Memories of Sheringham and Overman, Seed Merchants (1950s-1990s)

Location : Fakenham

Peter grew up on the Norfolk coast at Brancaster. After studying agriculture and horticulture, in the early 1960s he joined Sheringham and Overman’s agricultural seed merchants firm in Fakenham as a bookkeeper. He describes changes in the seed business which diversified from supplying local farmers, who themselves grew herbage seed, to include one of the first garden centres. He trained as a crop inspector at the NIAB in Cambridge.

I like to consider myself a Yorkshireman because I was actually born in Doncaster, in South Yorkshire, but I have to say both my parents were Norfolk bred and born. The only reason I was born in Doncaster was because my father had a job as an RAC motorcyclist, and he got transferred from Norfolk up to Doncaster. That was way back in 1936, and we were in Doncaster until I was eleven years old, before my parents decided they needed to come back to Norfolk, and moved back to Brancaster, the coast, which was a fantastic revelation for me, because I’d hardly ever seen the sea before, and to be able to have a bedroom overlooking the sea was really quite wonderful.

I was an only child. I always regretted that I didn’t have brothers and sisters. Particularly, I would have loved to have had a sister but that never happened, unfortunately when I was born that was all mother was able to have.

My first job was actually when I left school at Brancaster, and went to work on a nursery there owned by a Mr G. who had many acres of apples, lovely orchards, at Brancaster Staithe, and at Brancaster itself he had a large greenhouse enterprise where he grew lovely English tomatoes and, if I remember, scabious flowers. Beautiful flowers. And really that set me on the way into going to Kings Lynn Technical College and taking up an agricultural and horticultural course. Unfortunately I hadn’t done very well with my examinations, and I’d got no real decorations to go there with, so I was a little bit undecided as to exactly what I was going to do with my life. Anyway, I went to Mr G.’s, and worked there during the summer, and then went to Kings Lynn Technical College, and did a two year agricultural course there, which again unfortunately I didn’t come out with flying colours but nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed it.

After my two years at the Tech, at Lynn, my parents thought it would be a good idea, as they were setting out on a new venture by opening a nursing home at East Bilney Hall, with considerable grounds there. The idea was that I was going to stay at home and work and help with the garden produce so that the home could be self-sufficient. There was plenty of space for animals. We used to keep pigs, kept goats and obviously fowls, but unfortunately I didn’t get on too well with my father. It didn’t work out and I had to look elsewhere for a job. A ‘proper job’, as I put it. Fortunately, I applied to R J Seaman and Sons, at North Elmham, who were general agricultural merchants, dealing in grain, malt and barley, all aspects of agriculture, chemicals and fertilisers. At the time I was interviewed by a Mr W.D., who was one of the directors at Seamans. He was obviously impressed enough with me to offer me a job at Elmham Mill, actually at the Mill, where they were producing their animal feedstuffs. They decided to open an office at the mill, so that they could have a stock clerk there, to keep records of all the different commodities that they had to have in, and out of, the mill, so that they never ran out of any of their stocks. So that was in 1958, and I was then thinking about families and marriage and what have you, and I decided to get married in 1961, but before that actually happened I was offered the opportunity of joining a company called Sheringham and Overman Ltd. I have to admit the name had never entered my head before. I didn’t know anything about them, but the person who actually spoke to me about it was Mr G.F., and at that time we were both members of Fakenham Round Table. That was how we really got to know one another, and they were looking for someone to work in their office, particularly on the bookkeeping side, which I certainly didn’t think I was well-enough qualified to do, but they said it was a very simple manual system and that if I liked to have a go they’d be pleased to set me up. And I have to say, from that moment on my life changed significantly. I became greatly interested in the business of Sheringham and Overman, who were agricultural seed merchants growing and contracting, buying and selling, all types of herbage seed, clover seeds, and anything to do with that type of agriculture.

