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Having spent most of my working life with chicory, I have been told that I should write an article on the subject - my answer being that I am no Jeffrey Archer, but after giving it some consideration, I thought I would have a go.

What is chicory, and what is it used for.many may ask.

Chicory is a root roughly the size of a large parsnip and very bitter. The leaves are much like those of a dandelion and if you pull them they will ooze milk like a dandelion. The first growing and processing of chicory was in the early part of this century and was by Chivers & Son, the Jam People. The roots were grown on their estate at Sedge Fen, which is about two miles west of Lakenheath. A small factory' was built there for drying. Part of this old factory is still there today.

In those days chicory carried an excise duty and, once dried, was locked in a bonded warehouse and could only be released by the Excise Officer who would come from London and collect the duty. One might ask, "How does he know that?" No, I am not that old! My father spent his childhood in Sedge Fen living near the factory and it was from him that I got this information.

The factory I am writing about was built on a triangular site near Lakenheath Station. This was the perfect site for this kind of factory, bounded by the road, railway and river. The factory was built in 1935/6 by Messr. Boon of Fordham for a Mr. Charter De Cock, a Belgian who owned and managed the factory for some years.

When the factory was built there was no electricity in the area and power was provided by two Blackstone Oil Engines. A small one was coupled to a generator to provide the lighting and the big one powered the factory through a series of line shafts, belts and pulleys.

Mr. De Cock brought over workers from Belgium to work in the factory during the drying season and then they returned to Belgium for the Summer. With the out-break of World War II, they were unable to return to Belgium and lived in old railway carriages at the factory. After the War some of the children married locally and made their home here.

At the end of the War Mr. De Cock sold the factory to Samuel Hanson & Son. They were big commodity importers and exporters. Hanson's enlarged the factory and built a canteen and. shower block for the workers. They bought property in the area for some of their employees, some moving from their head office in London. They also bought Breckles Farm and Chalk Hall Farm along with other parcels of land.

After Mr. De Cock sold the factory he started a business in the village of growing and marketing Chicory Salad.

Hanson's also had a large canning factory in Gloucestershire at a little place called Toddington. They also produced powdered milk. This plant was also used to make the first instant coffee. What it roughly consisted of was a large specially lined cylinder, which was heated to a very high heat. The chicory and coffee were fused into an essence and, by means of a large compressor, the essence was forced through spray nozzles into this hot chamber where it turned to powder. This powder was then sucked up and packed in jars and sold under the name of Cup-Cof. Although not marketed nationally it was sold over quite a large area.

In the early years chicory was grown within about a five-mile radius of the factory. The roots were harvested by hand and the leaves were wrung off - the roots being delivered to the factory by horse and cart. After the War production was increased and it was grown over a wider area. By this time Harvesters were being used for the lifting and topping of sugar beet and they were then used for the harvesting of chicory which was by now delivered to the factory by tractor or tractor and lorry.

Chicory was mainly grown by small holders and small farmers. For them it was a very useful crop: it was free from disease and needed hardly any manure. Whereas sugar beet feeds from fibrous roots on the side of the roots chicory feeds from the tap root thereby not robbing the topsoil. This ensured a good follow-on crop the next year.

In the early years the seed was imported from Belgium but later, when we had the farms, we grew our own. The stecklings (these being small roots) were planted in June and they grew to about three feet high. When they were in flower it was a lovely sight, like a big carpet of pale blue. Once the seed started to form we were invaded by linnets of all kinds.

When the roots were delivered to the factory they went over the weighbridge and a sample of two stone of roots was taken. These were washed in a sample washer, allowed to dry, then weighed again - this gave the dirt tare. The roots were dumped into the flume, this being a long, concrete lined pit. The empty vehicle was again weighed on the way out.

The Drying Process

Along the bottom of the flume were two channels. These were covered by wooden blocks and the roots were dumped on top. Water was pumped along these channels to wash the roots into the factory. Two men were employed in the flume to lift the blocks and fork the roots into the channel.

The roots then went into the washers where they were moved along by steel paddles, which were fixed to revolving spindles. From the washers the roots were conveyed to the cutters. Here they were cut into pieces; roughly two inches by one. From the cutters they slid down a chute into a vertical bucket elevator. This carried the pieces to the top of the factory where they were tipped into a conveyor, which carried them along into the silos that were situated above each kiln.

Each kiln consisted of three perforated steel floors with furnaces below. Chimneys were built through the floors to take away the fumes. The drying period was 36 hours - 12 hours on each floor. Every 12 hours the contents of the bottom floor were shovelled into hessian sacks and wheeled out onto the cooling floor. Chicory from the middle floor was then pushed through a series of trap doors to the bottom floor. This process being repeated from the top floor to the middle. Raw chicory was then spread on the top floor; this was done with specially made large baskets with iron skids on the bottom. The baskets were filled from chutes in the silo, then dragged across the floor and tipped in rows.

Roughly 15 tons of raw chicory was spread on the top floor and 3 tons of dried chicory bagged off the bottom floor. Once the bags had cooled they were sewn up and taken to the warehouses.

The kilns were coke fed with a very hard coke which was brought by rail to the station and then by lorry to the factory. This was all delivered during the non-drying period. The drying period was from October until April, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and during that period about 1,500 tons on coke were used.

The water used came from the River Ouse, by means of a drain dug from the river to the factory. It was then pumped to wherever it was needed. Ml the dirty water ran into a collecting pit and was then pumped into settlement beds where it was filtered and then returned to the river.

In March 1946 I was de-mobbed having spent six and a quarter years in the Army during the war. I started work at 'Home Grown Chicory'. Although it had different owners it always traded as 'Home Grown Chicory'.

My first job was to look after the engines and cutters during the drying season and maintenance and lorry driving during the Summer. The bulk of our product was sold to Messrs. Petersons and was used in the production of 'Camp Coffee and Chicory' This was despatched throughout the year by rail in box wagons to Glasgow. We also supplied the Co-Op. Their factory was in London, near to Tower Bridge. I remember being stopped in Whitechapel, booked for speeding - I was only doing 25 M.P.H. in a large lorry, How times have changed!

The factory was later sold to Cerebos Ltd. and they installed toasters and grinding mills. A small part of the production was toasted and ground and packed in heat sealed bags in tea chests and sent to South Africa. After a few years Cerebos were bought by R.H.M. and they changed the kilns from coke fires to Oil Burners. This made the process easier and more controllable.

Early in 1950 electricity was brought to the factory. This was the end of the oil engines and electric motors were installed. The small engine and generator were exported to Africa. The large Blackstone engine was given to Caister Museum in Norfolk where it can still be seen.

R.H.M. ran the factory for several years but it never did fit into their products and they sold it to a Mr. John Fisher from Portsmouth for whom I managed the factory for its last 7 years. The end for the factory came in the early 1980's due to the Middle East oil crises when the escalating price of oil meant the factory could not operate economically.

After the factory closed it was bought by Mr. M. Marlin who gutted the old factory and turned it into a carrot washing and packing plant. This is still operating today.

As you may guess having spent so many years at the factory I have many memories -some quite humorous I might add. I hope this might bring back a few memories for some and perhaps be of a bit of interest to others.

Cecil Neal

  Last Update: Tuesday 29 March, 2022 21:03
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