Sunday, 29 April 2012

THIS IS A LONG-DELAYED PHOTO-ESSAY from those glorious warm March days when we all thought that Spring had sprung, and there was a clear run-in to the long summer days of pavements you could fry an egg on, nose-to-tail traffic trying to get to the coast, and endless nights in the garden with cold beer, swifts wheeling in the dusk sky, and the smell of meat on the barbecue. This is written on a dank, cold, and utterly vile April night with disastrous weather yet to come, and summer so far out of sight that it may never happen. 






Sunday, 22 April 2012

WISBECH IS HAUNTED BY THE GHOSTS OF DEAD PUBS. Here a few where the buildings still survive. There are as many again that have been demolished. The text is taken from Arthur Oldham's book, 'The Inns and Taverns of Wisbech.

THE BIRD IN HAND, North Brink."Thomas Bulman was there in 1846, and kept it until October 16th 1866. Mr Bulman was a retail coal merchant, and every year three or four 'billy-boys' came up the river and were unloaded there, the coal being stored at the back of the inn.The inn was the background of a tragedy in 1852, when on June 4th an inquest was held within its walls into the death of a Mr Wright, of Leverington, aged 77, who was in a conversation with a Mr Whitley of Barton Lane, and whilst so engaged fell to the ground and shortly afterwards expired. A verdict of 'Died By The Visitation Of God' was returned. In 1867, the landlord, Thomas Thacker was charged with assaulting his step-daughter, Fanny Webster. It was a brutal assault, and he was fined twenty-eight shillings."


THE BRIDGE, Norwich Road. "It was kept in 1850 by George Barnes. There was also a side entrance from Wellington Terrace, on the canal"


THE ELEPHANT AND CASTLE, North Street. "In 1846 it was occupied by Edward Shacklock. In June 1869, a very rough looking character named Joseph Stafford, a labourer, lodging at the Elephant and castle, was brought up, charged with being found on the enclosed premises of Mr John Curtis, with felonious intent."


THE ENGINEERS TAVERN, Victoria Street. "This tavern dates from the early days of the Great Eastern Railway. The Conservative Club, now at Hill Street is said to have commenced in The Engineers Tavern."

THE FERRY HOUSE, or FERRY BOAT, Norfolk Street. "The river in Wisbech, in olden times took a very different course from that taken by it now. It was known as 'The Ferry House' as far back as 1874, and alternatively has been called 'The Ferry Boat up to the present time."


THE RAILWAY TAVERN, Victoria Road. "Situated near Wisbech East Passenger Station, it has done a steady trade since Job Whitlock was landlord in 1860. There were originally two small cottages on the site of the present tavern. At the rear of the premises can still be seen the remnants of a skittle alley. William Bennett, the present tenant, has been at the Tavern since October 1924."

THE RUTLAND ARMS, Lynn Road. "From here, in 1845, departed passengers and goods by packet boat for Ely, every Saturday, returning on Thursdays. On a Friday in 1880, a Coroner's Inquest was held in the building, into the death of Henry Elget, who had hanged himself in the hayloft."

THE SHIP, Market Place."Thomas Thompson was landlord in 1792. William Hides became landlord in December 1853. In April 1858 he respectfully informed his friends, and the general public, that he had, at considerable expense, engaged for one evening only, on Monday April 12th, 'A Galaxy of Novel, Curious, Comic, Musical and Ventriloquist Talent entitled HOFFMAN'S UNIQUE ENTERTAINMENT, which was patronised by Roralty, Nobility, Clergy and Gentry, comprising Hoffman's Organo-phonic Band, or Human Voice Orchestra."

THE UNICORN, West Street. "It has been occupied for a long while, the earliest tenant known was the widow of William Terry, who kept the inn in 1792."


THE VINE, Old Market. "This was one of four most important coaching inns in the town. In 1816, Mr J.C. Curwin, a leading solicitor and Town Clerk of Wisbech was accustomed to spend convivial evenings at 'The Vine'. On a certain Saturday night he joined others in drinking many shilling glasses of punch. He lost consciousness (his wisdom having left him long before) and on awakening, he made the painful discovery that his queue, or pigtail, had been shorn from his head. Rewards were offered, but failed to discover the perpetrator of the outrage, and the offender escaped detection."


Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name.

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire."

THAT IS, PERHAPS, THE MOST FAMOUS ENGLISH POEM ABOUT RAILWAYS. It was written by Edward Thomas, a young poet who died on the Western Front in 1917. And yet, it isn't really about railways, and certainly has no connection with Wisbech, but sums up simply and directly what it was about rural railways that bound us all together and, in the days when most villages had a school, a church, a pub and a station, made us all part of the same body.

EDWARD THOMAS was buried in Agny Military Cemetery, in France.

WE DO HAVE A RAILWAY REVIVAL GROUP IN WISBECH, but to be honest, it is in intensive care, the graph of its vital signsis close to flatlining, and the anxious relatives have already made contact with the undertakers.

"It's passed on! This railway line is no more! It has ceased to be! It's expired and gone to meet its maker! It's a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! Its metabolic processes are now 'istory! It's off the twig! It's kicked the bucket, it's shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-RAILWAY LINE!!

