AboutMarket Gardening Heritage in the Tamar Valley
This article is taken from the introduction to ‘Sovereigns, Madams and Double Whites,’ a book plus CD, that celebrates the fruit and flower pioneers of the Tamar Valley, published 2004 by the Tamar Valley AONB Service. All content copyright 2003 Tamar Valley AONB Service, and is used with their kind permission.
In 1961, when I mapped the market gardens of St. Dominic for geography A Level, land at Boetheric, Burraton and Halton Quay was still intensively cultivated with an intricate patchwork of strawberries, daffodils, anemones, iris, double whites, vegetables, rhubarb and pittosporum. On the earliest, very steep ground at Brentswood and Cleave (across the Cotehele millstream) tilling and weeding were done almost entirely with hand-tools. To avoid soil erosion some of the crops were planted diagonally across slopes and slumped earth was scooped and winched uphill.
Bunches of daffodils were forced open in kitchens and packing sheds, packed in boxes and sent mainly upcountry via Saltash station at an average rail cost of 12 to 15 shillings per cwt. Outdoor strawberries, ready in early June, were picked into half-pound punnets, which had recently superceded the older style two pound chip baskets, and sent away in crates of 24, or sold locally. Old cherry trees planted by earlier generations produced occasional bumper crops but the Trenances' beautiful orchards of plums underplanted with ornatus narcissi, overlooking the river and vividly remembered by my parents' and grandparents' generations were gone.
Today, most of the Tamar Valley's productive plots are amalgamated with grass and arable fields and the steepest have reverted to woodland. Increasingly, fruit, vegetables and flowers are imported from abroad and the once self-sufficient, versatile and skilled growers are mostly retired or semi-retired with no successors. Their characterful and dignified portraits together with those of a few remaining horticulturists and highly specialised producers, photographed by Ted Giffords are reproduced in this book.
The introduction and appendices give background and associated facts and an intriguing glossary explains colloquialisms such as coose, opes, point stuff, vizgies and drawing up cars. Joanna Lewis and Kayleigh Milden have sensitively coaxed from growers reminiscences of dedicated relentlessly hardworking lives and the collection of anecdotes brings the almost defunct industry to life. We can imagine pickers singing to each other across the river, the toddler “bunching leaves” beside her mother, sense the “raw terrible” itch of daffodil rash, the “smell of fruit down the valley” and the overpowering perfume of double whites en masse. It is a poignant testament to the pride taken in work in the days when “every little plot was cultivated”.
The Tamar Valley has long marked the old Celtic boundary between England and Cornwall. Nowadays the area is a protected landscape, hidden, tranquil and beautiful, the river mostly used for pleasure and recreation. However, like many landscapes in Britain, there are many secrets and stories hidden within the farms and woodlands of the Tamar Valley.
For centuries the Tamar river was the lifeblood of the area, enabling communication, producing food and providing power for a once highly industrialised mining landscape. For a brief period of twenty years in the mid nineteenth century the Tamar Valley became the copper centre of England, the river crowded with shipping carrying ore to be smelted in South Wales. However by 1868 the largest mine, Devon Great Consols, was nearly exhausted and metal prices slumped putting hundreds of families out of work. Arsenic refining took over but in turn was abandoned. By the 1930s mining was dead leaving a strange and dramatic landscape of waste tips and ruinous buildings half hidden in lush woodland and intricately mixed with villages, farms, riverside quays and market gardens.
Alongside mining the valley was famed for its cherry and apple orchards and until recently supported a huge but very concentrated market gardening industry. The market gardens were known as “gardens” and were nearly all family-run, generally of only three to four acres and on sheltered south-facing slopes. The tidal river helped reduce frost and the steep valleys sheltered the holdings from the south west wind. For almost a hundred years the valley was the "earliest" strawberry growing area in the country: “used to be if you had early strawberries you could make money, good money”.
Until mechanisation in the 1950s they were largely worked by hand. “We didn't get backache on the hills because you weren't bending over all the time like you would on flat ground.” Special tools were made to work the slopes such as the Tamar Valley dibber.
