The “trog” was a wooden vessel hewn from solid timber in the shape of the round coracle boat that the Anglo Saxons used for their daily business. Because of the way these “trogs” were made they were very heavy. They were used by Sussex farmers to measure grain and liquids and were made in several sizes for different measures. They continued in use in this form until the mid-1600’s and we have been able to uncover an inventory from a farm in Newhaven, East Sussex at about that time where there were recorded “a dozen of trogs in the milking parlour”.
Thomas Smith re-invented the “trog” carefully designing a lightweight basket using Sweet Chestnut (Castanea Sativa) and Cricket Bat Willow (Salix Coerulea). He moved his lounge and kitchen to the first floor of his home, Hormes House at Windmill Hill, Herstmonceux, and converted the ground floor to his workshops. Hormes House can still be seen on the main road through the village – sporting the Royal Warrant Crest on its eastern face.
The Romans introduced Sweet Chestnut (also known as Spanish Chestnut) into Southern England from Spain and the climate in Sussex and Kent was ideal for its rapid growth. Thomas selected the Chestnut to make his handles and rims as it splits easily and, being a hardwood, is resistant to rot. He selected true straight poles of Chestnut (known as Cooper Poles or Trug Bats) and cleaved (split) these in half down their length using a Cleaving Axe. The axe is placed on the top of the pole and hit with a wooden mallet to start the split and is then worked through the wood by placing the pole in a “brake” and working the axe by hand to finish the split. The Chestnut is then cleaved down again to more manageable pieces before being hand shaved on one side by a craftsman sitting astride a Shaving Horse and using a Draw Knife to produce a smooth comfortable handle and rim. These handle and rim pieces are steamed to make them supple before being bent round formers to produce the finished handles and rims which are then nailed together to produce the frame.
For the boards of his Trug Thomas selected Cricket Bat Willow (Salix Coerulea) which, because Herstmonceux is right on the edge of the Pevensey Marshes, was in plentiful supply on this rich growing ground. He split the Willow using wedges and sledgehammers before sawing them into slats by hand in a sawing pit, and then hand shaving these slats to form the boards of his Trug. These boards were light in weight and perfectly complimented the strong Chestnut frame. They were fixed using solid copper tacks and the legs were finally added, using copper clout nails. The larger Trugs were not given feet but had two straps fixed from the handles underneath the boards to give extra strength. The No.8 Trug (also known as a Half Bushel Trug) still has those straps today.
When Thomas made his Trugs there was a ready market for them on farms and in gardens throughout England. However, it was not until, in 1851, he attended The Great Exhibition held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, that he made his true mark on the World. It was there, on the first day, that Queen Victoria visited his stand and was so impressed by his product that she ordered some personally as gifts for members of the Royal Family. Well, with that sort of patronage Thomas was bound to win!!! Legend has it that when he returned to his workshops in Herstmonceux, mindful of the debt which he owed to Queen Victoria for his new found patronage, he made the Trugs entirely by himself. He then walked the 60 miles to Buckingham Palace in London, with his brother, pushing a handcart to deliver his prized Trugs in pristine condition. He obviously sold more to the Queen because he was awarded the Royal Warrant, hence the term Royal Sussex Trug. Thomas was also awarded a Gold Medal and Certificate of Merit at the show and we still have the Certificate on display in our Trug Shop today.
In 1855, he attended the Exposition Universelle Industrie beaux-arts in Paris, France, where he was awarded a Silver Medal and Certificate of Merit signed by Napoleon Bonaparte III (this was a descendant of the Napoleon). To our knowledge this was the first time that Trugs were exported outside of the United Kingdom and this shows the true entrepreneurial flair that Smith possessed. In the following years Smith had more successes in exhibitions notably The International Forestry Exhibition in Edinburgh 1884 and in London The International Exhibition in 1885.
Over the years the Smith family continued to run their business in Herstmonceux. They faced competition from many other copycat companies which sprang up in Kent and Sussex and even as far west as Somerset. After the First World War Smith’s moved from their original base in Hormes House to a redundant Army Barracks further west in the village, but still on the main road, and it is here that we made Thomas’s famous product until 2003 . The wood and corrugated iron building meant as a temporary home for the British Army gave visitors a step back in History rarely experienced elsewhere.
After the Second World War things altered and traditional farms underwent a massive change with mechanisation. Hence Trugs were no longed needed to collect eggs, sow grain or pick up vegetables because this was now done by machine. The Trug Makers were undeterred by these changes and adapted their marketing tactics to push for more sales in the garden industry.