THAT BEING SAID, Pickwick defers to no-one in his affection and longing for the lovely, languid, long-lost days of meandering steam railways, half-empty trains and lonely stations. When Pickwick were nowt but a lad, he would spend long summer days travelling up and down the  railways of Lincolnshire, courtesy of a Five Shilling (that's 25p to you…) rail Runabout ticket. It was a substantial rectangle of stiff blue card, with a map printed on one side, showing the rail routes available at the time. Hair Brylcreamed down, with a school satchel full of sandwiches, Ian Allen railway books and freshly sharpened pencils, Pickwick would set off with his friends, usually on the 8.07am train from Louth to Peterborough (North)
IT WAS ON THESE LONG, SOOTY, RATTLING, CLATTERING DAYS that Pickwick's passion for railways smouldered and flamed. And the supreme irony? One of his teachers was a perfectly decent but dull chemist called Ian Beeching. Whose brother……..was Beelzebub, Satan, The Arch-Fiend, The Great Defiler, Spawn of the Devil, The Son of Perdition, Belial, Baphomet, The Angel of Death…..Dr Richard Beeching. Beeching's mailed fist smashed down on Britain's ailing rail network and ripped out its heart.

WISBECH FELT THE FULL FORCE OF BEECHING'S AXE. First the tramway, and then anything resembling a passenger link to anywhere was closed. Anything that might resemble 'the built environment' connected to the railways was flattened and sold to developers. The line to March was kept open, but only to allow a dwindling goods traffic to operate between the Wisbech food processing factories and the rest of the rail network.
AND NOW, WHAT REMAINS? A festering, overgrown, rusted and partially tarmac covered permanent way that runs from somewhere within the bowels of Nestle Purina, and ends someway short of March station. Other than that, one has to rely on the brilliant enthusiasm and guardianship of people like Andrew Ingram, with his books and photographs, and one's own sense of landscape and feeling for how the past still lives and breathes around us.

THE TRAMWAY and the line to Watlington crossed Elm Road near the site of the Fire Station. The Harbour line shared the same crossing as the Watlington line, and wound its way north along the edge of Ramnoth Road. All that is left is the contours and shape of the landscape. The bend in the road is still there, as is the slight gradient.

A MAP FROM THE 1900s and an adapted satellite photo show how the railway lines fitted into the landscape.

IN ANOTHER 'THEN AND NOW' COMPARISON the only anchor point is the little railway cottage beside the Watlington line. It still stands on Ramnoth Road, but has been much changed over the years. Of the identical cottage which stood by the tramway on Elm Road, there is no trace.

THERE WILL BE NO ROLLING BACK OF THE YEARS, no return to a Golden Age, no opening of stations, no huffing and puffing as the 6.45 train to March chuffs off into the setting sun on a warm May evening. Instead there will be the hiss and roar of hatchbacks as they edge their way along roads laid over the ghost-lines of railways and canals. No piece of music better sums up this sadness than this song by Flanders and Swann - The Slow Train.


"Millers Dale for Tideswell, Kirby Muxloe,  Mow Cop and Scholar Green ….

No more will I go to Blandford Forum and Mortehoe,
On the slow train from Midsummer Norton and Mumby Road,
No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat,
At Chorlton-cum-Hardy and Chester-le-Street.
We won't be meeting again on the slow train.

I'll travel no more from Littleton Badsey to Openshaw,
At Long Stanton I'll stand well clear of the doors no more,
No whitewashed pebbles, no up and no down,
From Thornby Four Crosses to Dunstable Town,
I won't be going again on the slow train.

On the main line and the goods siding, the grass grows high,
At Dog Dyke, Tumby Woodside, and Troublehouse Halt.

The sleepers sleep at Audlem and Ambergate…
No passenger waits on Chittening platform or Cheslyn Hay,
No-one departs, no-one arrives, from Selby to Goole,
From St. Erth to St. Ives,
They all passed out of our lives, on the slow train, on the slow train.

Cockermouth for Buttermere
On the slow train.
Armley Moor, Arram, Pye Hill and Somercotes, on the slow train. Windmill End....."



Friday, 13 April 2012

THERE IS A PSEUDO-SCIENCE called psychogeography. It was defined as far back as 1955 as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals." English writers of our own time,such as Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, have explored it their books about London. In everyday language, it is looking at the streets and buildings of a town or city, and using the imagination to bring out a sense of the people that walked and worked there in the past. For psychogeography to make any sense, you have to believe that the events of the past and the things that people did and said in places over the years leave some kind of impression which can be experienced by modern visitors to those sites.

A practical and visual way of dipping into psychogeography is to construct 'then and now' photographs, where a photo of a building, or scene from, say, 100 years ago, is set alongside a modern photo taken from as close to the original viewpoint as possible. Here are some images of Wisbech pubs as they are now, and as they were many years ago. Firstly, the Duke's Head, in Church Terrace. It is a very old establishment, and was originally a coaching inn.

The Globe is another pub that was certainly in existence in the 1760s, when the first Trade and Commercial gazettes began to be published. It has undergone many name changes, even recently.

In his book 'The Inns and Taverns of Wisbech', Arthur A. Oldham lists over 140 names of pubs. Not all of them were functioning at the same moment in time, but when you read that there were nine different pubs on the Market Place alone, it gives some idea how many different places you could have gone to to get a drink. The Rose and Crown is reckoned to be one of the oldest places in town, but were it still operating, The George might be even older. It was still open when Oldham wrote his book in 1950, and the landlord was Sidney Maurice Height who took over from his father when he was demobbed from the R.A.F.
A pub which is long gone was the Ship Defiance, which stood on North Street. Younger readers will not remember the brewery Steward and Patteson. They were one of the biggest breweries in East Anglia, and had breweries in Norwich, Yarmouth and Ely. They were bought by Watney Mann in the 1960s.

