When I was writing last week’s post I discovered a film called “The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” and thought that would make a good starting point in keeping with August’s traditional media “silly season”. More about this spoof B movie and its sequels later but if you can’t wait click here for the theme song!
We all complain about the tastelessness of most supermarket-bought tomatoes, especially out of season. If you grow your own you’ll know why. But is this something new? Think of places such as Worthing, Blackpool and Guernsey and I’m sure the first things that come to mind are holidays – sun sea and sand – but it’s not that long since they also meant tasty “home-grown” tomatoes! So what started the tomato industry – and what killed it?
Read on to find out… but be warned …. most of this post is serious!
Lets start with a question? When was this passage written? “At this time of the year everyone has some acquaintance with tomatoes, but they are only known to the bulk of consumers through the medium of the fruiterers shops and in the great majority of those there is only cheap foreign fruit which lacks the perfection of finish, colour flavpur and ripeness which we are accusomed to see in English grown produce”
Apart from the reference to fruiterers shops it could almost have been written yetserday but in fact it’s from The Journal of Horticulture in 1890. As last week’s post showed the “English grown produce” it talks about was a fairly new phenomenon and it started a whole new industry which successfully transformed British horticulture and diet. And most of its success was by the seaside!
Believe it or not the story of the British tomato industry really all starts in Worthing. While some might think of it as a rather staid retirement town [sorry Worthing] from the late 19th to mid-20thc it was a leading centre for commercial growing of fruit and veg because of its mild climate, fertile soil and enterprising growers. The success of the industry is reflected in the cornucopia on the town’s coat of arms.
It had begun to develop as a seaside resort during the Regency period and there were soon a handful of market gardens nearby which supplied the small resident and larger visiting population.
Tomato growing under glass is reported to have begun there shortly after the 1851 Great Exhibition. when a local doctor C.A. Elliott [who I can’t trace in local directories] is said to have bought some glass from the Crystal Place as it was being taken down and used it to build himself a large greenhouse. There he grew grapes, which were a high value crop, as well as tomatoes, for sale locally.
The first proper book devoted to tomato cultivation originally published in 1881 was by William Iggulden. Growing tomatoes for sale was clearly profitable by then, but he warned against “inexperienced persons with a few hundred of pounds at their disposal” to invest it all because “in all probability very high prices…will never again be obtained.” He noted that in Worthing the more inventive growers had already started to devise technical improvements such as easily moveable “skeleton” greenhouses, canavs protection and improved ventilation mechanisms.
By 1899 there were about 50 acres under glass around the town, with over 100 nurserymen in business producing high-quality, highly-priced, early glass-house produce. Worthing was described in the Royal Agricultural Society Journal that year as a ‘town of hot-houses’, while in Highways and Byways of Sussex in 1904 local author E.V. Lucas added that the town “is now the centre of the tomato growing industry, with miles of glasshouses on either side”.
However, to be really successful growers needed access to a larger market, and that meant access to the growing rail network. Worthing station opened in 1845 and allowed early market produce to go to Brighton and more importantly London’s Covent Garden market less than 60 miles away. West Worthing followed in 1889 and was meant to serve a new line direct to the Midlands although that was never built. The crop was mainly sent direct to London, on one of four special trains a week and by 1905 a freight station had to be opened at West Worthing to cope with additional demand.
Worthing was not unique. The success of market gardening in west Sussex helped kick-start developments elsewhere, notably in the Lea Valley on the north eastern edge of London and in other seaside resorts like Blackpool, Nazeing and the Channel Islands. Unfortunately it also encouraged growers in Europe, particularly Holland and Belgium, to enter the market. Such competition was being reported as early as the 1920s but was eventually to sound the death knell for Worthing and all the other British market gardening hubs.
The First World War marked the turning point when grapes were finally replaced by more basic food crops.
Post-war, tomatoes took over as the mainstay of local growers and by the late 1930s trains were taking tomatoes to London every day. There were then around 250 separate growers who employed a total of about 1,500 employees, making market gardening the town’s biggest industry. The town’s prosperity attracted many new residents, so several of the “inner” market gardens were developed for housing while new ones opened further out. Concrete always pays better than cabbages – or even tomatoes!