In the 1900s as disease became rampant amongst the fruit plantations the growers started to cultivate daffodils on a vast scale. The indigenous Tamar Double White became the valley's most famous flower: “I never met anyone who didn't like Double Whites - they were head and shoulders above other narcissus. The boxes were always lined with blue paper, it really set them off”. Many of the old varieties still flower in hedges and in odd corners where cultivation has long been abandoned.
Looking around the valley it is at first hard to see evidence of this once thriving economy, but given a few clues and pointers a secret landscape can be quickly revealed. Today it is hard to comprehend that this landscape, mostly shrouded in scrub and woodland on the steep valley sides, supported an industry of eight to ten thousand people at the height of the season in the 1950s, more than the entire population today. Indeed in the early 1950s it was said that “a message from a grower on the Devon side of the valley at Rumleigh could be passed over the hedges and across the River Tamar to another grower in Cargreen.”
This was the industry's last peak as from then on the numbers began to melt rapidly away. By 1971 there were about 250 viable holdings; in 1979 there were 140 growers left, many of the extreme slopes so characteristic of the industry having gone out of cultivation. Today there are perhaps thirty growers, some of whom are included in this book. “It used to be there was a job for everyone in the valley.” Within living memory the industry has all but vanished and much of its footprint has disappeared. Despite this it has left an indelible impact on the landscape and culture of the area.
In 2001 a project was established to uncover the landscape of market gardening in the Tamar Valley. This book is an offshoot of that project. The work was initiated by the Tamar Valley Service and has been completed in partnership with the Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Unit, the National Trust at Cotehele and the Institute of Cornish Studies and funded by the Local Heritage Initiative and the Countryside Agency.
The research used a combination of methods such as transferring historic documents, maps and aerial photographs onto computers, surveys of the landscape and archival searches. Natalie Allen's books describing the rich social and horticultural history through the reminiscences of St Dominick villagers initially inspired us to want to photograph some of those involved and the chance appearance of photographer Ted Giffords made this possible. This book includes photographs of many of our informants, some of whom were or are directly involved as growers and others with long family traditions in the industry. Part of their oral history was also recorded.
These stories and photographs are arranged by parish. The market gardening industry was concentrated in six parishes although it spilled out into those bordering them such as Stoke Climsland. On the Cornish side these were St Dominick, Calstock, Botus Fleming and Landulph and on the Devon side Bere Ferrers and to a lesser extent Bickleigh. We begin with St Dominick where the strawberry rush began. Through the photographs on the following pages, the shared memories and by listening to some of the voices on the CD, it is hoped that part of this “Sleeping Beauty” of a landscape will be revealed.
The Beginning of the Horticultural Revolution:
James Walter Lawry (1840 - 1931)
For hundreds of years there had been a horticultural industry in the Tamar Valley selling produce to local markets. However it was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that this exploded into a full blown strawberry rush based on selling early fruit to up-country markets. It was the arrival of the Great Western Railway, which reached Plymouth in 1849, bridging the Tamar to Saltash in 1859, coupled with the growing pool of unemployed mining labour that made this horticultural revolution possible. The key to the industry's success was the speed with which the railway delivered perishable fruit to distant markets, within twenty-four hours of being picked.
James Walter Lawry, the son of a tenant farmer in Bohetherick, St Dominick, born on 14 April 1840 was the catalyst in transforming the local industry into “the earliest outdoor strawberry growing region in England” which it remained for almost a hundred years. In 1862 at the age of twenty-two James Lawry visited the Crystal Palace in London and recorded:
“After seeing the show, having heard of Covent Garden Market, my friend and self determined that we would rise early and visit this renowned market whilst yet business was in progress. It was early in June and to my surprise, I found that there were no out-of-door grown strawberries offered, whilst the crop at home was nearly finished before we left. On enquiring the price of the hot house fruit offered, I was staggered at the difference from that we had been receiving at Devonport.
