History of R. Coe & Sons

1850 brought the introduction of watercress to Abinger Hammer, farming a ½ acre plot with help from John and Richard Coe.

1854 the Coe brothers bought Smith out.  As tenants to Wotton Estate (Evelyn Family) paying 5 shillings per year.  John and Richard Coe expanded the business renting land through the valley and had up to 25 acres renting land from five landlords;

Wotton Estate (Evelyn family) – the site here at Abinger Hammer

Abinger Hall Estate (Farrer family) – ‘Top Meadow’ by Grimms Kitchen in Abinger Hammer.

Bray Estate – Frog Island, Abinger Hammer, now Tillingbourne Trout farm.

Duke of Northumberland (Albury Estate) – Ford, Albury.

Duke of Norfolk.  Land was rented in Arundel to build watercress beds in 1888.

1888 it is believed that approximately 400 tons of watercress per year was grown.

The watercress was cut and packed straight into baskets to be sold loose in shops.

1897 John and Richard Coe terminated their partnership on 31 December of this year.

The land was divided between the pair of them and they conducted their own separate watercress companies.

1900. In the early turn of the century, Edward Coe, Richard’s son took over and amalgamated the two business’s together again trading under R. Coe & sons.

Watercress was cut in the early hours starting at 4.30 am to be sent to London on the 6.30am, 7.27 am, 8.05am and 8.40am trains from Gomshall to be distributed to shops on the same day it was harvested.

1950.  By the 1950’s Good Friday had become the biggest trading day of the year harvesting a minimum of 3 tons of watercress.  Due to the Bank holiday train service the railway would arrange for an extra coach especially for the watercress to be taken by steam train to London Bridge for the wholesale markets in London.

The 1950’s brought the introduction of bunching watercress.  To begin with they would bunch on a plank by the side of the beds.  The vaneer wood boxes with a separate lid tied with string.  36 bunches were packed in a box.

A shed was built later to bunch the watercress in.  This sits at the entrance to the site here at Abinger Hammer.

1967 a purpose built bunching shed was erected at Abinger Hammer.  A hydro-cooling tank was accommodated for in the new premises.  This meant that the temperature of the watercress could be reduced to 4 degrees centigrade before putting it into a built in cold room.  The watercress was then transported to London in the evening to be in the shops the following morning. The lKingfisher lable was given to new darker strain of watercress at this time and returned a better price back from market.

1968 watercress was now packed in poly-coated cardboard boxes only holding 20 bunches.  The improved packaging was better for the hydro- cooling process.

Transporting the watercress by road up to the London markets coincided with the improved packing methods.  Deliveries to Kings Cross, St. Pancreas and Euston were made for all the watercress’ northern destinations; Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Huddersfield, Hull, Nottingham, Leicester, Sheffield and Lancaster.

1970.  It was in this decade the redevelopment of the site at Abinger Hammer began.

The beds were reduced in size to 150 ft x 20 ft for better production.  The grass banked beds disappeared and concrete surrounds were built with a shingle base.  The updating of water channels were made so to have better control of the spring water feeding into the beds.  Concentrating on the main site at Abinger Hammer for all year round production meant that sites as distant as Arundel could be given up.

1971.  The postal strike made it’s mark here.  Trips up to the London Markets had to be made in order to collect payment for the watercress.  People in the village would ask Barrie to bring back the odd box of fresh produce and the idea of a shop was born.  The tiny premises then was stocked with an ample supply of locally grown fruit and vegetables from a then thriving market garden industry here in the valley.

Transporting the watercress by train from Gomshall continued until the late 1970’s.

1980.  By the beginning of this decade it was realised that redevelopment plans had to stop.  The demand for watercress was decreasing due to the demise of the high street greengrocer.  Sending to markets in the north of England ceased. Other sites in the valley were no longer required.  Grimm’s Kitchen (Top Meadow) at Abinger Hammer, Frog Island at Abinger Hammer, Ford at Albury were given up.

1985. The Watercress Harvester thought to be able to improve the efficiency of harvesting the watercress and not to be so labour intensive.  To use the machine effectively it required the crop to be level.  This was achieved by rolling it regularly.

After 2 years the machine was abandoned due to lack of quality in the harvesting.

Around the time ice packing watercress was introduced. Kingfisher Watercress was the first to merchandise watercress in such a way.  The price was now dictated by the grower, as up until now watercress had been sold on commission.

By the end of the 1980’s watercress was packed in polystyrene boxes with 15 bunches per box.  The ice pack and polystyrene worked as a mobile fridge giving the watercress a much better shelf life.

1998 the site at Abinger Hammer was reduced even further.  Demand in sales had dropped considerably and the last six beds were split into twelve to allow for all year round production to continue.