Like Worthing, Marton Moss, just outside Blackpool has a mild maritime climate which coupled with its productive peat moss soil meant excellent growing conditions. At first market gardening grew up just to serve the increasingly popular seaside resort but gradually its market catchment area grew to cover much of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The first commercial tomato crop was reported in 1880.
As at Worthing, the early glasshouses were small-scale, built adjacent to the owners house and provided a second income. They expanded their cropping, with flowers such as sweet peas often occupying the spaces between rows of tomato plants, until the end of the season when chrysanthemums took their place.
By the inter-war period Blackpool had become one of the main UK centres of glasshouse tomato production, and apart from tourism, had become the dominant feature of the local economy servicing the whole of the north of England. It’s been estimated that each acre of glass kept up to 8 men in employment. However, its predominance was soon threatened by the rise of another seaside location: the Channel Islands.
Uncaptioned images below come from a Guernsey Museum activity booklet for children
Although the first commercial greenhouses opened on Guernsey in the 1840s, like almost everywhere else, there are no signs of tomatoes until the mid-1860s and even then only for local market. Again it was all done by small scale growers often sailors or fishermen, switching away from industries in decline and making a second income. As one grower said “what the island really did was turn the boat hulls upside down and knock out the wood and put some glass in between – and that’s where you get the size and shape of the traditional Guernsey glasshouse.”
In 1861 a regular steamer service opened to the mainland, connecting the island with the expanding railway network. This transformed the island’s market gardening. Over the next twenty years as tomatoes grew in popularity Guernsey growers included more and more of them into their mix, along with lettuce, radish, peas, potatoes, melons, beans and carrots, all of which could be got to market much earlier than on the mainland and so command premium prices. Their success even attracted market gardeners from England to relocate to the islands.
This was really clear to William Iggulden. In fact at first he thought Guernsey had the edge over all the other tomato growing locations because of its climate. But then he had doubts. Land was limited and very expensive, building materials had to be imported and transport costs were high. It cost about £20 per ton to get fruit to Covent Garden, and even more to midlands and northern markets. This added at least 1d per pound weight to the consumer price. Furthermore to prevent damage in transit it needed to be packed in small paper-lined baskets with each tomato individually wrapped. Out of season it had to be even more carefully wrapped – usually in soft dry moss – because it was more valuable, commanding 1s6d per lb in May compared with just 4d per lb in August and September. But it didn’t stop Guernsey flourishing.
There were of course downsides. Soil-borne diseases like Verticillium Wilt took hold ruining crops. Several treatments such as soaking the soil in carbolic acid or boiling water were tried, but it wasn’t until 1902 that one grower tried sterilising the soil by baking it in an oven! Eventually this led to the idea of soil steaming which, in the early days, was done by digging out the earth from the glasshouse, treating it outside before replacing it. Later, pipework was buried inside each house through which steam could be pumped from enormous boilers.
The inter-war years saw tomato growing become seriously big business in the Channel Islands, especially Guernsey. By the late 1940s tomatoes made up as much as 49% of the island’s GNP because it had about 60% of the entire UK market. This made it absolutely critical to the island’s authorities, so rather than rely on a large number of small growers working independetly, they set up the Guernsey Tomato Marketing Board in 1949 to handle all exports.
The Board became a very powerful marketing organisation. Not only did it promote Guernsey’s tomatoes, and organise their sale and distribution but it developed innovations in production and offered horticultural and technical advice. They standardized crops with tomatoes graded for quality and a fixed price for each grade. They also developed a brand name “Guernsey Tom” that became recognised as a sign of guaranteed quality.
In the 1950s and 60s 10% of the population or about 5,000 people were employed directly in tomato growing, with another 2,000 in the auxiliary services. 7% of the islands surface was under glass. Guersey was according to one grower “producing something like 50,000 tons. A tonne of tomatoes per inhabitant just about … it was incredible”.
There is a very detailed analysis of tomato production in the entire UK in 1967/8 carried out by Wye Collge of Agriculture which shows that there were substantial profits to be made. Yet within 10 years the whole industry had collpsed completely.
So what happened? Why don’t we see Worthing tomatoes or Guernsey Toms today? The reasons are many and complex – [but don’t include a revenge attack by killer tomatoes!] and come to the fore in the 1970s. It’s then that things started to go seriously wrong not just with tomatoes but throughout Britain’s horticultural industries.