The business was based at Fakenham, which was in an area of complete agricultural commitment. I soon learnt that the basic business that they conducted was all within a twenty-five to thirty-five mile radius of Fakenham, which was nothing but pure agricultural land. Sheringham and Overmans were based at Holt Road, Fakenham, where they had moved in 1959. Previous to that, they were based right in the centre of Fakenham, and were finding that as the company increased it was not easy to be able to operate within the town centre, particularly with the vehicles that were coming and going. You have to remember that in those days there was no such thing as bulk handling. Everything had to be manhandled by hand, in sacks. The weight of the sacks varied from twenty five kilos upwards, and at that time, items such as clover seed was only handled in eighteen stones, which was an enormous weight, and actually men in those days were able to handle such things.

The new site at Holt Road, had been designed by the then Managing Director, Mr Bert Southgate, who was really a seed machine expert, and at Holt Road it was really a state of the art seed-processing plant, and became quite the envy of any seed merchants throughout the whole of the country. The bulk of the business by Sheringham and Overmans was, as I’ve said, conducted within quite a short radius of Fakenham, and basically seed contracts were agreed with local farmers to produce seed up to a certain standard in order that it could be re-cleaned and sold back to them and of course to many other people.

The seed cleaning plants were very specialised pieces of equipment for cleaning cereals: wheat, barley, oats and rye, and herbage seed including rye grasses, cocksfoots, meadow fescues, and of course clover. Clover was a very much used commodity in those days. It was a valuable crop particularly for seed growing customers because you could contract to grow cereal seeds behind clover and you could be guaranteed some very good results. And obviously, not only were the machines very special but the men who operated them were. Most of them would only be trained up by actually working. There didn’t seem to be such things as courses for these men to go on, because there was not anywhere set up to provide such facilities. And so the labour of Sheringham and Overmans consisted of about thirty men from Fakenham, all with various special jobs that they did, such as seed cleaning, chemical treating and knowing that the end product had to be of a very, very high standard. And Sheringham and Overmans set their targets as high as they possibly could.

The seed process entailed all the grain coming in sacks. It had to be tipped into a hopper, which were then elevated right to the top of a very tall tower, which was quite a spectacle in Fakenham because it stood way above most other premises in the town. Once the seed was up the elevators the method of cleaning was by a gravity system where the seed, as it gradually fell, it went through various sieves to extract all the various rubbish that was in the seed, brushes to polish the seed, and finally to end up in the bulk one-ton bins which Sheringham and Overman had to invent themselves. It had never been heard of before, and these one-ton bins were made locally and permitted the seed to be stored until such time that it was required to be processed and dressed and given chemical treatment, if that’s what had to be done, which could then be done as and when it was required.

When I actually began in the office I really was thrown in at the deep end.  I was taken on as someone to work in the office on the accounts side. I distinctly remember on my very first day having to write the cheques that had been received in the post that morning into the cash book. Somehow or other I made an almighty mess of it, and [was] almost reduced to tears, but I persevered.

[Later the gentleman who had originally offered me the job] took over as managing director, and I must say, from then on the whole business of Sheringham and Overmans seemed to step up a grade and become more involved in international seed trading and became a real asset to the firm. It was a great benefit to the company to be able to process all sorts of seed, and consequently they were able to attract local farmers to grow special types of seed for which there could more often than not be a healthy return than growing just ordinary commercial grain. But of course that did mean that the growers had to be very well selected, people who the company knew were good farmers, and took care of their growing crops, and as a result of that, such crops as rye grass, timothy, meadow fescue and clover were able to be contracted and processed at Holt Road.

This enabled the company to produce some quite significant quantities of herbage seed which was then able to be traded to other seed companies spread across the British Isles. One other very important aspect of the company’s business was actually the seed dressing of both cereal and herbage seeds. The product called Ceresan, which was a chemical used to be dressed on cereals to prevent various diseases, and the actual Ceresan dressing plants, of which there were two at the company, were in great demand, especially as at that time farmers were paid well to have their own seed treated, in order to save them a little bit of money. They were able to draw payment from the government for having this work done. But I have to say that the workmen who were applying the seed dressing to the actual corn, to the grain, had to do it in conditions which were not particularly pleasant.

