Friday 6 February 2009

Brockley rhubarb

Like Deptford, Brockley had market gardens, and their most famous produce was giant Victoria rhubarb. Joseph Myatt, owner of Manor Farm, was England's first commercial rhubarb grower. (Another speciality was strawberries, and he held an annual strawberry tea for local people).

How did Brockley's rhubarb get so large? The unsavoury secret was 'night soil'. Nothing to do with nocturnal earth, this was a euphemism for human waste. In the days before flush toilets and Bazalgette's sewage system, night soil men were paid by householders to empty their cesspits and then sold the contents to farms around London as fertiliser. Since Victoria rhubarb prefers a rich soil, this form of fertiliser worked well. However, in the mid-nineteenth century, both changes in sewage disposal and the arrival of the railway and residential developments saw the end of large-scale rhubarb cultivation in Brockley.

If you fancy recreating this part of South-East London's past, Victoria rhubarb seeds or crowns are readily available. However, you will need to use a more conventional form of manure: use of human waste is now known to pose health risks, as well as offending the neighbours!

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