‘Bootiful’ Bernard!

Eight years ago, on the 25 November 2010 to be exact, Bernard Matthews of Great Witchingham Hall and turkey fame died. That November date is otherwise of no significance here, but in the USA it denotes ‘Thanksgiving Day’ – which is often dubbed “Turkey Day”!

In 2010, Bernard Matthews had reached 80 years of age and his death ended a remarkable business career that started just after the World War II when he purchased a clutch of eggs and an incubator. He went on to make his fortune by cultivating the British taste for turkeys, whether they be plucked and oven-ready, tumbled, extruded, lubricated, breaded or shaped. All these choices were packaged into 120 assorted products, all produced within a multinational business that, by 2010, produced seven million turkeys a year, employed more than 2,000 people and had an annual turnover of more than £330m.

Bernard Matthews (Photo REX)
Bernard Matthews at Great Witchingham Hall, his home in Norfolk. Photo by Glenn Copus/ Evening Standard / Rex Features (1084174a )

Bernard Trevor Matthews was born at Brooke, near Norwich, on 24 January 1930, the youngest of four children of a motor mechanic. He was a bright child and won a scholarship to Norwich Grammar School, but his early life was not an easy one. His father was regularly out of work and his mother worked as a cleaner to supplement the small amount of money that her husband did manage to bring home. When Bernard was 11, he and his sister had to move in with an aunt after their parents suddenly disappeared. They eventually returned, but divorced when Bernard was 16. After leaving school and then completing two years national service as an RAF clerk, Matthews found clerical work at a livestock auctioneers at 35 shillings a week. It was barely enough to live on, and he began casting around for a moneymaking hobby to supplement his income.

That lucrative hobby began, or so he thought, on the 8th May 1950 when he bid at auction for 20 turkey eggs and a paraffin oil incubator. They were knocked down to him for £2.50. Twelve of the eggs hatched but, as he had not built into his costs the money needed to feed those birds, the venture netted him far less than he had hoped; needless to say, he sold the chicks – to a neighbouring farmer for the equivalent of £9 today. Then, after resigning his position at the auction house in 1951 he became an insurance clerk with Commercial Union where the salary was appreciably better. He now had more money to spare and with that money he bought a second batch of turkeys and sold them on as day-old poults – baby turkeys. This may have been a touch fortutitous at the time since a gale force wind blew the turkey shelter away and the rest escaped. But, Bernard being Bernard, refused to give in and tried again. By 1952 he was selling over 3,000 turkeys a year and within 12 months thereafter he left his insurance role to become a full-time turkey farmer on a grand scale.

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Great Witchingham Hall, where Bernard Matthew’s business was first hatched! Photo: Courtesy of Bernard Matthews.

In 1955, backed by a £2,500 loan, he bought Great Witchingham Hall and 36 acres for £3000. The Hall was a dilapidated 80-roomed Elizabethan manor outside Norwich, near Lenwade, which had once been the home of Oliver Le Neve and John Norris, man of letters. He and his wife Joyce moved in, despite its broken walls and leaky ceilings and soon nicknamed it ‘Turkey Hall’. Several hundred turkeys also joined the young couple and apart from the bedroom in which he and his wife Joyce were to live, he put most of the turkeys in the grand reception rooms, turned the bedrooms into massive incubators and  transformed the huge kitchen into a makeshift slaughterhouse. Matthews said at the time:

“People said I was crazy. The place was almost derelict, but it was the cheapest turkey house I could find. So it became the only stately home in England occupied by turkeys.”

He reckoned that, at 5p a square foot, it was considerably cheaper than the 30p a square foot he would have had to invest to build his own turkey sheds.

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Joyce Matthews coaxing some turkeys down the 16th century staircase of Great Witchingham Hall. Photo: The Sun Newspaper 2016

When Matthews began his business in the 1950s, turkey was a luxury item, seen exclusively as a Christmas treat for the better-off. The average turkey, a huge beast, cost two weeks’ average wages. By the 1970s, Bernard Matthews had turned the turkey into the cheapest meat product on the market and available all-year-round. He then went on to become a household name in the 1980’s when he, all be it reluctantly, agreed to front an advertising campaign to promote his products. Standing in a Norfolk jacket and plus fours in front of Great Witchingham Hall, he extolled the virtues of his turkeys in a broad Norfolk accent: “Bootiful, really bootiful”. Those three words increased sales a massive 17-fold, breaking all previous records for an advertising campaign and propelling Matthews into the rank of a multimillionaire.