The demand for herbage seed seemed to grow every year and consequently the company started looking a little bit further afield than East Anglia for the growing of their contract crops and the managing director, G.F. and I, who by this time had been promoted to company secretary, obviously had become very much more well acquainted with the actual business of herbage seed. The managing director and I went to Sweden and Denmark, two countries which were prolific herbage seed producers and we were able to arrange contracts for seed to be imported into Fakenham and also of course could arrange exports out of Fakenham back to the continent to other companies. Growing herbage seed is not particularly simple and I know it’s easy to say the weather controls the harvest. The weather conditions were absolutely critical at the time of harvesting herbage seed. Originally, seed was ‘swathed down’, and laid on the ground to finish off ripening. If once the grass had been cut and the weather turned against us, very often a lot of it, as it lay on the ground, would re-shoot, and as a consequence become quite unusable. So it was quite imperative that the conditions at the time had to be almost ideal. We found that many of the actual growers of herbage seed itself were quite unsure as to which was absolutely the best time, the prime time, to harvest it, and depended very much on the advice of G. and myself to advise them exactly on when the work should be done. As time developed of course, that method was given up and combines were used to combine the crop direct, which was a significant advance and helped to produce much, much more seed.

Throughout the United Kingdom there were some very big companies operating in herbage seed, and much inter-trading was done between them, which developed into being far and away the biggest part of the business at Sheringham and Overmans. The cereal side continued to grow but not at such a rate as the herbage seed. At that time of course, cereal seeds, when they were cleaned, processed and dressed, Sheringham and Overmans used one-hundredweight hessian bags. These hessian bags were quite a special item in as much as they were described as being circular woven, which meant they had not got any seams that would stretch and lose the seed. By being circular woven and tied by hand you could ensure that every little grain would stay in that bag. And the fifty kilo sacks, or 112 pounds net weight, I should say, not fifty kilos, were printed with Sheringham and Overmans name on and were produced by a company called Rands and Jeckyll of Ipswich. Very well known in the hessian seed business. Again, as time developed, the hessian bags became expensive, hessian was difficult to obtain and more and more seed merchants were looking to use paper sacks. When they came in operation the size of the sacks was reduced to 56 pounds, twenty five kilos, which was a much more manageable and stackable commodity, going on to pallets with a ton and a half on a pallet. Much more manageable.

The whole business at Sheringham and Overman was very labour intensified, because warehouses did not lend themselves to have machines in to move seed about, and at one stage when Sheringham and Overman started using pallets the fork lift trucks had to come into operation. They had to be particularly selective about which trucks they had to use within the warehouse. For me, as a layman if you like, the whole business at Sheringham and Overman was quite fascinating. You have to remember, we didn’t trade in any other commodities apart from seed. When you think about it, the only time when seed is required by our customers is at the autumn and spring drilling times. So consequently, at both those periods work was very intense and long hours had to be put in for producing and dressing the seed to fulfil the farmers’ requests and orders. Anyone involved in such business would realise how many, many farmers are reluctant to order their seed until the very last minute, and of course, when they’ve done that, they want the seed on the farm the next morning. It meant working long hours at difficult times. Because of the facilities we had at Fakenham we were able to fulfil all our commitments as well as anybody else would have done.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is the methods of transporting the seed in and out of Fakenham. The company only had one lorry and when I joined in 1961, and the carrying capacity of that was about seven tons and it was used to collect the seed, always in sacks of course, from the farms. I remember on one occasion it actually went to a farm to collect wool – sheep’s wool that had been sheared, because at one time many, many years ago, the company was involved in wool and the reason for us picking up this particular load was to take it into storage because the producer had not got any facilities to look after it. Eventually the seven-ton lorry was disposed of and a new one was taken on board which carried 10 tons. In those days that was quite a big lorry. And to enable the driver to be able to handle the sacks, a sack lifter or sack loader was attached to the back of the lorry, which lay on the ground. You laid your sack on the end of the loader and a belt process brought it up the back of the lorry and on to the driver who had to put it on his back as it came over. A most precarious job. But one of course which the driver became very expert at and was able to load a ten ton lorry with hundredweight sacks. But it must have taken a good hour and a half to do that. That same lorry was used to deliver the seed out to the customers at Fakenham. The company employed two representatives, one who was based in Fakenham, a very well-known gentleman and another gentleman who actually operated in the south of the county which enabled the company to spread its wings rather.

