Ivor Spencer-Thomas was born on 11 April 1907 and died at the age of 94 on 30 August 2001. While his contribution to rural life reflects much of what was happening all over Britain during the twentieth century, his impact on the village of Braughing in Hertfordshire, England, during the economic depression of the 1930s was unique. He was an inveterate inventor and improviser, always in the forefront of developing agriculture and market gardening as a commercial enterprise. He was married to Rosabel and they had two children, Owen and Rosemary.
Ivor 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.
At the age of five, Ivor 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.
While he was still a boy his family moved to Honeydon, Bedfordshire. The family travelled ahead by train, while Robert brought all their family possessions by horse and cart.
When Ivor and his elder brother, Clement, left school they assisted their father on their farm in Bedfordshire. The family kept dairy cows which are traditionally 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 a consequence, the cows never had to carry a excessive amount of milk in their udders. And so, the cows benefited from a schedule that was more akin to feeding their calves naturally. It was a win-win situation.
In addition to livestock farming, his family grew market garden crops, such as brussel sprouts and peas, which were suited to the light sandy Bedfordshire soil.
After Ivor and Rosabel married, they began to search for their own farm. In 1934 Ivor bought Braughing Bury Farm. Soon after they moved to Braughing, Ivor began to import a new style of farming and made some fundamental changes to the more traditional farming methods which were typical of the area. By introducing a more intensive form of agriculture and developing a system of piece work, he could pay his workers by the quantity of work they achieved rather than the time spent. This meant there was a greater incentive to work and his workers were able to earn up to three or four times the minimum agricultural wage.
Unlike other east Hertfordshire farmers he grew market garden crops typically found in Bedfordshire in addition to the more traditional heavy-soil crops, such as wheat and potatoes. He brought prosperity and employment to the village at the height of the Great Depression in the thirties.
His farm was a major local employer, with over thirty men working full-time. This figure increased into many hundreds during the pea-picking season when itinerant workers joined the men and women from the village.
His local produce, strawberries, carrots, peas, cabbages, brussels sprouts and lettuces, was conveyed by lorry to the former London fruit and vegetable markets London: Stratford, Spitalfields, Borough near London Bridge and Covent Garden markets.
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, Ivor designed his own parsnip lifter and harvester, mounted on a Fordson Major half-track tractor. This could lift the crop out of the soil even under the most difficult wet and frosty conditions.
Most farmers and farmworkers were exempt from serving in the forces during the Second World War because they were needed to provide food back home in Britain. Ivor was active in the Home Guard.
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.
Ivor 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 remote control invention for pneumatically opening doors and farm gates.
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.
He was also one of the first people to develop inflatable polythene greenhouses. These polythene igloos were inflated by strong 12 inch electric fan heaters. They generated enough pressure to keep the igloo, which was secured by netting, rigid. The igloos were traded under the name “Sky Hooks” because they looked as if they were suspended from the sky.
Ivor used the polythene greenhouses successfully to extend the season for strawberries and other vegetables. He developed the idea commercially and extended it for other uses such as, conserving the warmth in outdoor swimming pools. The London football club, Tottenham Hotspur, purchased his system to keep their football pitch snow-free and prevent it from freezing in the winter.
Ivor held the feudal barony of Buquhollie and Freswick in Caithness, Scotland. He was buried on his estate close to John O’Groats, Scotland, with his wife, Rosabel, who had died almost three years earlier.