The Sussex Trug Book by Sarah Page

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I have just finished reading through Sarah Page’s (The Truggery) book entitled “The Sussex Trug – Form, Function & Craft” and, I have to say, that I found it a very depressing read.  Oh, there are many interesting “facts” in her book but she has sought to re-write history about the origin of the Trug as we know it today, made from sweet chestnut and cricket bat willow.  She questions whether Thomas Smith was, in fact, the actual inventor of the Sussex Trug and cites several instances when, she claims, “trugs” have been mentioned in documents prior to Thomas making his first genuine Sussex Trug.  A lot of her diatribe is pure conjecture and the whole book is laced with quotations such as “I believe”, “in my view” and such like.  Not exactly very well researched on the points where this occurs, but appears to be her opinion.  These previous versions I believe to be “trogs” which were vessels hewn from solid timber and were used on Sussex Farms from Anglo-Saxon times.  Not the same thing at all Sarah!

Ms. Page slates plywood Trugs as if they are the whole reason that, in recent years, traditional Trugs have become less popular than they used to be but she doesn’t mention at all the cheap Chinese imports that are the real reason that genuine Sussex Trugs have fallen back in sales.  So it appears that she is just expressing her personal hatred of our and Kevin Skinner’s plywood Trugs.  There is no third company making them as Modern Trugs closed it’s door quite a while ago – two of my ex-employees working part time.

So, let me put part of this record straight.  Plywood Trugs a not the reason for the decline in sales of traditional Sussex Trugs, but rather they are the saviour of the traditional Trug! In 1989 Mike Charlton and his wife, Maureen, owned Thomas Smith’s Trug Shop and they were in dispute with the local district council after complaints were made about noise and smoke from the Trug Shop.  They decided to close down the business and my brother Peter and I advertised for traditional Trug makers to compliment the plywood Trugs we were producing.  We were, at that time (and did for over 20 years) supplying the Royal Estate at Windsor Great Park with our South Down plywood Trugs which, far from being “inferior” were, and still are, of a high quality.  Oh, and they do need skill in their making Ms. Page.  Mike Charlton telephoned me to ask if I would like to buy the Trug Shop from him and his wife.  Eventually Frank Odell and Anna Piper both contributed to the cost of buying the business, with Frank owning the property which he then leased to our company.  We took over the business on Tuesday 4th July 1989 and not October 1988 as stated in Ms. Page’s book.  We thus, saved the original traditional Trug making company from closure.  That’s the ply Trug “johnnies” (as is referred in her book) who saved the day!

Our plan was to make the two types of Trug together and, when we took over Smith’s they had just 100 trade customers compared to our 750, including many export customers in our portfolio.  This worked well, with the plywood side subsidising the traditional side whilst this was built up once again.  It is interesting to note that, contrary to Ms. Page’s statements in her book, the plywood versions were price matched with the traditionals, until we took over the company.  We were not cheaper prior to the takeover but, because of raw material supply problems experienced with the traditional trugs (same goes today!) I decided to increase the price of the traditional trugs in order to slow down the demand.  However, this didn’t work as we began to sell more and more at the higher price!  We eventually steadied out at roughly 50/50 in sales of each type of Trug.

My brother Peter decided to leave the company just after the take over and his shares were bought out.  He wanted to concentrate on  his building business that he ran in tandem to the Trug business. Anna Piper married a wealthy man and left the company for medical reasons and because her husband wanted a prolonged trip to Australia to watch the cricket!  Frank and I remained as the two shareholders for some years until Frank sold the property to me as part of our prearranged plan for succession.  There was nothing sinister about our parting of ways as is hinted at in Ms. Page’s book.

Ms. Page mentions that Sue Sherwood (previous owner of The Truggery) had to handle “a bunch of lively young men” in her workshop. Well, I know all three of those young men as Charlie Groves and Jeff Blackmore both learned how to make Trugs in my workshop.  Tim Franks also worked for me for a while and I have to say that all three of these lads were good workers and she does not do them justice with her description.   A year after Charlie & Jeff moved to The Truggery it closed down for one year – another thing not directly mentioned in her book.  Charlie set up his own business, The Trug Store, in Netherfield, employing Jeff with him and now trades on his own in Holmes Hill.  So her claim that “Somehow, through all of this, The Truggery managed to weather storms that the larger and smaller concerns could not” is, frankly, a load of bunkum.  Smith’s weathered the storm too but had to phoenix to do so.  Nigel Gander rented Sue Sherwood’s workshop and might have supplied a few Trugs to The Truggery but it was often closed, just like it is today and Nigel sold most of his Trugs from laybys.  People mention to me about the “funny hours” that The Truggery is open.