A pub which still trades is The Royal Standard, and it is included here mainly because it gives me an excuse to use another splendid picture borrowed from one of Andrew Ingram's books. It shows the Elm Road canal bridge. Today's blog concludes with a not-so-sly laugh at the expense of a local newspaper and how it covered the story of a fire at The Royal Standard a few years ago. No further comment from your blogger should be necessary - it wasn't even April 1st!. 


Wednesday, 11 April 2012

PICTURE THIS. IT IS A MILD APRIL AFTERNOON IN 1968. A 21 year old Pickwick alights from the train at Wisbech Station, clutching his art portfolio. He has applied for a job as Art Teacher at The Queen's Girls' School. He has travelled from the Midlands by a variety of train connections, and is full of hope. He is nearing the end of his teacher-training course at a pleasant, but undistinguished Training College in Berkshire.

ALAS, POOR PICKWICK! His daubs do not impress the powers-that-be at The Queen's Girls' School, and so he leaves the ancient borough, tail firmly between his legs, the first of many rejections scarring his fragile psyche. Unknown to him, the station was to close to passengers later in the year, and the station would eventually disappear, stamped underfoot by developers, planners and architects with the collective creative ability of a cage full of parrots.

PICKWICK'S LONG BUT UNREMARKABLE CAREER took many turns, but the last throw of his residential dice saw him happily housed in the very town which saw fit to reject him and his artistic skills all those years ago.

THE RAILWAYS ARE ALL BUT GONE. There is a final vestige of a line, rusting and overgrown, which just about links Wisbech to March. Delusional enthusiasts dream of resurrecting it as a tourist railway, taking passengers through the spellbinding natural beauty of……Weasenham Lane, Begdale, Waldersea, Coldham and Chain Bridge, to arrive breathless and overjoyed at Cambridgeshire's answer to Venice - March.

I DIGRESS. When I first moved to Wisbech in the 1990s, there was a National Tyre Services depot on Harecroft Road. It was a decent enough place, staffed by the grimy, blue-overalled, woolly-hatted gentleman who no longer seem to exist in the modern auto accessory trade, with its coffee machine, computers and laser geometry diagnostics. Hanging in the workshop was an aerial photo of the old railway station - Wisbech North - which used to stand behind their premises. Now the tyre depot is long gone, replaced by Airfix Kit houses occupied by Eastern Europeans of dubious intent, or so it seems, from the frequent presence of Cambs Constabulary. The railway used to cross Harecroft Road. Here is a 'then' and 'now' comparison. The older picture was taken from the top of the footbridge, hence the difference in the elevation of the photographs.

IF YOU FOLLOW THE PATH which goes along the back of the Squash Club towards the astroturf, you can still see iron fencing and stonework which belongs to the railway age.

THERE WAS ANOTHER SIGNAL BOX AND CROSSING  just west of the haulage depot on the north side of Leverington Road. The signal box stood more or less where the Anglian Water buildings are, but the bungalow on the other side of the road is still there, although much modernised.

The black and white photographs have been shamelessly stolen from Andrew Ingram's excellent book on railways around Wisbech. I can only say that no animals have been harmed during the preparation of this blog, and if anyone feels that their commercial or intellectual rights have been impinged upon, then I can only direct them to my legal team, Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Runne.

Friday, 6 April 2012

WHEN YOU NEXT GO INTO YOUR CUDDLY, FAMILY-FRIENDLY SUPERMARKET, and pile nicely packaged local fruit and veg into your trolley, and just possibly sniff and 'tutt' because there a few migrants ahead of you in the queue - and yes, I have done it, mea culpa, think about where that food comes from, and at what cost it has been harvested and wrapped. This is a very long transcript, but it comes from a BBC 'Panorama' investigation into the way top supermarkets, farmers and gangmasters exploit migrant workers to shave off a few pence from your checkout bill, and boost their profits.


Tonight Panorama goes undercover to expose the illegal labour producing food 
for some of 
our top supermarkets, exploited and underpaid for us.

It's not far short of a modern day slave trade.

These factories supply food to some of our biggest supermarkets. 
Tonight Panorama reveals 
how they're using illegal labour provided by men known as 'gangmasters'.

The corrupt gangmaster is someone who is there to exploit illegal labour, 
that's what he exists 
for and that's how he makes his living, and they make very large sums of money indeed doing 

This is a story of greed and corruption at one end of the food chain, 
fuelled by a supermarket 
price war at the other.

On our doorstep is exploitation of an immense degree.  Now that's outrageous.  Are we 
seriously saying the supermarkets don't know about that?

It's also a story of how the guilty run rings round the law.

You employ illegal workers, don't you, Mr Stratton.

For each illegal person we employ Mark gets a fine in court of £5000, but we still do it 
because we take the risk.

We've got some of your staff admitting on secret film that you employ illegal workers and 
you think it's a risk worth taking don't you Mr Stratton.

