Claytons & Rhubarb in Australia

Its history as seen by a 4th generation Australian rhubarb breeder/grower.

Samuel Clayton was born 19 August 1815 in Wakefield Yorkshire England. Bit of a sad start to this story. Samuel's father died before he was born and his mother died when Samuel was 6 months old. Later, in 1852 Samuel and his eldest son Richard came to Melbourne Australia on the sailing ship "Thorwaldsen" settling in the Moorabbin area where he was joined by his wife and some of his children in 1858. The Claytons were one of the first market gardeners in that area, growing a small amount of rhubarb amongst other things, including a lucrative vegetable seed business. Early local feed and grain stores advertised his collection of vegetable seeds but rhubarb was not mentioned, as dividing crowns was the way to go then. Coming from Wakefield England the home of rhubarb, and as "Victoria" rhubarb was named in 1837, it is possible that Samuel brought rhubarb crowns with him.

One of Samuel's sons was William Henry Clayton, my father's father. William purchased land in Dalgety Rd Beaumaris where he operated a mixed farm on very sandy soil. Fruit trees, poultry, milking cows, and of course vegetables including rhubarb. Water was scarce, only a windmill and a couple of galvanised tanks fed from a shallow well. No spare water for commercial irrigation. Only live stock, seedlings and the house vegetable garden could be watered. Things like winter cabbages could be transplanted out in the late summer, watered from a bucket to set them and then left dry until the autumn rains came, and they thrived. Now to rhubarb. Fruit was abundant, so there was little demand for summer rhubarb. The rhubarb he grew must have been winter deciduous "Victoria", "Prince Albert", or similar, although there is no record of it. Market Gardeners kept diaries, mostly about the weather and to keep records of when they sowed various crops so they could get it right next year. Spasmodic records of rhubarb occur in these diaries, with the earliest in 1865 of planting cabbages near the rhubarb, with more records in June 1867 and June 1868 of digging rhubarb up. Nothing indicates it was an unusual or new crop.

In the 1880's Mr Topp of Buninyong Victoria Australia bred a variety called "Topp's Winter". This was the world's first winter growing rhubarb which also had crimson stalks and a fine flavour. Unfortunately the stalks were thin, and it had a tendency to run to seed. But this was what was needed, a winter rhubarb! "Topp's Winter" made its way to New Zealand from where the genius American plant breeder Luther Burbank imported live plants by sailing ship into America. The first two or three consignments died on board ship, but eventually in about 1892, he obtained about half a dozen small roots. He multiplied the stock, collected the seed, raised it, and it all grew with winter growing characteristics, although each plant differing from the other. The best individuals were selected each season, and by 1st November 1900, Burbank was able to offer these as a ground breaking new vegetable – "The Australian Crimson Winter Rhubarb". Coincidentally, the same variety was imported into England from Australia about the same time, and improved in much the same way by English seedsmen, and exhibited in London in 1903 as "Sutton's Crimson Winter Rhubarb" and "Topp's Winter Rhubarb". "Burbank's Giant Winter Rhubarb" was released in 1905, followed in 1906 by "Burbank's Wonder Winter".

William Clayton had gotten hold of a perennial winter growing type from somewhere. This type, having no irrigation water, consequently was almost summer deciduous. Its leaves shrivelled to a tobacco-like appearance. It only sprang to life when the autumn rains started, normally about April. He took his crops to the "Victoria Market" by horse and wagon, 25 kilometres away, a journey of at least 6/7 hours each way. The drivers often slept with the horse just plodding along through the night, as it knew the way. Once he was put in jail for a few hours until the magistrate convened his court and fined him for having squeaky brakes on his wagon. As rhubarb sales gradually picked up over the years the well was deepened, and low pressure sprinklers with long rotating arms were employed to give rhubarb an early start to the winter growing. If you wanted to buy one of these sprinklers you asked your ironmonger for a "Gay", enough said. This rhubarb was called "Clayton's Barbed Wire" because of its toughness, green stalks in the summer, going red as the winter progressed. This clone could still be found on market gardens until the 1960's.

Finally cheap piped, pressurised water came to the farm, and "Ruby Red" could be grown all year round. This rhubarb can still be found on market gardens today. It has long red stems, and is very prone to leaf spotting caused by downy mildew. A reliable cropper, able to be picked all year round, this was the mainstay of my father's rhubarb farm. The first manure the family used was horse stable manure, reasonably plentiful, but a lot of work to cart it. When you took your crop to market 5/6 hours away you also picked up a load of manure in Melbourne to bring home. So - leave home 8 o'clock at night, drive 5/6 hours to market, sell your vegetables before dawn, shovel on 2/3 tons horse manure from nearby stables, drive home 5/6 hours, unload the manure or spread it - all in all a good day’s work. Highly sought after seaweed was picked up on bayside beaches by the wagon load after storms for fertilising the soil. In the 1960's ruts where the wagon wheels had cut through the soft sandstone at Rickett's Point, Beaumaris could still be seen. About 1865/1870 American 13 inch Oliver single furrow ploughs were imported into Australia. Readily available, easy to pull, cheap, with replaceable parts, and very easy to use, these were perfect for the sandy soil that market gardeners loved. This plough was a technological breakthrough and enabled farmers to farm larger areas. It was claimed that 2 acres per day could be ploughed by one man and one horse using this plough.