Peter Marden who now works at The Truggery also learned his skills in my workshop in Herstmonceux and not, as stated in her book, at The Truggery.   He was taught by Reg Saunders, Tony Ransom and Alan Isted in Thomas Smith’s Trug Shop and subsequently taught Dominic Parrett at The Truggery, Dominic having worked briefly at Smith’s.

So, without the plywood Trug company buying out the original traditional Trug makers, there would be no traditional Trug makers left outside of our company!  Another fact that Ms. Page is loath to acknowledge.

We are very proud of the fact that we make both the original Royal Sussex Traditional and South Down Contemporary Trugs in our workshop.  For the record – East Sussex Trading Standards have confirmed to me in writing that, to be called a Sussex Trug the basket has to have been made in Sussex or made with materials produced in Sussex, so I am perfectly entitled to called my South Down Trugs “genuine Sussex Trugs” as they are made in Sussex by men of Sussex.  Also the Heritage Crafts Association (and Ms. Page knows this because she received the same e-mail as me) defines traditional crafts as being a craft that has been practiced through three generations, without a break.  Dudley Hide (my brother’s father-in-law), my brother and I and now the third generation of young people that I employ makes our South Down Trug classified as “traditional”.  It’s not something passed off as being a genuine Sussex Trug but one firmly entrenched in legal definition.  I don’t call the South Down Trugs “traditional” because this would just confuse customers, but I am perfectly within my rights to do so.  So, when people come to our retail shop in search of a Trug (sometimes because they made an abortive trip to The Truggery which was firmly closed) they are given a choice of Royal Sussex Traditional or South Down Contemporary Trugs, the difference between them being carefully explained to the customer.  And the South Down Trug lasts just as long as the Royal Sussex Trug so is definitely not of an inferior quality thank you!

There are several causes of the demise of the making of the Sussex Trug:

  1.  The importation of cheap Chinese knock-offs being the major cause
  2. Other Trug makers resting on their laurels and expecting the world to come to them
  3.  Other Trug makers not having secure websites and declining to send Trugs “outside of mainland UK”
  4. Other Trug makers not having regular opening hours
  5. Other Trug makers not going out to the world to encourage sales
  6. Other Trug makers sitting in their workshops moaning about lack of sales and the demise of the Sussex Trug Industry!

Having basically been dismissed by Ms. Page in her book as an irrelevance I would just like to put that record straight too.

In my over 35 years of service within the Sussex Trug Industry I:

  1. Won a competition for a factory with free rent and rates when my brother and I first started making our South Down Trugs
  2. Won an export award from Gardenex for my overseas marketing plan
  3. Attended GLEE, the Garden & Leisure Exhibition in Birmingham (the second most important trade show in the world at that time) for many years
  4. Became a member of the GLEE inward missions committee helping to organise inward missions of top buyers to GLEE and eventually was given chairmanship of the committee
  5. Was a director of Gardenex (British garden product export association) for 16 years and served as chairman of the board for four years
  6. Was a  director of the Garden Industry Federation
  7. Was a director of the Garden Trades Association
  8. Was a director of Garden Industry Manufacturers’ Association
  9. Attended the GAFA garden show in Cologne (Köln) for several years
  10. Joined in overseas outward selling missions organised through the Department of Trade & Industry
  11. Served for three years on the Gardening Task Force within the Department of Trade & Industry
  12. Helped organise and attended DTI sponsored shows at the British Embassy in Paris and an hotel in Brussels,  Belgium
  13. Was awarded the East Sussex County Council Blue E.U. flag for my efforts in promoting Sussex Trugs within mainland Europe where we had three agency offices
  14. Was awarded Gold Ribbons at the Courson Show in France where we exhibited twice a year for many years
  15. Have been given many other awards for our products at shows here and in Europe
  16. Attended some eight shows each year in Germany (we still manage two per year for Prinz von Hessen)
  17. Attended the Beervelde Plant Days Show in Belgium for almost 20 years
  18. Sent Anna Piper to a prestigious show in California
  19. Hosted Monty Don at our workshops for filming about our Trugs
  20. Hosted “Escape to the Country” in our workshops
  21. Hosted “Collectors’ Lot” in our workshops
  22. Hosted “Antiques Road Show” in our workshops recently
  23. Hosted many photographers in our workshops
  24. Lunched on several occasions with Peter Seabrook (The Sun gardening correspondent) as part of my duties as a director of Gardenex.  Peter showed our Trugs on Pebble Mill at 1 on the BBC in our first  year of operations after seeing us at the GLEE show.  Sold him some Trugs.
  25. Lunched with with and have corresponded with Alan Titchmarsh and sold him Trugs
  26. Have travelled to many parts of England to attend shows where we have been highly acclaimed and given prestigious awards
  27. Made over 15,000 Trugs in one year
  28. Probably make more Trugs (traditional and contemporary) than all of our competitors put together nowadays
  29. Have produced a fit for purpose training programme for apprentices that has been accepted by the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust
  30. Have tutored two recent apprentices to become Craftsmen Trug Makers after three years of training
  31. Am the only Trug maker to offer apprenticeships to new young people
  32. Currently supply Sarah Raven with our Trugs (mentioned in page’s book)
  33. Supply Manufactum, a large mail order company in Germany
  34. Have supplied Macy’s Kinsman Company, Williams Sonoma, Garden Tools of Maine, The Clapper Company (our first export customer in 1983), Gardeners’ Supply Company, and many other retailers in the USA.
  35. Run Trug making appreciation courses at the Weald & Downland Living Museum
  36. Run Trug making courses at the Weald & Downland Living Museum
  37. Have a plan for the future of our Industry! You won’t find me being negative about the future for Sussex Trugs but you will find that I am actively working to secure its future.

So, what does the future hold?  In December 2017 Mike Taylor and I set up Sussex Trugs Heritage Centre Limited, a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, with the express intention of securing the future of Trug making in Sussex.  Next month we, together with our advisors, will be deciding upon our action plan, which is ready in draft form.  From there on we will be seeking funding from government, the Heritage Lottery Fund, crowd funding and other sources in order to make our plans reality..  The action plan will call for us to purchase suitable property to create a new purpose built workshop, shop and office centre to house our new company, hopefully with some accommodation for apprentices to live on-site.

At the core of our activities will be the expansion of our apprenticeship scheme and the creation of new jobs and voluntary posts within the centre.  We will seek to attract visitors from across the World (we have advertised in the “Britain” magazine for some while) and will offer a whole range of courses including Trug making, spoon carving, pole lathe turning and many other woodland crafts.  Cuckmere Trug Company will be incorporated within Sussex Trug Heritage Centre to provide a future income stream in addition to the income from courses and other activities, such as tours, as I will semi-retire in five years time.

So, all is not the doom and gloom set out in Ms. Page’s book!  Cuckmere Trug Company is still exporting lots of Trugs, our website has prices including delivery for every part of the World and we don’t restrict the areas to which we are prepared to send our Trugs.  We also open five days a week from 9 – 5 during the summer months and six days a week from the beginning of October until the following summer.  We welcome visitors to our retail shop and workshops and undertake talks for various groups around the country.

In her book Ms. Page also mentions the Association of Sussex Trug Basket Makers made up of her company, The Truggery, Charlie Groves’ Trug Store, and a couple of other Trug makers.  We aren’t invited to join because we make the hated plywood Trugs.  Might be a thing to mention that, although, on his website, Charlie Groves says “Beware of cheap plywood imitations” he started his career in my workshop making them!  Also his prices are lower than my South Down prices although he has great difficulty most times of the year in supplying within a reasonable time (see his website).  When the Association were involved in the “Trug Makers’ Garden” at Chelsea Flower Show, by the end of May they all had notices on their websites telling customers they could not supply until October.  Then, in October, they were telling people that they could not supply until mid-February!!  Such a lot of stock planning knowing they were going to get lots of orders from Chelsea.  We, on the other hand, had a good stock in hand and were able to service customer requirements where they failed to do so.

Funny thing is………..Charlie Groves and the Trug Store are not even given a mention in Ms. Page’s book!! A falling our there in the Association of Sussex Trug Basket Makers??



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