A gangmaster is simply someone who hires out casual labour for seasonal work.  Most operate 
inside the law.  This is a story of those who don't.  Our journey starts here, Victoria Coach 
Station in London.  It's a meeting point for young foreign travellers.  Most are tourists but 
others are here to join the UK's swelling ranks of illegal workers.  We've recruited Sergei, a 
Russian journalist, to join them.  Leaving his British passport behind, he follows the most 
popular trail.  Out of London, eastwards and onto Norfolk and the fens.  Here there's great 
demand for casual labour, shifting and changing according to the seasons, and to the 
supermarkets' desires.  The gangmasters employ teams of casuals and hire them out, but more 
and more are taking on illegal workers.  That's the world Sergei is hoping to enter.  In King's 
Lynn he's told to find a man called Kestus, he's a gangmaster from Lithuania and himself an 
illegal immigrant.  A meeting is arranged between Sergei and a friend of Kestus.

Sergei is going to meet some people here who can get him work.  Now the deal is, he's going 
to have to pay an upfront fee just for an introduction and then he's going to have to pay for 
some forged documents.  So he's paying out before he's even lifted a shovel.

The meeting is at night in the train station.  The man will take him to meet Kestus at a small 
terraced house on the outskirts of town.  Inside are several East European workers.  Kestus, 
their gangmaster, takes Sergei upstairs.  This is where the deal will be done to employ Sergei 
into the UK's invisible workforce.  Without explanation the lights are turned off.

It's £100 for you to work.  Have you got any ID for work permit.

No, I haven't.

It will cost £80.  I will take the £100 and share it with the company.  You will be working 
officially.  I can get you work even tomorrow from 7 o'clock in the morning.

Kestus is acting as a recruiter for this company - FP Personnel.  Sergei will now get work 
through FP.  So he's been signed up.  For £180 he's bought a ticket into the UK's illegal 
labour force.  At FP's offices he's to meet a friend of Kestus called Andris.  He is a direct 
employee of FP and helps organise the illegals into labour gangs.  Kestus is outside waiting 
for the minibuses to take his recruits to work.  The company has some big contracts to supply 
labour to major food factories.  Kestus won't be going with them, he lives off his illegal 
workers.  This is where they've ended up.  

Right, Sergei has just got a shift here.  It's a vegetable factory, and judging by the fact it's got 
ASDA vans outside it's going to be a pretty big vegetable factory.  Now he goes in there 
without any ID or any paperwork whatsoever so, presumably, as soon as he gets to the front 
door they'll just turn him away.  But no, the illegals were taken straight to the work sheds.  
This is a potato producer called Fenmarc.  It's the main supplier for ASDA.  Sergei's job is 
repackaging, changing the 'enjoy by' dates by 24 hours.  We asked ASDA why.  They say 
potatoes have a long shelf life, and sudden changes in demand can mean they want the 
packaging as up to date as possible.  On tonight's shift there are supervisors and casual 
workers, plus the illegals supplied through FP Personnel.  One of them is from Armenia.

ARMENIAN WORKER (translated)
When there is no work at home then it's better to work here.  But there is nothing interesting 
here, apart from money, and even money is not that good.  You can't spend it anyway.  You 
just pay for the flat and for food.

The use of illegal workers at Fenmarc isn't just a one off.  FP Personnel has a contract to 
supply them with labour regularly.  It's worth three quarters of a million pounds a year.  A 
group of illegals who have worked at the potato factory live here in appalling conditions.  
They're Estonians.

You could catch T.B. at this place.  I was sleeping under curtains for three days because of the 
cold.  I took them down in the night.

The flat is filthy with concrete floors.  It was organised by Kestus' friend, Andris, at FP 
Personnel.  Their evening meal is potatoes picked up during a shift.

I would have got the XX out of here the next but I did not have any money at all then.  I even 
had nothing to eat so I was looking for cigarette butts on the street.  With this sort of life one 
can hang himself.

How do you feel when you see that, people in that predicament?

I will admit, I do feel very sorry for them.  They are victims.  The criminals in this, if you like, 
are the gangmasters.  They will cream off for accommodation, for petrol.  They will cream off 
a percentage from the company that they are subcontracting to.  They make a lot of money.  
It's not far short of a modern day slave trade.

The modern day slave master who recruited Sergei lives here, in a King's Lynn council flat.  
Kestus' empire is expanding so quickly he needs more rooms to house the illegals, so he's 
negotiating with a friend.

£700 a month, very cheap, but nothing, not curtain, not this one, not...

The talk is of how many people they can cram into ten rooms.

Thirty people, 30, thirty people, no problem - or 35, I don't know.

Sergei was still waiting for his next work through FP Personnel.  Eight days later he's told to 
wait outside the office at four in the morning.  With him the Estonians from that squalid flat.  
No one has been told where they're going or what the work is.  Four hours later the illegals 
find themselves in Essex.  The noise from the factory makes them uneasy.  Whilst they wait 
they fill in attendance sheets for FP Personnel.  They'd been promised £4.50 an hour before 
setting off.  Now they learn it'll be a lot less, and they don't like the look of the work.  The 
van driver from FP Personnel shows them what to do.  The company, Kelly's Chickens, 
doesn't ask anyone for proof of their status.  One of the group here is an ex-police officer from 
Estonia.  The illegals are mixed in with the supervisors and the casual labour.

Listen, have they also told you it's £4 an hour?

£4.50 an hour but now it turns out it's going to be nothing.  How much can we do?  Thirty 
chickens minus £4 for the van, then FP takes £10 a week.  We are XX over.

Working for Kelly's should have a certain kudos.  It supplies chickens to Harrods.

