Chapter 11: Getting Started In Maldon

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by Dr. Sydney Ellerton

I went to Maldon to start work on February 1st, 1942; leaving the academic atmosphere of Cambridge to do a job with a commercial company based in a small Essex town. However, in some ways this was not such a change, for my scientific interests in Cambridge had been directed to a practical rather than abstrusely academic end and my science would still be needed to improve plants in the world of commerce. At least this enterprise was real and meaningful, not a question of supporting the war effort by the quite absurdly long-winded process of breeding sugar beet from scratch. The Maldon company was already in commercial beet seed production when I joined it, though on a small scale and with much room for improvement.

I took with me, as an assistant, Kenneth Hedge. He had been one of Maurice Buck’s two assistants at the Plant Breeding Institute and was married, with two young children. His experience had been in the very practical side of running cereal trials. For the two of us, as we arrived by train, appearances were rather inauspicious, for it was a bitter winter. The landscape was covered with snow and this persisted for weeks.

The first thing was to meet Mr Ernest Clark and learn about the company and its requirements. He was one of the many small country corn merchants who operated in those days, before the fashion for amalgamation into huge concerns with many branches had taken root. The main business was buying wheat, barley and other crops from farmers, cleaning and packaging them as necessary, and selling them mostly on the London market. He also supplied the same farmers with seed corn, fertilisers, feeding stuffs and other such requirements. The 1930’s had been hard days and Mr Clark (I soon learnt that everybody called him ‘Boy’) had survived when others failed, because he could command cheaper transport. His warehouse was a converted maltings and was right on the tidal Blackwater Estuary, a couple of miles from the centre of Maldon. He had a small quay where Thames sailing barges could dock and be loaded or unloaded and this was cheaper than road or rail.

‘Boy’ proved to be a very friendly and practical person but had no pretence of being any kind of scientist. He had mastered the technique of contracting out sugar beet seed growing to his farmer clients supervising the crops with the help of his assistant and later partner Tom Young, dealing with seed as received from them and preparing for sale to the British Sugar Corporation. Improvement of beet varieties by breeding was a mystery to him and when his breeder, J .C.Cullen, lapsed into alcoholism and let things go to rack and ruin, he was in a real fix. This was the point at which he contacted Cambridge and sought me out. I was his second dip into the Cambridge pot and he was hoping and praying for better luck this time.

Boy’s arrival on the sugar beet scene had, as is the case for so many things in life, been accidental. Back in 1924 and 1925, when the beet sugar industry was founded in Britain, it happened that a government-owned institute, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (N.I.A.B.) had newly come into existence. It had been given the task of sorting out the chaos which then existed in the naming of crop varieties and also of testing them for performance in the field. In this way farmers could be reliably informed what best to grow. When the beet industry started up, every foreign beet seed firm hoped to put its varieties on to the British market. What could be more logical than to let the N.I.A.B. sort this problem out too? To this end it started running performance trials on beet varieties in every sugar factory area, and issued a list of recommended varieties of which seed would be stocked for distribution by the factories. Without a recommendation the sugar factories would not stock seed of a variety and the growers were contracted to buy their seed from the factory. Hence it was a case of no recommendation, no sale, but the growers did have a free choice from the full list of approved sorts.

Firms from Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia and a few other places entered varieties in the trials. One of these was the Polish firm K. Buszczynski & Co. and its varieties proved to be unacceptable because of a propensity to ‘bolt’, going prematurely to seed in the first year instead of producing a nice fat root suitable for sending to the sugar factory. They had tried to improve resistance to bolting by working on the problem back in Poland, but on retesting in England the varieties still failed to pass muster. So they decided to set up a breeding station and a seed production company in Britain in the hope of better success. They had a problem, for they had no contacts in the country. They chose to seek advice from the National Farmers’ Union. It happened that the president of the N.F.U. at the time was a certain Stanley Ratcliff, a farmer from Maldon. Now Boy Clark had married a pretty red-head named Beryl, one of Stanley Ratcliff’s daughters and Stanley told the Poles that he was sure his son­-in-law would cooperate with them. He also correctly told them that Essex was an excellent seed-growing area, for which it had a long tradition. So it started! A breeding station, wholly owned by the Poles, was set up in one of Stanley Ratcliff’s farmhouses, at Beeleigh, a mile or so out of Maldon. A seed production company, called British Pedigree Sugar Beet Seed Ltd., with a 52 percent Polish ownership, was also set up and both were furnished with equipment of the same kind as they were already using in Poland.