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A lorry bearing the famous Matthews’ livery and slogan parked outside his processing plant in Norfolk. Photo: Daily Mail.

A powerfully built man who stood 6ft 4in tall, Matthews came across on television as a ruddy-cheeked, chubby, jovial Norfolk poulterer. But the bluff image was deceptive. In fact, Matthews was a rather solitary, reticent man who took himself and his turkeys extremely seriously. He was defensive with journalists and disliked personal publicity. His direct, brusque style did not endear him to some of the more traditional members of Norfolk society and his intensive factory farming techniques made him the bête noire of environmentalists, animal rights campaigners and foodies. Yet there were many people in Norfolk who admired him, not least for the jobs he had brought to the County and his generosity to local causes. And even his rivals had to admit that he was no fool. When supermarkets and rival manufacturers tried to duplicate his success with spin-off products in the early 1980s, they found both the products and the processes involved protected by impenetrable patents, an unusual thing in the food industry at that time. Matthews was always happiest when running his business and talking turkey. As chairman of his company, he would regularly spend two hours in the food laboratories, testing out new lines. Sometimes he would taste 30 products in one session: “You really have to like turkey to do this job,” he declared.

The new squire of Great Witchingham soon established himself as the leading player in the industry, which until then had been a small if profitable sideline for only a few farmers. After filling his house, Matthews moved out into the surrounding acres and, in 1958, bought the former United States Airforce airfield at Weston Longville, the first of six redundant airfields across Norfolk and Suffolk. It was a shrewd move. Aerodromes were secure and isolated, and their concrete runways ideally suited for turkey houses. He built the first big turkey slaughterhouse and went into large-scale production.

Bernard Matthews (turkeys)
Photo: Farmers Guardian

Matthews quickly realised that the normal-sized turkey was too large for most modern families – even at Christmas – so he began breeding smaller birds at weights of between five and seven pounds. That led to higher turnover and more efficient methods of producing them in quantity, which helped keep prices down. Matthews’s frozen turkeys took the oven-ready market by storm. Eventually his empire would run to 500 vast turkey houses, most of them in Norfolk, which, if laid end to end, would stretch for 40 miles. In 1964 he presented a 55lb turkey to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during a Moscow trade fair. Soon afterwards he began developing food production plants for the governments of communist countries such as Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland and Bulgaria.

But his domestic market remained stubbornly seasonal, and by the mid-1970s was showing signs of stagnation. So he set about making turkey a year-round, non-luxury item by deboning it, chopping it up and repackaging it in smaller portions. In 1975 he developed a revolutionary new “co-extrusion” technique in which meat is taken off the bone and pumped into a long casing like a sausage. This enabled him to move into mass production of spin-off lines, but he did not build up a really big market for his turkey rolls and turkey roasts until the 1980 advertising campaign.

The effect of the campaign was to turn Matthews PLC – the company went public in 1971- from an agricultural business into an advanced food processor, and Matthews patented the extrusion technology, not just for turkeys but for all meat. He diversified into red meat, chicken, fish and pork products, moved into North America, New Zealand and Europe, and sought royalties through international deals for his technology. He even launched a range of vegetarian products, though this did not prove successful. By the 1990s, nine tenths of his earnings came from spin-off products. The festive season, by comparison, was something of a sideshow.

However, the brand once advertised as “bootiful” also came to embody everything that food campaigners believed was wrong with factory farming. On the quality front, Matthews’s turkey products featured in reports that claimed that water was added to increase weight. “Chicken breast” sold under the brand, for instance, consisted of 80% chicken, the other 20% being water and chemical additives. When the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver set about his mission to improve school meals, he identified the ubiquitous Bernard Matthews Turkey Twizzler – made with only 34% turkey meat – as an example of the lowest common legal denominator of poultry products, precisely the sort of food that children should not be fed. The product was withdrawn in 2005.

