‘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.

Last Duel ( Witchingham Hall)1
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.

Bernard Matthews (Joyce with turkeys)
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.

Bernard Matthews (factory)
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

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The Last Norfolk Duel

Just off the B1149, Norwich to Holt Road at Cawston, Norfolk stands a stone urn. It marks the scene of the last duel fought in Norfolk.

Last Duel ( Henry Hobart, 4th Baronet)
Sir Henry Hobart, 4th Baronet (1657–1698) was an English Whig politician and baronet. Photo: Courtesy of the National Trust

Early on a Saturday morning in August 1698 Sir Henry Hobart of Blickling Hall, 4th Baronet and former MP for Kings Lynn, met at with Sir Oliver Le Neve, a lawyer from Great Witchingham, at Cawston Heath. In a time when a gentleman’s honour was a matter of life or death, they fought a duel that proved fatal. Behind this Tale lies a sub-plot of Norfolk politics, plus an unlikely victory for a left-handed underdog!

Henry Hobart owned Blickling Hall and its Estate; his ancestor the 1st baronet, having made his fortune through the law, spent a fortune building his magnificent mansion near Aylsham. Despite the family of Old Commonwealth Hobarts being stubborn and supporters of republicanism, it continue to thrive over the generations. Young Henry, 4th baronet and the other half of this said Duel, had been knighted by Charles II in 1671 aged just 13. In adulthood he became a politician after serving as William of Oranges Gentleman of Horse at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland; he also represented the borough of Kings Lynn in Parliament. As a member of the Whig party, he prospered in the political climate of the 1690s.

Oliver Le Neve, by contrast, was of more humble station. He was Tory-supporting lawyer, a country sportsman, fisherman and well-known local drinking man – every inch the Tory king and country squire. Oliver was, to his credit, also easy going and better-liked, an attribute that was eventually to stand him in good stead. His personality was in striking contrast to that of Henry Hobart, the court sophisticate, renowned as a swordsman but also argumentative, dictatorial and headstrong, with a record of disputes with his neighbours.

So what was the argument?

In 1698 a bitter political battle broke out in Norfolk. Hobart had splashed out heavily on an election campaign spending enough to increase his family’s already impressive debts but had been defeated. He attributed his failure to rumours circulating about his conduct in Ireland during the 1690 Boyne campaign. It seems accusations that Hobart had been a coward were circulating and Hobart blamed Le Neve. Hobart issued a challenge by letter and in person, but Le Neve denied being the author of the rumours. He wrote to Hobart:

“I am ready and desirous to meet you when and where you please to assign… for the matter shall not rest as it is though it cost the life of your servant, Oliver Neve”.

Who won?

Former soldier, renowned swordsman, versus fisherman lawyer – but left-handed! – what betting man of the time would have noticed this for they had their money on Hobart. However, neither man had engaged Seconds and the only witness was apparently a servant girl hiding in the bushes. Nevertheless, the Duel went ahead and, according to rumour, Hobart wounded his opponent in the arm but, unfortunate for him, his sword got caught up in Le Neve’s coat. Le Neve took advantage with a quick reply, thrusting his sword into Hobarts stomach. This was to prove a mortal wound, after the baronet had been carried back in agony to Blickling. He died the next day, leaving a widow, heiress Elizabeth Maynard, and a five year old son. The widow’s anger was less intense and possibly satisfied when she later remarried; her son inherited, the family regained its fortune and her son eventually become Ambassador to Russia.

Last Duel1
People would duel to settle a point of honour. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

What happened next?

Because no Seconds were involved, the Duel was deemed illegal and Le Neve fled to Holland, fearing that the Hobart’s powerful and vengeful family would secure a murder conviction for him. There he stayed until the heat had died down then, having lived under a series of assumed names, he returned to stand trial. Oliver was duly acquitted at the Thetford assizes in April, 1700, a verdict that maybe had much to do to a favourable jury and his good reputation with his neighbours, all of which came to his aid at the right moment – Who knows?

Le Neve, settled back into his country squire life and, apart from fishing, horse-racing and gardening, his main occupation was his prized pack of hunting beagles – supposedly the best in England. He also maintained his positions of Justice of the Peace and a captain in the militia. Tragedy though marred his final years. His second wife Jane, who he married just a few weeks before the duel, died in 1703 and he remarried a few years later, again for money. He chose a London heiress, but she died soon after the marriage.