The next big development came at the end of WW1, motorized transport became available. The Claytons purchased a solid tyre 1927 Vulcan truck, later converted to pneumatic tyres. Capable of carrying 4 tons and travelling at 45mph with a full load, it proved incredibly reliable. Rex (my father) often carted firewood from Bacchus Marsh. Coming up from the gorge the truck was too high geared in 1st gear to make it, so Rex used the reverse gear and backed all the way up, about 2 miles. The truck was commandeered by the Australian army at the start of WW11 to help the war effort.

The advent of motorized transport brought another problem. The vast quantities of free stable manure vanished, along with the thousands of draft horses that produced it, as trucks took over their transport jobs. Ironically these thousands of magnificent draft horses were slaughtered and made into "blood and bone" fertilizer which was used by the market gardeners to nourish their crops, including rhubarb. Fowl manure was now the standard method of fertilizing rhubarb along with a booster of blood and bone. Fowl manure was much more concentrated than stable manure, but as it was in short supply it had to be purchased. In fact it was a lucrative cash sideline for the poultry farmers, who bolstered up their manure with frequent additions of straw to increase the quantity. The method to fertilize the rhubarb was to plough a furrow away from the row or land of crowns, pour in the fowl manure, and then plough the soil back up to them. Because of the high nitrogen content of the fowl manure, inevitably the rhubarb would then get what the farmers called "The Pox" or downy mildew. This is a devastating fungal disease, which destroys the green leaves and makes the rhubarb unsaleable. Another problem was that 3 or 4 years after planting, no matter how much fertilizer was applied, the crowns would lose their vigour, waste away, and no longer produce a worthwhile crop. "Rex, the rhubarb king", with his years of rhubarb growing experience, realized that rhubarb grew best in new ground. Not newly cleared native bush, but old derelict farms - cow, poultry, orchard etc. The rougher, more neglected, and overgrown the better. Rex would rent these old farms, clean them up, and plant rhubarb. It would thrive for 3 or 4 years before its vigour would wane, then it was time to move on once again. Rex purchased 35 acres at Braeside Victoria; here rhubarb culture was finetuned. By 1935 rhubarb sales were booming, and more and more land was brought into production. Then WW11 broke out. Market gardeners were forbidden to enlist, having to supply the army and public with vegetables at fixed low prices. By 1940 there was an insatiable demand for rhubarb, both by the army and the public. However, most market gardeners had their trucks confiscated by the army. Times were tough with no truck. Rex only had an old Nash car and he took loads to market with the rhubarb tied to the running boards. Many things were in short supply or severely rationed including petrol [no diesel motors then]. It was extremely difficult for the market gardeners to get enough to run their vehicles, until the enterprising local mechanics illegally modified the engines to run on the plentiful unwanted kerosene. The army needed vegetables, so one day they rang up and said "there's a new 5 ton truck at the wharf for you - just paint it so nobody knows it came from the army". Life was good once more. Rhubarb bunches at this time were sold, as was most produce, in dozens [12]. Two or three times a week loads of 150 to 200 dozen were taken to market. On the 20th July 1940, there is a record of 408 dozen, or 4896 bunches taken by Rex on one load to market. It was sold for £37.60 [$75.20] This equates to less than 2 cents per bunch. The 2014 price of rhubarb is about 500 cents or $5 per bunch. Weekly the army bought rhubarb in large sack bags of about 50 kilos weight, and 100 bags at a time. The price was equivalent to $1 a bag, or $100 for each load. This was an enormous boost to the finances, as wages for an experienced man at this time was equivalent to $3.50 per week.

Well WW11 ended and life slowly returned to normal, although rationing continued for many years, owing to Australia's commitment to help Great Britain. Then things slowed down a bit and the army stopped ordering rhubarb. But life was good until disaster struck. The government compulsorily acquired the Braeside property to build Moorabbin airport. So little money was given in compensation for Rex's 35 developed acres that he could only afford 13 undeveloped acres further out at Dingley. Life wasn't so good. 13 acres was just not enough land to make rhubarb viable. In 1957 Rex's 16 year old son Colin [the author] started working for his father. He modernized the farm, introduced tractors, high pressure irrigation, and modern crops that the waves of immigrants wanted. He ploughed in the rhubarb, totally destroying it. And that was that, or was it?

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