The History of the Lea Valley Greenhouse Industry

The history of the Lea Valley Greenhouse Industry unfortunately is a history that many of us have forgotten over the last 30 as we have seen a decline in size and importance.  Unlike other industries the ceramic industry born in the East Midlands or the railway industry from the North West that sprung from the “World’s” first industrial revolution, the Lea Valley Horticultural legacy has sadly been forgotten and neglected.  

The Lea Valley’s fundamental contribution is that it fed the growing population of London right through its history.  From the middle ages onwards, it has served the fledgling London with wheat, hay and barley that came into the East of London via the only major road which goes back to Roman times.    In the Middle Ages London was more like a small town rather than the city it has become now but as the City grew so did the importance of the Lea Valley.

The success of the Lea Valley was the fine alluvial soil, which was deposited over thousands of years of flood waters from the River Lea and River Thames.  This natural phenomenon creating the depositing of this fertile soil running through the Valley is similar in the mechanics to the other great centers of  Ancient Civilizations such in Egypt and Mesopotamia where continual flooding of great rivers such as the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris promoted food production on its banks thereby creating real communities among its people.  Therefore a factor in the success of London can be attributed to the Lea Valley’s ability to feed the ever increasing populations in London. 

By the mid 18th Century, the Lea Valley, blessed with this fertile soil was able to become the leading market garden of Britain by growing a wide range of field vegetables and fruits which were transported into London on barge and then by horse drawn vans from Tottenham and Stamford Hill into the flourishing market that became Convent Garden.   The Lea Valley’s close proximity meant that produce would be harvested during the day and transported during the night to arrive in Covent Garden for the early morning trade therefore ensuring the  freshness that we value today.  Apart from food, the River Lea would be used to bring coal and coke into London from the Midlands, the barges would then return up into the Lea Valley with manure from the City therefore creating an early model for sustainability in action.

By the middle of the 19th Century the advent of the railways resulted in greater supply into London as the populations continued to grow and the removal of the Glass Tax in 1845 led to the very first greenhouses erected to meet demand for even more exotic fruits such grapes and cucumbers.  Greenhouses also allowed the flourishing of ornamental plants and flowers to be grown out of season in greenhouses and London became truly of an international City of repute with its wide surplus of produce for those in London who could afford it.   This increase on demand for greenhouses plus London’s burgeoning population put pressure on the industry to move out of North London towards areas such Enfield, Waltham Abbey, Cheshunt and Nazeing.  By the 1930s the zenith of the greenhouse industry there are more than 1300 acres of greenhouses and it is said that the skyline is dominated by a 20-mile stretch of greenhouses along the Lea Valley corridor.

The size and importance of the greenhouse industry cannot be underestimated and in times of war the Lea Valley industry did its bit to keep the population fed especially during the U boat blockade in WWI when German U boats targeted the supply boats bringing resources and food into Britain.  It is at this time that the humble tomato which at the time was more popular as an ornamental plant and considered as an acquire taste for most Londoners was introduced into our greenhouses and by the 1930s had surpassed cucumbers and grapes as the most popular produce grown in the Lea Valley.  By the time of WWII, the Government actually imposes a ban on luxury items such as roses and carnations being grown in the greenhouses as all production is geared up for fresh fruit and vegetable.

The prominence and importance of the Lea Valley greenhouse industry is therefore fundamental to London and ultimately Britain.  Self-sufficiency and sustainability are the reason why the industry became so successful and soon the industry attrached foreign labour from Italians some of whom worked in the industry as prisoners of war and soon returned years after when invited to work in the industry.  Dutch and Scandinavian labourers  soon followed as the industry got bigger in the post war years and this is why many of the industry are still owned by families with foreign sounding names.   So important was the industry that when Green Belt policy was first drafted to stop our economic development from spreading all over the South East, Horticulture was encouraged to develop within the Green Belt and this is why our industry still remains in the area of the Lea Valley albeit in a smaller area than in the 1930s. 

The industry’s decline came around the same time as other industries started to see their decline in a new post war period where Energy, the biggest single expense in a greenhouse started to increase in price during the 1970s.  Furthermore the population explosion in the 1950s led to more need for housing and the greenhouse industry was decimated when vast sways of glasshouses were demolished in areas such as Enfield, Cheshunt, Goffs Oak and Waltham Abbey.  Even Tesco’s own nursery and fields, bought by Jack Cohen to produce fresh produce for his stores became the site for their Head Quarters in Windmill Lane such was Tesco’s success and the pressure to turn over more land to housing and industry.  Buy this time the Industry saw lots of competition from overseas especially from The Netherlands who had lots of cheap gas from the North Sea readily available that meant the remaining Lea Valley industry was slow to react to this new competition and lost ground in the race to modernize and become more energy efficient.

Today the industry centered mostly in Nazeing and Roydon with smaller pockets in Waltham Abbey is again struggling for survival.  Energy prices and foreign competition again provide a wall to medium and long term sustainability at the very time that many outside the industry are thinking that local fresh produce should be encouraged in much the same way as the Victorians who did so much to put the industry on the map.  The size of acreage in the Lea Valley is around a 100 acres of greenhouses growing cucumbers, peppers, aubergines and tomatoes for Supermarkets both locally and nationally.   Unlike other forms of farming we receive little support from Government ,which makes local support even more important for our survival.  Therefore please next time you are in your local supermarket please seek out produce grown in the Lea Valley and if you cannot find it on the shelves, please ask the store manager to stock locally.  Thank you for your support.