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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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!”.
Norfolk Tales & Myths does not claim credit for any of the photographs shown in the article.