Well known Ely businessman dies at the age of 79

John Barcham Stevens

John Barcham Stevens - Credit: Archant

A WELL known farming businessman and founder of the Old Fire Engine restaurant in Ely has died at the age of 79.

The funeral of John Barcham Stevens, who founded Barcham Trees and ran a successful poultry farming business, will be held at Ely Cathedral on Tuesday June 11 at 2.30.

Mr Stevens was often spotted in the city wearing his green Barbour jacket and red scarf having parked his old yellow Range Rover on double yellow lines with a dog or two on the back seat.

The first child of Percy and Joan Stevens, John was born by lamplight at Paradise Farm in 1934.

His early years were spent helping on the farm and by the age of seven he could yoke and lead the shire horses for collecting the shocks of corn.


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When World War II broke out the Air Ministry decided to build Witchford aerodrome on part of the farm and as one of the cottages had to be demolished being under the flight path, his parents moved out of the farmhouse and were given permission to build a bungalow just down the road.

Days were still spent at the farm and John would regularly count the number of Lancaster bombers leaving on their raid to Germany and how many returned, some with an engine missing.

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John went to Ely High school kindergarten before moving to the King’s school, after which he boarded at the Leys school in Cambridge.

Holidays were spent with his two younger sisters and helping on the farm, especially at harvest time.

He soon learnt to drive a tractor and combine, which then were small, open, and dusty, and hard work was involved lifting heavy sacks of grain which, he said, caused his stoop.

At the age of eighteen, he was called up for National Service and spent most of it in Germany.

He loved ski-ing and was chosen to represent the British Army in the cross country ski-ing championships.

All his life he enjoyed skiing, especially heli-ski-ing in Canada.

He liked to go hunting and shooting in his early life, and loved playing tennis and latterly, real tennis which he was still playing last year.

When he was discharged from the army, he went to Harper Adams Agricultural College before returning to Ely, moving into Barcham Farm and starting his life’s work.

However, having an entrepreneurial spirit, he looked at more than just the conventional farming methods of the late fifties and his first effort in diversity was growing Lakeland runner beans on a large scale which involved many of the local Soham women coming to pick the beans which were taken to the canning factory in Wisbech.

Many of these women became life long friends.

About this time, Bernard Matthews started to make a name for himself with his Norfolk turkeys and John decided that this was a market ripe for the plucking!

Soon the farm had thousands of birds housed within turkey sheds.

Unfortunately, Barcham was under the flight path for Mildenhall, and every time a plane came over rather low, the turkeys, being stupid birds, would panic and go into a huddle in the corner, causing many to be suffocated.

Plucking began at the end of November and twenty thousand freshly killed turkeys would have to be hand plucked before Christmas Eve.

This was a job that needed lots of helpers, but the atmosphere in the cold barn was always good with a variance of pluckers who were prepared to sit surrounded by turkey feathers usually three feet deep by the 24th.

The turkey market went well and sales soon extended to the whole year not just Christmas.

John expanded the poultry side and soon had chickens and ducks at Barcham, The Cotes at Soham and Mount Pleasant, Pymoor, the farm he inherited from his Father.

It was during this time that John married Raine Rodger Brown and in July 1961, his twin daughters Kate and Emma were born and two years later his son Simon.

In 1968 he took on a project away from agriculture and converted a house in Ely into the Old Fire Engine restaurant with Ann Jarman as manageress.

He handed over his share but it was always a focal part of his life.

He found it amusing to see the reaction of customers there when he went behind the bar and helped himself to wine!

He married Diana forty one years ago, with whom he shared a great love of music but especially the Wagnerian operas. Their son Marcus was born two years later and became a professional musician giving performances locally for charities especially the Cathedral.

John and Diana started Barcham Trees and although he sold this when he reached retirement, it is a wonderful memorial to him that there are so many plantations and avenues of trees for which he was responsible.

The Church and his faith played a vital part later in his life.

He loved the Cathedral and its history and would often go there to admire the buildings and absorb the atmosphere.

Anyone visiting might find themselves being taken to the darker corners of the building and shown some of the Green Men – John knew where they all were.

For more than twenty years he supplied the Christmas tree in the Cathedral which his wife Diana would transform into a stunning centre piece for the Christmas services.

The charitable legacy John inherited from his parents took a very different path from theirs.

His Father was a local Magistrate and together with his wife, founded The Friends of Tower Hospital, Sunday, and the Christmas collection around the villages.

John’s philanthropy was on a quieter but equally effective level.

He helped many who had been written off by society and was always holding out a helping hand to the underdog.

Over the years John and his wife worked hard to create Barcham.

The old farm buildings were converted into workshops and the lake, gardens and house have been an on-going project.

John will be missed by his friends, colleagues and family.

As well as Diana his wife, he had four children, two step-children, twelve grandchildren and one surviving sister. Everyone whose lives were enriched by knowing him will feel his loss deeply.

John’s funeral will be on Tuesday June 11 at 2.30 in the Cathedral.

Sydney John Harry Barcham Stevens

5.10.1934 – 22.5.2013

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