Ray Le Grys: Pioneer Suffolk turkey breeder

A pioneering turkey farmer, Ray Le Grys, who has died aged 88 at his home in north Suffolk after a long illness, launched an innovative range of birds in the 1950s.

And the family business, which was later indirectly acquired by its Norfolk rival, Bernard Matthews, helped to make turkey affordable for consumers more than half a century ago.

Raymond George Charles Le Grys, who died three days before Bernard Matthews, started breeding turkeys more or less by accident in 1947.

He had started the turkey enterprise with his younger brother, John, who died last year aged 83. They were both born in Halesworth, where their father, F G Le Grys kept a shop, and went to Heveningham School.

After the war, the brothers bought a 25-acre smallholding, The Laurels, Ubbeston.


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A neighbour kept a few turkeys and Ray Le Grys started breeding turkeys more than three years before Mr Matthews made his famous 50-shilling investment by buying 20 turkey eggs and second-hand incubator at a sale at Acle market.

Mr Le Grys enjoyed considerable success and with his brother, John, who headed the processing and marketing, the business rapidly outgrew the original site.

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It moved to Holton, near Halesworth, on part of a second-world-war airfield.

At the time, keeping turkeys in any number was a major headache because of a costly bird disease, blackhead.

However, Norwich-based May & Baker (now Bayer) developed a highly-effective drug to control the disease.

At the same time, Le Grys turkeys were earning a reputation as faster growing, helped in part by the better feed rations trialled by the company. They had turkeys reared on contract by other farms but decided, as Matthews also did later, to concentrate rearing and finishing birds on a large site at Holton. Ironically, in 2007, during the avian or bird flu epidemic, pictures of some of those sheds built by the Le Grys company, were given extensive publicity.

But in the early 1960s, it was the Le Grys brothers and not Bernard Matthews, who launched commercially smaller birds weighing between 8lb and 13lb as 'Turkey Petite.' Their larger birds were branded 'Turkey Supreme.'

And when an oven-ready frozen turkey was virtually unknown in Britain, the LeGrys business was a formidable rival to Matthews. It also processed and packed many birds for Matthews in the 1960s.

In 1971, Le Grys was bought by the Armour Corporation, then of Chicago, Illinois. This was followed by the launch of a new self-basting bird, Armour Golden Star, using Le Grys stock.

Then in January 1976, Matthews was able to acquire the USA-owned Armour Le Grys for about �725,000 – regarded as a knock-down price – for the processing factory, hatchery and rearing sheds.

The enlarged company grew even more rapidly and it certainly helped when in the early 1980s, the Great Witchingham factory was seriously damaged by fire and production was switched to Holton.

The Le Grys brothers enjoyed a good relationship with their formal rival and were actually significant shareholders in Matthews over the years.

They retained an interest in the poultry industry into the late 1980s producing eggs from chickens until it was sold.

He leaves nephews Barry and Nigel.

A funeral service will be held on Monday, December 6 at St Margaret's Church, Reydon at 2pm.

Michael Pollitt

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