In Watton at Stone ?

By Terry Askew

Looking towards Watton Place, with part of the fish factory building in the fore-ground.
Terry Askew
A much earlier photograph of Watton Place - 1912
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
Showing re-development of the site
Terry Askew

Moving into Watton over twenty years ago, I became aware of references to a “fish factory” having been in the village but since closed down, and the site redeveloped for housing.

The subject came up again recently, and I am grateful to a Melvyn Holt for letting me have a potted history of the enterprise, in which he was involved as a director all those years ago.

The story starts in 1958, when the company of Holden Du Cros Ltd. commenced trading in the City of London as importers and exporters of of food products. One of its customers was GW Holt & Sons who were fish smokers based in London’s East End. In 1960 Holden Du Cros commenced production of sliced smoked salmon products in Lewisham and GW Holden were commissioned to smoke salmon for them.

Then a development occurred which changed everything – in 1962 London became a smokeless zone, in order to deal with the chronic smoke and pollution problems which existed then. A company decision was then made to combine both operations with a London office and to re-locate production outside London.

After considering sites in various counties Watton at Stone was chosen, and premises comprising cold storage units and a small kiln for ham smoking were created primarily by converting existing farm buildings.The Watton premises were re-licensed for fish smoking and some of the units were converted into production rooms and 10 brick built kilns -“smokeholes” – were built in the open yard.

The premises were gradually expanded, rebuilt, equipped and modernised, with further kilns added between 1967 and 1985. This expansion took them into adjacent farm yards and the farmhouse known as Watton Place. This took the employee numbers to around 50 and the enterprise becoming one of the largest producers of smoked salmon in the UK.

In addition to catering for demand in the UK, products were exported to Europe, primarily France and Germany, and also to South Africa and Australia, which earned the company the Queens Award for Industry. Another source of business for the company in the early days was the export of venison and game obtained from estates in Scotland.

In the late 80’s things began to change in the market with the appearance of farmed salmon from Norway and Scotland, combined with large corporations using modern smoking methods, challenging the company’s specialisation in wild stocks.

Various measures were undertaken in the face of this competition including mergers, reconstruction, and relocation of the business away from Watton at Stone, where the premises were closed in March 1990 and subsequently demolished and redeveloped for housing.

The rest of the group, or corporation, finally ceased trading in 1992. 




This page was added on 07/12/2014.

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  • I am sure that when you ask for our comment, you probably didn’t mean what I have written. I was 20 years old at the time, and my father was 52.

    I noticed the title to this article is a Fish Smokery. I feel that a more appropriate title would be a Fishy Smokery! In 1985 my father and I were employed to install a Public address system in the Salmon Factory. For hygiene and practically we worked at weekends, so that the factory was empty. We had to link the sound system from the house, which was the administration building, across the yard to the factory building. We would have our breaks in the house and help ourselves to tea and coffee. On our first day, which was a sunny Saturday afternoon. I saw a lady walk out of the front door, which was a porch entrance on the back of the house. She walked passed the house and out of the then gate. She didn’t look at me, but I saw here very clearly. I was standing at the upstairs window of the factory, looking down to the house. I’m guessing that I was about 25metres away. The following day, Sunday night, we had to set the alarm as we were leaving. To cut a long story short; three times I had to go back into the building, to close the same door, which would not open on its own, as it had a gate-like latch that had to be lifted. We promptly left that night with the buzzer going, as the alarm would not set. The following weekend, whilst dad and I were making coffee in the house; a lady called out, ‘Is that you Erwin!’ My father replied by calling out ‘Hello, hello!’ but there was no reply. So we promptly left the house and disappeared into the factory. When we used the toilet facilities, which were in the house, we could hear people walking and moving around on wooden floors in the neighbouring room. Lots went on for three weekends. It was very obvious that people were living there. As a result of this, I remember that my father was irritated, as he felt that we should have been told. We didn’t want to intrude on anyone living there. Anyway, when we handed the job over to the director, my father said to the director that he should have told us that people were living in the house. On hearing this the director stopped walking and turned around to face us. I remember that he had a slight grin on his face, as he said that nobody lives here. The hairs on my back instantly stood up, but I remember that I was a little angry. This didn’t make sense, it was impossible. Then I remembered about the lady I saw on my first day, as she walked out of the door porch-way at the back of the house. ‘Come with me!’ the director said, as he took me to the inside of the doorway. It was clear that the door hadn’t been opened for many years, as paint had bridged the opening gap around the door. At that point I couldn’t be sure that I saw the door open, because I was looking down from the first floor of the factory, but she definitely walked out of the porch and across the back of the house. When I was asked later, what was she wearing, I felt stupid that I didn’t think it was odd at the time. She was wearing a long black dress, with a black veil over her head. As a young boy, I was an altar server. It was common during the 70’s for me to see women dressed this way whilst attending church services. But who was Erwin? The director, at the time was not surprised by our experience. He said all the staff in the office had experienced things too. There must be loads of stories from this house.

    By Peter Hearn (08/08/2023)