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Why bulb fields proved such a bright idea for West Norfolk ...


By Chris Hornby


With gardens everywhere bursting into colour, it is perhaps timely to reflect on the history of the bulb industry in the Marshland area – going back more than 100 years.

Bryan Howling, a former West Norfolk borough mayor who himself worked in the bulb industry, tells us: “The earliest commercial bulb growing in Terrington was around the late 1890s by the local schoolmaster, Mr Richard Bryant.”

And he adds: “Who would think that we were actually growing more bulbs than the Dutch a few years ago.”

Mr Howling, a member of Terrington St Clement History Group, worked in the industry for some 16 years with one of the local pioneers being Mr Aubrey Cave.

He recalls that Mr Cave built a cold store to facilitate a vernalisation for his forcing bulbs to bring them into flower at an earlier date following cooling treatment.

A sterilising plant was built to treat his daffodils against eelworm with heat treatment.

“Men could be seen in the early spring walking the daffodil crop holding umbrellas to be able to see the evidence of eelworm in the shade from the umbrella.

“Mr Edward Cave [his brother] took his bulb growing further afield by setting up a bulb growing farm in Cornwall to extend his bulb enterprise.”

The History Group’s archive includes a newspaper article written in the 1950s by the late Wes Ellis which refers in detail to the early pioneers of bulb growing in the area.

Mr Ellis wrote: “Tulips came to England from Vienna in 1578, but bulb growing only began on a commercial scale in Marshland about 60 years ago [in the 1890s].

“One of the local pioneers with hyacinths (propagated in England ever since 1784) was the late Mr R W Bryant, one time schoolmaster.”

Edward Cave led the way in the bulb industry
Edward Cave led the way in the bulb industry

Richard Bryant’s interest had been aroused by reading a magazine article describing bulb farms in the Netherlands, and he was struck by the similarity between the soil of Marshland and that of Dutch bulb fields.

A visit to the Netherlands convinced him that conditions in Marshland were just as suitable and various experiments convinced him that he was right.

In 1899 he solved the problem of outdoor hyacinth propagation – which up to that time was an achievement exclusively in the hands of the Dutch bulb growers – with an experimental plot of Dutch hyacinths and treated on the same principle as that practised in the Netherlands.

The bulbs produced large numbers of bulbs from the parent stock and Mr Bryant’s hyacinth nurseries were successfully launched.

Other local pioneers followed with the growing of narcissi and daffodils.

Mr Ellis continued: “The late Mr F Law, of Manchester, settled here a little later and grew bulbs by the ton. Mr W G Davies forced three million bulbs a year before the war, so the schoolmaster’s experiment grew into a thriving industry.”

The first slump in bloom prices occurred in 1911-1921, when prices fell to four pence per gross of blooms.

West Norfolk has so many tulip fields
West Norfolk has so many tulip fields

This caused growers to look for other outlets and many sought earlier markets by forcing the bulbs under glass.

Messrs. A.B. Cave and E. Cave – sons of the late Mr W Cave, a pioneer – carried out this method on a large scale.

Although new varieties came to the fore from 1910 onwards, surpassing older varieties in length of stem and quality of bloom, acreages were reduced during the Great War to allow extra land for food production.

Mr Ellis added: “Tulips were not grown so readily as daffodils; they needed extra care and attention.

“Hyacinths have never been taken up on a large scale as a commercial crop, partly due to the special qualities of soil demanded and partly because of the smaller demand.

“The Marshland flower and bulb industry reached its height between 1930-39. About 100 acres at Terrington St Clement alone were devoted to all kinds of flowers.

“About 10,000,000 bulbs were forced under glass and cropped between mid-December and late March.”

Mr Howling tells us: “Sadly, Mr Bryant died quite young, leaving his wife with five young children.

“Mr Bryant had already started his bulb business in Terrington and was listed in the local directories as a bulb grower and merchant and after his death his wife also carried on the business of bulb grower and merchant.

“So, we feel that he can truly be regarded as the real entrepreneur of the bulb industry in the area.

“Mr Frank Law was one of the early growers of bulbs under glass.

Bulbs have made this a mainstay of the tulip industry
Bulbs have made this a mainstay of the tulip industry

“Mr Law came to the area just prior to the First World War from Sale in Cheshire after having had a successful career in the cotton industry.

“He, like Titus Salt [a successful businessman who helped improve conditions for his workers, building a model factory and village in Saltaire, near Bradford] had the idea to establish a self-sufficient holding in Terrington where he built a row of superior dwellings for his workers together with an intended cinema and shops.

“However, the war overtook his ambition as most of his male workers left and went to war.

“He had glasshouse sections made which could be moved about as mobile glasshouses on his holding and afforded protection for his crops.

“Part of his holding was alongside a footpath between Terrington and Tilney and on Sundays, in particular, villagers would take to the footpath by their scores to view his wonderful forced display of tulips under glass.”



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