History – GCRI

History of The Glasshouse Crops Research Institute (GCRI)

GCRI was established in 1954 at Littlehampton, West Sussex, with a research remit covering glasshouse crops, mushrooms, nursery stock and bulbs. It succeeded the Experimental and Research Station at Cheshunt in the Lea Valley (1914-1955), and also took over the work of the Mushroom Growers’ Association Research Station at Yaxley, near Peterborough (1946-1954). Its first 14 scientific staff were re-located from these organisations and these were joined by a further 42 support staff, most of whom were recruited locally. The first development phase included a laboratory/office block, glasshouses (mainly wooden), a mushroom shed, boiler house, canteen, packing shed and maintenance unit, and these were formally opened in 1956 when the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) took over full control of funding, staffing and the research programme. Subsequent expansion was gradual, but sustained, and by the late 1970s the total staff complement exceeded 200, and the facilities for experimentation were among the best in the world. Extremely effective communications and a two-way flow of information between scientists and industry were ensured by basing the ADAS National Glasshouse Specialist and the Mushroom Specialist at GCRI, and by establishing a productive Liaison Department. The establishment of GCRI at Littlehampton was masterminded by W F Bewley CBE (1921-1955), and its subsequent growth was overseen and directed by F W Toovey OBE (1956-1971) and Dr D Rudd-Jones CBE (1971-1986).

Some of the many major achievements of research at GCRI included:

  • The breeding of important tomato varieties including ‘Grenadier’ which became the standard variety grown during the heyday of the Guernsey tomato industry. Improved lettuce varieties for winter cropping were also developed at this time
  • The formulation of peat-based growing media that led to GCRI becoming a world-leader in this field
  • The development of ‘blueprint’ growing regimes that became the mainstay of UK glasshouse tomato production. One of the world’s first multifactorial glasshouse units was used to determine optimal CO2 concentrations in winter, the deleterious effect of CO2 depletion in spring and summer, and optimal temperatures and fertigation rates for tomato, cucumber and lettuce
  • The development of ‘nutrient film culture’ (NFT), a hydroponic growing technique that became widely used throughout the world
  • The establishment of effective biological and integrated pest control methods for glasshouse production. These methods, initially based on the use of Encarsia and Phytoseiulus, greatly reduced pesticide use, and GCRI expertise became recognized worldwide. Later work established the efficacy of insect-parasitic nematodes for pest control
  • The discovery of fungal viruses (in the mushroom). This led to preventative methods that, together with improvements in compost formulation, markedly improved the reliability of mushroom culture. Work at GCRI also gave a greatly improved understanding of mushroom genetics and breeding
  • The development of meristem culture methods to eliminate viruses from ornamental species including chrysanthemum, carnation and daffodil
  • Physiological studies that helped unravel the physiology of growth and flower formation in bulbous plants, including the tulip and daffodil, and which led on to multiplication via twin-scaling
  • Studies on the growth of tomato fruit and the impact of localised calcium deficiency on blossom-end-rot
  • The establishment of physiological and genetical studies that underpinned the development of AYR chrysanthemum production in the UK

In 1985, GCRI was merged with The National Vegetable Research Station at Wellesbourne in Warwickshire, East Malling Research Station in Kent and the Hop Department of Wye College to create the Institute of Horticultural Research (IHR). IHR was then merged in 1990 with three former Experimental Horticulture Stations, Efford, Kirton and Stockbridge House, to form Horticulture Research International (HRI). However, it was announced that a component of this re-organisation was to be the closure of the GCRI site and the re-location of staff to Wellesbourne. GCRI formally closed on 15 December, 1995.

[Much of the information in this article is taken from “Research for Horticulture”, written ‘in house’ at GCRI in 1989 and distributed to staff to celebrate 75 years of protected crops research]