Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The strange disappearance of Guernsey Tom

What is a chip basket? Is there life after hedge-veg? And who would christen a tomato?

The Guernsey Press, the leading newspaper of the second largest of the British Channel Islands set us a challenge the likes of which we’d never seen before: to reunite the island with an emblem of its past.

"It’s…well, it’s a basket,” I said to Chris, matter-of-fact-ly.

“A basket?” he sounded disappointed.

“Ah but the trick is, it’s not really a basket, it’s a more of a box…” I tossed him this to ramp up the excitement.

“And how is this box symbolic?”

“Well, let me tell you a little story.”

“Can it wait, John I’m…” said Chris, who secretly loves my stories.

“No.”

Tom grew up in Guernsey. On 11th June 1955, with the sun ripening his skin for the last time, Tom was placed below-deck on a ferry to England. At Southampton, he would board a private train to an undisclosed location and from there it was anyone’s guess – a salad, a sandwich, maybe even a tapenade. Tom was a tomato, and he was not alone. That very same week, 793,966 baskets of Guernsey Toms made the channel crossing. At full-tilt in the 1960s, the island only 25 miles square was 7% under glass; 2500 growers were firing out tomatoes at a rate of 9 million baskets per year, each one hand-picked, cleaned and inevitably christened Tom.

Tomato Museum poster, Guernsey, Channel Islands
Guernsey Tom, apparently quite a bashful tomato.

To the islanders, Guernsey Tom, his baskets, and the prosperity they brought are a reminder of the grit and determination shown by those of a certain age; of a time when Guernsey (and Tom) had suffered a great deal. Each greenhouse full of baskets full of tomatoes could be thought of as a microcosm for post-war British pluck.

We’d been asked to find one such symbolic basket. How difficult could that be? Surely it was a simple matter of knocking on the nearest greenhouse door? Well, sadly no.

Tomato baskets in a 1930 tomato factory
Tomato baskets in their thousands, circa 1930. Now vanished.
Picture credit: Blue Diamond Co.

By the 1970s the tomato basket was finished, replaced with the bland austerity of the cardboard “Dutch tray”. The writing was on the wall for Guernsey Tom too, in blood-red, peppered with little yellow seeds: “The Dutch are coming”. Tomatoes could now be sourced more cheaply in Holland. The soil-steamers, packers, box-makers, train drivers, and tomato growers all shut-up shop. Guernsey Tom was relegated to hedge-veg.

Vegetables for sale at a stall in Guernsey
Hedge-veg. "...and no stealing."
Picture credit: visitguernsey.com

This was a singularly strange mystery for the Thing Detectives – millions of baskets documented, but we couldn’t find a single one. Where was Guernsey Tom? We found a clue in the original email from The Press.
“Latterly, these baskets were used to serve tea in, in cafes such as the one at Grand Roque”

Sherlock Holmes stamp, Alderney, Guernsey
Holmes and Watson, on the neighbouring island of Alderney
whilst we were hunting for Guernsey Tom.
Picture credit: Guernsey Post

We had out first clue, unfortunately the caf√© in question has long since closed. Instead we contacted The Guernsey Folk Museum (logical); the Guernsey Dairy (not so logical); and several social historians, including the prolific Peter Brehaut. Yet the basket remained out of our reach.
Then we had an idea: to get the word out to as many islanders as possible. Using the Guernsey Press would surely be cheating, a leafleting campaign time-consuming, and sky-writing slightly heavy handed. Instead we used a bit of lateral thinking - where, during the post-war years, would Guerns congregate, gossip, exchange tomato-growing tips?

"Good morning,” I said, hoping I was speaking to the lady from the Vale Parish Church, “I’ve heard that you might have a tomato basket?”

“Ooh yes, but we've always called them ‘chips’, dear.”

“May I ask if you still use your chip?

"Ooh yes, but not for Toms. Been a while since I used it for Toms. I use it for potatoes. But you’re welcome to it.”

A Guernsey tomato chip or basket
A Guernsey tomato chip (-board basket)
Picture credit: BBC
"That’s very kind of you, don’t you need it?”

"It’s lived a life with me, dear. Probably best to pass it on, ey?”

JA.

As you can probably tell, I'm quite fond of the island. Why not visit Guernsey yourself? (described wonderfully as "piece of British territory with a French zest"). Have you considered growing a Guernsey hierloom tomato? Many thanks to The Guernsey Press and Shaun Shackleton for their kind article about The Thing Detectives.

If you have a case for The Thing Detectives, please get in touch through the usual channels.

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