One of the country’s oldest turkey breeds, the Norfolk Black, is enjoying a revival in popularity, writes agricultural editor MICHAEL POLLITT but it came close to extinction three times in the past 75 years.

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Turkey: a brief history

The history of the modern domesticated turkey, descended from the wild turkey, is quite remarkable.

One sub-species may have originated in south-central Mexico and, via the Aztecs, was imported into Spain from America in the early 16th century.

They spread rapidly across Europe where the turkey’s black feathers and white flesh were further developed. In Spain, the turkey was known as the Black Spanish, and across the Pyrenees as the French Black.

From about 1513, the bird was introduced into Britain where in East Anglia, it became known as the Norfolk Black. From then on, Henry VIII, who died in 1547, and his court ate turkeys at banquets instead of peacock and swan.

It is thought another sub-species with bronze-coloured feathering was imported, from North America, in the 16th century. William Strickland, who had sailed with Sebastian Cabot, was credited with bringing six turkeys to England after trading glass beads with the native Indians.

The first entry for the sale of turkeys was recorded at Smithfield market in London in 1555.

A century after the black turkey, now improved, had been introduced to England, it was taken back to America by the early settlers and served at Thanksgiving feast. It was crossed again with the native wild turkey to produce the oldest American breeds known as the Narragansett, Bronze and Slate turkeys.

A long-established Norfolk farming family is still rearing a traditional turkey breed once served to King Henry VIII at Christmas more than five centuries ago.

It was Frank Peele, who as a young man in the 1930s, found the last survivors of the true Norfolk Black and today his grandson, James Graham, runs the turkey business.

The story of the family’s Rookery Farm, Thuxton, near Dereham, and how it has become the ‘Home of the Norfolk Black Turkey’ since 1932 has been chronicled by Mr Peele’s daughter, Patricia Graham.

She has followed the changes on the farm, with details drawn from her diary and one kept by her older sister, Diana Howlett, who married a farmer and poultry keeper at Weston Longville.

“Our branch of the family have always been farmers and noted for Peele’s turkeys since 1880. My father, Frank Peele, was known for his saving of the Norfolk Black Turkey from extinction,” she wrote.

In a foreword to the 166-page book, broadcaster and food enthusiast Paul Heiney described Peele’s as a “national treasure.”

“The Norfolk Black Turkey is a prince amongst table birds and Peele’s are the kings of the turkey business,” he said.

“The story of Peele’s goes back over many generations of farming folk in Norfolk and this book is as much a tale of the changing face of Norfolk farming. Peele’s have been clever in seeing what was worth preserving and have kept it alive. That’s their secret. They have ensured that a truly remarkable piece of meat maintains its place on the Christmas dinner plate,” he added.

Mrs Graham, who farms with her husband Donald at Carleton Rode, near Wymondham, has included extracts from diaries kept by her father’s foreman, Bob Curson.

But the story of Peele’s really starts in the rich, fertile soils of Lincolnshire more than 300 years ago. The family can trace its roots, on the Peele side, back to a lineage of farmers and graziers in Scothern, Lincolnshire, in the 1690s. A descendant, Thomas Lamb Peele, who was born in 1814 and farmed at Long Sutton, had 12 children.

His eldest son, Edwin Peele Peele – taking the customary family surname as a second Christian name – became a chemist and married Emma Dring in 1863. He moved to Norfolk in 1880 with their nine children to Stanfield Hall Farm, Wymondham, but he died two years later leaving his two oldest sons, Ernest Edwin, born in 1864, and John George, a year younger, to run the business with his widow. They started what became Peele’s Norfolk Turkeys.

It was George Peele who found that the woods around Hall Farm were ideal for rearing bronze turkeys. And even today, it is known as Turkey Wood. In his 1896 diary, he noted that his turkeys did not make large weights, rarely exceeding 20lb – so not much has changed in the past 130 years, it seems.

His nephew, Frank Peele, born on September 22, 1900, joined the Army but never saw service during the first world war. In 1919, he had returned home to run the home farm, which employed 12 men. When his uncle bought Downham Grove, near Wymondham, in 1920, Frank rented and farmed the land until 1932.

He married Gertrude Barnes, who was the second youngest of 10 children of Robert Thomas Barnes, of Long Stratton, in 1924. Their youngest daughter, Patricia, who weighed 4lb at birth in April 1939 and was 13 years junior to her sister, was the late hatch – hence the title of her book. Pat, incidentally, was always called Paddy by her father, and the name has stuck.

