The Allotment year 2019

I have been growing fruit and vegetables at Haslingfield Allotments in South Cambridgeshire for more than a decade now. This last year has been one of the trickiest. Our site is at the bottom of chalk down-land, (Chapel Hill) with meadow land beyond leading to the River Cam or Rhee. We are prone to flooding but this year prolonged heavy rain in March/April left the site inundated for several weeks. Those plot holders who had not cleared and prepared the ground in the previous autumn where caught out rather badly. Sowing was delayed and then a long extended period of heat and drought did not break until mid-July. Some of our less experienced tenants gave up the fight, leaving the land idle for the year. Others have quit.

My onion and potato crops produced low yields. The strawberry season was very short. Bush fruit turned dry and mealy. Then things began to change for the better. Courgettes and pumpkins enjoyed the heat, producing excellent yields. Late sowings of carrots, turnips and beetroot fared far better than expected. Raspberries and other cane fruits did very well. My first effort to grow aubergines met with success. We tend to get a long finish to the growing season in Cambridgeshire, with sunshine and reasonable warmth extending into October. This allows the crops to make good after early season hindrances. Finally, my small desert apple trees, (Chivers Delight, Blenheim Orange), produced a bumper crop. Combined with the harvest of apples from my garden, we have been juicing apples with our own press throughout the autumn. last year (2017) spring frosts resulted in a poor crop and no juicing.

I have been making some structural changes to the allotment; grubbing up a row of redcurrant bushes which produce too much fruit. The soil has been turned and cleared of weeds and several brambles, which had become entwined with the bushes. I now have a new bed and the plan is to put in some rows of early potatoes (Charlotte) next spring,
further loosening the soil, uncultivated for ten years. The fruit trees have been pruned back, taking out the lower branches, thinning out the middles and reducing height. I’ll be planting another redcurrant bush in the garden at home for our domestic needs.

The strawberry patch has received a lot of attention. This is a new bed, made up of three rows of Malling Centenary, planted in the spring. The poor weather conditions killed off some of the plants and the early summer drought ended any prospect of a harvest. However the plants produced a heavy covering of runners, enabling me to restore the original rows, filling in gaps, and plant an additional three rows in this bed and a separate row elsewhere on the plot. This had been my original plan and it was satisfying to see it’s completion. The great difficulty with strawberries is to prevent weed infestation and the gradual breakdown of separate rows into an irregular mass. It’s a job that has to be kept on top of, with continual hoeing and a major clean up job in the autumn. Eventually nature will have its way and then its time to start again. Strawberry beds generally last for three to four years and then of course these is the problem of disease build-up in the plants.

My last last job will be to lay manure on the main vegetable beds, already dug and turned, as a winter mulch. For winter crops I have some main-crop turnips, planted in September, and the remains of the chard. I do not grow sprouts or over-wintering brassicas because they get pilfered – our site is an open rural site with no perimeter fencing. Pilfering has become more prevalent, a problem experienced on every site in the country. Last year was a peak year for us, leading to the installation of a field gate, to make it more difficult and prevent idle trespass. We shall see.

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A walker among hunters in France

It is Sunday morning in late November. I am sitting in the studio at my small house, situated in the commune of Ferrals Les Montagnes in the Haut Languedoc. As I write I am looking out of the window, down upon the usual Sunday morning scene at this season of the year; half a dozen four by fours parked up outside the headquarters of the local chasse. This is a simple building equipped with all they need to handle the carcass and divide the spoils of the hunt.  A place where they can forgather. It’s cold and the men are inside making their plans for the day’s hunt. By the time they leave my small hameau they will form a small irregular band of armed men and dogs, off to roam the hillside.

Usually I wait to discover which part of the wooded valley they are to stake out, before venturing out myself for a walk in the opposite direction. Recent events elsewhere in France, the death of a road cyclist from a hunter’s rifle, give an added spice to this decision. Recently I have added a high-visibility jacket to my accoutrements.

It’s true to say that we need these men, nowadays sometimes a few women, to go out and cull the local fauna. The population of wild boar is on the rise, partly driven by cross-breeding with pigs, resulting in larger litters. The boar do much damage to gardens and vegetable plots, quite apart from the very real danger they can pose to humans, when confronted. So they need to be kept in check. Who else is there to do it? More than this, the local hunt maintain access to the landscape by keeping tracks open. They keep an eye on things.

Then again, the hunt is an intrinsic part of these men’s identity, of their culture, a close connection to the land, the ‘Pays’ where they were born and bred. Something that is passed down the generations. Then again, they eat what the kill, looking to live off the land. They do not farm their meat intensively in factories.

To see them gather, to meet and converse, make jokes, discuss the technicalities of their kit, makes their plans, is to see a bunch of men sharing a close-knit identity, a spirit of real adventure and brotherhood, which in this world of ‘virtual’ reality, is something to hold on to, a precious thing. The chasse is probably one of the things which keeps these men living in such out of the way places, a positive reason to remain, retaining ‘the old ways’.

Woe be it for the metropolitan government that decided to restrict their right to hunt. Just now we are experiencing a wave of protests against rising fuel prices and duties. The local petrol stations and shops are running low of supplies. ‘Interesting’, it would be, to see the response of these hardy men of the hills……

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Fruit Growing in Shepreth

Extract from my forthcoming book on Fruit Growing in South Cambs: from chapter five, ‘The Geography of Fruit Growing’. (Copyright J Spain, 2016).

