Cathedral thanksgiving service for The King of Carrots
Obituary: ‘True gent’ Clem Tompsett, who died at 84, described as ‘the greatest carrot grower the UK has ever known’
Uncle Grainger must have been a good judge of character and ability. Clem’s grandfather had died and someone had to run the farm. “You’ve got to give the old boy a chance,” argued Uncle. (It’s what he called Clem, despite his nephew being in his early 20s.) And that’s what happened.
The lad who had left school at 15, returning home because his grandfather was ailing, went on to build a great business and become lauded as “the greatest carrot grower the UK has ever known”.
Clem Tompsett, who has died at 84, leaves an operation producing 65,000 tons of carrots, 16,000 tons of parsnips, 1,000 tons of red onions and 1,000 tons of shallots a year.
Produce is grown in Suffolk, Norfolk, the Cambridgeshire fens and even Scotland. Whole-crop carrots and parsnips are sold by retailers such as Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Lidl.
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It’s not his only legacy. Clem spread a lot of magic. He let the local Pony Club set up home on some of his land, for instance. (Actually, despite not riding himself, he became the country’s longest-serving district commissioner.)
The well-appointed Whitehall Farm complex also hosts, traditionally, an early horse trial on the British Eventing calendar. Over three decades or so it’s raised about £200,000 for charities including Macmillan Cancer Relief, Royal Papworth Hospital (where Clem had heart surgery) and East Anglian Air Ambulance.
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In 2006 he was awarded an MBE for services to agriculture and the community. Little wonder.
Got rid of the cows
Clem was born in the summer of 1934 – at fenland Willow Farm (north of Newmarket, west of Mildenhall). He’d call it home for almost all his life.
“As far as I know, his grandfather had seven acres gifted to him when he married, and he built this house. Then I presume he acquired more land,” says Clem’s wife Mary.
Grandparents Harry and Jane kept a herd of cows and delivered milk around Soham with a pony and trap.
Clem’s father, a member of the Territorial Army, went off to serve when the Second World War broke out. The lad’s mother worked in the flax factory at Exning.
Clem was at school in Norwich during the war. He remembered spending nights in cellars because of the bomb threat, and reckoned a building almost opposite was flattened.
He went to Norwich High School for Boys, which during the war moved to Langley Park, near Loddon (and later changed its name to Langley School). His parents never got back together after the war, so Clem was looked after by his grandparents.
At 15 he left school – “he never took an exam or anything” – because his grandfather was ill and Clem was needed to help with the farm. Then, in 1956, Harry died suddenly.
Much of the land was rented out, while Uncle Grainger’s suggestion saw Clem get more involved, running things for his grandmother.
He wasn’t afraid to make changes. Milk, once a good business, was going through a less profitable time. Clem got rid of the cows, ploughed up the fields, and went arable. Besides, he played cricket and football and didn’t want the weekend work that dairy farming entailed.
Grandmother died in the spring of 1959. That was the year he married.
‘I came second to cricket!’
Mary lived at Worlington, near Mildenhall, and was very involved in village life. After the cricket club started, she became a scorer.
Mary was friends with local farmer George Thornalley, who would get together a team dubbed The Agriculturalists to take on Worlington. On June 9, 1957, Clem turned out for the visitors.
He had a reputation as a good batsman and decent bowler, but the newcomer earmarked as something of a secret weapon didn’t have the best of fortunes – out for a duck. He did, however, afterwards have a drink in The Bell Inn.
Mary – daughter of the local postman-cum-smallholder – had started work there at 15. By 1957 she was a barmaid, though she doesn’t remember taking much notice of Clem among a gaggle of cricketers.
A week or so later he came in with a friend and they got talking. “We just clicked, and that’s the beginning of a long story,” she smiles.
“I always said the man I married had got to be a farmer who could drink a pint of beer and dance. Well, Clem hadn’t got an ounce of music in his soul!
“He tried. I think, after he met me, him and his mate went to Bury and had a couple of dancing lessons. But they gave up. He’d struggle round with the basic steps of a waltz, and that was as far as we got.”
Did he step on your toes? “I hope not – he had size 13 feet! He was 6ft 4ins.”
The wedding, in 1959, had to wait until October – when the cricket season had finished.
Even then, they couldn’t get married at the weekend because Clem’s mother worked at the Black Boy Hotel in Sudbury. So a Monday it was, at the church in Worlington. “I came second to cricket!”
His grandparents’ old house at Willow Farm became the marital home and the new husband found himself with six acres of parsnips to harvest.
He was up and running, renting 72 acres from his mother and aunts and employing one lad. Sugar beet, potatoes and wheat were planted, and a few pigs and chickens kept. “We sort of made a living,” says Mary.
Days were often long. Clem could still be ploughing at 10pm.
Most of the farm was let, but in the mid-1960s he took on another 100 acres or so and had to get more help.
