Week by week, we will be delving into the back stories of some of the greatest Yorkshire companies – finding out about the people behind them, their humble beginnings, how they became household names, and where they are now. Today we take a look at E. Oldroyd & Sons [Lofthouse] Ltd, finding out how a fruit farmer from Cambridgeshire went on to produce a foodstuff which now enjoys Protected Designation of Origin status from the European Commission.
John Richard Oldroyd was the son of a fruit farmer in the Wisbech area of the Cambridgeshire Fens. Branching out from his father, he became a very successful farmer and market gardener, producing quality fruit and pigs. Unfortunately, during the depression he lost everything and decided to move to Yorkshire where his daughter Martha Neal had a greengrocer’s shop on Northgate in Wakefield city centre.
Martha wasn’t happy with the quality of the local produce, so she encouraged her father to use his skills and expertise to start growing again. John rented Pymont Farm in Lofthouse and began producing fruit and vegetables. Demand for his produce became so great that he had to send for his son Ernest who came to work with him in 1933, bringing along his wife, and son John Kenneth (Ken).
John struck up a friendship with another local farmer and taught him how to grow strawberries. In return John was shown the secrets of growing rhubarb. Not having a forcing shed, he converted an old barn where he grew rhubarb on the ground floor, and reared chickens on the upper floor. John found he enjoyed growing rhubarb and proudly taught Ken his secrets.
Ernest was more interested in growing strawberries and vegetables and started a greengrocery delivery service, supplying trade and public from his pony and cart. John eventually moved back to Wisbech, but Ernest stayed in Yorkshire, naming his business E.Oldroyd. In 1942, he made his son Ken a partner, renaming the company E. Oldroyd & Son. By the following year, they had made enough money to purchase Pymont Farm. John died in 1949, and Ken took over the business.
Ken soon formed a partnership with his brother-in-law, Jack Proud, who took control of marketing, leaving him to concentrate on growing produce. While the rhubarb growing industry was generally declining, Ken took the bold move of actually expanding the business, taking over other growers in Rothwell, and Carlton where the company remains today.
In 1965, the partnership became a company – E. Oldroyd & Sons [Lofthouse] Ltd. Shortly after in 1966, Ken’s eldest son John Graham joined the company, along with Neil Hulme in 1969. Determined to hold together the rhubarb industry, Ken formed a co-operative – Yorkshire Rhubarb Growers Ltd with other growers in the area, which disbanded in 1996 after several of its members went out of business.
Today, the company is one of only a handful of growers still operating in the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ encompassing the villages of includes Kirkhamgate, East Ardsley, Stanley, Lofthouse and Carlton; although the triangle was originally much bigger stretching out to Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford. A native plant of Siberia, rhubarb thrives in the cold, wet Yorkshire winters. The forced variety spends two years growing in the fields without being harvested, before being transferred to heated huts for their third winter, where they continue to grow in complete darkness. The success of Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb is thought to be in the use of shoddy and mungo (waste products from the woollen industry), used as fertilizer. In February 2010, after a campaign by 12 farmers in the area, and the then Environment Secretary Hillary Benn, Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb was granted Protected Designation of Origin by the European Commission, making it geographically protected in line with Champagne, Stilton cheese, and Parma ham.
Nowadays the farm in Carlton is a tourist attraction, with visitors coming from across the world to witness the growing of Yorkshire forced rhubarb. Pre-booked guided tours are also available through January to March and during Wakefield’s annual Rhubarb festival each February. Various celebrity chefs have also visited Oldroyd’s farm to gain inspiration for their dishes. Rhubarb is a true Yorkshire crop, helping to keep the county on the culinary map through Oldroyd & sons, now one of the largest producers of rhubarb in the UK.
In the next post in this series, we will look at Wensleydale Creamery.
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