Right, so here you are, Kelly's chicken.  It's been processed for a factory that used illegal 
labour and it's ended up here on the shelves at Harrods.  So at this end of the food chain 
you've got some of the most privileged shoppers in the country, at the other end you've got 
illegal labour, trapped, exploited and scraping around for enough money to eat.  It's pay day 
back at FP Personnel.  For that potato shift at Fenmarc Sergei gets £29.  What about the 
chickens?  Well, after rising at 4 and returning home at 9 in the evening, Sergei gets just 
£5.80.  So ten days after being taken on through FP Personnel the money he has earned still 
doesn't cover the introduction fee paid, and there is no pay slip, so no record of tax or national 
insurance.  But there's another type of paperwork which Sergei's gangmaster is keen on - 
forged documents.  Sergei has already paid for his when he was first recruited.  This is the 
character who is going to provide them, another friend of Kestus.  He's worried about being 
spotted by CCTV.

We've got security cameras behind us.

Camera?  Really?


What, really, a camera?

The whole time is security cameras.

The document is a forged Home Office paper which says Sergei is seeking political asylum.  
In effect it gives him the right to work in the UK.  Supplying forged papers is a serious 
offence.  It carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in gaol.  To the untrained eye it looks 
genuine.  Other poorer forgeries have even been found at car boot sales in the Norfolk area, 
but this one won't fool the experts.

This is by far the most common of the forged forms we're encountering and the scale is huge.  
The cost of them, depending on the quality and the forger they've come from, could be 
anything from £150 to £250.

Talk us through how good you think this particular forgery is.

The quality of this one is fairly good.  I mean the paper feels about right, the colour is right.  
Most of the things that should be there are there.  There are a few safeguards the Home Office 
put on these so that you can detect when they are forgeries and those things are of course 

So, Sergei takes it back to Kestus' friend, Andris, the man from FP Personnel.  He thinks it's a 
poor forgery too, but knows someone who can sort out a better one for more money.

You see, these dates are all wobbly.  They shouldn't be like that.  The dates on the stamp 
should be straight.

Rudaca said that maybe you can help with that.

Well, I don't know.  I have to make a phone call about it.  I don't personally put them together 
myself, but it will cost you again because nobody will do it for nothing.  All right then.  Call 
me on Sunday and I will tell you when I am going to you.  You need Wellingtons because 
you'll be on the fields.

I'll borrow.  Bye.

Then there's a blow for Andris.  We hear that his friend, Kestus, the gangmaster, has been 
arrested for assault.  The police found he was using a false name and lying about where he 
came from.  He's deported back to Lithuania.  The news hits hard among Kestus' illegal army 
of workers.  Ruta, from Lithuania, is left with nowhere to live.  She'd also lent Kestus a 
thousand pounds.

I have nowhere to live.  You understand?  I have no money to go home.  I could give myself in 
and get deported by the Home Office, but I still have debts.  This life in England has been a 
big failure.

This is the man at the top of the multi million pound business empire which runs FP 
Personnel, he's Preston Andrews.  At the bottom of his empire, the illegal workers.  On the 
surface he's a respectable local businessman with numerous companies and offices opposite 
the police station.  Last year his business empire had a turnover of ten million pounds.   But 
we wanted to talk to him about illegal workers.

Your organisation is employing illegal workers, isn't it.

I don't think so my man, no, I don't think so at all.

Oh it is.  You're notorious for it aren't you?

No, not at all.

You've been doing it for years, employing hundreds of illegal immigrants over the years.  
What are you going to do about it?  We've got secret filming of people in FP Personnel being 
underpaid, being exploited and being illegal workers.

We are not exploiting anyone my man.  The organisation that I am involved with is doing 
everything we possibly can to keep ourselves clean.

This was your opportunity.  Do you want to tell us about it or not?

We are not employing illegal workers, and if you've got any evidence that we've got anyone 
within the system anywhere who is illegal we'd like to know about it, and we're working with 
the Immigration.  I'd like you to know that.

You had some workers picked up only last week.  The Immigration weren't too happy about 

The week before, Immigration discovered 13 illegals at Fishers Frozen Foods.  They were 
employed through FP Personnel.  After meeting Preston Andrews, we sent him details of what 
we'd secretly filmed.  He said staff at FP are made aware of the law and are required to follow 
it.  As for all the wages handed out in FP's offices, he says some gangmasters are just allowed 
to use the office to pay the casuals they've employed, but they're not FP's responsibility.  We 
told Kelly's chickens what we'd found in their factory.  They said they relied on FP Personnel 
to make checks on workers. They also said the people supplied by FP didn't work hard 
enough and they asked them to leave.  They won't be using FP Personnel again.  We then told 
ASDA about their biggest potato supplier and it's use of illegal workers.

We've got secret film of your main potato supplier, Fenmarc, using illegal workers.  So you'll 
be terminating their contract with you, won't you?

We were appalled when we found out that there was an issue with Fenmarc and illegal 
workers, and we took action straight away.  The first thing that we've done is to have an 
independent audit done of their business and that has thrown up some issues.

What were those?

The issues were to do with the fact that Fenmarc were relying too heavily on the employment 
agencies they were using to check paperwork and credentials and so on.

So it sounds as though they were being negligent.  They weren't doing what you expect them 
to do to ensure that you have clean, ethical labour.

Fenmarc were not against this independent audit that we had carried out.  They were not 
meeting our requirements for employing people legally.

