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  • Writer's pictureGraham Tapp

Septembers Garden Blog

I have over the last two months been writing about the types of vegetable production I have experienced in my career. I have worked in private gardens growing for the families privileged enough to own a large house with a private garden sufficient to support them their families and friends. On the other end of the spectrum, I have worked on commercial market gardens. Much more substantial and intensive in their production methods. What I have not described and many of you won't know is how once the crop was grown and harvested, how it got to your plate.

As I explained last month, we produced the vegetables one metre in width beds anything up to three hundred metres long, when we harvested them we would have a tractor that would straddle the growing bed, sharing the existing wheel marks used for every operation since the planter first put them into the soil, the tractor would have attached to it various machines that would vary in their function to enable harvesting of the particular crop at the time. Alongside would be another tractor pulling a trailer loaded with suitable crates or boxes in which the pickers would place the harvest. Please remember that I am describing how it was 50 plus years ago so don't think I'm sexist in my comments it is just a reflection of how it was then,

The pickers would all be Women classed as unskilled labour the Men who were skilled either holding certificates to prove their skill or years of experience would drive the tractors and work the equipment; us lads and some older Men also classed as unskilled labour would do all the lifting and manual work, so we would lift the filled crates onto the trailer, now the bit that's important, on it or just alongside would be the Foreman or tallyman who would allocate each box to a person and that would be the only way they would get paid as everything would be piece work so the more boxes they filled, the more they would get paid.

When a certain number of boxes were loaded, the tractor would trundle off to the packing shed or packhouse. In the packhouse, there would be another gang of women whose job was to grade and repack. These places were never heated or very well illuminated, and as far as I can recall never controlled of inspected by environmental health if any such organisation existed at the time, how times have changed, nowadays the packhouse would be pristine in its cleanliness.

The vegetables would be hand graded into first grade, second grade and third class; they would repack first and second grade into their respective individual Identifying packages and reboxed into transport crates. It would be the job of the lads like me to help load the Market lorry, not the sort you would see today, much smaller with no cover or sides. We would pass the wooden crates up to the driver and his mate who would stack the load. It was our responsibility to inform them of any that were damaged as they had to be placed in the middle so that the pressure was taken off them when covered. When everything was in its correct place on the lorry according to the sales company consigned to, the driver and mate would cover it all with a tarp and secure with ropes, the bed of the truck would have hooks on the underneath of the bed at intervals of twenty for inches on both sides where they would tie off with a special knot called in the trade as a lorry drivers doofa, I think because it will doofa now.

The lorry would set off for the London Markets at about five o'clock many times I would go along for the ride, it would take about two and a half hours driving to get up to the old Covent Garden Market a steady old plod up the old A2 main road the wound its way through all the old towns.

The old market was nothing like it is today a beautiful social hub, it was to a young lad a slightly frightening dark and oppressive place full of big robust market porters who used language I had neither heard nor understood, although the swearing was commonplace as it was back on the farm.

The market worked like clockwork but appeared much as all of the commission markets do even today organised chaos. On arriving, we would have to join a long queue to get in. As we moved up the line and eventually got in, we had to be very careful to go to the correct sales stand and do it in the order that the lorry was loaded, the clever bit was to untie the tarp stowing it, and the ropes then unload the consignment by hand I didn't help with that my job was usually to go and get food and tea for the men. When the crates were off the empty returns were loaded in their place, the lorry would move onto the next sales stand, and it all starts again.

The markets are known as commission markets because the salesmen would attempt to sell the fruit or veg for as much as they could, then we the supplier would have to pay a commission percentage on that. The eventual buyer would also have to pay a commission on the paid price a win-win for the stand owner. I have also been on the other side as a buyer and belive me there like a bag of snakes; they may be your best mate when you're supplying but watch out when buying they will rinse your pockets dry. A word of warning never gamble with the porters, partake in coin toss or double or quits.

When your product sells at the market, the buyer will want to get it to their shop as soon as possible; the porters will be moving it to their transport vehicle, and they will be trying to get out and back home to sell it, you cannot imagine such commotion unless you have seen it yourself. It's no wonder they moved the old market.

If you want a look around the new market, it is quite possible to visit, any time after two am all you have to do is drive up to the entrance gate pay your entrance fee, park up wander through the sales halls and watch what's going on but don't get in the way.

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