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How a piece of social engineering in the 1930s helped build a £500m a year industry

PUBLISHED: 15:19 25 November 2015 | UPDATED: 15:24 25 November 2015

Beryl Cowan's father, who was one of the original Sidlesham settlers (courtesy of Beryl Cowan)

Beryl Cowan's father, who was one of the original Sidlesham settlers (courtesy of Beryl Cowan)

Archant

On a grey October day in 1938 a young lad and his sister, clutching their mother’s hand, stepped off a train in Chichester and into a new life.

They were part of a long-forgotten exodus, a curious social experiment that saw more than 100 unemployed coal miners and ship builders uprooted from hopeless poverty in the north and Wales, and deposited with their families on a windswept, treeless peninsular in West Sussex.

That day sticks in 86-year-old Norman Dixon’s memory; it was the first and last time he saw his mother cry.

“I cannot ever remember my dad talking to us about moving. I just knew we were going to the south of England, about which I knew not a darned thing. Mum cried on the train. I didn’t want to come, either,” he says.

Norman was just nine when his father Jack, who’d looked after the pit ponies at Allerdene Colliery near Gateshead before joining the long-term unemployed for 13 years, took his boy away from everything he’d ever known and brought the family to live on a four-acre plot of ground on the Manhood Peninsula. Given a house, a sow stall, some chickens in a battery and a Dutchlights glasshouse, they were expected to knuckle down to farm life as part of the Sidlesham Land Settlement Association - a co-operative of growers who were marshalled under a distinctly communist-style regime to produce food for the London markets.

During the Great Depression, around 1,000 families in Britain’s blighted industrial heartlands accepted the same government-backed offer to retrain as market gardeners in one of 20 Land Settlement areas – but Sidlesham was by far the largest, and its legacy would have surprised even Ramsay MacDonald’s visionary National Coalition, for whom the LSAs were simply a way of getting some of the three million jobless back to work.

It didn’t suit everyone; 40 per cent failed their two-year probationary period and returned home, but many, like the Dixons, stuck it out and in time the flat-cap growers, who had arrived in Sussex sickly, disillusioned and humiliated by years on the dole, helped found a horticultural industry worth £500m a year today.

Instead of hewing coal, miners initially found themselves hoeing cucumbers; foundrymen with fists like hams went from tempering steel to planting tomatoes; ships’ riveters turned from building boats to farrowing sows. About the only things they recognized were the back-breaking work and long hours – from dawn until the last tilly lamp went out in the fields long after dusk. No wonder the drop-out rate was high.

Physical toil

“Although these men would have been fit in the past, you’ve got to remember they had been unemployed for a very long time. Working the land was heavy work and they’d lost their stamina,” says Norman, who, 77 years after moving into No 50 on the Sidlesham LSA, is one of the last remaining pioneers.

Still at No 50 – later renamed Kibblesworth in memory of the mining village close to where he grew up – Norman has clung on to the broad Geordie accent that marked him out as one of the early ‘settlers’.

“When I first came down, I used the word ‘man’ a lot and I’d say ‘Wot cheor!’ Of course, at school they didn’t understand what I was saying and I didn’t know whether to say hello or ‘Wot cheor’, so in the end I said nothing!”

In July, Norman’s story was among those featured at the launch of the Sidlesham LSA Heritage Trail, which celebrates and explains the unusual topography of the Manhood Peninsula – its ramshackle collection of derelict sheds, distinctive brick-built houses with mansard roofs, accessed by tiny footbridges over drainage ditches by which the produce would be piled high each morning for Jimmy Gray’s horse and cart to take to the municipal packhouse.

It was these remnants of a significant piece of national history, which had so radically altered a local landscape, that intrigued the trail’s author, Dr Bill Martin. A relative newcomer to the area, he started inquiring into its past two years ago, and when people began opening their doors to him, an incredible story tumbled out.

“The creation of the LSA was a unique and historic national event and it had a huge impact on the local area,” says Bill. “In 1936 there was an agricultural depression as well as national depression and a lot farms were put up for sale quite cheaply. Keynor Farm was one of them. It was bought for just £9,000 with 300 acres.”