Fenmarc says it has never knowingly used illegal workers and will be making further checks 
in the future.  It has now terminated its contract with FP Personnel.  

ASDA is so powerful you could come along and say "We're not going to use you anymore, 
that is your punishment".

Bear in mind that we're talking here about workers being employed by employment agencies, 
casual workers being supplied to a supplier of ASDA.  These aren't ASDA colleagues.  We 
are three steps down the chain here.

The supermarkets may be three times removed from the labour which helps fill their shelves, 
but their power and influence does affect most aspects of the food chain right through to the 

The temptation for gangmasters to employ illegals is that you can pay them less and work 
them harder.  Now the supermarkets of course wouldn't endorse that, but it's their activities 
right at the top of the food chain which can encourage it.  If the supermarkets want more, 
riper, bigger, sooner, the food chain snaps into action.  There's a ripple effect from the shelves 
out to the fields, as there is with the current supermarket price war.

At ASDA we believe there's more to low prices than just special offers....
We can guarantee that we won't be beaten on price on your favourite....
Only our best offers will do for price check 2000.
It's called our low price guarantee.

As we enjoy cut price foods, the wages in the fields can be squeezed.

A lot of it is the buying power of the supermarkets.  They buy I think 80% of the fresh 
produce in this country, and they're putting tremendous pressure both on the pack-house 
people and on farmers to reduce costs, and they in turn are putting the pressure on the weakest 
link in the production structure, namely wages and conditions.

Gangmasters prepared to break the law can pay illegals below the minimum wage.  The 
factories, in turn, can supply the supermarkets for less.

The reality is, cheap food tends to mean cheap labour and we need to start thinking a lot more 
about this as we encourage supermarkets to vie with each other over price wars.

This farmer is on the receiving end.  He supplies lettuces to a number of leading high street 
stores.  It's a competitive market and he suspects some rivals are using illegals to undercut 

It's very frustrating when we're trying to negotiate, when we're trying to get more business, to 
think that we can lose business because somebody is flouting the rules, the regulations, the 

The regime here is strict.  All paperwork is checked.  Staff have been trained to spot forgeries, 
but they're not obliged to do this.  The legal responsibility lies with the gangmaster, they're 
the employer.  Mr Piccaver could just say "Not my responsibility" many do.

Some companies may be using illegal labour and therefore are able to offer a more 
competitive price for the same kind of product that we are producing, and in that sense we are 
losing out because we can't drop our price any further.

If the situation continues as it is, how long do you think before you are tempted to start taking 
on illegal immigrants?

I've always been told one should never say never.  I can't really answer that question.

Sergei is ready for work again.  He's been taken on by another corrupt gangmaster.  More 
illegal immigrant workers bound for another major food factory.  This is PDM, a lettuce 
producer in Shropshire.  It has some big clients - Co-op, Morrisons and Aldi.  Later, PDM told 
us it has never knowingly employed illegals, but then you don't know unless you check, and 
on the day Sergei was there, no-one did.  PDM says it seeks assurances from gangmasters that 
the labour is legal.  Those who aren't have told Sergei how people are recruited into the 
U.K.'s invisible workforce.  Some are smuggled here in lorries.  Others use agents in their 
home country.  This man paid £300 for a language course which he never attended.

So did you study in London?

No.  I came from Georgia to London, I called my friends and they told me there was some 

We decided to see just how simple it is to organise an illegal working trip to the UK by 
phoning some agents in Lithuania.

AGENT (taped telephone call)
These courses are only for the purpose of getting a student visa so you can get into the UK.  It 
is only for that.  You don't have to study at all.

Agents in Eastern Europe are so unconcerned about their crimes, they even advertise in the 
press.  The price of an illegal trip to the UK - around $1500.   Some illegals carry on paying 
the agent for months afterwards.

Often they are here with loans from the people who have sent them here who, I must say, are 
often involved with the criminal mafia in Eastern Europe, and they can't just go back, they 
have to pay off these loans, and they often make sure that they have to work a long time 
before these loans are paid off.

Some of those who owe money to agents back home have ended up in Norfolk.  Sergei is 
joining them.  Their corrupt gangmaster runs a highly organised operation, even housing the 
illegals at his headquarters.  He's called Mark Stratton. 

Sergei is spending the night in one of those caravans over there.  There's a whole group of 
them and it seems to be where Mark Stratton keeps some of his workforce, and we know now 
that Sergei has got some work sorted out for tomorrow.

I'll put you in room five.

Lots of Russians.

Oh yes, a lot, all Lithuanian, Latvian.  They come from Estonia.  All the Russian....


Yes, that's it.  Okay then, and tomorrow I will place you into work somewhere.

The supervisor then takes Sergei on a guided tour of Mr Stratton's empire, and Sergei is in 
luck, he won't have to sleep in a caravan.  Instead, he'll be crammed in a room with five 
others.  This is Mark Stratton.  He's made himself a wealthy man living off the back of illegal 
immigrants.  We found out that Mark Stratton is already well known the authorities.  
Immigration officers have raided premises before and found dozens of illegal workers 
supplied by him.  They've been deported.  He's not been prosecuted.  So it's tough action on 
them but he's just allowed to get on with it.  

It's Sergei's first morning at Mark Stratton's illegal labour farm.  There are dozens of them 
housed here, a ready supply of labour to be mobilised at short notice.  It's a 24 hour business, 
illegals being bussed out for shifts at all times of the day and night.  Sergei is being organised 
into a gang, though before he goes to work he wants some advice on what to do if 
Immigration catch him.