In the 1950’s two brothers Laurence & Dudley Hide were running a business in the market town of Hailsham (about 4 miles away from Herstmonceux). They were making and selling top quality cedar greenhouses, summerhouses and sheds and, in their trade catalogue, they included locally produced Trugs. Because they could not buy enough Trugs to satisfy their customers, they decided to make their own version from plywood. It took them a year to develop the new Trug using weatherproof Israeli and Far Eastern plywoods that they softened using boiling water in order to bend the ply around the formers. From these ply woods they made the handles, rims and the boards and a new tradition was born!
Time marched on, Trug Makers decreased in number and the Trug Industry retreated to its original home in Herstmonceux. This is the way things stayed for many years with two Trug Makers in Herstmonceux and one in the nearby village of East Hoathley. But things were about to change again!
Peter Tuppen wanted to change direction in his life and, with his wife Angela, decided to make Trugs. They enlisted the help of Peter’s brother Robin, and between them they formed South Down Trugs & Crafts to make a new generation of ply Trugs which they called the South Down Range. This time they carefully selected the best plywood in the World – Finnish Birch, using 4mm ply for the handles and rims and 1.5mm ply for the boards. They started their business in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex (about 10 miles from Herstmonceux) upon winning a competition for a free factory for 18 months, fighting off stiff competition from high-tech projects. Here they commenced business in April 1983 and found almost instant fame by attending the Garden & Leisure Exhibition in Birmingham, England in the September where they were spotted by Peter Seabrook the famous television gardening presenter. Peter Seabrook featured the brothers’ new Trugs on his gardening programme and, like Thomas Smith, the Tuppen brothers had that leap to fame! They also found Royal patronage from the Royal Estate at Windsor Castle and continue to supply the Estate to this day!
To make their Trugs the brothers cut the 4mm ply into 1″ (24mm) strips and then placed them in boiling water in order to soften them sufficiently to bend round formers to make the handles and rims of the Trugs. The strips are laminated in three layers, using solid brass pins, to make strong handles and rims. These were then allowed to dry before being sanded and then placed in a box to be screwed together and have the boards and feet fixed to them using again solid brass screws for the feet and solid copper tacks to secure the boards to the end of the rim. (Note: Did you notice that we use the term “legs” for the traditional Trugs but “feet” for the ply Trugs as nothing was changed when the two companies merged). After assembly the Trugs were allowed to dry and were then checked for nails, levelled and hand sanded before being sent out to customers. Many were, and still are, hand painted using good quality, weather resistant stains.
Our Trugs are almost completely HAND-MADE in the traditional ways.
All woods used in the making of our Trugs are from sustainable resources. The Chestnut comes mainly from local woodlands. All of it is coppiced and coppicing is an ancient form of woodland management that respects both flora and fauna in our beautiful countryside and allows for more new trees to grow than were coppiced. The Willow is the by-product of cricket bat manufacture. Our suppliers select Willow for us that is unsuitable for making cricket bats and, more importantly, they have a formal replanting programme. The plywood we use for making our South Down Range comes from Finland and the legging wood from Sweden. The law in both of these countries requires felled timber to be replaced by twice the amount of trees that were felled.
The last Smith family member to own the company was Eddie Smith who, together with his wife Winnie ran it until they retired. Although, sadly, Eddie is no longer with us Winnie is a frequent visitor to our workshops. Since then the company has undergone several changes of owner and was purchased by Robin & Peter Tuppen, Anna Piper and Frank Odell in 1989. Robin and his wife Sue now run the business, supplying Trugs all over the World. They export somewhere in the region of 40% of their Trug production every year.
In the autumn of 1997 Robin Tuppen demonstrated Trug making at the Courson Gardening Show in France where he was awarded the ‘Ruban d’Argent’ (Silver Ribbon) for his Trugs. Then, with a full demonstration of Trug Making and a large display of Trugs, in the spring of 1998 and 1999 he was awarded the ‘Ruban d’Or’ (Gold Ribbon).
In their efforts to make Thomas Smith’s famous and useful Trug available to all, Robin and Sue have now gone on-line with this Web site, once again showing that Trug Makers have the entrepreneurial expertise to keep up with modern marketing methods. Of course, being a traditional company, Thomas Smith’s Trug Shop still welcomes personal callers who can walk around our workshops and chat to the Craftsmen as they make our famous products. There is no charge for doing this but we hope that visitors will buy a Trug of course and help us to keep this traditional and quintessential English gardening product alive and kicking for another 200 years or more!
There are imitations of our product of course but we consider that copying is a form of flattery! Naturally there is only one original and authentic Trug and that is ours – made only at Thomas Smith’s Trug Shop right in the centre of Herstmonceux – the Royal Sussex Trug.
Thomas Smith’s – the Heart of Herstmonceux!
LOOK FOR THE STAMP OF AUTHENTICITY ON THE BOTTOM OF ALL OUR TRUGS!!!!!!