Ivor John Spencer-Thomas of Buquhollie 1907 to 2001

Ivor Spencer-Thomas died on 30th August, aged ninety four, and was buried close to John O'Groats, Scotland, with his wife, Rosabel, who had died almost three years earlier. We send our sincere sympathies and condolences to their children, Rosemary and Owen and family.

There are many still living in the village who have warm memories of the Spencer-Thomas family and their enormous contributions to Braughing during the middle decades of last century - through employment and village life. Information for this article has come from some of the many people whose lives they influenced.

The Spencer-Thomases were a farming family. Ivor's brother Clement farmed at Honeydon, Bedfordshire, and he owned an estate in the north of Scotland, at John O'Groats. Mr and Mrs Spencer-Thomas came to Braughing in 1934 and lived in one half of Braughing Bury when it was still divided into two homes.

At that time, Braughing Bury had over 500 acres of land. In the early years they kept four cows, a couple of pigs and a few hens, but the main thrust of the farm was arable. Unlike other local farmers he grew market garden crops such as peas and brussels sprouts in addition to the more traditional heavy-soil crops such as wheat and potatoes. He brought prosperity and employment to the village during the great depression in the thirties by introducing a more intensive form of agriculture and developing a system of piece work so that farm workers could earn higher wages.

During the Second World War Mr Spencer-Thomas was in the Home Guard. Afterwards the farm continued to be the local major employer, with over thirty men working full-time. This figure went up into the hundreds during the pea-picking season with itinerant workers joining men and women from the village. Produce went by farm lorries to markets in London: strawberries, grown in Dickencroat Field in Gravelly Lane, carrots, peas, cabbages and brussels sprouts and lettuces went to Stratford, Spitalfields, Borough London Bridge and Covent Garden markets. Parsnips would be sent by special rail-wagon to different parts of the country. About a hundred acres were grown each year during the nineteen-fifties and early sixties. Again, it was unusual for this crop to be grown in a heavy soil.

He was a keen sailor and kept a small boat at Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex. In the early fifties the Spencer-Thomases bought a small hotel at Frinton-on-Sea. Some people in the village will remember renovating the building and garden before it re-opened in 1952.

As a young boy he was a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, at the same time as the composer William Walton. He attended Braughing church regularly and for many years he used to read the lesson on Plough Sunday.

Ivor Spencer-Thomas was always in the forefront of developing agriculture and market gardening as a commercial enterprise. Farmers are noted for their inventiveness and Mr Spencer-Thomas was no exception. He was an inveterate inventor and improviser. He always had some new idea in the pipeline. It usually came from a need to improve or adapt a piece of farm equipment or a particular method of doing something. For example, he designed a parsnip lifter, which worked particularly well in frosty weather. This meant they could produce a large quantity for the London markets.

Ken Kemp worked for Mr Spencer-Thomas for ten years from 1954, first on the land, but mostly as his personal assistant. He recalls "I got to know Mr Spencer-Thomas better than most. He was the biggest employer in Braughing at that time and he was generous in that his workers were able to earn well above the average wage. (In the fifties, a farm labourer's basic weekly wage was £6 - £7. He could earn twice that amount from Mr Spencer Thomas).

"He was a quiet man, but very polite. He was an inventor and a bit eccentric in that he went about things in a different way to most people's thinking. He would work and work at something to get it just right. Some of his inventions were successful and can be seen in use today."
Ken's engineering skills were crucial in turning Mr Spencer-Thomas' ideas into working prototypes. Sky Hooks, for example, were the first form of plastic greenhouse protection to be invented. These were pre-formed plastic domes, secured by netting, using small, 12 inch fan heaters, to generate enough air pressure to keep them rigid. He used them successfully over strawberries and vegetables to extend their season. The idea was developed commercially and Tottenham Hotspur were one of the first customers to purchase the system, using it to keep their football pitch snow free and prevent it from freezing in winter.

Another invention was FizzIt, a means of making sparkling wine from still wine. Another was called Cham-Cham. It was a polythene packet which generated carbon dioxide and put the fizz into water and other still drinks. Ken remembers during the later years Mr Spencer-Thomas was working on ideas for robotic arms, certainly, getting a finger and thumb to meet. This developed out of inventions for pneumatically opening doors and farm gates.

He was one of the first farmers to build the necessary plant for washing and freezing vegetables on site. These were sealed into large packs under the trade name Froveg and supplied to wholesale markets in catering and hotels. He was a shrewd business man, ensuring his ideas were patented.

When the other half of Braughing Bury became vacant in the late fifties, the Spencer-Thomases began turning it back into one building. Ken recalls many hours being spent taking out the years of additions, such as fireplaces, to return them to their former glory. Both Mr and Mrs Spencer-Thomas were always meticulous, wanting to make sure every repair or renovation was architecturally and historically accurate.

The farm was sold in 1973. Some of the land was bought by the Co-operative Society to add to their Hay Street farm. The house and remaining land was sold to Mr and Mrs Gredley. The Spencer-Thomases lived in Ivy Cottage for several years before moving on to Bedfordshire and then to Gnosall near Stafford. However, Mr Spencer-Thomas continued to return to the village every year, right up to last Christmas, to collect rents, but much more importantly to him, to keep in touch with former employees.

Mary Cook writes: "He was a gentleman, polite and thoughtful. He always remembered my birthday the twelve years I worked in the house at Braughing Bury. Since then, he always brought gifts at Easter and Christmas, no matter what the weather, to Peg (Tott) Madge (Clark) and myself (who also worked in the house). I knew Mr Spencer-Thomas most of my life as my father was foreman on the farm and we lived in his cottage in the Street. Dad worked there for more than 25 years and I worked in the house after he died for twelve years. They were very good to us, letting my mother stay in the cottage till she died."

From Role and Ada Bonner: "Role worked for him for twenty five years. Ada was in the Land Army and worked there during the war.

From Irene Sayer: "It was through him I came to Braughing in the Women's Land Army and met my first husband, Ned Mardell.

Jim Prior said: "the best man to move to Braughing. He made plenty of work for everyone." The story of Ivor Spencer-Thomas' quietly extraordinary life reflects so much of what has happened in rural areas all over the country during the past seventy years - but his impact on Braughing was and remains unique. We shall not see his like again.

Mary Nokes