The other thing which I hadn’t mentioned is, of course, in those days no mobile telephones, no computers, everything was done by hand until such time as we had to become a little bit more electrically involved and the company took on a telex machine which used to clatter away in the office. We had to actually build a little room to put it in because the office there was just an open plan and you couldn’t hear yourself on the telephone which this thing rattling away in the background. But it was a great asset to the company. If you had a telex, you had to have a company name and I remember we all put our thinking caps together. it had to be no longer than six letters and we came up with the answer of Esando, which is how the company was known throughout the trade.

The telex must have been used in the later 1960s because we were dealing at home and abroad and dealing with wholesale seed merchants throughout the United Kingdom. We had to have this method because time was critical when the busy buying and selling season was on and you had to have instant communication with the people who you were dealing with. I can think of one or two names, L. Donath Ltd, J Picard & Co Ltd of London and Pope and Chapman Ltd of Bishops Stortford. They were companies who were mostly involved in exporting and importing on a grand scale. We had much business to do with them. They were always keen to buy any surplus seeds that we had. They could find homes for them.

One part of the business that Sheringham and Overman was not involved in is seed breeding, promoting new varieties, but there were many companies within the United Kingdom who were specialising in this, and all the seed development in the trade was organised by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, the NIAB at Cambridge. Consequently we had many visits to Cambridge, and it was there that I was able to train as a qualified crop inspector, both for herbage and cereal seed. For that purpose, many trial plots were grown at Cambridge at various times of the year during their growing periods. Courses were held, in which qualified crop inspectors had to go and advise what particular varieties there were. You were taken to a blank plot and you had to rely on the information you’d been given. Certain characteristics of each particular grain, and you had to check these out and try and diagnose exactly which was which. If you failed to do this satisfactorily to the Cambridge inspectors, your name was deleted from the list of crop inspectors and you had to go and start the process all again. The NIAB specialised in every single type of crop, such things as lettuce and cucumbers, and anything that grew that was edible that was needed in agriculture was all organised from Cambridge. And as I say, many, many seed companies who were wholesalers and retailers spread around the whole of the United Kingdom. I have said about the other seed companies who were involved in seed breeding and, together with what they produced and the way the NIAB approved or disapproved the particular varieties that were newly bred. Obviously, the companies who had the successful varieties needed to display and sell their produce to the general farming population. To do this, on many occasions, seed merchants such as Sheringham and Overman were asked to send representatives to special days when the attributes of the new varieties were explained to all. And of course there was great competition between the companies to outshine one-another. We had some very special days out, both in this country and abroad to celebrate when the new varieties were introduced.

Speaking about the NIAB at Cambridge brings to mind also the OSTS, which was the Official Seed Testing System. Again, very ably and well controlled from Cambridge. Because of the quality of seed we were handling we had to employ at least one, or if not two, seed analysts, who were able to dissect the samples of cereals and herbage seed and clovers to assess their purity and germination. And at Sheringham and Overmans we had a very up to date and modern laboratory where all this work was carried out. To handle cereal and herbage seeds, obviously it had to be of a certain quality and the Seed Laboratory were the people responsible for letting the company know which was good enough and which was not good enough. Obviously, any seed which was not good enough had to be handled entirely separately, and it was sometimes possible, say on a germination problem, that you could blend some seed with a germination of 98-99% with something slightly lower than that to bring it within the actual minimum quality that was required for it to be traded.

