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Guernsey has a long and rich history of horticulture. This is in part thanks to the mild maritime climate that the island enjoys and because, as the southernmost islands in the British Isles, spring arrives earlier, and autumn later. For commercial growers, this is a huge advantage; produce that can’t be grown easily on the mainland flourishes on the island, particularly under glass. Whilst today this only comprises a very small percentage of Guernsey’s economy, in the past (well within living memory) commercial horticulture was the cornerstone. The evidence of this lies island-wide in the acres of greenhouses that remain, many of them sadly in a state of disrepair.
Guernsey’s first commercially successful crop were grapes, but when tomatoes were reported to not only be edible but actually beneficial for health in the 1860s (until then they had been grown as a decorative plant, and were believed to be poisonous) they started to replace grapevines in Guernsey’s gardens and greenhouses. By the 1870s tomatoes were being exported to British markets, and as the twentieth century arrived they were the primary crop. As the island’s boatbuilding industry began to decline, carpenters found work building and maintaining greenhouses which, until the arrival of aluminium frames in the 1960s, were all constructed from wood.
By the 1950s, it was estimated that an incredible 7% of Guernsey was “under glass” growing what were affectionately know as “Guernsey Toms”. At the industry’s peak there were approximately 2000 commercial growers and more than half of the island’s population were engaged in the growing, picking and packing of tomatoes. In the late 60s it is estimated that nearly half a billion tomatoes were picked and exported to England – about 15% of all tomatoes on the British market. Tomatoes were picked by hand, sorted into “rough” or “smooth” and then exported in wicker baskets (until 1932) lined with coloured tissue paper (pink for the better “smooth” fruit, white for the rough). In the twenty years from 1932 to 1952 chip baskets made from thin wooden planks were used, stamped with the grower’s initials, and now tomatoes graded into five categories (still differentiated by different coloured tissue paper). In 1952 the Guernsey Tomato Marketing Board was formed and introduced grade stamps for boxes.
The growth of the tomato growing industry was not without its setbacks and even tragedies, however. Early on, soil-borne diseases wiped out plants and various methods were experimented with until in 1902 one grower, a Mr Poat, experimented with soil steaming and sterilization by baking soil in his mother’s oven. His successes were developed further and an industry developed, with large tomato steam boilers and teams of men travelling the island to annually sterilize the soil at each vinery. At first the soil had to be shoveled into a chamber above the boiler and then replaced. Later, grids of pipes were laid under the soil and, once sheets had been laid over the soil and weighed down, steam was piped through. In Guernsey’s remaining working glasshouses such as those operated by Fresh Guernsey Herbs, soil is still steamed annually but these days using their own steam boiler rather than a touring one.
The major tragedy to strike the industry occurred during WWII in June 1940, two days before the island’s invasion and occupation by the German Army, when queues of trucks loaded with tomatoes at St Peter Port harbour for export to the British mainland were mistaken for military trucks and attacked by three German bombers. 33 were killed and 67 injured in the attack.
After the war the Guernsey Tom bounced back and flourished, with special trains often being laid on from Southampton and Weymouth to cater for the volume of tomatoes needing to make their way to market from south coast ports. 1969 was a record year, with over 9 and a half million trays of tomotoes exported from Guernsey. Then came the 1970s, and the beginning of the end. Changes to the railway system impacted the profitability of exports initially, and there was increased competition from Dutch growers. Then the oil crisis of 1979 pushed the costs associated with heating greenhouses and shipping to unsustainable levels before increased bank rates at the turn of the decade pushed many growers under. Some growers tried other crops, such as peppers and kiwi fruit, but the number of empty and overgrown greenhouses that can be found down Guernsey lanes tells the true story. These days the Guernsey Tom is no longer a brand name known across the UK other than in some people’s memories, and the comparatively small crops of tomatoes grown in Guernsey greenhouses are destined for local plates. Some of the vineries of this once thriving industry have found new lives though, cultivating flowers, herbs, and the citrus fruit that go into our own Wheadon’s Gin. We’ll raise a glass to that!