by Dr. Sydney Ellerton
The arrival of peace led to a lot of changes and a lot of rethinking. Some things stayed just the same, like Lilian’s teaching job, at least as long as she wanted it. Others, like the rationing of food, fuel and clothing, actually got worse for a while. Our big new house, three storeys high, was only partly ours for a while, two separate flats being occupied by the families of farm workers, the Rowes and the Taylors. Three of the downstairs rooms were used as an office, a washing facility, weighing and sampling room for the beets and a lab. All this eventually sorted itself out. The other families left and the laboratory and office moved to new buildings across the road. There was another big event for us. Lilian and I had decided not to have a child in wartime, but now things were different, and in January 1946 our son John was born.
The business now faced a return to normal international competition in sugar beet breeding and seed production, though of course that would take some time. We had been lucky up to now, with an assured market for all that we could produce in a time of shortage. The continental producers in general had the advantage of scale and indeed of much longer experience. In some cases, as in Sweden and Denmark, they were owned by sugar companies, able and willing to subsidise them if need be. Some odd things happened too. The firm of Rabbethge and Giesecke, breeders of Kleinwanzleben sugar beet varieties, had been the largest single suppliers of beet seed to Britain. When zonal boundaries between the Western powers and the U.S.S.R. were agreed, the village of Kleinwanzleben found itself in the Russian sphere of influence. Very strangely, while things were still fluid, a British military expedition was organised, to go to Kleinwanzleben and bring back breeding stocks of seed and key personnel to the West. Dr Rabbethge had a farming estate at Einbeck, not very far from Hannover, and they were taken there. New facilities were built, financed by a loan from the Prudential Assurance Company. So there was another major competitor, set up on a lavish scale in Western Germany. We had no illusions about the competition and we knew we would have to fight hard. This we did in two main ways: by technical innovation and, when new and much more expensive breeding methods came along, by international co-operation. We were helped by the fact that another British firm, Johnsons of Boston, Lincolnshire, came to us for a supply of mother seed, which gave us useful additional revenue. We had been able by now to put together quite a well-equipped lab, though it would be some years before we could get adequate equipment for handling large quantities of roots mechanically. The trial sites were extended to Scotland, where breeding against bolting was helped by the length of the summer days, to the black fenland north of Cambridge (which was a very different environment), to the rich fenland silts near the Wash and to Shropshire.
This regular travelling about Britain was interesting. The Shropshire trials brought nothing that was unfamiliar, for it was in Ford, where I had often visited my uncles through the years. It was nice to be able to sneak off for a weekend in Wales. Working in the Fen at Black Horse Drove was like living in a world apart, remote and very different while only a few miles from Littleport and the small cathedral town of Ely. Standing on the deep, black peat close to a working tractor plough was like experiencing aftershocks of an earthquake, with the ground shaking like a jelly. The old fenland families, who had years ago been marsh dwellers, were even reported to be web-footed! While visiting the trials at Holbeach St. Mark’s, where the rich silt had been reclaimed from the sea, we normally stayed at the Chequers Hotel in Holbeach. There one was likely to hear more Dutch than English being spoken, for it was close to the centre of the bulb-growing area.
The Scottish trials were the most interesting to visit. At first we had a field just by the factory in Cupar, Fife, but then I thought that if we were to go north to get the effect of the long summer days, we might as well really go north. So for some years we had trials on the land of a Mr Robertson, who had some very good, light land within a great curve of the river North Esk near Laurencekirk in Kincardineshire. It was beautiful, flat, uniform land that seemed ideal for trials. One year, though, when we were ready to sow, it rained and rained and rained. We stayed in a hotel in Brechin. At the end of two weeks the river flooded and the trial site was submerged. We went back home and tried again later.
We had a visitor to our Laurencekirk trial, an enterprising farmer from Fife in the shape of Mr Frank Roger. He farmed near St. Andrews in Fife and was of some significance in the Scottish sugar beet industry, of which he was immensely supportive. He was the Scottish National Farmers’ Union representative on just everything to do with beet, including the I.I.R.B., the European Institute of Sugar Beet Research. Hence I had met him at gatherings on the Continent. He was of medium height, robust and athletic, with a rosy face and a moustache. He did not entirely like our trial, for the rabbits had been at it. Rabbits galore were living in crevices in the ever-present stone walls and coming out for a nibble whenever they felt like it. So Frank generously offered us trial facilities on his land, and we were pleased to accept even though it meant going back some distance south to much the same latitude as Cupar, where we had started work in Scotland.