Last Duel (Peter_Le_Neve)
Peter Le Neve who inherited his brother’s Great Witchingham Estate. (Photo: copyright owner unknown – see Notice below.)

Oliver Le Neve died of apoplex on 23 November 1711 at West Harling, shortly after the death of his only surviving son, Jack. As for Oliver Le Neve, he was buried with his first wife Anne Gawdy at Great Witchingham. Because his sons had predeceased him, his Estate passed to his elder brother Peter who in his Will intended the Estate to pass back to his three nieces, Oliver Le Neve’s daughters—Isabella, Anne and Henrietta. However, after legal battles, with accusations by the Le Neves of conflict of interest, the state was taken through reversion of the Will by the trustees of a John Norris, whose grandfather, a Norwich lawyer of the same name, had acted as trustee for the young Oliver Le Neve. The three daughters of Le Neve were ejected from the estate. These three surviving daughters by Anne Gawdy inherited the Gawdy Estate at West Harling instead. They, in turn, erected a chancel marble wall monument to their parents in St Mary’s Church at Great Witchingham.

Last Duel ( St Mary's Church, Witchingham)1
St Mary’s Church, Witchingham, Norfolk. The last resting place of Oliver Le Neve and his wife, Anne Gawdy. © Copyright Adrian S Pye and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The monument inscription reads:

Last Duel (le_neve_oliver-memorial)
(Photo: copyright owner unknown – see Notice below.)

“Under the earth near this stone lyeth the dust of Oliver le Neve Esq late of this parish one of the Justices of the Peace and Captain of a Foot Company of the Militia of this County Second son of Frances le Neve gentleman Citizen and Draper of London and of Avice his wife daughter of Peter Wright and sister and heir of Peter Wright of London Merchant he died on the 23rd day of November Anno Domino 1711 and was buried on the 26th of the same month leaving behind him by his first wife Anne only ye daughter of Sir John Gaudy of West Herling in this County Baronet (who lyeth by his side) three daughters and co-heirs Isabella Anne and Henrietta Le Neve who caused this Memorial to be set up As also what remains of Elizabeth his second wife daughter and co-heir expectant of Robert Sheffield of Kensington in Middlesex Esq grandson of Edmund Earl of Mulgrave long since deceased she died suddenly on the 8th day of November 1707 without child and was buried here on the 12th day of the same month.
Tam Math quam Mercurio [As much a man of war as commerce]”

How did duelling work and how long was it in fashion?

The practice grew out of the medieval legal tradition of trial by combat. As long as the rules were followed, the courts usually took a lenient view. Participants were meant to issue formal letters to one another and appoint seconds to make sure fair play ensured. It was considered a disgrace if a man did not answer a challenge, so Le Neve had little option but to fight if he wanted to retain his reputation. Sometimes when opponents met an apology was offered and both parties went away with honour and life intact.

Gradually, society’s attitude to violence changed. By the mid 19th century it had gone out of fashion but that did not stop the Duke of Wellington, when Prime Minister, fighting a duel in 1829 with Lord Winchilsea. On that occasion both men deliberately fired wide, and Winchilsea grudgingly apologised. Honour was satisfied. By the Victorian era courts took a less lenient attitude to duels, and the practice died out.

Last Duel (Stone Urn)
The stone urn which marks the scene of the last duel to be fought in Norfolk. Photo by kind permission of Christopher Weston.

POSTSCRIPT: A stone urn marking the Norfolk Duel was later put up in the garden of the Woodrow Inn which, in time, became the present Woodrows petrol station – the monument itself became known as the Cawston Heath Duel Stone and, having been previously moved, is now maintained by the National Trust. You can find the stone urn just yards from the Woodrow garage. Henry Hobarts home at Blickling is also owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.

Last Duel ( Witchingham Hall)1
The former Le Neve family home, Great Witchingham Hall, was bought by turkey tycoon Bernard Matthews in the 1950s

THE END

Sources:
http://www.thekingscandlesticks.com/webs/pedigrees/23020.html
http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/weird-norfolk-the-cawston-duel-stone-and-a-ghost-of-blickling-hall-1-5244880

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