“I got into conversation with a salesman named Israel, and explained that I had hailed from Cornwall and was a grower of strawberries which were now practically finished, although if he would undertake the sale I would write the people at home and get them to forward a small quantity as an experiment. He promised to do his best, and I made the venture…”
In the following year 1863: “The first fruit gathered was duly despatched to Mr. Israel, and being the only out-of-door grown strawberries in the Market, made what to me was an astonishing price, viz 2s 6d per lb. At that time the price made at Devonport was only 6d per lb. Of course I sent all I had to Mr. Israel and seeing that there were other growers sending to Devonport I offered to give the price making there (so saving market costs), and obtained large quantities to forward with my own.
“From that day in the year 1863 when the first Cornish strawberries were sold in Covent Garden, the Tamar Valley fruit industry became a fact, and has been the means of enriching the neighbourhood, and supplying the needs of distant populations.”
Having stumbled upon “prices … hitherto undreamt of” by sending his strawberries to London where they fetched 2/6 (£5.23 in today's prices) a punnet, he quadrupled his acreage. Within a short time between forty and fifty pickers were gathering up to 3,000 punnets (a ton of strawberries) a day. To keep fruit cool picking began at 4am. The first strawberries were usually ready by about 23 May.
Strawberry growing rapidly expanded into the neighbouring parishes as well as throughout St Dominick. Every available piece of sheltered south-facing land was seized and planted with strawberries. Oak woods were “ripped”, (often with dynamite), their fertile slopes producing immense crops of strawberries. Special tools were made to work these slopes, the sclum and dibber. “Many working men in 1863, by acquiring patches of land, often woodland or furze (heath)… brought immediate and lucrative return.” - Lawry. St Dominick alone was sending away over 250 tons of strawberries a season by the 1890s.
Lawry, a man of immense energy and enterprise, also established a further industry, punnet making. Following great difficulties in procuring these and after some experimentation, round half-pound punnets were made as a local cottage industry during the winter months. They were made from planed interlaced wood and sold by the gross. Someone skilled could make three gross a day earning ten pence a gross. Boxes holding fifty-four punnets were used. The filled punnets were placed in boxes and packed down with ferns to protect them in transit. For every ten pickers one cut ferns for packing. By the 1890s several local punnet factories had been established.
Lawry also negotiated with railway companies to secure the fastest routes, ensuring his fruit arrived early enough to fetch the best prices. As a result fruit gathered before 6am in Cornwall could be in the market in Edinburgh by 6am the following morning. Speed was vital.
The Lord Grosvenor apple introduced into the area by Lawry became known as Lawry's No 1 or simply No 1 and the local apple Colloggett Pippin was also called after him, Lawry's Cornish Giant. He was one of the first growers to introduce the Victoria plum to the valley where it was grown principally for jam.
In about 1900 Lawry and his wife Charlotte left Bohetherick Farm and moved to Tharsis in Calstock. Bohetherick Farm was split between nine tenants. Lawry embarked on a second career as a wool and agricultural merchant in Kelly Bray. He was a strong Methodist and a lay preacher. Following the death of his son in the First World War he became an advocate of the League of Nations, addressing meetings to gain support. He died on 15 August 1931 aged ninety-one.
Marketing the produce
Covent Garden Market, established in 1670 by the 4th Earl of Bedford (who had extensive estates in the Tamar Valley) became London's main fruit and vegetable market. It was to this market that Lawry's first fruit went. John Osborne of Covent Garden took a large proportion of the strawberries from the Tamar Valley. Lawry also sent fruit to Edinburgh and other provincial markets. Once significant quantities of flowers were grown, these too were sent to the London markets and many growers later found that they achieved better prices for their fruit in the provincial markets.
However “if there was too much stuff the commissioned salesmen would cut against each other in a day taking ridiculously low prices and then it would take several days for the price to come up again. We sent to J C Lucas, Sheffield, who wouldn't sell dirt cheap.” - Alan Langsford. “Most of our flowers went to London J & E Page and George Monro, Covent Garden.”
