As soon as we took our delivery of Royal Sussex Trugs from the Thomas Smith company for The Foodie Bugle Shop, we could not stop looking at them, touching them, picking them up and walking about with them.
We decided to look into the history and background of the company for our “Meet the Makers” series of articles and we found the business has a really interesting history.
In the 1820s, a Sussex man by the name of Thomas Smith of Herstmonceux invented the very first Sussex Trug, taking an ancient idea dating back to Anglo Saxon times.
The Anglo Saxon “trog” was a wooden vessel hewn from solid timber in the shape of the round coracle boat that had been used for fishing. Heavy trogs had also been used by Sussex farmers to measure grain and liquids and were made in several sizes for different measures.
Thomas Smith re-invented the “trog” carefully, designing a lightweight basket using wood from the sweet chestnut (Castanea Sativa – introduced to Britain by the Romans) and cricket bat willow tree (Salix Coerulea – in plentiful supply near the Pevensey Marshes). He moved his living quarters 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.
There was a ready market for trugs on farms and in gardens throughout England. However, it was not until he attended The Great Exhibition held at Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London in 1851 that Thomas began to make a success of his invention. 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.
Legend has it he made the trugs entirely by himself, and then walked the 60 miles to Buckingham Palace in London, with his brother, pushing a handcart. He was soon 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 the certificate on display in the company’s office today.
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 Thomas’s trugs were made until 2003 .
After the Second World War traditional farms underwent a great change with mechanisation. Hence trugs were no longer needed to collect eggs, sow grain or collect produce because this was now done by machinery. The trug makers were undeterred by these changes and adapted their marketing tactics to push for more sales in the garden industry.
That was a clever business strategy, because to this day gardeners use the Sussex trug for carrying tools, seeds and produce from the garden shed to the kitchen table.
Robin Tuppen and his wife Sue now run The Royal Sussex Trug business with a group of dedicated craftsmen, supplying beautiful, sturdy trugs all over the world. They export somewhere in the region of 40% of their trug production every year. The trugs are still made by hand, using sustainable sourced local woods, right in the centre of Herstmonceux in Sussex.
I think Thomas Smith would be very proud indeed.