Keep On Trugging! Herstmonceux, Sussex, UK
After the popularity of Sussex Tugs at the Chelsea Flower Show, Elizabeth Wright researches their history.
‘Willow, willow, bend it true,
Here’s a Sussex trug for you.
First the chestnut frame you form,
Steam it gently, soft and warm.
Then bend it round the pattern mould,
And drive in nails, firm and bold.
Then the willow smooth and white,
Into the frame fit snug and tight.
A Sussex trug is strong and good,
Though light in weight the willow wood.
Queen Victoria loved them, the Queen Mother had a collection of decorated square ones, Prince Charles and gardening Guru Alan Tichmarsh are said to be avid fans. Many enthusiastic English gardeners are likely to have one tucked away in their garden shed as part of their essential equipment. Trugs have world-wide popularity but are mainly produced in East Sussex, with special connections to the village of Herstmonceux.
What are they? Unique, versatile, slatted wooden baskets known as Sussex trugs, which are still being made by hand in traditional fashion, by skilled craftsmen using natural materials – locally coppiced sweet chestnut and willow woods.
Although the word ‘trug’ is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘trog,’ meaning a ‘trough’ or ‘boat shaped wooden vessel,’ they cannot lay claim to any great antiquity. A British dictionary published in 1670 defined trugs as ‘wooden vessels used to measure out 2/3 bushels of wheat.’ An old copy of the Oxford English Dictionary states:-‘……trug basket. Ex….a vessel…almost peculiar to the county of Sussex.’
Thomas Smith, (1811- 1868) a resident of Herstmonceux village, was making functional round wooden bowls that local farmers could use for baling out animal feed, or measuring and broadcasting grain. But after a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show in 1829, he discovered another, more lucrative, market for his product. By making different shapes and sizes, adding handles and small feet, his trugs proved to be ideal for the many ‘pick and carry’ jobs in the garden, allotment or on agricultural land. Encouraged by his wife Ann, who appeared to have the flair for commercial enterprise, Thomas was provided with the impetus to succeed.
Queen Victoria was largely responsible for putting trugs on the map. At the Great Exhibition of 1851, held at the Crystal Palace, London, Thomas Smith’s display of hand made baskets caught her attention, and appreciating their usefulness, strength and lightness, she ordered a consignment for the royal gardens. It is rumoured that Thomas painstakingly made every trug himself, decorated them with silver nails, put them in a cart and, accompanied by his brother Stephen, walked some 60 miles to London, to deliver them personally. Following this order they received a Royal Warrant and the business name was changed to ‘Royal Sussex Trugs.’ Queen Victoria’s liking for these garden ‘hold-alls’ also gained an order from visiting members of the Russian Imperial family. As a result, the business flourished and the Smiths were soon supplying most European countries.
A company in France placed regular orders for quantities of small painted trugs, which they then filled with artificial flowers and sold on. Further afield there was a lucrative American market. Prior to the Wall Street crash of 1929, large containers filled with trugs, costing 2/9d each, were being shipped out to California. There, orchid grower, John Chadwick, was full of praise for the baskets he received, saying, ‘It is a wonderful thing to open each case and see the workmanship right up to snuff.’
During the Second World War, a reader commented in Sussex County Magazine, under the heading, ‘Diggers Make Truggers, ‘A curious by-product of the War is a great fillip that has been given to the old Sussex industry of making trug baskets. The huge increase in the numbers of allotment holders and amateur gardeners has created a great demand everywhere for these light, spacious and strong specialities of the Sussex land worker, and trug baskets of all sizes are ‘going like hot cakes’ as fast as they are being made.’
At the peak of their popularity there were some 24 traditional trug makers in the Wealden area, although a few were little more than cottage industries. In 1899, Reuben A. Reed, (1848-1927) a gifted local trug maker, bought an old shingle-tiled workshop and cottage, now known as ‘The Truggery,’ on the outskirts of Herstmonceux. He and his son Thomas, (1878-1946) lived a spartan life, with no electricity, lighting was by paraffin lamps and all their water was drawn from two wells in the back garden. But, with the help of an agent in London, they soon became serious contenders in the trug manufacturing market, trading as ‘R. Reed and Son.’
Mollie Reed, (1910-2004) Thomas’ daughter, recalled in her diary that there was an element of small-time, industrial espionage which operated between the highly competitive trug makers. She wrote, ‘My father often used to get up at 4am to sort out the orders ready to send all over the country. Local carriers, ‘Isteds’ would pass by and we would hang out a flag if we needed them to stop and collect these big bundles of trugs, carefully wrapped in brown paper, and transport them to Hailsham railway station. There they were stored with no visible consignee addresses, because rival manufacturers were always ready to poach business and undercut prices.
‘I helped to run the retail shop, which sold a variety of goods, ranging from trugs, tyres, Dicker pottery and bicycles, to pre-packed paraffin and petrol in 2 gallon cans. My brother Rupert refused to have any petrol pumps installed because he said he wouldn’t be able to smoke his pipe out front. We could have sold a lot more bulk paraffin, but Rupert refused to have a tank in the back garden, because he wouldn’t have been able to sit and smoke his pipe out there either!