Bernard Matthews (Twizzlers)
The ubiquitous Bernard Matthews Turkey Twizzler. Photo: The Sun Newspaper.

The following year, two employees admitted ill-treating birds at a Bernard Matthews unit in Haveringland, Norfolk, by playing “baseball” with live turkeys. On 19 June 2007, the Daily Mail reported the incident and went on to state that:

“Poultry tycoon Bernard Matthews faces more criticism after animal rights supporters released a video showing one of his workers repeatedly kicking turkeys. The footage was secretly taken last week by an undercover investigator for an animal welfare charity who sneaked on to one of the multi-millionaire’s farms. The same investigator last year filmed two other Bernard Matthews staff appearing to play baseball with live turkeys on another farm.

The confidence of consumers with Bernard Matthews products was also shaken in February (of 2007) by an outbreak of bird flu at his biggest farm  in Holton near Halesworth., Suffolk. Production at the farm and its adjoining factory was halted as more than 160,000 birds were culled after the discovery of the virulent H5N1 strain of the disease. The latest video is another embarrassment to Matthews managers who had claimed they did not tolerate workers abusing poultry.

The new film shows a balding worker in overalls delivering eight separate kicks to turkeys in a shed on a farm at Wreningham near Wymondham, Norfolk. The incident was filmed prior to two different workers being shown loading live turkeys into crates which were delivered to the shed by a forklift. The video is said to have been filmed through an open door in the giant shed by an investigator who sneaked on to the farm at around 1.30 am last Thursday………”A spokesman for Bernard Matthews said he could not comment until he had seen the video, despite being shown still pictures of the alleged abuse.”

Their lawyer told the court that the men were influenced by “peer pressure” at the factory, but the company took out full-page newspaper advertisements reassuring shoppers that its employees were “conscientious people”.

Bernard Matthews (bird flu)2
The scene at the Bernard Matthews factory in Holton, near Halesworth. Photo: Getty Images.

Bird experts had long argued that intensive poultry operations were magnets for disease. They must have felt fully vindicated when the H5N1 strain of bird flu surfaced in the UK for the first time in 2007. This was at Bernard Matthew’s plant at Holton, Suffolk, which called into question the much-vaunted “bio-security” of such state-of-the-art units. Certainly, Matthew’s products appeared to regularly ruffle feathers, but the appeal of ‘instant’ bite sized pieces bland white meat, coated in a deep-fried breadcrumb crust continued to prove more potent with consumers.

Bernard Matthews (with turkey)
Matthews lived a lavish lifestyle on the back of his turkey empire. Photo: Express & Star.

Matthews’s no-frills factory farming techniques attracted the opprobrium of environmentalists and animal rights and health campaigners. He was twice prosecuted for polluting Norfolk rivers with effluent and once fined for failing to admit on a label that some of his products contained “mechanically recovered meat” (MRM). Though sensitive to criticism, he was always robust in defending himself and was to reject criticism of the conditions in his turkey houses. He said, probably more than once, that:

“Turkeys have a very low IQ. All they need is food and warmth. They don’t need to be taken to the cinema twice a week!”

Matthew’s Private Life:

Bernard Matthews once described his private life as ‘complicated’! All that needs to be said here is that he married his childhood sweetheart, Joyce, in 1952 and they adopted two girls, Kathleen and Victoria, and a boy, Jason. They separated in 1975 but remained married, despite having lived apart from her for 35 years. He then fell in love with Cornelia Elgershuizen, a Dutch aristocrat, and they lived together for eight years in his 80-room Norfolk country house, Great Witchingham Hall, where their son, Frederick, was born in 1981. However, that relationship ended when Matthews fell for U.S. model Natalie McCray, and the devastated Cornelia returned to Holland with their son. She died there in 2004. He also was reputed to have had a ‘long-term partner’, Odile Marteyn. If all this had been a play then the cast could well be publicised as follows:

