round chrysanths, like you buy in the sleeves now. And ‘course we grew more than what the locals could take, so we then started sending them, some to Covent, some went to Stratford and we used to get jolly good returns. When I first started sending them to Sheffield they all went by rail. When they went to Covent Garden the rail had gone up in price. We could send it cheaper by road transport, and so we sent them all by road. We had a chap who’d got a stall on Stratford market, lived only a few miles down the road, and he used to come and collect and do a round and collect and take lorry loads. A lot of lettuces went to Fyffes. And we sent peppers, a lot of spray carnations. Our biggest buyer of flowers was the man on the market in Norwich. I could take a van load up there and ‘course he used to start at half past six. They don’t now. They used to start at half past six. And I would be up early, load my van up. That used to hold 63 buckets of carnations or chrysanths or whatever I was doing. And I was always the first there. And I’d opened my van doors, the double doors at the back and the smell, when you used to have stocks! And I would open the door ‘How many you got?’ I said ‘63’. ‘Same price?’ ‘Yep.’ ‘Right, I’ll have that lot.’ I used to have to unload, stand ‘em all out, his son’d help me and then the other one he used to run down. ‘Where’re mine?’ I’d say ‘I’ll be back in an hour’ And so I used to have to come back, load up again, and in the meantime you had to get them cut and packed and sleeved and I mean we used to put some long hours in.

We grew, gyphsophila a crop which was new to us, and my son was working with me at the time. And we grew this crop, and that seemed they all come fit at once, virtually. And I didn’t know, you don’t have that many days to get rid of them before they go over. And they were in this pair of Dutch lights, we had two Dutch lights full. And the sweet smell of it, the bees were all in there! And I said to my son ‘Take a van load to Norwich and see what you can do with them.’ And he come back and he said ‘I made a good price, dad’. Only sold five! I said ‘what?’ He said ‘Yeah’. And then we had a phone call from Baileys, which are a big nursery and flower sales people. They used to go all round the County ‘Have you got any gyphsophila?’ ‘I said ‘Yeah’. ‘Can we have some?’ I said ‘Yeah’. ‘Bring us a sample’. Took a sample up. Meanwhile this first batch we brought home, we then sent them to Covent Garden. Phone call the next morning ‘You sent us some gyphsophilia’ ‘I said ‘They’re a good price’, he said. They were £5-60 a bundle, weren’t they? A sleeve. I forget how many sleeves. He said ‘Can we have a load more?’ I said ‘Yeah. Why the increase in price?’ ‘Well’, he said ‘They found an insect called lyramisa which is a leaf mining creature in this gyphsophila which was coming from Israel. They’d stopped the whole lot, that had been sent back and they mustn’t send any for now because of health clearance. So he said ‘There’s no gyphsophila on the market’. So we loaded up all we could get up there. And then Baileys come along and they took thousand of bunches, didn’t they?


