As harvests come in across Britain, we always enjoy pictures of giant vegetables appearing at various shows. But the tale of the biggest of the lot is absolutely fascinating. Martin Fone, author of 'Fifty Curious Questions', investigates.

The 'Maggie Murphy potato' weighing a purported 86lb 10oz. This picture was published in The Strand Magazine in 1897. (Image by Ken Welsh/Design Pics/Corbis via Getty Images)

The ‘Maggie Murphy potato’ weighing a purported 86lb 10oz. This picture of Joseph Swan’s potato was taken by Adam Talbot and published, among other places, by The Strand Magazine in 1897. (Image by Ken Welsh/Design Pics/Corbis via Getty Images)

The short answer is simple: it was 8lb 7oz, and grown by Peter Glazebrook from Northamptonshire in 2010.

The long answer, however, is absolutely fascinating – and involved an international hoax that still resonates today, and which involves an early (albeit far from the first) tale of ‘Photoshopping’ a picture.

There are three main protagonists in our story; a potato grower named Joseph Swan, the editor of the Loveland Reporter, one W L Thorndyke, and Adam Talbot, a photographer.

Swan was very proud of his spuds, claiming to have grown 26,000 pounds of the tuberous crop in one year on a single acre of land on his farm just outside the Colorado town of Loveland. The Loveland street fair was on the horizon and Thorndyke suggested that the farmer should indulge in a spot of advertising to boost the sale of his crops. His idea was to create a photograph featuring Swan proudly bearing a massive potato. The resulting image could be used as a flyer to promote Swan’s wares.

Thorndyke enlisted the services of Talbot who, considering he had neither a computer nor any clever software, showed considerable ingenuity in creating the required photo. He took a picture of a spud, blew it up as large as the limits of the then technology allowed him, stuck the image on to a board which he had cut out and then got the smiling Swan to pose with the giant potato on his shoulder.

“The original story spread like wildfire nationally and internationally and Swan was inundated with requests to see the spud”

The image seemed to do the trick, causing mirth and merriment amongst the locals, many of whom requested copies. All was well until in 1895 a picture got into the hands of a New Yorker called Dumont Clarke, who impressed by the inscription on the back stating that the potato was 28 inches in length by 14 inches wide and had been exhibited in the offices of the Loveland Reporter, passed it on to the Scientific American magazine.

Editorial standards must not have been very robust at the time as the Scientific American published it as a news item with an impressive engraving of said spud on 18th September 1895. They soon realised that the photo was a fake and printed an angry retraction; ‘the photo…proves to be a gross fraud, being a contrivance of the photographer who imposed upon us as well as others. An artist who lends himself to such methods of deception may be ranked as a thoroughbred knave, to be shunned by everybody.’

But the genie was out of the bottle. The original story spread like wildfire nationally and internationally and Swan was inundated with requests to see the spud or to have some seeds from the plant so that they could grow their own mammoth potato. Swan grew tired of explaining that it was a hoax which had got out of hand, resorting in the end to saying that it had been stolen.

The story did the rounds again, when it was featured, with the original photograph, in the London magazine, the Strand Magazine. They too printed a retraction but it still reappears every now and again to this day.

Whether Talbot’s photograph isn’t the first example of a doctored image – artists and photography pioneers had been making cameras lie for decades –  but it was certainly the first to gain international traction and helped inspire all sorts of imitators. With the cost of photography tumbling there was a fashion amongst photographers to create images, reproduced as postcards of impossibly large farm and dairy products. They proved immensely popular. Whether Talbot was tapping into this trend or was the forerunner is unclear. It was a remarkable feat, however you look at it.

As for the real record holder, Mr Glazebrook? His potato is all well and good, but wait until you see his onion… and his marrow, and his cauliflower, and his carrot…

Peter Glazebrook with his world record onion (Alamy)

Peter Glazebrook with his world record onion (Alamy)

Peter Glazebrook, from Newark in Nottinghamshire, with a 20lb carrot

Peter Glazebrook, from Newark in Nottinghamshire, with a 20lb carrot (Alamy)

 

Peter Glazebrook with a 66.8kg marrow (Photo by Charlotte Graham/REX/Shutterstock)

Peter Glazebrook with a 66.8kg marrow (Photo by Charlotte Graham/REX/Shutterstock)

 

Peter Glazebrook with his wife Mary and his giant cauliflower, believed to be worthy of The Guinness Book Of Records (Photo by Jenny Goodall/Daily Mail/REX/Shutterstock)

Peter Glazebrook with his wife Mary and his giant cauliflower, believed to be worthy of The Guinness Book Of Records (Photo by Jenny Goodall/Daily Mail/REX/Shutterstock)

Martin Fone is author of ‘Fifty Curious Questions’ – find out more about his book or you can order a copy via Amazon.