The Buszczynskis appointed a Polish breeder by the name of Lutoslawski and there was never any intention that Boy would be saddled with breeding responsibilities. But the war broke out and Lutoslawski, who was in the army reserve, had to return to Poland like many Polish soldiers never to be heard of again. This left Boy with a problem which accounted for his trip to Cambridge and his acquisition of Cullen. Cullen had no previous experience of sugar beet but was intelligent and had a sound scientific training. His problem with alcohol was not foreseen and he seemed to be a good choice.

This was the background of my arrival with Kenneth Hedge in snow­-covered Maldon early in 1942, after Boy had made his second trip to Cambridge.

Lilian was, of course, still committed to the school in Cambridge and we still had our house there. So I commuted between Cambridge and Maldon, spending five days a week at work and leaving for Cambridge on Saturday mornings, returning on Monday mornings. It was about 50 miles and there were two rail routes: via Witham and Bishop’s Stortford and via Witham, Mark’s Tey and Shelford. That was very much in the pre-Beeching days and only fragments of these branch lines remain. I used to cycle to Maldon station, put my bike on the train, and complete the journey at the Cambridge end by bike. Occasionally I would cycle the whole way. For the first few weeks the snow lay on the ground. One Saturday I remember cycling down to the Maldon East station in deeply rutted snow with much difficulty, arriving just time to see the train leave. I cycled on to Witham, six or seven slippery miles away, just in time to miss the train there too. Then on another eight miles to Braintree and finally I caught it! The trains were not really quite that slow, but that particular service waited for an hour in Braintree.

I had to find lodgings in Maldon and was very lucky, for I stayed with Mrs Collins, the mother of the local grocer. In a time of severe rationing that proved to be an excellent arrangement , for no system could be absolutely watertight! Stanley Collins, the grocer, used to complain that his mother never understood rationing. She never needed to in any strict sense. These weekend trips to Cambridge lasted for the rest of Lilian’s school year, from the beginning of February to late July. Sometimes, though, she would come to Maldon instead. Kenneth Hedge’s accommodation problem was solved by letting him occupy the top floor of the farmhouse at Beeleigh, above the rooms which constituted the breeding station.

Maldon was a pleasant little town with a long history, much quieter than it is today and with a population of about 10,000. Motor traffic was minimal because of the very severe rationing of fuel. Maldon had been the site of a victorious battle against the invading Danes nearly 1,000 years before. The town centre, with its old Moot Hall, is built on top of a hill. There is a road nearly straight up the hill from the flat river plain below, phenomenally steep for East Anglia. In the early days of motoring they even kept a team of heavy horses at the bottom of the hill, to give the cars and lorries help when needed to get them to the top. There is another way down, though, the gently sloping High Street with its many old buildings, terminating in the wharf on the tidal estuary of the River Blackwater. When I arrived there, the shops were still mostly family businesses and there was a good supply of pubs. Fishing boats plied from the wharf and one of my first impressions of Maldon was the freshness of the fish in at least one of the shops. As I was walking down the High street, passing the display on the usual marble slab in a fish shop, one of the flatfish jumped in the air. You can’t get much fresher than that!

There was a Grammar School (high school) in Maldon and the headmaster was short of staff because of the war. He had heard, from someone who had met Lilian, that I had a wife who taught English and he asked me to go to see him. It was quite amusing, having an interview by proxy. I rose to the occasion in one small respect. Lilian had left a few things in Maldon, among them a tie of the Lydney Old Girl’s Hockey Club. I wore it, because that was as close as I could get to qualifying as a schoolmistress. Arthur Ingham, the headmaster, was universally liked. He was dedicated, kind and efficient and indeed quite outstanding. He took Lilian on his staff, sight unseen!

