Chicory At Lakenheath
What is believed to be the first factory in Britain for the production of dried chicory root was built by Messrs. Chivers on their estate at Sedge Fen, Lakenheath around eighty years ago. At that time the dried chicory was subject to an excise duty in the same way as coffee and had to be kept in a bonded store until the Excise Officer was satisfied! This factory continued in operation until about the time a new factory was built at Lakenheath Station. It then continued in use for drying mint and other herbs for a few years until this enterprise was moved to Ireland and in the early 1950s the Chivers estate was broken up and sold. The old building still stands. [A detailed account of operations at Sedge Fen awaits further research.]
In 1935/6 the factory, between Lakenheath Railway Station and Wilton Bridge, was built by Messrs. Boon of Fordham for the owner - Mr.De-Cock, a Belgian who managed the enterprise himself. The site for the factory was well chosen - being in close proximity to road, rail and water. Mr.De-Cock brought over some families from Belgium to operate the plant initially and train local employees. At first they lived in converted railway coaches at the factory site. With the advent of World War II in 1939 they were unable to return to Belgium and even after the war several remained - the children having married locally.
After WW.II Mr.De-Cock sold out to Samuel Hanson & Son, Ltd. who built up the business. In the early 1970s Hansons sold the business to Cerebos Ltd. who ran it for about four years and then sold it to Rank,Hovis,McDougall, Ltd. Some time later RHM sold out to a Mr.Fisher who was the last owner of the premises to run it as a chicory factory. Chicory production ceased in 1981 and the factory was then bought by Mr.Murfitt who converted it to a carrot washing, grading and packing plant and who still operates it. Throughout this succession of owners the business was always known as 'Home Grown Chicory' Ltd. and the building, largely unchanged externally, still stands - a reminder of Lakenheath's association of over three quarters of a century with this rather unusual crop. The blue flowers of the chicory plant can still be found around Lakenheath where plants have maintained themselves in the wild.
When the factory started production the output was about 300 tons per year of dried chicory. By 1965 it had been enlarged and had the capacity for drying 3000 tons of roots per year and was the largest chicory factory in Europe. Production varied somewhat from year to year depending on demand. There was only one other factory in Britain - at St.Ives, Huntingdonshire. (This closed a little before the Lakenheath factory and after lying derelict for several years was deliberately burned for a film production.)
The Lakenheath factory was at first powered by two Blackstone oil engines. The smaller of the two drove a dynamo for lighting, etc. whilst the larger drove the factory machinery via a system of shafting, pulleys and belts. In 1949, with the advent of mains electricity, the change over to electric motors was made. (The larger Blackstone engine can be seen in the museum at Caister, Norfolk.) The considerable quantity of water needed was obtained from the Little Ouse River via a channel and then pumped where needed. After use it was run into settlement pits before being filtered and returned to the river. The heat souce for drying was coke fires and about 1800 tons of coke a year were used, brought by rail from Burnley, etc. to Lakenheath Station goods yard - then a hive of activity with the new 'Swan Hotel' nearby supplying refreshment.
The Factory Operation
The topped chicory roots underwent the following operations after being delivered to the factory by the growers - at first by horse and cart but after WW.II increasingly by tractor and trailer or lorry: 1. Washing. 2. Chopping by machine into pieces about 2 inches x 1 inch. 3. Elevating to the top floor of the drying kiln. 4. Drying. 5. Bagging and storage ready for sale.
The kiln consisted of three perforated drying floors. The chicory was spread first on the top floor before being moved onto the lower floors in turn. This work was done manually. The root pieces spent 12 hours on each floor - thus drying was completed in 36 hours. As each batch was moved down so a new batch was spread on the top floor - drying was a continuous process. The top drying floor held 15 tons of wet root - which yielded about 3 tons of dried chicory root from the third (lower) floor.
The source of heat was at first coke fires beneath the lower floor - fumes being led away through chimneys passing through the floors. The factory was in operation from October to March each year - for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Employees worked in three 8 hour shifts. About 30 persons, including office staff, etc., were employed at the factory. During the six months when the factory was closed these employees either worked on the company's own farms or worked for other farmers.
When Cerebos Ltd. took over the factory they installed roasters and stone grinding mills and a small part of the production of dried root was roasted and ground and sent to South Africa in heat sealed bags in tea chests. (Several of the grindstones from these mills can still be seen at the entrance to the factory.) Messrs. RHM made the change from coke fires to oil fired burners as a heat source. Although, as 'instant' coffee grew in popularity and the demand for coffee & chicory essence dropped - and so for chicory in Britain at least - this was not the main reason for production becoming uneconomic. This was due to the Middle East 'oil crisis' and the escalating price of oil fuel in the early 1980s. The reduced demand for chicory was then met from elsewhere in Europe where more modern factories, able to recirculate the heat, were able to operate more economically.
Ninety per cent of the production was sold to Messrs. McCalls who roasted it and ground it and then sold it to Messrs. Patersons, (later McCormick Foods,) who used it in the production of 'Camp' brand coffee and chicory essence. Some was also used for blending with ground cofee and later 'instant' coffee.
Chicory Production in the Field: 'Home Grown Chicory' also ran two farms - Breckles Farm and Chalk Hall Farm. (The farms are now much altered.) Chicory seed production was carried out on these two farms but the bulk of the crop for roots was grown by small farmers on contract, seed - of one variety only - being supplied by the factory. One fieldsman was employed by the factory to arrange contracts and assist growers. Most of the crop was grown on the peat soil of Lakenheath and Mildenhall Fens in Suffolk and some on the light, higher ground of south-west Norfolk. About 1000 acres were grown and there were about 250 growers in 1970, each with 2-5 acres; few grew over 10 acres.
The crop was treated similarly to sugar beet but it was more important not to damage the roots. Before WW.II field operations were carried out by horse drawn implements and manual labour. The crop was lifted by hand and the tops wrung off shortly before delivery. Much of the singling was done by hand, often by women, and this continued until the early 1960s on a few farms. However by this time nearly all the operations had been mechanised by the larger farmers and sugar beet harvesters were increasingly used - at first to flail off the tops and later to harvest the crop completely. Yield was 10-12 tons per acre on average; very exceptionally up to 18 tons.
Seed was sown in April - early May, ½ inch deep at 2-3 lb. per acre. Rows were 18-24 inches apart and plants chopped out at 5-6 inches apart. When pelleted seed and precision drills came into use seed rate was ¾ - 1½ lb. per acre. The crop was not subject to pests, diseases or deficiencies and less demanding on fertilsers than sugar beet. For seed production sowing took place in July and stecklings were dug in February and planted out one yard apart.
World War II: On 30th. January 1941 three bombs fell around the factory. Although little damage was done to the building one man, who was delivering roots to the factory at the time, was killed and two other workers were injured. An unexploded bomb lodged in the factory washing plant. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Acknowledgement: The bulk of the information for this history has been kindly supplied by Mr.Cecil Neal of Hockwold who, having worked at 'Home Grown Chicory' from 1946 until his retirement in 1983, is an authority on the subject. However any errors are the responsibility of the writer.
[Note that this account supercedes the section on chicory in my article 'Asparagus, Chicory & Poplars' dated March 1995 and reproduced in the June, 1995 issue of 'Lakenheath Life'.]
R.A.Silverlock. Lakenheath. June, 1995. ____________________________________________________________________
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