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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Guernsey

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Cooking the earth

Soil steaming
Soil steaming
© Mr G Nicholson
An acquired taste

Although steaming was the work of relatively few men, everyone on the island would have known when steaming was under way – not least because of the smell. This “nutty”, clean smell of cooked earth pervaded the island at steaming time, but it was an acquired taste. One ex-grower, Tom, remembers it as a pleasant smell, but his wife, who was not from Guernsey, hated it – to her it was just a “horrible laundry smell”!

The practice of soil steaming may seem fairly unsophisticated to us today, in our high-tech world of new-fangled technologies and chemical treatments, but it remained the main method of soil sterilisation in Guernsey until relatively recently. Soil steaming continued to be a feature of Guernsey life until the late 1970s, when developments in technology - particularly the introduction of peat modules which could be replaced each year - rendered it unnecessary. Only then did the steaming men and their loco-type boilers become an increasingly rare sight on the island.

Harbour c 1905-10
Baskets of tomatoes waiting to be shipped at St Peter Port
© The Peter Brehaut Collection
Gone but not forgotten

By the 1970s, the tomato industry itself was also on the decline. Increased competition from Dutch producers, and changes in the British railway system, made the export of tomatoes less profitable, and Guernsey’s growers were forced to diversify to survive. The hey-day of the Guernsey Tom was over. Although some tomatoes continued to be grown on the island alongside newer crops like peppers, aubergines and even kiwis, it was nothing to compare to the millions once exported from the island every year. But the “Guernsey Tom” still lives on in popular memory, as does the figure of the “steaming man”, bent over in his back-breaking work. The steaming men may be gone, but they are not forgotten.


Many thanks to Peter Brehaut for his help with sourcing images.

Thanks also to Guernsey Museums & Galleries for their help in providing information.

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