Bernard Matthews. Great Witchingham Hall, his first turkey farm, is in the background.
This podcast is about turkeys. I don’t mean the country Turkey, of course. I mean the big birds that many people eat at Christmas. There is a picture on the website if you want to know what a turkey looks like.
A few days ago, the newspapers reported that a man named Bernard Matthews had died. He was 80 years old, and he was the biggest turkey farmer in Britain, and possibly in the world.
There is an English expression “a self-made man”. A “self-made man” is someone who starts with nothing and goes on to make a lot of money, or to achieve a lot in some other way, entirely through hard work and enterprise. Bernard Matthews was a “self-made man.” He left school when he was 16 years old, without any formal qualifications. When he was 20, he bought some turkey eggs in a market, and a second-hand incubator. (An incubator is a device for keeping eggs warm, so that the little birds inside them can hatch.) His career in turkey farming had begun. A few years later, his business had grown and he needed a bigger space to keep his turkeys. He bought an old mansion house, Great Witchingham Hall. It was cheap because it was in very bad repair. He and his wife lived in two of the rooms of this enormous house. The turkeys lived in all the other rooms.
This is what a turkey looks like!
Most families in Britain eat turkey on Christmas day (and cold turkey for about two weeks afterwards!) You may think that this is an old tradition, but it is not. Sixty years ago, turkey was a luxury which only a few people could afford. It was Bernard Matthews who made cheap, frozen turkeys available for ordinary families, and persuaded people to buy them. Then he persuaded them that turkey was not just for Christmas, but for any time of the year. His company started to make other products containing turkey meat, and persuaded people to buy them as well. He became famous by appearing in the TV advertisements for his products. There is a link to one of these advertisements on the website. He told us that his turkey was “bootifull, really bootifull”. (“Bootifull” is how you say “beautiful” in Norfolk, which is where Bernard Matthews lived). People loved his TV adverts, and sales of Bernard Matthews’ turkeys went higher and higher. Today, about one third of all the turkeys sold in Britain are Bernard Matthews’ “bootifull” turkeys. By the time he died, Bernard Matthews was a very wealthy man; and today his company provides work for several thousand people.
Bernard Matthews transformed turkey from a luxury which only a few people could enjoy into a food for everyone. Of course, he had to cut the costs of turkey farming, and find ways of rearing turkeys in huge numbers. He perfected what we call “factory farming” of turkeys in which thousands of birds are kept in huge sheds. He bought several old military airfields, and covered them with turkey sheds. He also perfected ways of turning turkey meat into “convenience foods” for busy people.
In recent years, people have begun to criticise “factory farming” methods. They say that the birds are overcrowded and kept in near-darkness; and that they do little except eat and put on weight, until they are about six months old, when they are taken to be slaughtered. The birds require large doses of antibiotics and other medicines, because they are so crowded. Some of these chemicals remain in the turkey meat, and critics say that this is dangerous for human health. Processed turkey products, like other “fast foods”, often contain water, added chemicals and low-grade meat. They may be cheap, critics say, but they have low value as food, and help to make people overweight.
So, what do you think? Are Bernard Matthews’ turkeys really “bootifull”? Leave your comments on the website.
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