The year the sugar industry arrived in Norfolk

Sugar plays a major part in East Anglia's agricultural life. But why did the industry take root in Norfolk? Agricultural editor Michael Pollitt traces its origins.

It had been 'touch and go' until a public meeting on sugar beet was advertised in the EDP inviting agriculturists whether a new factory would be built in Norfolk.

A small advertisement on page six on Saturday, January 27, 1912 was headed SUGAR BEET – A PUBLIC MEETING. Farmers and landowners were invited to the Agricultural Hall, Norwich, at noon, to be told of plans 'for the establishment of a sugar beet factory in Norfolk as promised by Mr Ali Cohen'.

Just four days earlier, Mr J B Forrester, secretary to the Norfolk Chamber of Agriculture, one of the biggest supporters of the sugar beet project, was hoping for a positive announcement. In presenting the 45th annual report to members, he noted that the chamber had held a public meeting on March 4, 1911 pressing for a sugar-beet industry in Norfolk.

Its retiring president, Mr Nicholas H Bacon, of Raveningham, was more optimistic. Later his son, Sir Edmund, would become chairman of the state-owned British Sugar Corporation.

'It was a matter of great satisfaction to think that Norfolk, which was considered the leading county in agricultural matters, should have been fixed upon for the establishment of the first sugar-beet factory at Cantley,' said Mr Bacon.

'It was interesting to note that whilst in 1910 only 30 acres of sugar beet had been grown (these being chiefly experimental plots), there were no fewer than 250 acres grown last year. If the sugar beet industry increased at the same rate in the culture, the success of any factory was well ensured,' he added.

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But, it seemed that the directors of the Anglo-Netherland Sugar Corporation were at that late stage still reluctant to commit to Norfolk, although they had secured an option to buy Grange Farm, Cantley. Maybe they were still cautious until the results of test borings had been completed because a site at Kent and also at Spalding had certainly been actively considered.

One leading Norfolk farmer, Thomas Kidner, of Halvergate, who was closely involved with the project, had been asked by a promoter, Mr Ali Cohen to suggest possible factory locations in the county. Although he had not suggested Cantley, Mr Kidner was enthusiastic about the final choice when it finally emerged.

At the public meeting, which was extensively reported in three deep columns in the EDP two days later, it made headlines –





As the EDP reported: 'An important meeting in furtherance of the sugar beet movement in Norfolk took place at the Agricultural Hall, Norwich, on Saturday, under the auspices of the Norfolk Chamber of Agriculture.'

Among those present were the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, the Earl of Leicester, Lord Hastings, Sir Rider Haggard, Bishop Fisher, Mr G L Courthope, MP, president of the Sugar Beet Council, Mr Ali Cohen, Mr J H Gurney, Mr B B Sapwell (the EDP's agricultural columnist), Mr Thomas Kidner, Mr J P Van Rossum.

Sir Ailwyn Fellowes, who took the chair, was delighted to preside for two reasons. 'Firstly, it was a project which might be of benefit to the Norfolk agriculturist, whether landlord or tenant, and, therefore, naturally, the project had his most earnest support.

'Secondly, he was glad to take the chair because that meeting might be an historical one in the annals of the agricultural world of Norfolk and Great Britain.'

He understood that funding for the factory had been raised by a British company with mostly British money. In fact, the directors had secured �800,000 in capital, although this was not reported at the time.

'The company had chosen a site at Cantley on which to build a factory. (Applause). He presumed they had chosen it because it had a river on one side, and as he was sure they would all agree, it had the best railway system on the other. (Laughter).

Sir Ailwyn, who had been knighted by King George V two years earlier, said that industry's success would depend on local agriculturists. 'It would depend on their energy, co-operation and initiative.'

On behalf of the G E R Company, he was authorised by his chairman, Lord Claud Hamilton, to state that everything would be done to forward the great movement both in the way of sidings, and in rates for the carriage of the beet. (Applause)

Mr Courthope, MP, president of the Sugar Beet Council, said that capital was available to build and equip a large factory of the best possible type. 'The factory was to be erected, and more than that, it was to be erected at once. (Applause).