- Douglas Richards. New Covent Garden Flower wholesaler Terry Moss sold Tamar Valley flowers: “It was known for high quality produce. We sold Double Whites - we rarely see it now. Fortune, King Alfred - they've gone. Most flowers have their time.”
Generations of Tamar Valley women took their produce down river to Devonport Market. There had been a market there since the 1760s. River traffic declined as road transport increased and by the 1930s more growers were taking their produce to Plymouth Market, which was more easily reached by road. Both markets were bombed in 1941 and although Devonport was little damaged it never recovered. However some growers “never went further than Devonport” not moving until it closed. The traders in Plymouth market had to move onto the streets to make room for damaged chain stores. This became known as Tin Pan Alley. In 1959 a new market in Plymouth was built at Frankfort Gate.
Transport by river
For centuries the River Tamar was the main artery of the valley. Almost every farm had its own quay and there were ancient ferry crossings and market boats sharing the water with barges and schooners carrying ore, stone and heavy goods to and from the mines. Pack horses, wagons and tramways brought the goods down to the river bank. Many farmers and gardeners developed the skills of the mariner with those of farming or horticulture, carrying their produce to market and returning with dock dung.
The increase in motor transport during the First World War led to the decline in horse transport which, along with the railway, had begun to eclipse the use of the river. Excursion boats continued to ply the river and the market boats continued until the 1930s, but any large goods began to be transported by road. The “Empress” (1880 - 1926), a paddle steamer, was one of the best known market boats calling at every main quay either side of the river, arriving at North Corner, Devonport, with its cargo of market sellers and their produce. Worth's of Calstock ran a smaller market boat called the “Princess” every Friday until the 1930s. The Richards of Cargreen also had a small market boat running from Cargreen to Devonport in the 1920s and 1930s.
Transport by rail
Brunel's Great Western Railway arrived in Plymouth in 1849 and reached Cornwall in 1859 with the building of Saltash Bridge over the Tamar. Once Lawry started sending strawberries away from Saltash and Plymouth by rail others quickly followed.
The growers in the Bere Peninsula traditionally reached Plymouth Station by boat and cart. However in 1890 the London and South Western Railway reached Bere Alston and Bere Ferrers, opening the up-country market to more growers. Within a matter of months the South Western had poached much of the Great Western's fruit traffic. Its agents took fruit across by boat from Cotehele Quay to be collected by wagons for Bere Alston station. At Thorn Point they collected the growers' produce from Cargreen taking it to Bere Ferrers station. In 1908 the Calstock Viaduct was built over the river, connecting Bere Alston to Calstock, Gunnislake, Chilsworthy and Latchley. This stimulated further growth in fruit production in the Stoke Climsland area.
In 1966 the notorious cuts imposed by Beeching's reorganisation of the national rail system had a severe impact and many of the local stations were left unmanned. This marked the beginning of the end of the industry. Increased freight charges quickly followed and soon freight services completely ceased. Local grower H W Sherrell described this calamity as “The death blow to the valley's horticultural industry as we have known it”. Fred Rogers collected produce from station wagons at Calstock and took it to Saltash station until it too lost its staff in 1967. Produce was then taken into Plymouth station. The loss of rail transport had an enormous impact on the very rapid decline in market gardening just as its arrival in 1859 had shaped its rapid growth. Once fruit could no longer be delivered to the markets within twenty-four hours it ceased to be sent. Many growers turned to selling by direct purchase ('Pick Your Own') as well as to the local markets.
Growers today rely on road transport, some sending to wholesale markets up-country like Barry Richards and Gerald Veale (as well as locally). The Rickards' alstroemeria is sent by road to a major supermarket's distribution centre. Other growers like the Cradicks, Martin Crowell, Nigel Hunn, the Schuttkackers, Joe Collins, the Braunds, and Roy Clarke sell their flowers and produce locally to shops, restaurants and wholesalers. The Lukes, the only remaining Pick Your Own business, also sell locally. The large nurseries export their plants internationally as well as selling them all over Britain.