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South Downs Heritage Centre

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15th August 2016

Trug making is currently on the Heritage Craft Association red list as almost extinct. Trugs have been produced for more than 200 years and it would be devastating if this craft was lost forever.

Sussex Trug makers are trying to establish a Sussex Trug Heritage & Craft Centre and are looking for apprentices to train up in the industry. An apprentice trug maker only becomes fully qualified once they are proficient enough to make all 8 types of Garden trug, as well as all other types of trug.

It takes at least five years to become a Master Trug Maker but there is a shortage of young people entering the trade, which may result in this craft being lost to future generations forever.

Visit the Museum’s trug making display to see how trugs are traditionally made. It all started with Thomas Smith of Herstmonceux.

A Brief History of the Sussex Trug

Way back in the heydays of the 1820’s, just before Queen Victoria ascended to the English throne, a man of Sussex, one Thomas Smith of Herstmonceux, made a decision about his life that was to have a profound effect on Sussex and the World. He invented the Sussex Trug! Taking an ancient idea dating back to Anglo Saxon times, Thomas redesigned the historic “trog” and in so doing he created a part of the English gardening scene that is now world famous!   
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. 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.

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.

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.


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The South Downs Heritage Centre is located at South Downs Nurseries, part of the Tates of Sussex Garden Centre Group