“My parents had moved to Rookery Farm, Thuxton, in 1932. It is likely that the farm took its name from the rooks that nested in the trees in the driftway that once joined the village of Thurstanton to Thuxton.”

The house and buildings were built on what was once the medieval village of Thuxton, confirmed by digs in 1963 and 1964 and in a publication by Peter Wade-Martins, of North Elmham, and Lawrence Butler.

After the Capital and Counties Bank – later part of the Midland Bank –acquired the 100-acre farm in 1923, he got the tenancy. After the second world war, partly because of the successful turkey business, he bought the freehold.

As Mrs Graham recorded, her father and then Norfolk poultry instructor Mr TD Bell had found the last survivors of the traditional ‘black’ breed – in the attic of a house owned by an old lady in North Norfolk.

“There were six men working on the farm when I was growing up. The farm had a herd of cows, which were then milked by hand. It took two men and my father to milk, clean, feed and muck out the cowshed. In 1934, the milk was taken in 17-gallon metal churns to the Wymondham dairy.”

Over the years, the horses went and were replaced by tractors but they kept the dairy herd until 1972. But, disease as ever, took its toll.

“In the late 1940s, it became compulsory to test all cattle for TB – pasteurisation had been introduced in dairies to kill the disease in milk. Out of a herd of 22 cows, plus some calves, only six animals were clear,” recalled Mrs Graham. “My favourite cow, Bluebell, which I had learnt to milk by hand at an early stage, failed the TB test and was slaughtered.”

With meat rationed – it was not decontrolled until July 3, 1954 – poultry and rabbits were prized during and after the second world war. Back then, turkeys were a profitable delicacy and eaten only at Christmas.

Mr Peele continued the tradition of rearing poultry for the Christmas market, which was labour-intensive because eggs had to be turned and poults had to be kept alive in the critical first few weeks. But the terrible 1947 winter, which began on January 31, brought more problems. It isolated the farm for two months and Diana had to learn to milk the 22 cows by hand. Fortunately, in April, machine milking was introduced.

Mr Peele’s birds were prize-winners in the 1950s taking the supreme champion turkey cup at the London National Poultry Show at Olympia for three years on the trot. In 1950, his price list offered stock black turkey stags for seven to nine guineas (£7.35 to £9.45) each and pullets from five guineas. Day-old poults cost 120 shillings (£6 per dozen) or £48 for 100.

In 1953, Peele’s Norfolk Blacks won a national 100-day trial for best feed conversion, breeding and rearing while the supreme award went to Peter Gallant, of Taverham, for his American Mammoth Bronze crossed Broad-breasted Bronze.

Mr Peele “was overjoyed to think that the breed he saved from extinction in the 1930s had become known again for its qualities of egg laying, feed conversion and moist, tasty tight white flesh on the finished bird. From then his passion to keep the breed alive took off”.

A year later, disaster struck. On December 2, 1954, fowl pest was confirmed – just a week before the birds would be killed for Christmas. All breeding birds and 3,600 turkeys and 450 chickens were killed in two days – even today, the pyre site can still be seen.

By luck, and judgment, key breed lines had been preserved off the family farm. When in spring 1960, fowl pest struck again, four families came to the rescue including Diana’s husband, Mr Howlett, and Harold Hallsworth supplied hatching eggs, Jack Frost day-olds and Roy Benton hens.

A founder committee member of the British Turkey Federation, Mr Peele set up the Norfolk branch in 1951 with John Cassidy and Mr Benton. He became the Norfolk president and remained in post until his death in 1980. Bernard Matthews, who had received much help from Mr Peele in his early days at Taverham, became president until his death in November last year.

Mrs Graham, who took on the mantle of Peele’s Norfolk Turkeys after her mother’s death in 1989. praised the breed’s traditional values. “They take a longer time to grow than the modern bronze or white and needed to be nearly 24 weeks old before killing to get a good clean finish by ensuring the feathers come off easily. It was said by my aunt that for the old-fashioned breeds of turkey to be finished for Christmas, they must ‘taste the April dew’.”

Now under the stewardship of her son, James for the past 21 years, he has enhanced the profile of Peele’s Norfolk Black Turkeys. It seems that the Norfolk Black can be regarded as a “prince amongst table birds and Peele’s are the kings of the turkey business”.

The Late Hatch: Turkey Times, Past and Present by Patricia Graham costs £9.95. Copies may be obtained from Peele’s Norfolk Black Turkeys on 01362 850237 and some local bookshops.

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