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Mr Francis Mitchell Darby - a biography (Feb. 1997)

July 1924 - December 1996

"Behold, a sower went forth to sow his seed". The choice of this parable for the funeral service of Francis Derby was not only a literal reminder of his great achievements as a farmer and a horticulturist, but also an apt metaphor of his life within the Christian faith. Saint Mary's church was packed, with every extra seat taken, the congregation ranging from young children to people older than Francis himself. His favourite hymns were rousingly sung despite the sadness we all felt at a life cut short so unexpectedly; the church he cared for so diligently still bore its Christmas decorations. their greenery continuing the theme of growth in the parable. David Kightley's address included the interesting biography in the following two paragraphs.

Francis was born in Norwich and attended Norwich School. He first came to Methwold with the Norfolk War Agricultural Executive Committee and in 1945 was sent to manage their experimental farm which was part of the Fenland Reclamation Scheme. After the war he and his brother Hugh became tenants of the farm and later they bought the land and continued to farm together. They grew a wide range of vegetable crops and salads, and were pioneers of pre-packaging to supply supermarkets. At one time they were employing 200 staff, as well as seasonal workers, and they also had their own transport business. In 1963 they began their nursery which is now managed by Jane and Anthony; and John farms the Methwold land. Both Hugh and Francis brought their children into the business, giving them autonomy - something rarely found in farming families. Francis was proud to supply the Queen with fruit bushes and plants at Sandringham, for which he received the Royal Warrant.

Francis was a Governor of the National Vegetable Research Unit at Wellesbourne. He was a founder member of the management committee of the Arthur Rickwood Experimental Husbandry Farm, a member of the River Wissey Internal Drainage Board. In 1969, with Adrian Bloom, Nico Ellerbrook, Jack Matthews and John Wharton, he founded the Anglia group of nurseries, and was Chairman of the co-operative for the first twenty years. He was also a member of the BBC's National Agricultural Advisory Committee and a member of The Grower editorial advisory board.

Francis's life in the communities of Feltwell and Methwold combined his professional and personal interests. It is a rare successful man who can live in the place he works and command the respect and affection which Francis clearly did. He was a mine of information on many subjects and would always find solutions for puzzled gardeners wrestling with the chalky Feltwell soil. His love of sailing had been nurtured as a child, and it was a pleasure to see him at Blakeney guiding his boat through a choppy sea towards the seals there. He was a member of Methwold Parish Council for 20 years, latterly as Chairman until 1991. As secretary of Feltwell Parochial Church Council he was meticulously efficient, tolerant and wise. He far exceeded the duties expected through his desire to maintain the mediaeval building in the best possible state - donning his overalls and frequently climbing to the top of the tower to check on the well being of the masonry and wood. Indeed, he was doing these tasks right up to the time he became ill.

The swiftness of his last illness was very shocking to all who knew him, and for an active, intelligent man it must have been a devastating experience. He face it with customary integrity and courage; as it progressed he remained totally himself, his personality unchanged and his mind as sharp as ever, enduring his rapidly changing condition with humour and tolerance. He was fortunate to have around him all his family as he faced this final trial, as well as his much loved black Labrador 'Fen.' He was, above all, a family man and his family, the business and the careful preservation of Saint Mary's church are fitting memorials to him.

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