Leading man: BERNARD MATTHEWS (January 24, 1930 – November 25, 2010)
Wife: JOYCE REID (married 1952. Lived apart from 1970s but never divorced)
Adopted daughter 1: KATHLEEN MATTHEWS
Adopted daughter 2: VICTORIA MATTHEWS
Adopted son: JASON MATTHEWS
Lovechild: GEORGE FREDERICK ELGERSHUIZEN
Mother of the lovechild: CORNELIA ELGERSHUIZEN
American lover: NATALIE McCRAY
French mistress: ODILE MARTEYN

Matthews did not flaunt his wealth. His two big concessions to multimillionaire status were a Rolls-Royce and a 158ft yacht, the ‘Bellissima’, which he eventually sold to “an Arab who wanted it more than I did”. In addition, he restored and furnished Great Witchingham Hall with antiques, and where he lived a careful, modest life, preferring to spend his evenings at home to going out and socialising.

On the plus side, along with the fortune he made, he did support a number of charities and had a positive effect on the local economy. In 2007 he was appointed CVO for services to the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.

Bernard Matthews (CBE)
Bernard Matthews pictured at Buckingham Palace with his wife Joyce (left) and daughter Kathleen, after he received his CBE in 1992.

One of the very few people who appeared not to have heard of the brand name Bernard Matthews was the Queen who asked him, during the CBE ceremony, which branch of the poultry business he was in. Apparently, when he told her, she observed that “a lot of turkeys come from Norfolk” – to which he more than likely replied “Yes, Maam!”.

THE END

Sources:
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/finance-obituaries/8162155/Bernard-Matthews.html
https://www.thesun.co.uk/archives/news/899161/the-tangled-lovelife-of-the-turkey-tycoon/
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1541576/Bird-flu-its-here-to-stay.html
http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/poultry-industry-awaits-bird-flu-verdict-1-694473
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-462909/Bernard-Matthews-worker-caught-playing-football-turkeys.html
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1381103/Bernard-Matthews-Dutch-lovechild-inherit-30m.html

COPYRIGHT NOTICE

 

The 2014 Obituary of Peter Underwood Revisited

Peter Underwood was an indefatigable ghost-hunter who was once described as ‘the Sherlock Holmes of psychical research. The following Obituary appeared in The Telegraph on 26 December 2014. Readers, interested in such things, might like to be reminded!

Peter Underwood, who has died aged 91, was the author of some 50 books with titles such as Ghosts and How to See Them and Nights in Haunted Houses; Dame Jean Conan Doyle, daughter of the great author and a keen student of the supernatural, once described him as “the Sherlock Holmes of psychical research”.

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During a life dedicated to investigating ghouls and spooks of all shapes and sizes, Underwood identified nine different varieties of ghost, namely elementals, poltergeists, historical ghosts, mental imprint manifestations, death-survival ghosts, apparitions, time slips, ghosts of the living, and haunted inanimate objects. He had something of a talent for categorisation; Where the Ghosts Walk, for example, published last year and described as a “definitive guide to the haunted places of Britain”, provided a digest of ghosts grouped by location – including Napoleon searching for somewhere to land his invasion along Lulworth Cove.

Underwood described ghosts as probably being “the surviving emotional memories of people who are no longer present” or “the result of some natural recording mechanism”. Of their existence, however, he had no doubt. “The evidence for appearances of dead and living people cannot be explained within our known laws [and] is quite overwhelming,” he claimed. In his book No Common Task: The Autobiography of a Ghost-Hunter (1983), Underwood suggested that 98 per cent of the reports of hauntings were likely to have rational explanations, but that he was most interested in the two per cent that could be genuine.

One of his best-known investigations concerned a famous haunting of the 1930s at Borley Rectory on the Essex/Suffolk border. The large Gothic-style house was said to have been haunted since it was built in the 1860s, but things took a more sinister turn in 1928 when the wife of a new rector who was cleaning out a cupboard came across a brown paper package containing the skull of a young woman.

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Borley Rectory

Subsequently the family reported strange happenings, including the ringing of servant bells which had been disconnected, lights appearing in windows and unexplained footsteps. The family fled Borley the following year, but things only seemed to get worse after the arrival in 1930 of the Reverend Lionel Foyster, his wife Marianne and daughter Adelaide. In addition to bell-ringings, there were windows shattering, the throwing of stones and bottles, and mysterious messages on the walls. On one occasion Marianne claimed to have been physically thrown from her bed; on another Adelaide was attacked by “something horrible” and locked in a room with no key.