We had to find a house, not too easy a task. We found one in the town, a semi-detached house in Cross Road. It was acceptable for a short while, but we never really liked it. It belonged to a widow lady named Rush, whose late husband had hunted big game in India. On the wall of the staircase was the outline of a spread-out tiger skin: it had prevented the wallpaper from fading as the rest had. So half way up the stairs was a rather spooky tiger, which Lilian never really accepted as a member of the family. Nor did she like, in this semi-detached house, the fact that the attics of the two houses had no dividing wall. She did not feel secure. However we did like the giant, overhanging walnut tree in the next­ door garden, which shed hundreds of walnuts on our side.

Maldon was closer to the war than Cambridge. Many of the local fishermen in their small boats had joined the flotilla which went out to rescue the British army from Dunkirk. The coastal zone had special security arrangements, with check points on the zone boundary. Whenever we left, we had to stop at a check point on returning, to present a special identity card to prove that we were legitimate residents. From Maldon we could sometimes see a glow in the sky in the direction of London, as we could from Cambridge, but the big ‘blitz’ was over. As in Cambridge, there was very little bombing. Curiously, it was the farmland nearer the Thames Estuary which had more things dropped on it, mostly jettisoned by enemy aircraft as they were being chased by our night fighters, using the estuary as a landmark. That was a bit later though, when the fighters had been equipped with on-board radar and could locate and chase the raiders during the hours of darkness. There was a claim that the neighbouring parish of Purleigh had more bombs of one kind or another dropped on it than any other parish in England. It was so rural, though, that only one house was destroyed and that was when the owners were out at the cinema.

All this is running on a bit. The farmhouse breeding station was simply but adequately equipped to wash and weigh beets from field trials and to determine sugar content, in this way getting good data from a near­ by trial field provided for our use by the ubiquitous Stanley Ratcliff. But everything was in a horrible mess. The yard was full of bags of selections, not covered by straw or any other protection and mostly frozen hard. Time showed that there were survivors of this treatment, but also very many losses. There were some broken panes of glass in the house, which I was told were smashed by Mr Norfolk, the blacksmith from the next village, Woodham Walter. True to tradition, ‘the smith a mighty man was he’ and he did not appreciate the fact that Cullen had been having an affair with his wife. It should be mentioned that, after these sad lapses, Cullen pulled himself round and became a very worthy citizen. In due course he was to join the staff of the N.I.A.B.

So this was the start, and I was to overlap with Cullen for a month so that I could have time to find out what was what. This could have been very embarrassing, but in fairness Cullen made it as easy as he could and by the time he left I was getting into the swing of things. However, the immediate outlook for me was rather mixed. There was the exciting challenge of a new and truly significant job, but there was also the chaos, the frost damage and the snow, covering the landscape unremittingly for week after week. This was quite exceptional. I never again saw such persistent snow cover in Essex.

When it was possible to see the local farm land, it looked different from most. It was mostly heavy, clay soil and carried arable crops. It was ploughed ‘on the stetch’, i.e. it was put up into strips typically 7ft 6 ins (2.3m) wide and the implements – harrows, drills, cultivators and so on, and the tractors too, had their wheels the same distance apart. In this way heavy loads did not spoil the soil structure even though the tractors and implements of the day had iron wheels. Although most of the ploughing was done by tractor, steam ploughing was not yet dead. This involved two steam traction engines, one at each end of the field, drawing a heavy, multi-furrowed, reversible plough backwards and forwards by steel cables wound on great drums. Again, the heavy tractors did not run on the area to be cropped.

Some of the local farm workers’ wives worked in the lab. There was Mrs Whiting,  a small, lean and sprightly sexuagenarian, and Mrs Broome, both from farm cottages at the end of the drive. There was Mrs Hermon, from Curling Tye Green, known always as ‘Colickey Green’. For a while, some male workers were available too. The women, I noticed from the labour book, earned 8½d (3½p) per hour and the men 10½d (4½p). At that rate we could afford to have them cleaning up bags of seed by laborious handpicking. I soon devised a miniature carpet dresser for this purpose but other improvements were not so easy to make. It was all very odd. In a way, the firm could buy anything it wanted, effectively for nothing, for there was a thing called Excess Profits Tax. Any profit earned by a company in excess of pre-war earnings was taxed at 100 per cent, and this firm had earned very little pre-war. So effectively anything could be bought at no eventual cost, the only trouble being that supplies of nearly everything had dried up and little local engineering shops were otherwise engaged or had lost their staff.