Because you have no work permit, it doesn't matter where in England you are, if you're 
working and Immigration see you....

Immigration always raid.  

Sometimes we hear about it and we can warn people.  If we don't hear about it, we can't warn 

If we have a factory ring up and they say "We want all legal people" then we make sure they 
get all legal people, so they don't call immigration.  But most of the factories don't even 
bother to ask for your papers.  We've sent no papers to any factory we work for.

Sergei's first job through Mark Stratton is here.  This is G.E.O. Adams, a huge meat factory 
with a £100 million turnover.  Sergei is put to work packaging food ready for the 

You put ten sausages, five and then five, and then one in there, and then we put them in.  

The pay here is above the legal minimum, but none of the illegals are asked for paperwork.  
Whilst others pump sausages, Sergei explores and discovers he's working for some very 
important clients.  There's Iceland, ASDA, Sainsbury's and Morrisons.  When we told G.E.O. 
Adams what was happening, it said it would never knowingly employ illegal workers and it'll 
reinforce its checks in the future.  It's launching an investigation with the help of the 
immigration service.  Back at base, Sergei has found out that that helpful woman at the front 
desk is in fact Mark Stratton's mum.

We've had 60 or 70 people arrested over the last three or four years, but it's a risk you take. 

But they go back and they come back over again.

They get deported and then come back in a different name.

One of them is Christina.  She was caught by immigration in February and expelled from the 
UK.  Now she's back and she's got some advice.

Don't tell them your name.  Make it up.  Make up date of birth.  Make up everything.  No 
problem.  No problem.

This is where she was picked up, it's Lingarden, supplier of flowers to some of the country's 
leading supermarkets.  She was employed by Mark Stratton that time as well.  Last year in 
Britain around 6000 illegal workers were caught and expelled.  These were picked up during 
an immigration sting in Peterborough.  Some are already making plans to return.

In Lithuania a very bad, very difficult life now, and in England it's not very good, but it's a 
little bit better, and we can make a little bit money for our families.

So when you get sent out of this country, will you try to come back again?

Yes, of course.

How many times will you try?

When I win.

We're probably only scratching the surface of it at the present time but there is certainly a lot 
of it going on, and we know that there are certain parts of industry that does take advantage of 
this type of labour, the agricultural industry is just one.

No one knows how many illegals return to the UK, but if they're caught, it's usually just 
another plane home.  The gangmasters, the life blood of illegal labour, go unpunished.  They 
are committing a criminal offence by employing illegal immigrants, but that law has only been 
used once.  Instead, Immigration seem to prefer targeting the workers.

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants
I think the current legislation really is toothless.  There's been only one prosecution under this 
law in almost four years, and it's really no indication that it's sending out any kind of signal to 
deter those who would like to bypass it and to exploit vulnerable workers.

Isn't it the case though that you are targeting the wrong people, you're looking to remove the 
illegal workers when you should be directing your resources at the gangmasters.

Well we're doing both.

But the gangmasters you've only prosecuted on in four years.

We've only prosecuted one in four years but we have a number of others whose cases we're 
looking at.  Bearing in mind...

What kind of deterrent do you think that is though to other gangmasters acting illegally?

Bearing in mind that the number of people here unlawfully has been estimated in tens of 
thousands.  What we are doing at the present time is concentrating the principal part of our 
effort on removing those people.

Mark Stratton is one of those who obviously doesn't find the current law much of a deterrent.

It's the risk you take coming to England.  It's your responsibility, your risk.  It's our risk to 
employ you.

Why your risk?

Because for each illegal person we employ, Mark gets a fine in court of £5000.

A mere £5000 fine, which is the maximum that's imposed under this, really goes nowhere 
near impacting on people that are prepared to be unscrupulous, that will exploit.  The sums of 
money that can potentially be made in this business are far too big for that.  

As Mr Stratton knows in his smart new sports car.  It's time to ask him about his illegal 

Hi, Mr Stratton, Paul Kenyon for BBC Television.  You employ illegal workers don't you Mr 
Stratton.  You employ illegal workers.  You've been doing it for an awful long time now, and 
you seem to be making quite a bit of money out of it judging by your car.  We've got some of 
your staff admitting on secret film that you employ illegal workers and you think it's a risk 
worth taking don't you Mr Stratton.   Mr Stratton...

(Mr Stratton's car speeds away)

Well, there we go.  That was Mark Stratton.  He's been employing illegal workers for years 
now.  Sometimes they get deported, sometimes they come straight back again but he, so far, 
has gone completely unpunished.

All the goods in this basket originated from factories where we've secretly filmed.  We found 
them on the shelves of seven high street stores.  Now our investigations show that each one of 
those has sold food processed by illegal workers.  We told the supermarkets.  Sainsbury's says 
it demands suppliers meet all legal obligations and will investigate further.  Iceland says it's 
now carrying out its own investigation and will act swiftly if employment laws are being 
broken.  Harrods says it's never been aware of any suppliers using illegal labour, and legal 
responsibility doesn't lie with the store.  The Co-op says it stipulates to suppliers that the 
exploitation of labour is unacceptable and it's mounting its own inquiry.  Aldi says it would 
never support the use of illegal labour and carries out its own checks on suppliers.  Morrison 
said it doesn't condone the use of illegal labour and works to ensure suppliers meet their 
contractual obligations.

