The turf at White Hart Lane is famous as Spurs’ stomping ground but during the last century, the area was also notable for its manufacturer of flowerpots and glasshouses. Similarly, West Ham United Football Club stands on the site of a school where disadvantaged boys once received agricultural training. All these services and businesses grew up to cater for the burgeoning Lea Valley horticultural industry.
Author Jim Lewis has already penned seven books on the area and his latest, London’s Lea Valley – a Century of Growing, subtitled The History of the Lea Valley Growers' Association from 1911 to 2011, was commissioned by the local growers’ association.
Formed in 1911, with the goal of representing growers on a political lobbying front, the association has survived bombing raids, extreme weather conditions, fuel shortages, not to mention recessions and infestation.
During World War One, Zeppelin attacks covered six and a half acres, damaging glasshouses in Cheshunt. Overseas competition and tariff wars took their toll, and in the 1970s storms, 350-400 acres were wiped out.
Undeterred, these pioneering market gardeners have carried on. They have helped feed the nation in wartime, founded the first glasshouse research station in the UK and embraced technological changes such as hydroponics and bio gas.
Today they continue to fight their corner for homegrown, environmentally-friendly produce.
For the book, Jim called on the assistance of the group’s chairman Gary Taylor and secretary Lee Stiles, who passed on carloads of minute books and newsletters.
“During its heyday there were 1,000 acres of glass,” says Lee. “It was the biggest area of glasshouses in the world at the time but then there was compulsory purchase postwar and now we’ve got 150 acres, though there’s far more output now than was ever produced.”
Lee, who lives in Brentwood, was born in the Lea Valley and grew up in Buckhurst Hill. His father had a business buying plants from nurseries to sell to shops in London. Many members of his family were involved in the horticultural industry. A couple of his relatives had quite a scare during World War Two.
“My nan and great aunt were working in the tomato glasshouse during the war and there was this explosion and they were blown right out of glasshouse,” says Lee. “Fortunately they had no injuries.”
Lee became secretary of the association in 2008 having previously worked in Bishops Stortford as the National Farmers’ Union Group secretary in West Essex.
“Growing exclusively under glass is very different. A lot more can go wrong with a nursery. Luckily, hardly any are sprayed any more, as the pests can be controlled biologically but what’s really needed is light.”
Full of interesting information, such as the fact that the bestselling plant food Maxicrop was invented by Reginald Frank Milton of West Ham, the book hopes to raise awareness of this resilient group.
“Our aim is to protect all growers in the Lea Valley,” adds Lee.
“We produce 80 million cucumbers a year and other crops are coming through such as sweet peppers, salads, vine tomatoes and aubergines.”
London’s Lea Valley – A Century of Growing is published by Libri Publishing, price £25, www.libripublishing.co.uk