Any seed that failed to meet the standard altogether, and there was usually some parcels every year, because the weather controlled the quality of it, if it was not useable at all it had to be disposed of, at absolutely rock-bottom price. It would go to some salvage people. Goodness knows what they did with it, but we just had to get it off our premises. To make sure all the seed on the warehouse was in fact up to standard Cambridge would send some official seed samplers who would just call on the company at any given time without any notification and would have access to the warehouse to go round and take samples and to test themselves and to report back to the company whether or not they were up to the standard that we had said they were. This often caused a little bit of a problem because very often samples became mixed with other samples. Very often you would find that as you were processing a parcel of seed you would suddenly come to a section that was… let’s say we were producing wheat, you would suddenly come to a section where you would probably find a considerable lot of barley in it, and it was always difficult to know how much of the wrong seed had gone through the machine. All of these little jobs meant that because of the equipment we’d got at Fakenham we were nearly always able to make the seed up to a saleable standard. In some cases, if the particular variety that you were processing was scarce, it didn’t come up to the specified specification, farmers would be prepared to take it at a much reduced price, because they were just producing grain for animal feed.

Because of the very specialised business that the company was pursuing, the fact that it only operated to its full extent for two parts of each year, it was thought that the company ought to spread its wings and try and find another form of income. In this respect it was decided to try and convert part of the existing warehouses and to build up a new garden centre, in the hope that this would be a business that could carry on throughout all the year, to provide a suitable income. At this time garden centres were nothing like as prolific as they are at the moment and the one at Fakenham, very specially built, and arranged, and the opening day I remember Mr Harold Wheatcroft, the renowned famous rose-grower came, and gave his services and advice to all the people who had been invited on that particular day. Our special guest for the day was Mr Richard Todd, the actor, who was actually performing at the Theatre Royal at Norwich. He came and helped to swell the number of visitors we had on that particular opening day. Apart from that, there was very little other types of business that the company could be involved with.

The managing director, took it upon himself to get very much involved in the wholesale herbage seed business, which could at times be very volatile, and at other times it could be highly profitable. The quantities of seed produced overall in the United Kingdom and in Europe, as I’ve said many times today, depended on the weather. In some cases, it often happened that one particular country or one particular area had a disastrous result from their seed production and consequently the seed price would increase dramatically, and the managing director buying and selling seed on some occasions, the same parcel of seed might be traded certainly more than once, and each time the price because of the scarcity would be increasing all the time. This did in fact perhaps start to see the beginning of the demise of Sheringham and Overman, because in time the company got very involved in rye grass seed, and built up a tremendous stock in case it became a scarce and sought-after commodity. Unfortunately, this did not happen to be the case, [ … and the Bank insisted that trading could not continue.] Although the other directors on the board with local agricultural connections hoped perhaps that they might be able to see the company over a difficult period, but this was not to be the case. Eventually the company was sold to a company called New Grain, from Essex, who eventually took over the business as a going concern. Obviously the seed that had been taken into stock was still there. As is often the case, the markets did increase, and did get better, but perhaps not for at least another twelve or eighteen months after the company collapsed. The seed was still a viable product and was eventually sold, not always making a profit but it certainly didn’t make a loss that was anticipated at one time by the bank.

There are very few companies actually involved today in contracting and growing of herbage seed. It is a very specialist item. One or two companies are involved with it. The retail herbage seed business is quite profitable, but because of the small amounts that are used, most agricultural companies are not prepared to become involved. They’ll handle the seed, and take an order, and pass it on to their customer, but they won’t have anything to do with the actual preparing and processing of the seed. In this respect Mr Gordon Fletcher, who I’d been speaking to and mentioning several times, carried on in the seed business with a company called Norfolk Seeds Ltd, perhaps now one of the only very rare companies who handle herbage seed very well.

One thing I have not mentioned was the great delight the company took in dealing the Royal Warrant, providing herbage seed to the Royal Estate at Sandringham. This was a considerable fillip to the company, and meant that we were able to show the Royal coat of arms on all our correspondence. It was a great asset and a great compliment to the company to be awarded this. In my twenty plus years starting as an office boy and finishing up in the company as a director I have to say that working conditions and the people I worked with were as good and special as any anybody could have wished to have had. The members of staff, whether they were on the warehouse or in the office were regular, and it was only a rare occasion for one to leave and for the company to find a replacement. In this respect, it would seem many of them, even when the company failed, still were able to find jobs in the district.

Peter (b. 1938) talking to WISEArchive on 25th November 2010 in Brisley, Norfolk.

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