Firstly most growers were small scale, and their operating costs and overheads, as well as interest rates, were increasing dramatically. Competition increased, especially from Belgium and the Netherlands where growing was on a much larger scale and could make automation and greater technical investment worthwhile. Overseas growers were quicker and better too at finding wider markets in canning and processing.
Next were differential labour costs. Tomatoes had to be picked and packed by hand but foreign growers had a cheaper workforce and innovated by, for example, sending their crop pre-packed so no additional handling was required by shops. In Britain, even as early as the 1950s nurseries started to employ cheaper, foreign labour on seasonal contracts. By the mid-1980s the only Jerseymen engaged in tomato growing were the owners; all the rest of the work was done by “outsiders”.
Fuel costs too were rising. A general switch from coal to oil was undermined by the 1973 oil crisis and matters made worse when the Dutch government offered a special low tariff for natural gas supplied to horticulture and their British counterparts didn’t respond. As a result energy costs in Holland were just 50% those of Guernsey growers – an effective subsidy of £10,000 per acre.
Of course there were winners as well as losers. If tomatoes didn’t pay concrete did. From the 1930s there was pressure for housing in towns like Blackpool and Worthing. The figures tell the story quite starkly. In 1949 when market gardens were still Worthing’s main industry there were 132 acres of glasshouses in and around the town, by 1958 this had dropped to just 42 acres and by 1976 a mere 10 acres. Of course it’s true new areas were opened up for growing further out of town but nowhere enough to replace what was lost within Worthing itself.
Exactly the same pattern can be seen at Marton Moss. The glasshouse industry collapsed and much of the market gardening land was developed for housing. Development pressure did not affect Guernsey where land use was much more strictly controlled.
In the end – by 1980 in fact – it cost more to produce tomatoes than they were worth and although the government put in a price support mechanism most growers began to diversify. Flowers replaced tomatoes and on Guernsey alone the acreage given over to tomato growing dropped by more than half – from 567 acres in 1979, when it was already well down on its peak, to just 240 acres in 1983. Consequently its share of the UK market dropped drastically to less than 15% in 1979. Within twenty years Guernsey was actually importing tomatoes.
All this is sad, especially in times of increasing food security. Equally sad is that there is not much by way of record. Although Guernsey had a Tomato Centre with a shop, restaurant and attractions all celebrating the ‘Guernsey Tom’, as you can see that’s nio longer functioning! I can find almost nothing about the history of Blackpool’s market gardens: indeed although there is a large scale producer with four nurseries relatively close to Blackpool, who supported British Tomato Fortnight last year it’s hard to find any evidence that the Marston Moss industry even actually existed.
Worthing fares slightly better thanks to local historian Malcolm Linfield whose family had been involved in the trade. He decided to do some research and put out an appeal in the Worthing Herald in 2009 saying: “In its heyday, there were acres of glass in the town and hundreds of jobs depended on the Worthing growers. The scarcity of photos is quite astonishing.”
Local papers have carried the occasional story but there doesn’t seem to have been any serious research apart from a couple of academics interested in the economics of horticulture and to a lesser extent its social history who have produced some interesting although unillustrated papers.
So, always if you know more about any of this than I do please get in touch! I’d be very happy to follow up any leads.
And finally I ought to say a word about those Killer Tomato films. I could have written a whole post explaining the crazy plots but suffice it to say the first one released in 1978 its about a group of scientists who band together to save the world from mutated killer tomatoes which have involved the traditionally docile fruit eating people and their pets. It incudes parodies of Jaws and Hitchcock’s The Birds and has a special appearance by the Royal Shakespearean Tomatoes.
Despite being panned by the critics – Variety for example saying it was “even worthy of sarcasm” – it quickly became a cult film. Ten years later the first sequel Return of the Killer Tomatoes! gave George Clooney an early film role. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film achieved a rare score of 0% meaning there were no favorable reviews! Two more films followed Killer Tomatoes Strike Back! came out in 1990 followed by Killer Tomatoes Eat France! in 1991. If all that wasn’t horror enough it became a TV cartoon series, was turned into a video game, a comic book and even spawned a series of books and a couple of homage films including The Attack of the Giant Moussaka. There’s even a Killer Tomatoe Festival
For more information, apart from the links included above, good places to start are The Guernsey Tom: The Rise and Fall of an Island Economy by Huw Beynon and Stephen Quilley; The Worthing Glasshouse Industry by Malcom Linfield.