We can play a part, we are playing a part, with an ethical trading policy that's robust and 
demanding, but we cannot do the job of the government, the police, the immigration service, 
all the other people who are involved.  We're pulling our weight, we're playing our part but 
it's complex and other people need to do the same.

In power terms the supermarkets are by far the greatest accretion of power.  So they have 
proportionately more responsibility.  They can knock heads together.  They must say look, fair 
cop guv', we've been found out, it can't add up, we can't go on driving the price of labour 

In fact, the supermarkets' trade body is trying to do something.  It's piloting a set of guidelines 
designed to weed out illegals at food factories, but they'll be voluntary and the proposed 
detailed checks will cost money to impose.

Isn't it going to cost the consumer money by the time the product ends up on the shelves?

Of course.

So at the end of the day, if we want to resolve this problem, we're looking at higher prices 
aren't we?

HENDERSON  Yes, potentially.

How do you think the supermarkets feel about that?  They seem to be waging a price war at 
the moment to drop prices.

Well I think that as one introduces improvements into the supply chain, these improvements 
add incremental costs on the supply chain and they have to be passed on to the consumers.

We're going to have to pay more.  We're going to have to pay more to have decent labour, pay 
decently in free circumstances.  If we don't do that, how can we eat our food with pleasure?

The gangmasters we've exposed tonight aren't alone.  They're among dozens attracted by the 
easy money, the simplicity of the crime and the lack of any effective policing.  They abuse and 
exploit a desperate labour force that can't protect itself.  They're responsible for the supply of 
thousands of illegal immigrant workers each year in the UK.

What would happen if you removed that illegal labour supply?

If you removed the entire illegal labour supply there would be, I think, a collapse in the supply 
chain in the whole food industry.
It's that serious?

I think it's that serious because the estimate.. the early estimates of the number of illegal 
workers in this country is something like 20% of the total workforce.

If our invisible workforce is so large, and so heavily relied upon, can we really leave it to 
those involved in the food chain to sort it out?

Essentially, what you have is a conspiracy of silence amongst all the people involved in this 
because it's not in anybody's economic interest really at the moment to begin to tackle any 
part of the problem. 

So, what's happened since we filmed?  Well Kestus, who was expelled from the UK, is back 
living under a different name.  Andris from FP Personnel, since we told FP about our 
evidence they've suspended him.  Ruta, the Lithuanian left homeless and penniless by her 
gangmaster, she's now working for another one.  Preston Andrews, the man behind FP 
Personnel, he says due to the controversy over workers from outside the EU, he's abandoning 
that side of his business.  And Mark Stratton, we've tried to contact him several times since 
filming but we're told he's "gone on holiday".

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

A FEW WEEKS AGO, Pickwick was visited by one of Wisbech's most celebrated - or notorious - depending on your point of view, public campaigners. In the aftermath of the Daily Mail/Ellee Seymour controversy, she had written to The Wisbech Standard, but they had chosen not to publish her letter. She asked if it could be put on this blog. So, here it is. The opinions are hers, not necessarily those of Pickwick. What are your views? Is she right, or is she taking an extreme view. AS ALWAYS, YOUR VIEWS ARE WELCOME via the comments link.

To the Editor, Wisbech Standard

Dear Sir,
Political blogger, Ellee Seymour, is almost right, but not quite. Commenting on the recent Daily Mail article about Wisbech, she says that ‘...a third of Wisbech’s 20,000 population is now said to be Eastern European.’ Statistics are funny things, and Ms Seymour’s mistake, though a common one, is too important to be overlooked.

Until a decade ago the population of Wisbech was indeed 20,000. But if, as seems evident today, one in three of the town’s population are now from Eastern Europe, it means that these incomers have in fact increased the population by 50 per cent, to a current total of around 30,000. By anybody’s reckoning this is a huge population explosion, and goes some way to explaining why local people have a distressing sense that they are being slowly but surely elbowed out of the picture by this rapid and continuous influx of foreign-speaking settlers.

When their numbers are relatively few, immigrants will usually make an effort to integrate socially with the host community. But the new immigrants to the Fens are legion, and therefore feel little need, or desire, to integrate at all. They are employed en bloc in the fields and factories, and they lodge together in shared rooms or houses, each different East European nationality sticking closely with its own. They have established their own shops, selling their own kind of food, in their own language. Some even run their own exclusive pubs in the town. Others have been further dis-integrated from the local populace by being granted their own separate church services, again in their own language. We have also seen how an increasing number of them have felt sufficiently well established to start having children, or have brought other dependent family members, even grandparents, over here to live with them. So the population keeps on growing, and with no apparent upper limit in sight. Everything is guesswork; nothing is known for certain.

Will Fenland councillors please wake up and start giving their electorate some simple facts, however uncomfortable. For example, have medical and NHS dental services in Wisbech been substantially increased in recent years to cope with the situation? How many foreign nationals are living in subsidised Council accomodation in the Fens? How many migrants’ children are now attending local primary and secondary schools? How many local immigrants are currently unemployed, or receiving benefits or pensions? And what is the jobless total among young Wisbechians? In the last three years, what proportion of local crime has been committed by foreign nationals? And finally, why is Fenland Licensing Panel continuing, against all police advice and public protes, to grant drinks licenses to yet more outlets in Wisbech, when the town is already awash with hard liquor and its damaging consequences?


Victoria Gillick,