The name Bernard Matthews is virtually synonymous with Norfolk turkeys today, but they are lot older than the days when he began his business with a few eggs and an oil-fired incubator. Bernard Matthews’ birds have white feathers, but the Norfolk Black was a popular breed back in Victorian times. Indeed it was a turkey that Scrooge sent to Bob Cratchit (anonymously) on Christmas Day in Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Carol, published in 1843. We are not told if it was a Norfolk turkey, but it surely was a black one because they all were. White turkeys were experimentally being bred in 1950 (in Norfolk of course). The only advantage of having white feathers was that the birds looked cleaner when they were plucked without a lot of black quills still attached to the bird.
This picture shows turkeys over 60 years ago, being sold for Christmas. The turkey auction in Attleborough, south Norfolk, was famous even having a film made of it in 1934. In those days no one had heard of Bernard Matthews who was babe in arms, but Norfolk turkeys had already been known for centuries.
Before the railways came to Norfolk the only way to take turkeys up to the capital for Christmas was on foot. Daniel Defoe writing in the 1720s, over a hundred years before the coming of the railways, reports that 150,000 turkeys were driven to London annually from East Anglia. The journey could take up to three months and to protect their feet during all that walking on rough roads they were first marched through tar. After all that walking their thighs must have been extremely tough, but living such an adventurous outdoor life they would have been very tasty.
Nowadays turkeys travel up and down the country as frozen carcases in articulated trucks. It is a much simpler business, but I think the flavour must have suffered along the way. What the late Bernard Matthews achieved above all was to make the turkey a bird for everyone, and throughout the year. That meant turkey became a cheap meat, produced on an industrial scale, and by industrial methods. When my father first bought a turkey it was a luxury item. This was in the early 50s when chicken was the normal bird to roast for Christmas dinner. He had to dismember his turkey as it was too big to fit in the oven! Not only are turkeys now mostly sold as meat products rather than as whole birds, when they are sold at Christmas they are not the huge creatures that they used to be. You can still buy the old-fashioned birds of course with black feather and all– but at a price!
Great Witchingham Hall is still the centre the Bernard Matthews turkey empire and it is just down the road from my home. The turkey sheds at Weston Longville (called Attlebridge) and the old World War II American Airfield on which they stand are even closer to home. I must live very near the centre of the turkey trade, but you seldom see a bird. They are bred in artificial light and never emerge into the daylight, except perhaps to be packed into crates and taken off for slaughter.
I hope you enjoy your Christmas turkey!
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