'They had given notice to exercise the option over the site at Cantley. The experimental borings had been made; the plans were out; and everything was making progress towards the erection of the factory. Soon the walls would be springing up.'

The sugar market enabled them to offer the most handsome price yet offered in this country. They proposed to pay 23 shillings (�1.15) a ton for clean roots delivered at Cantley or 21s a ton on railway truck within 15 miles of the factory or on a barge provided by the corporation. They were also prepared to negotiate special rates for delivery, by rail, from further afield. Adjusted to today's values, this would represent a price of about �112 tonne, currently it is �23.60 tonne.

Mr Courthope said that it was important that the seed should not be put in too late; and there was a condition that the land must be dunged and ploughed not later than April 1. The company would provide expert advice when English experience of sugar beet cultivation was limited.

As to seed, the company proposed to supply the best available. It would cost 5d (2p) a pound and he was confident that no individual grower could get high-class seed at such a low figure as that.

If there were any difficulties in obtaining expert labour, the company could provide it. It would cost about 3/6d (17.5p) per working day.

It was hoped to provide some sort of steam or motor road transport where the station or the river was not handy and the grower was not sufficiently supplied with horses to be able to undertake delivery of a heavy crop.

Growers would be required to deliver roots in four equal quantities, on or before October 8, October 21, November 8 and November 21.

When the factory was working, it worked night and day, only stopping on Sundays; and in order that continuous working might go on it was necessary to be able to count on raw material coming in at regular periods. A premium was offered for special early delivery.

It had decided not to produce wet pulp – instead the Steffen process would be used to turn out the pulp as a valuable cattle feed with a high percentage of sugar.

Asked whether other factories might be built, Mr Courthope said that the world's consumption of sugar was rapidly passing the world's production. With the exception of remote parts of Russia, the Continent of Europe could not largely increase its acreage under sugar permanently unless prices were significantly increased.

The Board of Trade's latest figures revealed that total sugar imports were 38 million hundredweights (1.9m tons). Of that quantity, 29 million hundredweights was beet sugar, worth about �20m. In addition, a further 12m cwt (600,000 tons) of glucose and other sugars were imported each year.

'With your help there is no doubt of the success of the factory, which is to be built at Cantley. I am glad that we have been able to locate the first factory in such a specially favourable district of Norfolk, which is, after all, the finest root-growing district in the whole world.' (Applause).

Sir Rider Haggard asked about the value of the beet pulp and was told about 10 tons of slices would be produced from every 100 tons of beet. Last year, beet pulp had been worth about �6 to �6.10s a ton in Europe.

In reply to a question by Mr B B Sapwell, Mr Van Sumeren said that for this year, they would lift beet at 25s (�1.25) an acre provided notice was given.

Mr Thomas Kidner, who farmed at Halvergate, was convinced that this sugar-beet business would bring Norfolk agriculturists ample return for whatever outlay they made.

His son, Mr Stanley Kidner, said that he had placed 20 acres under sugar-beet cultivation and while he experienced a failure with 10 acres, the other ten had proved very satisfactory. The financial result of the experiment was that he got a cheque for about �180 while his expenses came to �120. Therefore he had nothing to complain of. (Applause).

He was going to grow 20 acres this year because he was perfectly confident that the experience he gained last year would enabled him to make a greater success this year.

While he did not wish to say anything unfair about Norfolk labour, he felt he must mention that last year he had 12 Dutchmen come over to pick. He carefully watched the way they worked and frankly, it was an object lesson. Those men pulled four and a half acres in a day and a half. They worked well and hard and had a system. He called his own 11 men to watch them and they soon picked up the method.

It was confirmed that the Anglo-Netherland Sugar Corporation had bought the Grange Farm, Cantley. Arrangements were on hand to complete the factory by August 15.