Vintage Tractor Magazine – May 2010 issue – © Stuart Gibbard
Tulips and Tractors
The history of Spalding Flower Parade – the showcase of the fenland tulip industry
For thousands of years, rivers flowing from central England towards the Wash on the east coast deposited rich alluvial silts in an area now known as the Fens. The climate and fertile soil around Spalding became ideal for the growing of tulips and daffodils. Interest in the region’s bulbs grew to such an extent in the post-war years that around 100,000 people visited the tulip fields, bringing traffic chaos to the roads around the South Lincolnshire town.
Visitors came from far and wide to travel the 34-mile Tulip Route through the bulb fields. A local Tulip Time committee was formed to organise events around Spalding and the first Tulip Queen was crowned in 1950. In 1958, a group of local growers, keen to advertise the tulip industry in South Lincolnshire, decided to organise a parade of floats decorated with tulip heads.
The following year, on 9 May, the first Flower Parade took to the streets of Spalding. The floats were accompanied by marching bands and other decorated vehicles. It was immediately apparent that this was a great success.
The first floats were uncomplicated affairs, but it was soon evident that much more could be achieved by harnessing the skills of local blacksmiths and other workers. Dutch designer, Adrianus van Driel, was employed to develop more extravagant floats; in later years, he was joined by his son, Kees, who eventually succeeded his father in the post of float designer.
The float frames were constructed by cutting, bending and welding lengths of mild steel. A single float, with a tractor as its motive power unit, could be up to 24ft long and 12ft wide. A double float (tractor and its specially constructed trailer) stretched to 60ft.
The local blacksmith, Geoff Dodd could spend 100 hours making a single float and up to 250 hours constructing a double. On one year, he estimated that he had used 14 miles of steel, 7,000 welding rods and 140,000 welds to produce a parade.
The power unit for the floats was almost always an agricultural tractor. They needed to be small to fit beneath the frames, and Fordson Dextas and Massey Ferguson 35s proved to have the ideal mounting points. Fordson Majors and MF 65s were used for the heavier frames. The frames could also be adapted to fit International B-275, 434 and David Brown 880 models, but these tractors had less clearance over the rear axles and needed greater modification to fit.
To begin with, most of the tractors were supplied by growers. As most could not be spared for more than a few days, especially in a busy spring, the float was usually built first and then the tractor was put in a few days before the parade before heading took place. The frame completely enclosed the tractor; the mudguards were removed, as was the bonnet to help reduce overheating, and the exhaust system was ‘re-plumbed’ to exit at the rear.
As the supply of tractors from growers became less reliable, other sources had to be found. Eventually an agreement was reached to loan Ford 2000 and 3000 tractors from the Ford Motor Company. The loan was arranged by Gordon Cummings, the dealer-principal of the local Ford dealership, Motors & Tractors (later PM Tractors).
When safety and quiet cabs were introduced for the UK market, sourcing suitable tractors became more difficult. However, Gordon managed to get export less-cab models of Ford 3600 (and later 3610) tractors diverted from the Basildon factory. These machines had a short stay in Spalding before continuing their journey to the docks for export to countries with less stringent safety regulations.
Eventually, the logistics of this exercise became increasingly difficult and uneconomic. Thus, in the late 1980s, the parade organisers took the decision to buy their own small tractors of a suitable type to go under the floats. This task fell to the writer, Stuart Gibbard, then a local grower and parade committee member.
Stuart’s remit was to go to farm sales and pick up suitable tractors at the right price. Several Dextas, a Fordson Major and an MF 65 were eventually acquired to form the nucleus of the parade’s fleet. The age of these tractors meant that Stuart often had to make running repairs, but they were serviced or overhauled as necessary to bring them up to the standard required to see them around the parade route without mishap. Despite their age, these tractors performed well for many years and some are still part of the parade today.
After the steel frames were constructed, a suitable medium had to be found to anchor the tulip heads. For several years, rye-straw matting was imported from the continent. This was sewn onto the frame using an old-fashioned sack needle and binder twine. When this eventually became too time-consuming and expensive, polythene-foam sheeting was glued to the frame.
The tulip heads were pinned to the float using long steel pins. This was highly skilled work, originally done by the growers’ own staff, paid for by the local growers themselves. Each tulip head had to overlap the previous one, hiding the stalk below to leave a smooth and level finish rather like the scales of a fish.
The charge-hand of each float had to work closely with the designer to ensure that the quantity of heads and mix of colours followed the design as closely as possible. All the heads had to be pinned on within two days of the parade to ensure that they were fresh. The work was very intense, considering that a large float would require 200,000 heads.
On parade Saturday, the floats would complete a four-and-a-half-mile route around Spalding, watched by huge crowds. In 1963, the police estimated that there were 175,000 people lining the streets to watch the Flower Parade; by the 1970s, that estimate had risen to 500,000. The national press and television regularly covered the event, and even Blue Peter, Magpie and the cast of Emmerdale got involved.
The individual floats were sponsored by local groups, villages and companies, but as the fame of the parade spread, national and even international companies and banks wanted to get involved. Regular participants included the Midland Bank, British Sugar, Geest Industries and John Player.
It is estimated that over four million people have been to see the Spalding Flower Parade since it first began in 1959. Towards the end of the 1970s, the increased costs of bulb production and competition from imported flowers flown into the country saw a rapid decline in the tulip acreage. There were fewer growers with less staff to offer the same level of support to the parade, and paid gangs had to be brought into complete the heading of the floats.
Further increased overheads, some brought about by health and safety concerns, have made it impossible to produce the extravagant parades of earlier years. However, this unique event continues to be one of the leading visitor attractions in the East Midlands with floats still decorated with thousands of tulips heads, harvested by hand from fields in Lincolnshire and Norfolk.
Article published with kind Kelsey Publication Ltd. and Stuart Gibbard