‘I used to collect up all the waste sawdust in the workshop; some of it was used in the copper on washing day, the rest went to fire up the steamer which was needed in the preparation of chestnut strip for trug frames.
She also recalled an occasion when, ‘One Sunday morning in the 1930’s, a lady came knocking at the shop door wanting to buy two small hand painted trugs. Because it was a Sunday, my mother didn’t want to sell them. The lady pointed to a stationary car along the road and said that she was Nanny to the little princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret- Rose, and they wanted the trugs to play with on Cooden beach. So a sale was made!
‘Prince Charles bought one of our £14 trugs when he was visiting an agricultural show at Ardingly in 1986. He’s a nice boy; he seemed very interested and told me that it was for his vegetable garden.’
Demand for hand made trugs often outstripped supply, so during the 1950’s the company of Hide Brothers in Hailsham, in an effort to keep pace with the heavy demand, began to manufacture trugs made from Far Eastern and Israeli Gaboon plywood. These could be commercially produced at a faster rate and were sold by catalogue companies in the USA and Japan. In 1983 the company of Southdown Trugs and Crafts, at Bexhill, started production of a similar type using Finnish birch. Further competition came from companies who started big-time commercial
manufacture, turning out quantities of machine-made plastic trugs.
Today, because good trug makers are hard to find, only a handful are left. It’s a ‘hands-on’ apprenticeship; it takes ‘a year to be reasonably competent, two years to be quite good, and ten years to reach perfection.’ Special skills are needed to learn the craft of preparing and assembling lengths of sweet chestnut and willow, creating a basket that, with care and rubbing over with linseed oil, can last as long as 50 years, and so strong that, upended, it is said, they can be sat upon. Tim Franks, a past trug maker, commented, ‘The great thing about trugs is that as they get older they get tighter and stronger. I’ve had 50-60 year old trugs in for repair and with only a little work they can be made as good as new.’
Sarah Page owns ‘The Truggery’ at Coopers Croft, on the A271, near Herstmonceux. The interior of the shop probably looks the same as it did 50 years ago. It is a wonderful muddle of trugs, wicker baskets, corn dollies, and wooden rakes piled high on the floor, rising upwards to meet a mass of conjoined bundles of more trugs hanging from the ceiling. There’s just enough room to get to the counter, where dried flowers, fruit and vegetables are nonchalantly displayed in assorted trugs to give prospective buyers an idea of their various uses.
During the summer months the hand decorated baskets sell well to tourists for souvenirs. The American and the Japanese use them as innovative containers for sweets, towel holders in the bathroom or quaint bread baskets. Sarah said, ‘Nowadays people are buying them as aesthetic items, asking us for painted trugs with names and dates. Others will be put on shelves and just admired. I really like to see them used in the garden and covered in a bit of dirt.’
The production line starts in an ancient roadside workshop with an impossibly tall chimney attached on one side. The structure appears to be defying the laws of gravity by staying upright. Even being hit by a skidding Renault Megane in 1998, which left a large gash in the front, still failed to demolish this 250-year-old rustic building.
The interior is filled with the tools of the trade; frames and formers hang on hooks. These are templates to ensure the 90 or so varieties of trugs are the correct sizes. Shaved willow boards are piled high, and the floor is covered with the curled-up trimmings of the sweet chestnut lengths. A steamer, which looks like a rusty section of pipe from an abandoned oil rig, and operated by a well-fired pot bellied stove, puffs away in one corner. Music from the local radio station bounces off the rough timbered walls.
Sweet chestnut is obtained in the winter, from managed woodlands, and the green poles are split in half and stacked outside the workshop to ‘season.’ When ready, they are split again, using a cleaving axe, cut to size, and the outer strips, with the bark intact, are steamed for about 15 minutes. The hot lengths give off a pungent, nutty aroma as they are pulled out and wrapped around the formers. This ensures the sizes are correct and, once cooled, they are removed and made into handles and frames.
Most of the willow for the panels comes from a Sussex cricket bat maker, and, like the sweet chestnut, is weathered outside, with row upon row, stacked up against the building. When ready, it is cut into thin boards, shaved smooth, shaped and curved with a draw knife. This is done on a special appliance called a ‘dolly’ or ‘shaving horse’, which incorporates a seat for the trug maker and an adjustable foot operated vice to hold the wood steady. A skilled trugmaker needs a ‘good eye’ to know how to trim each one to the right size, so the requisite number, usually 5 or 7 overlapping boards, will fit exactly, making the basket virtually watertight. The woods are secured by hammering in brads (nails), aided by an old, handleless, heavy iron. In this way the brads come through, hit the iron and are turned back into the bark side. Finally, feet are added, and if there is any wobbling, a light whack with a hammer will set things straight.
Hand made Sussex trugs cannot be turned out in quantity. For those that appreciate a quality, long-lasting product, put together in traditional fashion by skilled craftsmen, then a ‘proper’ trug,’ from rural Sussex, will always please.
The Truggery is on the A271 on the outskirts of Herstmonceux, 9 miles from Eastbourne, and 4 miles from the A22 to London.