Some land was sub-let to a man growing carrots. “Clem said to me ‘If that man can afford to pay me a rent for land to grow carrots, then surely I can grow carrots and make a profit.’ So he decided we’d grow a few carrots – the odd few acres to start with.
“He bought an old carrot washer. We’ve got a gault pit, and they had this machine out in the open at this pit and the carrots were washed – our first carrot crop.” (Gault is a clay commonly dug out to make the creamy-coloured bricks common to Cambridgeshire.)
Eventually, Clem was given his mother’s land and acquired his aunts’ shares. “After that, if a bit of land came up near, he’d buy that. I think we’ve got just over 1,000 acres now.”
I read it was about 1,050 – from its western edge outside Soham, east towards the Prickwillow-Isleham road.
Life could be tricky, with the weather an ally or enemy. It doesn’t exert such a crucial influence nowadays, says Mary, because irrigation technology is much better and you don’t get the Fen Blows – high winds that whip up topsoil and blow it across the flat landscape.
Mary glances out of the window. “You sometimes wouldn’t be able to see up there because of the dust, when we first married. You could come down in the morning and the windowsills would be black. Indoors. There was no double-glazing in those days.
“They farm differently now. Before they plant the sugar beet they plant a crop of barley. That holds the soil.”
A man of the soil
At one point they grew purple carrots for Sainsbury’s – the first grower in the country to do so – but they proved a bit of a disaster, admits Mary. It cost a fortune to buy the seed from America. Cooked, the carrots went a bit of a muddy colour. “We didn’t sell all that we grew, and we didn’t grow them again.”
Mary believes her husband always wanted to be in farming. “I couldn’t imagine him doing anything else. He was a man of the soil. He loved it.
“He wasn’t one of these people out to empire-build or make a vast amount of money. Yes, he wanted to make a profit – there’s no point farming if you don’t – but he loved his workforce. He’d do anything for them and defend them to the bitter end. We’ve got one chap who’s been here 53 years. He’s 78 and still comes in every morning.
“Clem had a great knack of putting the right people in the right jobs. He was good at delegating. He would say he was not ‘clever’. He’d never written a letter in his life.
“Farming was Clem’s life. He was pleased if things went right, and if they went wrong he’d say ‘Well, we’ve done it before (succeeded), so we can do it again’.”
A wonderful negotiator
The company built a carrot packing plant down at Whitehall Farm – producing tinned ones initially, then fresh ones for supermarkets.
At one point Clem sold the plant to Unigate – supplying the food manufacturer with produce and not having the worry about packing.
Mary says the factory operation later “went a bit pear-shaped” and Unigate asked Clem to help sort it out. Then they asked if he’d like to buy it back.
“Apparently he was a wonderful negotiator. The chap who was our salesman at the time said ‘To see Clem negotiating with a blue-chip company was absolutely fantastic. He got exactly what he wanted. When we came out of the hotel and got in the car to come away, the chap said “Oh, Clem. We didn’t say anything about furnishings and fittings”.’
“Apparently Clem pulled a pound coin out of a pocket and said ‘I think this will sort it!’
“I didn’t know this until the other day. He’s (the ex-salesman) going to say in the eulogy ‘It’s a pity Clem isn’t in charge of Brexit. I can see him round a table with Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker; they wouldn’t know what hit them’.”
Today, carrots and parsnips are the main crops. The business is among the top three producers in the country, by tonnage.
It rents land in Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire and Scotland, so it can supply carrots year-round. They don’t pack the veg now. A long-running partnership with Produce World takes care of that.
He ‘jumped’ every fence
The couple had two daughters: Sally (who has son Sam) and Jackie (a director of the family business, Tompsett Burgess Growers, which has between 50 and 60 employees).
Clem liked being a dad, says Mary. “We had two girls and he said ‘That’s it! I’ve got two weddings to pay for; I can’t afford three!’ So we didn’t have any more – even though our doctor said that if you’ve got two daughters there are much longer odds against you having another girl.”
Neither mum nor dad were involved with horses, but their daughters got the bug and shared a pony.
When Sally wanted to get more competitive, they got a pony that jumped, and a trailer, and went to shows in places such as Ipswich, Stetchworth and Alconbury.
Mary stopped going with them, because she got nervous, and Jackie didn’t compete much. She fell off too many times and ended up in hospital, says her mum.
Clem loved watching, though – “and he was so competitive. Jackie said ‘If Sally got into the jump-off, he used to say ‘Go fast!’ ‘No, I’m not going fast, Dad. I’m drawn early on; if I get a clear round, I might stand a better chance.’
“You didn’t stand near him, because he ‘jumped’ every fence and his leg used to come up and you might get kicked!”
Clem became chairman of Worlington Riding Club after his daughters joined. When the Pony Club branch at Soham needed a better home, Clem offered the family fields.
He was persuaded to become district commissioner – last year marked his 40th anniversary in the post – and part of the estate became a good-quality trials course. It’s where the British Eventing competition is held.
It was like a thunderstorm...