Frank was a fine farmer and kept his farm in tip-top condition. We stayed with him until I retired in 1979 and of course got to know him very well. At the age of eighty he could still shin over stone walls like a youngster. He was a pillar of the kirk and normally did not touch a drop of alcohol. Once I was dining at his farmhouse at Boarhills and he brought out a bottle of whisky that some ill-informed person had given him for Christmas. He didn’t want to drink it but, being Scottish, didn’t want to waste it either. So he plied me with whisky. He did so in a big way and, if it had been in these days of the breathaliser test, I would not have dared to drive back to St. Andrews. Frank was known to have broken down on one occasion, though. It was on one of the I.I.R.B. summer tours. On the ferry on the way back he was heard to say “To think that I was in France, drinking champagne. And the worst of it was, I enjoyed it”!
It was interesting to see how farming changed during the years we were with Frank. On my first visit he proudly showed me his team of fifteen Clydesdale horses, clearly very dear to his heart. The cereal crops he grew, mostly oats, were put up in rows of little round stacks raised on staddle stones, mushroom shaped stones which prevented rats and mice from getting into the stacks. After some years the horses had gone, combine harvesters and tractors had arrived and the cereal crops were barley and wheat for the market. There were no more stacks.
The peninsula of Fife is lovely country, gently hilly. St Andrews is historic and impressively sited by the sea. It has a ruined abbey, the oldest university in Scotland, graced by students walking about town in scarlet gowns and the most famous golf course in the world, the Royal and Ancient. The coast is dotted with picturesque little fishing villages like Pittenweem and Anstruther. One of my favourite haunts was the Smugglers’ Inn at Anstruther, though it was not so good the last time I went, for the proprietor and his wife were having a battle royale.
One aspect of our innovation stemmed from my interest in field trial techniques. If it were possible to reduce lot size to a minimum, more material could be handled for the same cost. This required very different statistical treatment, which had to be invented. By a curious chance I had worked on this problem in Cambridge, with a view to getting useful yield data from single ear progenies of barley. Normally field plots are several rows wide and the outside rows were discarded because they grew next to a different variety and were therefore not under normal competition. I had aimed to calculate this inter-row competition and to correct for it. My sugar beet plots were therefore reduced to single rows: replicated, of course, just as multiple row plots would be. Another necessary invention was of trial designs that freed the breeder from the standard, textbook methods of the day for the handling of large numbers of varieties. These were unduly rigid, the standard designs being based on a perfect cube of entries with an equal number of replications of each. There is a lot of difference between 93 and 103, 271 in fact, and the rigidity would have been most uncomfortable. Whatever the method, great masses of data had to be handled.
Data handling had got just a little easier. In Cambridge, all I had been able to use was a Brunsviga machine, in which numbers were put in by moving a slide in a slot for each digit. Multiplying was done by turning a handle. To multiply by 75 you would turn the handle five times in the unit position, move one space to the left into the tens position and turn seven times. It was essentially useless. In Maldon I had a Madas machine, electro-mechanical and made in Switzerland, which was quite useful in the intervals between breakdowns. After the war came a great advance, a Friden machine from America, also electro-mechanical. As a measure of how things have changed, this machine cost £550 in 1945, equivalent to several thousand pounds now, and if I had needed the version with a square root facility, it would have cost £890. It did nothing that could not be done more quickly nowadays on a calculator costing less than five pounds. With the Friden machine, I still taxed family patience, for I was burning the midnight oil on calculations for many weeks in the autumn and winter.
Boy Clark and I had been running the company for years and the absent Poles still had a majority of the shares. We had been paying their dividends over to an official called the Custodian of Enemy Property. Not that the Poles were enemies, of course, but they were entirely cut off from us during the war and somebody had to be legally responsible for their property in England. Now we re-established contact with the Buszczynskis in a very strange way. Poland, of course, was a communist dictatorship, but not everything was taken over by the state. Businesses with less than thirty employees could still have a separate existence, though they were heavily controlled. Buszczynskis had cut themselves down to size so as to stay alive. At this time Spain was a dictatorship too, though at the opposite political extreme under Franco. They were not on diplomatic speaking terms. The Spanish sugar industry, however, wanted to buy seed from Poland, of a variety held to be resistant to the leaf-spot disease Cercospora. The solution was that the Poles proposed to export the seed to us, so that we could then re-export it to Spain.
Boy and I saw a chance here. We told the Polish company (with more than a small degree of connivance) that we could not agree to this arrangement unless we were able to satisfy ourselves that the seed was of such quality as not to damage our reputation. On the strength of this, we got visas to visit Poland in 1948, in the middle of the anxious period of the Berlin airlift. In this way we were able to meet and discuss things together. It was an experience which, while rather scary at the time, I would not have missed.