I did get a car, though, a secondhand Riley with a heinous device called a Wilson pre-selector gearbox, which was coupled with a centrifugal clutch. It was normally a good idea, but in those days batteries had to last long after their normal spell of service had expired and then a starting handle had to be used. The position of the gear lever bore no relation to the gear the car was actually in at a particular moment. If it was not in neutral, the person with the starting handle was very liable to be run over when the engine started and the centrifugal clutch automatically engaged. I made several very quick dashes out of harm’s way. Petrol was very severely rationed during the war and was allowed only for essential business purposes, so that the good old bicycle was still very much in the picture.

My previous driving experience was limited to a few tentative trials in the Arizona desert and a little bit around Berkeley, but driving tests had been suspended during the war and traffic was very light owing to the petrol rationing. So the thing to do was to go out and learn by experience. I started by driving round some of the little country lanes. The very first time out I met a very large tank coming the other way, which I thought most unfair!

The breeding gradually got into shape and facilities were improved as much as possible. I added a second trial centre at Bridgham, on the edge of Breckland, near Thetford in Norfolk. The point of this was that the land was very sandy and sowing was possible much earlier than on the heavy land around Maldon. This early sowing exposed the germinating crop to low temperatures for a long period and this encouraged bolting. In that way it was possible to select material with real resistance to what had been the company’s biggest problem. Sometimes the very lightness of the land led to difficulty for a strong wind after sowing could blow the seed (and the top layer of soil) away. Staffing was a major headache, and went through various phases. At one time I could get very fit but quite unskilled men lent from an anti-aircraft unit on the coast. They could only come on one day a week and then there were no less than eighty of them. We were required to pay them only 1/6d (7½ p) a day, though of course they still had their service pay. Imagine, with a gang like that, obviously far from dedicated to the finicky business of harvesting trials, the task of keeping all the lots separate and properly labelled! Then there was a team from the War Agricultural Committee, a small number who came daily, but they were pretty well unemployable, or they would never have been there. I specially remember one man, always neatly dressed in a dark lounge suit and bowler hat, who washed the beet in the big tank of very cold water. Every morning he showed me the picture he had painted the night before, always one of two subjects: Christ on The Cross or a train crash!

Next came the Women’s Land Army. Quite a few city girls, faced with the need to do some kind of war work, opted for the outdoor life. They had a hostel just on the other side of Maldon and came and went in a special little bus. Two or three of them were real stunners. They got a bit distracted after an American airfield had been established not many miles away. They were supposed to leave at 5 p.m. but from about 4.30 a number of jeeps began to arrive to wheel them away. What did young Englishmen say about the Americans? Overpaid, oversexed and over here! Enormously appreciated none the less, at least by most of us.

The final phase with labour was prisoners of war. They came daily from a camp on the other side of Braintree, some 18 miles away. They were nearly all German and were really good until the war ended, when they very understandably became restless and just wanted to go back home. I sometimes used to think, standing in a beet trial, that there I was, surrounded by a group of enemy aliens armed with the very sharp machete­ like knives used for topping beet. A potentially tricky situation. It turned out that one of them had previously worked for a sugar beet breeder, the German firm of Dippe. Another, Zantow, paid a visit to his home in Eastern Germany after being ‘demobbed’, did not like the look of what he saw, and came back to Britain as a free man. He worked in our seed warehouse down in Maldon, and stayed in this country to the end of his days. Lilian and I got on well with the prisoners and treated them kindly. I still have a memento of these days, a very nice work box which one of them made in his spare time and presented to Lilian.

After six months in the unloved Cross Road, Lilian and I managed to find a house we liked. How was it done? During those days, Lilian and I had again signed up for Civil Defence work, she on ambulances and I, in a rescue squad. One particular night, while I was on duty, I had a telephone call from Stanley Collins, the local grocer whose mother had looked after me when I first came to Maldon. In those days we all had to leave our ration books with a grocer and the first sign of anyone leaving was that they went to get their books back. So Stanley rang me to say that a certain family were leaving and that they were living in a nice house up the Spital Road, owned by the local Town Clerk, Mr Cloughton. At 7 o’clock the next morning I was on his doorstep and became the new tenant.