Clem did love his cricket, says Mary. He’d played for an over-50s side and she thinks he might have been chairman of Suffolk over-50s.
In their early days together he played for Ely on both Saturdays and Sundays. That left his wife a bit fed up!
He decided to umpire for Worlington on a Sunday. It would allow Mary to visit her home village and family. She says it wasn’t long before Clem was asked to join Worlington as a player and the club changed its residency rules to allow it to happen.
Clem captained the team for years, had a long spell as chairman, and was later president and life vice-president.
People would tell the story of a player one day abusing the umpire. Clem sent him off – told him to go home.
“He was a leader of men, I think, in lots of ways. Not because he was pushy; they just loved him,” says Mary.
“He wasn’t always quiet, though. If he was upset, you knew it. He had a very loud voice. It was like a thunderstorm – whoosh and gone. He never bore a grudge. I said it was like living on the edge of a volcano, sometimes!”
Not many people go to the palace
It was in 2006 that Clem was awarded his MBE for services to agriculture, communities and charity. He had served on plenty of committees, says Mary, including with the National Farmers’ Union. He’d been to Brussels, been on the drainage board, and was a former chairman of the British Carrot Growers’ Association. “If there was a committee going, Clem would be on it!”
He was surprised when the letter came, offering an honour, and had to have a sit down.
The couple had been to a Buckingham Palace garden party two years earlier, because he was the longest-serving district commissioner. Princess Anne, steeped in the equine world, had chatted with them that day.
In 2006, off they went again. Prince Charles presented Clem with his award.
“I said ‘Not many people go to the palace once, let alone twice, so we’ve got a lot to be thankful for,’” says Mary. “Losing him, I could sit down and cry my eyes out, but it’s not going to make any difference. I’ve got to be thankful for what I’ve had. That’s how I feel.”
Didn’t like soft sand
Farming is a busy occupation, but the family did find time for holidays, though not for the first six or so years of the couple’s marriage. Then they enjoyed Sheringham, 10 years on the trot, with the girls at the same seafront hotel. The stony seaside was ideal because Clem didn’t like soft sand.
He played golf at the time, so he would go off most mornings, Sally often walking round with him, while Mary and Jackie headed for the beach or shops.
In later years they travelled further – to Dorset and Devon.
Clem had a hankering to go on a cruise. “I said ‘I don’t think I want to go on the sea…’” says Mary. “Anyway, when he went in to have his op, he said ‘I’ll tell you one thing. If I come through that all right, I’m going on a cruise, and if you won’t come with me I’ll find somebody else!’
“So he had this heart operation in the March and we went on this cruise in June. We went on Canberra. We enjoyed it, and then we went several years.”
That surgery 25 years ago involved the insertion of a metal heart valve at Papworth. It was carried out by Sir Terence English, the man who in 1979 had performed the first successful heart transplant in the UK.
Clem’s favourite cruise ship was the QE2. “We went on that a couple of three times, and we’ve been on most of the P&O ones.”
One of the most exciting voyages was to Russia, from Harwich, via the Kiel canal. There were two nights in St Petersburg. “We went to the Summer Palace. This was just when communism had gone and the shops had nothing. Then Estonia and Tallinn – beautiful. On the way back, the Swedish archipelago, Oslo, Amsterdam.”
The list of places visited over the years was long. The Canary Islands, Monaco, the fjords, Iceland and its blue lagoon. A long way from Soham and Worlington, agrees Mary. “Never did I think when I was a little girl that I’d be doing all these things.”
A true gent
Clem had a number of health issues to contend with during his life: heart failure, diabetes and dementia among them. He spent a month in hospital four years ago, being treated for water retention caused by heart failure.
A doctor later told Mary he hadn’t expected her husband to come out of hospital. “Really, I think he’d been living on borrowed time. But he’d still been active up until two years ago, I suppose,” she says.
In later years Clem had stopped driving on public roads but still enjoyed driving round the farm and looking at the fields he had tended for so long. It was a sad day when he went into a ditch and had to stop driving himself, though other people would take him around the farm.
“He was quite upset about that, and I would say his life was not the same after that.”
But it had been an amazing 84-plus years.
“My son-in-law said, when Clem died, ‘What you’ve got to think (about) is what he’s done with his life. If, when he was 18, you’d told him what he was going to do, he’d have been well pleased.’”
A quick glance around the estate provides ample evidence: When Clem and Mary married, there were very few trees on the farm at all, save a few old willows. Clem later planted 40 acres of woods at Willow Farm and created areas of natural beauty, including reservoirs that support wildlife.
A service of thanksgiving for Clem’s life is being held at Ely Cathedral on Wednesday (April 17) at 1pm.
The family describe him as a “true gent who achieved so much and did it with laughter and banter”, and Carrot Growers’ Association chairman Rodger Hobson called Clem “the greatest carrot grower the UK has ever known”.
Mary says: “To sum him up, I think he was passionate about whatever he did. As Jackie said, whatever he undertook to do, he’d give 100%.”