Ivor Spencer-Thomas

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Ivor Spencer-Thomas (11 April 1907 – 30 August 2001) was an inveterate inventor and improviser, in the forefront of developing agriculture and market gardening as a commercial enterprise. While his contribution to rural life reflects much of what has happened all over Britain during the twentieth century, his impact on the prosperity and working practices in the village of Braughing in Hertfordshire, England, during the economic depression of the 1930s was unique. He was married to Rosabel and they had two children, Owen and Rosemary.


Early years

Spencer-Thomas was born into an agricultural family in Llanymynech, Powys, on the Welsh-English border, where his father, Robert, was a sheep farmer. He was the youngest of three children.

While he was still a young child his family moved to Honeydon, Bedfordshire. At the age of five, he began boarding at Christ Church Cathedral Choir School, Oxford, and became a chorister at the Cathedral, singing alongside distinguished musicians, such as the eminent English composer, William Walton.[1][2]


When Spencer-Thomas and his elder brother, Clement, left school they assisted their father on the farm. The family kept dairy cows which are usually milked twice a day. However, they discovered that by milking three times each day at eight-hourly intervals, they were able to increase their yield as the cows benefited from a schedule that was more akin to feeding their calves naturally.[3] In addition to livestock farming, his family grew market garden crops, such as brussels sprouts and peas, which were suited to the light sandy Bedfordshire soil.

In 1934 Spencer-Thomas moved to Braughing, Hertfordshire, where he brought prosperity and employment to the village during the great depression in the thirties by introducing a more intensive form of agriculture and developing a system of piece work, paying his workers by the quantity of work they achieved rather than the time spent. His workers were able to earn up to three or four times the minimum agricultural wage.[4]

Unlike other local farmers he grew market garden crops typically found in Befordshire in addition to the more traditional heavy-soil crops, such as wheat and potatoes.

His farm was the major local employer, with over thirty men working full-time. This figure increased into many hundreds during the pea-picking season with some itinerant workers joining the men and women from the village. His local produce, strawberries, carrots, peas, cabbages, brussels sprouts and lettuces, was conveyed by lorry to the London fruit and vegetable markets, such as Covent Garden, now based at Nine Elms, and Borough Market, as well as the former Stratford market and Spitalfields wholesale market which moved to Leyton in 1991.

Parsnips were sent by special rail-wagon direct to the catering industry in different parts of the country. It was highly unusual for this crop to be grown in a heavy clay soil. However, Spencer-Thomas designed his own parsnip lifter and harvester, mounted on a Fordson Major half-track tractor, which could lift the crop out of the soil even under the most difficult wet and frosty conditions.[5]

Spencer-Thomas was an active member of the National Farmers Union and attended executive meetings regularly until months before he died at the age of 94.[6]


One of his inventions was FizzIt, a means of making sparkling wine from still wine. He also developed Cham-Cham, a polythene packet that generated carbon dioxide and put the fizz into water and other still drinks. Spencer-Thomas developed a control system for robotic arms, which enabled the simple operation of a finger and thumb. The control unit was developed out of an earlier invention for pneumatically opening doors and farm gates.[7][8]

He was one of the first farmers in Britain to build a plant for washing and freezing vegetables on site. These were sealed into large packs and marketed under the trade name Froveg and supplied to wholesale markets in catering and hotels.[9][10]

Spencer-Thomas was one of the first people to develop inflatable polythene greenhouses which traded under the name, Sky Hooks. These polythene igloos were inflated by strong 12 inch electric fan heaters. These generated enough pressure to keep the igloo, which was secured by netting, rigid.[11]

He used the polythene greenhouses successfully to extend the season of strawberries and vegetables. He developed the idea commercially and extended it for other uses, such as conserving the warmth in outdoor swimming pools.[12] The London football club, Tottenham Hotspur, under Bill Nicholson's management, purchased his system in 1962 to keep their football pitch snow-free and prevent it from freezing in the winter.[13][14]

Later life

Spencer-Thomas held the feudal barony of Buquhollie and Freswick in Caithness, Scotland. He was buried on his estate close to John O'Groats, Scotland, alongside his wife who had died almost three years earlier. Two student bursaries were set up at Christ's College, Cambridge, one in his name and one in the name of his wife, Rosabel in 2001.[15]


  1. Oxford MailThe Cardinal's Hat. 25 July 2002.
  2. [1] Christ Church Cathedral Choir official website. Accessed 6 August 2007
  3. [2] Biography from Owen Spencer-Thomas's official website. URL accessed 9 November 2010.
  4. Welsh Farmers (Paperback published 2010) ISBN 978-1-158-51950-7.
  5. "Ivor Spencer-Thomas". Owen Spencer-Thomas. Archived from the original on 30 June 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. [3] National Farmers Union website, East Anglia. URL accessed 8 February 2008.
  7. Hertfordshire Mercury. Pioneering farmer who broke new ground. 14 September 2001.
  8. [4] Braughing Community Website. URL accessed 31 October 2013
  9. Hertfordshire Mercury. Pioneering farmer who broke new ground. 14 September 2001.
  10. [5] Braughing Community Website. URL accessed 31 October 2013.
  11. [6] Official Biography website. URL accessed 16 July 2011.
  12. Daily Telegraph. From greenhouse to polytunnel. 18 September 1963.
  13. Hertfordshire Mercury. Pioneering farmer who broke new ground. 14 September 2001.
  14. [7] Braughing Community Website. URL accessed 31 October 2013.
  15. [8] Christ's College Cambridge Governing Body Annual Report and Accounts. Page 20. URL accessed 9 March 2012.