In 1948 there was virtually no passenger traffic to Poland and the Poles had no ticket agency in London. There was, however, a Czech agency, which issued us with railway tickets printed in Czech. We went up to Grimsby to join a British freighter, the Baltavia, which was able to legally carry up to twelve passengers. Across the North Sea we went, through the Kiel Canal and into the Baltic. There we travelled between two lines of buoys, the only channel that had been swept clear of mines. We passed close to the Swedish island of Bornholm and finally into Gdynia harbour. The mouth of the harbour was still partially blocked by the sunken German battle-cruiser Scharnhorst. The British consul came aboard and told us what we needed to know about being discreet, for we would be followed around by secret police and our baggage would be searched.
The train was waiting for the overnight journey of 250 miles to Warsaw. The railway system had been badly wrecked during the war, steam locomotives awaiting repair or scrapping. Our train was terribly crowded and the prospect of spending the night packed together like sardines was not inviting. Then the train conductor came along and things rapidly improved. It happened that a few days earlier there had been a communist take-over, under Gottwald, in neighbouring Czechoslovakia. The frontier had been closed except to communist VIPs and our tickets were in Czech. So the conductor bowed to us with a great show of deference, cleared out all the other passengers from the compartment, and Boy and I got some sleep, stretched out full-length on the two long seats. It was great to be commissars!
Warsaw had been devastated and there were huge piles of rubble around. Rebuilding had hardly started. The worst area was that of the old ghetto, which had been systematically bulldozed by the Germans. There was a stench and we hoped that it was just drains and not bodies beneath the rubble. We showed up at the Hotel Bristol, where we were required to stay. It could fairly be presumed that any foreign guests would be under surveillance, indeed every time we left the hotel we were asked where we were going. We used to tell them “just for a walk” and they then had to follow us. We showed up in the Buszczynski office. The head of the firm, Konstantin Buszczynski had been run over by a Warsaw tram just before the war, and the current chairman was his sonin-law Stefan Byszewski, a charming fellow. Also present was Dr Roldolfo Ruberl, the foreign sales director of the Polish firm, who was resident in Italy. We already knew him and indeed he was a shareholder in the British company. He was there as interpreter, but most of the time Stefan spoke in his clear, rather slow, uncomplicated French and we spoke, I hope also slowly and clearly, in English.
They went as far as they could in the circumstances, for they were far from being free agents. The English breeding station, wholly owned by them, was to be transferred to British Pedigree and new shares were to be issued in that company. This had the effect of reducing the foreign holding from 52 to 48 per cent, thereby ending Polish control. I was to have the extra shares at a nominal price. Then came the time when we had to make it appear that the declared object of the visit was the real one. I went down south to the lovely, old and undamaged city of Cracow with a Polish professor who had been advising the Buszczynski firm on technical matters. He seemed to me to be a typical academic taking on an extra job to make ends meet, but I suppose he could also have been keeping an eye on me at the request of the authorities. Near Cracow I saw their seed set-up and breeding station. I also saw some of the lovely old streets of Cracow, the university made famous by Copernicus and the castle on the hill. Then back to Warsaw to rejoin Boy, and we had a phony meeting in the Buszczynski office, with minutes taken, about the seed inspection: the Buszczynskis knew that they would have an enquiring official visit as soon as we had gone. They knew that their story had to be convincing.
The train journey south through the flat Polish countryside had been interesting. For the last time in my life I saw lines of men with scythes, cutting their way through cereal crops, and in a few places oldfashioned, horse-drawn sail reapers doing the same job. Passing close to country villages on a Sunday, we saw the local people going to church in colourful traditional dress. Poland was the country, above all others, where the Roman Catholic church had held on to its massive influence in the face of communism and this was probably the only surviving mass attendance at church in eastern Europe.
Because the mere presence of foreigners was a source of suspicion and therefore of possible embarrassment to the Buszczynskis, Boy and I went up to the resort of Sopot on the Baltic to spend a few days there until the Baltavia was ready to sail back, this time not to Grimsby but to the Pool of London. In Gdynia harbour we met the small number of other passengers. We laughed at ourselves, for we had already got into the habit of looking over our shoulders to see if anyone was listening before making any deprecatory remark about the communists. In Poland at the time censorship was all-pervading and took many forms. There was a newspaper printed weekly in Polish by the British Council and the agreement was that they could publish verbatim any speech made by a minister in parliament in Westminster. The then foreign secretary, Ernie Bevin, had been making some unkind comments about communism which were printed as agreed. It just happened that the distribution of the paper failed that week! Buszczynski’s had a lady who did their foreign correspondence. Her son was interested in languages too and went to borrow a book at the British Library, which had been set up by inter-governmental agreement. He was arrested and grilled for several hours to probe his foreign leanings. In this way the value of the library was negated, for people would rarely go if this kind of thing was the consequence. Many such examples could be cited.