The sugar beet seed produced by the company was grown under contract by local farmers. The threshed seed was brought in as required to a processing plant which had been installed in a disused garage near the railway station. Luckily this had all been set up before the war loomed, with the expertise of the Poles. The seed was dried as necessary, sized and cleaned as far as possible on flat, reciprocating screens and finished off by trickling it down inclined, ascending belts called carpet dressers. The roundish seed rolled to the bottom while the sticks, leaves and rubbish were tipped over the top. The seed was then dusted with organic mercurial powder to control fungi and bagged in hundredweight hessian bags. In charge was a local smallholder, Charlie Rushbrook.

Looking back on it, one aspect was frightening. We were nothing like so aware of environmental hazards in those days as we are now, and the control was so imperfect that, by the end of the season, most of the flat surfaces around the plant were covered with purple mercurial dust. Much of it must have been breathed in, but the staff showed no ill effect. The dust would puff out through the fabric of the bags too, so the farmers had the benefit of some of it.

As the war neared its end, new things began to happen. One day we saw a great many large aircraft going over, each towing a glider of roughly equal size. They were taking troops out to the ill-fated Arnhem offensive in Holland. Then we began to get ‘doodle-bugs’ coming the opposite way, unarmed flying bombs the engines of which would stop and then they would dive to earth and explode. They were very nearly as fast as our fastest fighters and they were therefore hard to catch. I saw one flying over my trial field, chased by the fastest fighter of the day. The pilot fired at the doodle-bug with his wing-mounted cannon, but missed. The recoil of the guns slowed him down and he had to chase his target again for miles before he caught up and destroyed it. After a while, though, doodle-bugs were picked off regularly by anti-aircraft batteries on the coast, equipped with new radar-based devices called predictors, manned by women. Before this happened, though, one of them landed a couple of hundred yards from our house. It blew all the windows in and lots of tiles off the roof. It was unkind enough to send a sliver of glass right across the room where Lilian and I were sleeping in our Morrison shelter, to cut the strings on her tennis racket. The shelter was a heavy steel double-bed-sized box with a top of thick steel plate and steel mesh sides. This hit was plenty close enough! We reacted by drinking the precious bottle of sherry which we had hoarded, then went out into the garden to see if the apples were still on the trees. They were.

During this period Lilian’s mother quite often used to come from her house in Wales to visit, always most welcome. She did not mind leaving her secure home far from the war zone. I remember one evening I had been talking about sugar beet to an audience of farmers on the other side of Colchester. On the way back the siren went. When I got home, there was ‘Nana’, nonchalantly standing close to the kitchen window, making marmalade. Her cocker spaniel Jim, who always came with her, was much less brave. He was the first in the shelter when the siren sounded. Later the V2’s came, supersonic rockets. The sound of the explosion was the first thing we heard and we knew that if we had heard that we were O.K. By then we had moved the trial fields to another of Stanley Ratcliff’s farms, at Woodham Mortimer. A rocket landed near enough to strip a large part of the stucco surfacing from nearby Woodham Mortimer Hall and to blow down a large section of the garden wall.

One day, returning from work on my bicycle, I saw what seemed to be a crazy, impossible thing. It was a twin-engined aircraft without any propellers, clearly an optical illusion of some kind! It was our first jet aircraft, a Gloster Meteor. Because of war-time secrecy , there had been no announcement of its existence.

Through the winter of 1944-45 the Germans had their last fling in the Ardennes and in the following summer came the capitulation, followed not long afterwards by the defeat of the Japanese. There were two great celebrations, VE (Victory in Europe) Day and VJ (Victory in Japan) Day. The end of the war brought what might have been a difficult problem for Lilian and me. We had rented our house ‘Hartmoor’, in Maldon on the understanding that we would vacate it when the owner’s son-in-law came back from the war. In practice, though, this worked out beautifully, for Boy Clark had decided to buy Woodham Mortimer Hall farm, together with its fine historic house, from his father-in-law. Lilian and I were able to move in on VJ Day, to enjoy living there for no less than 34 years.

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