Another big thing in horticulture was sterilisation. My dad’s time he only had formaldehyde and sterisol, which were fungicides, which you mixed with water in the big tank at the old nursery and then you ran it through the hoses into the houses, and that took the funguses out of the ground. But that didn’t kill a lot of the other diseases. And they then brought out DDT, which you used an injector gun and injected it into the soil, which was very good unless you were allergic to onions, and that had an effect on you. Then, when we started on the nursery up here you had a choice of steam but the price was prohibitive. There were two varieties of steam: there was trench steaming and flash steaming. Trench steaming, you dug a trench 18 inches deep and that was hard work because it was done in extreme heat. You dug the trench 18 inches deep and buried a pipe with a cranked end in which you fed steam or you coupled to a header of five pipes. They were all connected to that, one beside the other about a foot apart, and then you covered it with tarpaulin. You then did the next five and these pipes would be about eight feet long. Did the next five, got them all ready, put them on a header, and then you’d turn the steam on. You had a big steam engine outside what you’d hire. The steam was pumped in through the pipes into the soil and when the tarpaulin started to lift a bit they’d put a thermometer in and once it got up to 100 degrees they would then uncouple the steam, and while that was being done you would then be digging the third lot of pipes in. They would couple it onto the second lot of pipes, turn on the steam and then, when you’d finished the third lot, and put the third lot of pipes in, you’d be uncoupling the first lot, you’d have to take them out of this steamed soil, draw them back and start again. And it was extremely hot work. You were probably working in a temperature in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then when we got up here they started to bring in a new sterilant called methyl bromide. Now you can’t use it yourselves. You have to have a contractor come in, and we used to have a contractor come in from Suffolk, and he used to go round different nurseries. To prepare your soil it all had to be rotavated, you had to have a trench all the way round outside and under each gutter. They would come in with these great big sheets of plastic, and you’d have what they called a two inch wide lay flat perforated hose, which they’d put down the centre. In a 20 foot house you’d probably have four of these lay-flat hoses, fixed to a header, sheeted right down so that was air tight. And then when you’d done the whole house like that they would turn on this methyl bromide gas, which would go through a heat exchanger to expand it because that’s liquid gas, to expand it, and they’d pump it into the greenhouses and you’d see all this plastic lift about a foot from the ground. The cylinder which held the gas was put on a pair of stilliards, and they knew that you had to pump x amount of pounds. It was four pounds per 100 square feet, and they would let that go in till you got the right amount for that house, turn it off, a man would go in with a gas mask and then put it on the next one and so on till the house is finished. You only want one lungful of gas and you’re dead and while they were working here they were telling me about another man in a Lincolnshire nursery where he had been sterilising chicken houses with formaldehyde. Now that would take an awful long while to get through a gas mask, formaldehyde, it’d make you cry, but he kept in the filter. When they’re using methyl bromide every twenty minutes that filter has to be taken off and a new one fitted, and they go away to be whatever done to them. It’s one of these chemicals what depletes the ozone in the atmosphere, but suddenly that stopped in Holland because they are on a high water table and the gas doesn’t go through water. It stops at water. And the methyl bromide was turning into bromine. Now when the male workers were eating their tomatoes and their lettuces you know the results. Now this was another reason why we were glad to get rid of the nursery, because my wife was worried that people might come over, a kid kick a ball in through the glass, go in after it. We had notices on the doors. We had great big water tanks, and I said ‘It’s not worth it. We’ll have to take what money we can get.’ And we could have built four houses down there ourselves when the two acres went and they would all come past the door. And we’ve been here then 44 years, and I thought we aren’t going to live another 44, so in the end we stopped partly because of health reasons and partly because of the worry.

Retirement and reminiscences

I retired in January ’97. I had health problems. I think we sent the last flowers in October ’96 and then we sold the aluminium greenhouses to the man that owned Taverham Garden Centre, and the wooden ones we sold a lot of the glass to various nurseries. We put some down the sale here at Aylsham. And they came after us because they were then building over here, see. They wanted the land, although we didn’t sell it to them when they first wanted it. Anyhow I’d had open heart surgery and we cut down a lot of the labour intensive crops and for the last couple of years I worked it with one lad. I think we made more money in the last two years than we’d done previous. We had the shop then as well. Right bang slap in the middle of the market there’s Break charity. That was ours. My son then took over the shop, didn’t he?

My father had started direct selling during the war I suppose, selling from an old cottage he had on Saturdays selling cucumbers and tomatoes. He never sold flowers. When I started if anyone had got any money and wanted to part with it I’d be pleased to take it any time. Many a time we had people come here lunchtime, teatime, haven’t we? ‘Can we have a couple of pound of tomatoes?’ Well then that got to Fridays and Saturdays, that was like a farm shop in a sense, before we had the shop. We had such a diversity of crops. We were the first shop in Aylsham to have self-service. We bought the self-service units, didn’t we? From somewhere up north and brand new. If you saw my diaries, I wonder how on earth we did it! I mean, some of the houses and the tunnels, they would have a crop in the morning, it would be cut, packed, gone, rotavated, dug, levelled, marked out and replanted. In a day!

John (b. 1931) talking to WISEArchive on 1st March 2010 in Aylsham.

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