This trip had been in the late summer of 1948, but it was not the first post-war trip abroad for me. Before the war the International Institute of Sugar Beet Research (I.I.R.B.) had been set up in Belgium. In 1947 it had its first post-war meeting, in Brussels in February. I joined up as a member and remained so for some forty years. It proved to be an invaluable way of getting to know the people in the industry in their various capacities. At that time, foreign currency for travel was very severely restricted and we were allowed just £35 a year each. I took Lilian with me and we were astonished by the bright lights in the shop windows, for display lighting had been banned for years at home, and by the wealth of goods in the shops. One day, Lilian was reduced to choosing between buying a pair of nylons, totally unavailable in Britain, or having lunch. I was at an official dinner of, for me at the time, unheard-of luxury. For Lilian, the stockings won.
At home we were learning the art of looking after our baby. Lilian had had a very rough time having him: she was aged 37 when he was born and that was by no means the ideal age. But now he was with us and it was a great experience and a great joy in life. Lilian still occasionally had a spell of teaching at the Grammar School, when some other member of staff was ill, and she was able to do this because her mother loved to come to Essex to lend a hand. We always enjoyed her company and we used to enjoy visiting her home in Barmouth.
We had quite fallen in love with Woodham Mortimer Hall and its fine walled garden. The other families had left by now, though part of the ground floor was still used for the sugar beet breeding work. The main part of the house, three storeys high, was built in the 1690’s and just at that time Dutch engineers were draining the fen country to the north. From South Lincolnshire down to Essex, Dutch gables had become a fashionable feature of house design and these we had. At first there were stone-mullioned windows, but a century later they had been replaced with the new technology of the moment, sash windows. At the back was the old house, built about 1440, with timber framing. There was a walled garden, a safe haven for young John to play in and including a lawn which we converted to a tennis court. For many years we had weekend tennis parties which were a great pleasure. We also played tennis on a couple of private courts in Maldon, had a lot of fun and made some very good friends that way. In the winter months Lilian and I played badminton in the Grammar School hall.
The ‘new’ house, the 1690 part, had been built to the order of Dr Peter Chamberlen, anglicised to Chamberlain, of Huguenot origin. He had invented the obstetrical forceps which still go by his name, keeping them as a family secret. He became a very famous ‘baby doctor’ and served several of the royal houses of Europe in that capacity. He must have had an unusual zest for travel. Even his frequent visits to London were not without danger, because Epping Forest was en-route, and well known for its highway robbers. Maybe he had somebody riding shotgun, just like the Westerns. Throughout our many years at Woodham Mortimer, we had visits from baby doctors from every part of the world, coming to see where the famous man had lived. The interest had been whetted because Chamberlain had cleverly hidden his original instruments, together with a few other personal odds and ends, under the floorboards in the top storey of the house. They had been rediscovered nearly two centuries later and had been taken to the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
Chamberlain’s tomb in the churchyard next door bears an inscription of considerable interest. On the more important side it reads as follows:
Here lyes ye body of Docter Peter Chamberlen, who was borne on ye 8th day of May 1601 and dyed on ye 22th of December 1683; being aged 82 years 7 months & 14 days.
He had 2 wives and by ye first Jane Middleton had 11 sons & 2 daughters & amongst them 45 grandchildren, & 8 great grandchildren whereof were living att his death three sons; viz. Hugh, Paul & John, & his two daughters and 20 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren.
By ye second Anne Harrison had 3 sons & 2 daughters whereof onely hope was living att his death who hath erected this monument in memory of his father.
The said Peter Chamberlen toock ye degree of Docter in Physick in several universities both att home & abroad and lived such above three score years being Physician in Ordinary to three Queens of England viz. King James & Queen Anne, King Charles ye first & Queen Mary; King Charles ye second & Queen Katherine and also to some forraine Princes, having travelled most partes of Europe & speaking most of the languages.
As for his religion was a Christian keeping ye Commandments of God faith of Jesus, being baptised about ye year 1648 & keeping ye 7th day for ye saboth above 32 years.
The mortality rate in a well-to-do and (for the time) medically clued-up family was very heavy. At his death he had lost 12 sons and daughters, also 25 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. Of course the period referred to included the Great Plague of 1665 and this may have been a prime reason. Also note that he was baptised at age 47 and apparently he was a noted seventh-day-adventist.