Purchased in 1936 by the LSA, along with neighbouring Batchmere and Fletchers farms, Keynor was where the menfolk were initially billeted in a hut (that still survives) and schooled for six months, not just in working the land, but also in how to work without a gaffer or a shift horn to regulate their day. It was self employment...of sorts. Under the terms of the LSA, tenants were required to buy supplies from the co-operative stores and plants from the central propagation unit, grow what the LSA told them and sell their produce back to the LSA, which packed it and handled the marketing.

Once a month, the accounts were settled. From the sale of each tenant’s produce was deducted the LSA’s fee, rent on the land and house, and any loan repayments on the glasshouse or other improvements for which an advance had been made. The remainder was profit. By 1939 the least successful grower was clearing £2 a week; the most successful more than £3, which was comparable to working six shifts in a foundry, if you could find the work, and these men couldn’t.

Hard-won success

And yet, despite the deprivation in the cities from which they’d come, many went home. Sidlesham’s Primary School roll records a long list of children in the 30s whose bleak future was spelled out in a single word: ‘returned’. Young Barney Cusack was among them.

“His family lived in abject poverty with one tap and one toilet between five families, although fortunately they were near the Newcastle bath house,” says Bill. “Barney had been on the LSA as a boy between 1936 and 1939, and he told me he never forgave his dad for going back home.”

Among the most successful Sidlesham growers at the time was Bill Littler. Six years after being laid off as a shipbuilder on the Tyne he expanded his chicken battery to in excess of 1,000 hens and was dubbed the “poultry magnate of Sidlesham” by the Daily Express. The paper described him as having arrived “pale, gloomy and inclined to suffer from a weak chest” but “brown, muscular and confident” by the time the first LSA recruitment programme closed on the outbreak of War.

Before 1939 the only qualifications you needed to be able to be a Mr Littler was a dole card and determination, but after 1945 you had to demonstrate horticultural experience and invest £500 (equivalent to a not inconsiderable £20,000 today).

Freda and Don Booth were among this new wave of incomers. They arrived from Eastbourne to take over No 15 in 1954, but Freda’s first impressions were not favourable.

“I was eight months pregnant and it was snowing. The only cooking was on a range. I wished I’d never come,” she says.

But by the time her three children were old enough to hold a trowel and work – as all children of the LSA were expected to – the Booths were expanding. Horticulture began to take over from the traditional mixed farm model in the late 60s and although restricted in what they could and could not grow, tenants began to specialise. As the LSA developed, many struck their own deals. The Booths clearly had a way with livestock – Freda had reared half a dozen piglets in a bedroom when the sow couldn’t cope with a litter of 20 – and in one month in 1956, 315 dozen eggs alone earned them a £71.1s.4d. So the couple rented a spare piggery to store extra straw and took on another glasshouse at No 26.

“We always used to grumble about the prices, but the LSA did all the marketing, which was a big help for us,” recalls Freda. “It was a hard life, but a happy one because you were your own boss.”

End of the gold rush

When Trevor and Becky Wilson arrived 25 years later at No 45, the Conservatives had been elected on a cost-cutting ticket and it was only a matter of time before they took a scythe to the LSA, although the first many tenants knew about it was when its closure was announced on the radio. Some resisted, launching a joint action against the Government in 1983, accusing it of breaking its contract with growers to supply the nation with food. Others, including the Dixons, the Wilsons and the Booths, accepted an offer to buy their holdings at a generous discount.

“I felt that being offered the holding for half its market price was our compensation, but it stopped it for everyone else,” says Becky. “No one will get the chance we did again – it was a way in to the industry, especially for young people with families.”

Instead, the legacy of the flat-cap growers lives on in countless successful businesses that have developed since, bringing thousands of jobs and investment to the Chichester coastal plain.

At the back of Norman and Muriel Dixon’s plot at No 50 is a five metre high glasshouse put up on two acres of ground sold to their next door neighbours at Jakes Nurseries, which supplies Waitrose with 1.4 million punnets of speciality tomatoes every year. The plants are grown in Rockwool, fed with CO2, and electronically monitored for stress. Beside the Jakes glasshouse lies a pile of old Dutchlights under which Norman’s father, still with coal soot in his lungs, raised his first crop… with nothing but a trowel and a watering can.

For more information on the Sidlesham LSA Heritage Trail, go to www.sidleshamheritagetrail.co.uk

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