'Giant of the potato industry' - Agricultural stalwart dies aged 84

Robin Pooley smiling wearing a suit

Robin Pooley OBE has died aged 84 - Credit: Phil McCarthy

One of the giants of the potato industry, Robin Pooley, who was also a former chairman of the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital Trust, has died aged 84.

During his 20-year career in the potato industry, national consumption increased by almost 40pc to more than six million tonnes.

Working initially with growers across East Anglia, sales of tasty “salad” potatoes, then virtually unknown, soon grabbed shelf space in supermarkets. It was a similar story with “all the year round earlies” and baked potatoes too. In recognition of his efforts, he was awarded a potato industry “Oscar” at the World Congress in Durban, South Africa, in November 1996.

Born into a Cornish family on June 19, 1936, he spent much of his early life in Cornwall and on leaving school he dived straight into the meat trade, working as an apprentice slaughterman aged 14. He rose rapidly to hold senior executive roles before switching into the rapidly-expanding poultry sector.

Picture of TW Gaze Christmas Poultry Show at Sale at their auction rooms in Diss. Pictured is judge

TW Gaze Christmas Poultry Show at the auction rooms in Diss. Pictured Robin Pooley OBE, who was a judge at the time - Credit: Archant © 2007

He did National Service and was sent out to Egypt to support the 1956 Suez campaign. Capt Robin Pooley, who was later mentioned in dispatches, was taken prisoner for three weeks by Egyptian soldiers.

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Returning to the meat trade, he became general manager of CWS meats division in 1971 and then five years later moved into the poultry industry as managing director of Buxted Poultry, before moving to Norfolk.

Having retained his family links with the meat industry, he was enormously proud to have been elected the 819th, and almost certainly the youngest ever, Master of the Worshipful Company of Butchers in 1987.

Black and white photo of a man dressed as the Master of the Worshipful Company of Butchers

Robin Pooley, Master of the Worshipful Company of Butchers in 1987 - Credit: ARCHANT LIBRARY

But his impact on the potato industry was profound. When he became chief executive of the Potato Marketing Board in 1980, he shocked his farmer and grower board members by telling them that they were in the “entertainment” business and were not just growing a dull, staple food. At that time, potato consumption was just over four million tonnes.

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In his 11 years as managing director of Norfolk-based Anglian Produce from 1988, he tripled the tonnage of potatoes grown and sold by the marketing group. Then headquartered at Loddon, it handled about 8pc of the national crop.

He had worked closely with highly-motivated producers and was instrumental in starting one of the industry’s biggest events, the Cambridge Potato Conference. It quickly became a “must” for professional growers and attracting international delegates and speakers too. It raised the profile of Cambridge University Potato Growers’ Research Association but after the hard work, Mr Pooley recognised there had to be some fun too.

He launched the Potato Baron’s Feast, initially held in the 16th century hall of St John’s College, which was a lavish celebration for delegates – complete with the Gentlemen of St John’s singing from the gallery.

Five days before his 61st birthday and before his retirement from AP in June 1997, he was made an OBE for services to agricultural marketing.

Health secretary Frank Dobson appointed him chairman of the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital Trust in August 1998 but he stood down from the role four months later.

He headed a review of red tape in the meat industry for the then agriculture minister, Nick Brown, in October 1999. It made far-reaching recommendations which were largely accepted by the government the following year.

He had a number of other roles in the agricultural industry including as chairman of NFU Corporate and membership of the National Farmers’ Union’s ruling council. He was a leading Freemason and a former grandmaster of Norfolk’s oldest Lodge, which had been established in 1724. A former chairman of Strumpshaw Parish Council, he was also involved with the local history society and helped to arrange speakers.

He had moved to Norfolk in 1975 after buying the family home from one of Norwich City’s most successful managers, the late Ron Saunders. A life-long fan of the Gunners, he was a long-standing season ticket holder at Arsenal.

His wife, Margaret, predeceased, and he leaves a daughter, Jayne. He is survived by his older twin brother, Peter.

The funeral service will be webcast from Earlham Crematorium on Monday, March 1 at 3.30pm. Donations to Pancreatic Cancer UK to Gordon Barber Funeral Home, 317 Aylsham Road, Norwich, NR3 2AB or telephone 01603 484308.

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