Harry Price
Harry Price

The building became known as “the most haunted house in England” after the celebrated psychic researcher Harry Price (who had lived at the rectory for a year in 1937-38) published a book about it in 1940. After Price’s death in 1948, however, members of the Society for Psychical Research investigated his claims and concluded that many of the phenomena he described had been faked, either by Price himself, or by Marianne Foyster (who later admitted that she had been having an affair with the lodger and had used paranormal excuses to cover up their trysts).

Over a period of years Underwood, a protégé of Price and executor of his estate, claimed to have traced and personally interviewed almost every living person connected with the rectory. He came to the conclusion that at least some of the phenomena were genuine, and fiercely defended Price against accusations of fraud.

If Underwood was not, perhaps, sufficiently doubting to satisfy the sceptics, he claimed to have a nose for charlatanry. On one occasion the writer Dennis Wheatley gave him a graphic description of a “psychometry” session hosted by Joan Grant, a writer famed for her “far memory” books, in which she would go into a trance and dictate scenes from her past lives to whichever of her three husbands happened to be around at the time. Wheatley described how a stark naked Joan began to talk in the person of an ancient Egyptian, “glistening and quivering in ecstasy… writhing and contorting her body sensually in tune with the administration of his hands”. Wheatley was convinced by the performance. Underwood was not.

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In 1994, however, Underwood became caught up in some genuinely mysterious goings-on when police arrived to question Bill Bellars, a 75-year-old retired naval officer, Loch Ness monster expert and honorary treasurer of the Ghost Club of Britain (founded in 1862), of which Underwood had been president, following an anonymous tip-off that club members were really part of an IRA cell. Bellars had been planning to lead an all-night investigation at a haunted abbey in Hampshire, and it took him an afternoon to convince police officers that he was up to nothing more sinister than looking for 16th-century Cistercian monks.

The ghost hunt eventually went ahead as planned, but the mystery of the tipster’s identity was never solved. Nor did Bellars ever discover the source of abusive calls he claimed he had been getting at home. However, it was noted that the previous year Underwood had been ousted from the presidency after 33 years in the post by members who had allegedly become fed up with his “autocratic” ways and who accused him of using the club’s name to help sell his books. “He really ran it to suit his own commercial interests,” Bellars was quoted as saying. Underwood denied any connection to the phone calls or the IRA incident, but Bellars’s description of the final showdown struck an appropriately supernatural note: “I said my piece, then he went purple in the face, just blew a top. Then he vanished.”

Peter Underwood was born on May 16 1923 at Letchworth Garden City into a family of Plymouth Brethren. He claimed to have had his first paranormal experience at the age of nine when he saw the ghost of his father, who had died earlier the same day, standing at the bottom of his bed. His interest in hauntings was further stimulated on visits to his grandparents’ supposedly haunted house in Herefordshire, and by Harry Price, whom he met through the Ghost Club.

After leaving school, Underwood joined the publishers J M Dent in Letchworth, which would publish many of his books. He continued to work for the firm during and after the Second World War – a serious chest ailment rendered him unfit for active service.

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Peter Underwood’s ghost hunting kit

The departure of Underwood from the Ghost Club caused it to split in two, Bellars leading a rump “Ghost Club” with (at least according to Underwood) about 80 per cent of the membership leaving to form a Ghost Club Society with Underwood as life president. According to Underwood’s website, however, the society, too, seems to have run into trouble in recent years, and Underwood was reported to be “in the process of completely reforming the Ghost Club Society [with] a new Council and complete reorganisation”.

A fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he also served as president of the Unitarian Society for Psychical Studies and was a life member of the Vampire Research Society. As well as writing, Underwood broadcast extensively on television and radio and lectured around the world. His last book, Haunted London, was published last year.

Underwood’s wife, Joyce, died in 2003. He is survived by their son and daughter.

Peter Underwood, born May 16 1923, died on November 26 2014