Back to a time when Worthing was world famous for its fruit and vegetables

Newcomers to Worthing would never know the town was once world famous for its tomatoes and other crops, as now nothing remains of what was a thriving glasshouse industry.

Wednesday, 24th March 2021, 3:03 pm
Updated Thursday, 25th March 2021, 9:43 am

The produce of the pioneers was in great demand in the home markets, on the Continent and in the United States, with tomatoes, grapes, chrysanthemums and other flowers, mushrooms, peaches, nectarines and early salad lettuce being the main crops.

The loss of the nurseries to housing began in the 1930s, and the history of the industry was really rather neglected until keen gardener Malcolm Linfield began detailed research and started a collection of photographs.

He put out an appeal in the Worthing Herald in 2009 and said: “In its heyday, there were acres of glass in the town and hundreds of jobs depended on the Worthing growers. The scarcity of photos is quite astonishing – some exist for the Frampton and Linfield nurseries, and Fuller’s Vineries in Lancing, but there are very few in local archives of the dozens of other firms which flourished from the boom years of the 1880s. Many of these businesses were quite substantial.”

Tomatoes at Highfield Nursery in the 1930s

That article was spotted only recently by John Dover from Southampton, who had been investigating the life and work of organ builder Heber Caplin Sims and in following up the lives of some of his descendants, came across his grandsons, Edgar Wallace Sims and Reginald Frederick Sims, brothers who were known for their involvement in nurseries in Worthing.

John has been able to provide some of his detailed research to Malcolm, who has started work on a book about the history of Worthing’s glasshouse industry and has already produced articles for the journal of West Sussex Archives Society.

Malcolm said: “I can’t believe it was so long ago I sent that letter to the Herald! Over the years, I have interviewed many people with family connections to the old industry and have collected a lot of useful information and quite a few photographs.”

John discovered Edgar and Reginald Sims were born in Southampton but later became involved in the flower, fruit and vegetable industry in Worthing, where they had moved with their mother Ada Selina Sims following the death of their father, organ builder William Caplin Sims.

Tomatoes being picked at St Aubyn's Nurseries in South Farm Road, Worthing

Ada was the first cousin of Henry William Hollis, a pioneer of the Worthing glasshouse industry, having established St Aubyn’s Nurseries in South Farm Road, Worthing, in 1888.

Mr Hollis died after a heart attack on September 18, 1941, at the age of 81. Until then, he had been in his usual good health and just a week or so before his death, he was personally supervising the work on his nurseries.

Including the Oxford and Cambridge nurseries in Northcourt Road, which he acquired a few years after starting St Aubyn’s Nurseries, Mr Hollis had at one time about 60 houses covering nearly five-and-a-half acres of ground, three of them covered in glasshouses.

Quite a large proportion of his grapes used to go to Southampton for consumption on the Transatlantic liners to and from New York. But carnations and orchids were perhaps what he was best known for, and his collection of orchids was one of the largest grown for market in the country.

Grapes and mushrooms at AG Linfield's nursery in Ham Road, Worthing, in 1893

Malcolm said Mr Hollis spent some time in Chelsea at the nursery of William Bull, an expert flower grower, and it was here that he learned about growing orchids under glass.

Mr Hollis was buried at Broadwater Cemetery and there was strong representation from agricultural and horticultural firms and associations in and around Worthing at his funeral.

Edgar and Reginald took over the nurseries in South Farm Road and when the business’s 60th anniversary was celebrated in 1948, it was noted St Aubyn’s was ‘the home of intensive horticulture under glass’ and had become one of the best known enterprises of its kind in the district.

At one point, some 90 tons of tomatoes and well over 75,000 head of lettuce were produced, in addition to the permitted quantity of flowers.

George White picking peaches at Fuller's nurseries in Lancing in the 1930s

Malcolm said: “I was very lucky to meet Edgar Sims’ daughter many years ago and she was able to supply me with some photos of the old nursery and provide some recollections.

“When he decided to close the business in the mid-1950s, her father was very disappointed that he was unable to sell the largest part of the nursery for building development as it had a compulsory purchase order on it to provide school playing fields. He therefore received a fraction of what it could have fetched.”

Edgar Sims in one of his glasshouses
A panoramic view of some of Henry William Hollis' glasshouses in Worthing
Thinning the bunches of grapes at AG Linfield’s Bridge Nurseries, near Ham Bridge, East Worthing, around 1915