Notes on Shepreth:

Shepreth is a low-lying parish, with a more clay subsoil, liable to flooding, alleviated by a network of drainage ditches. The village settlement is located on slightly rising ground half a mile or more from the river. The planting of orchards has therefore been concentrated on village closes, with no significant extension into farm land, there being no rising chalk downs in the south of the parish to take advantage of.  The Tithe Apportionment map of 1840 shows three clusters of properties with orchards in the village:  seven along the eastern side of Royston Road (later Frog End); three at Moor End and ten orchards in the High Street, running from Church Lane to the junction with Baron’s Lane (later Meldreth Road). South of Dunsbridge Turnpike (later A10) there was a sizeable orchard at Shepreth water mill. [1]  These clusters can be identified in later large scale OS Maps of the village. (See sketch map).[2]

Following enclosure, the small Moor End estate of 25 acres, belonging originally to Henry Clear (d. 1863), was sold by William Clear in 1875.[3] This estate had been divided into four smallholder plots consisting of dwellings with 2-3 acres and a larger parcel of arable land. Lots 3 and 4 retained the orchards identified in the 1840 Tithe Map and are indicated in the large 25 inch OS map of 1886 and survived to the mid-20th century, as represented in later OS Maps.[4] The houses were demolished before 1970.[5]

At Frog End, we see evidence of new fruit-planting from the mid-1870s.  The estate of Charles Clear, situated near the junction with Dunsbridge Turnpike, was sold in 1888. This included a house and homestead with 1 acre, 2 roods, 26 poles of pasture and orchard of ‘well stocked plum, apple, pear and cherry trees, just reaching full maturity.’  On the opposite (western) side of the road Clear was selling 8 acres of arable and 2 and a half acres of pasture land with an ‘orchard of well stocked young plum and apple trees, most in full bearing.[6]  The large scale OS map of 1886 shows most properties along the eastern side of Frog End had small orchards; many of these continued to grow and sell fruit into the 20th century. In 1910 George Bishop, tenant of the Green Man at Frog End, held 3 roods of orchard.[7] Margaret Collins, who lives at Frog End, remembers her father, Bert Collins, growing many fruit trees in the large garden at the rear. Her parents moved to the house in 1935. Margaret was born in 1942 and remembers the fruit being collected by lorry and being sold from a stall by the gate.[8]

The continuation of fruit-growing at Shepreth Mill on the Dunsbridge Turnpike is indicated in the 25 inch OS map of 1886, where there was an orchard of two-thirds of an acre running from the rear of the Mill alongside the river Shep. This continued with the Brightwell family, following the purchase of the water mill and corn mill business in 1915 by Walter Brightwell. His son, also Walter, established watercress beds, vegetable and fruit-growing and a gooseberry bank. Some fruit horticulture was retained after the 1950s when he started a dairy business, retailing fresh milk around the district. Later his son, Tim Brightwell, established a trout farm and the fruit side of the business was wound down.[9]

The High Street remained an important focus of fruit-growing in the village. In 1922 ‘The Choice’, a 5 bedroomed residence on the corner of Church Lane and High Street was sold by the local farmer, John Gray, who was leaving the district. This included 2 and a quarter acres of old established orchard planted with Blenheim Orange and other apple trees.[10]  Renamed ‘The Chase’, this property was sold again in 1935. The particulars of the 1935 sale provide a more detailed description, with a kitchen garden of soft fruits and fruit trees and an orchard of greengages, plums and apples, still 2 and a quarter acres. Fruit from the orchard was evidently being marketed commercially, for the sales particular contained the following statement: ‘14 cwts of greengages and 8 cwts of greengages besides other fruit were disposed to Smedleys of Wisbech, in 1929 and 1930 respectively.’[11] Smedleys established a factory at Wisbech for canning fruit and vegetables in 1926.[12] It was in the mid-1920s that the UK canning industry came into being, offering fruit growers a valuable new market for their produce.

John Gray was the farm tenant of the Docwras Manor estate, (owned by the Nash-Woodham family), from 1901 to 1919 when it was put up for sale. This included a large ‘old established orchard’ lying adjacent to the north side of Shepreth Station, measuring 1.683 acres, as indicated in the 25 inch OS map of 1886.[13] Gray purchased the estate in 1919, selling the estate on to Cambridge County Council in 1920 for smallholdings.[14] During this period, another local farmer, Tuck King, carried on fruit-growing on a small scale. He was the tenant of Riversdale Farm, situated close to the village church and, separately, one and a half acres of land and orchard planted with ‘60 good apple, gage and plum trees’ at nearby Rockwood House on the High Street.[15] This was a double fronted brick house, standing back from the road. Title commenced with a deed of enfranchisement to Charles Pearce (see below) dated 1910. The property was later owned by Mr Rule Wilkins, who died intestate in 1915 and the property was offered for sale in 1920.[16]  By the 1930s the property had heated greenhouses and was owned by local nurserymen, Ronald Allen and Edward Clement,[17] later known as ‘Allen’s nurseries,’ (with 16,000 sq. feet of glass) until the late 1950s, finally coming in to the possession of the Fryer family. Rockwood House was demolished in 2006 and the land was used for a new housing development.

The 1886 OS map shows an acre of orchard behind the village shop and attached cottage known as The Puddocks, situated between Rockwood House and The Plough public house.  Evidence of title for this property can be traced back to 1831. The property and orchard were owned by Frank Woollard from 1894-1919, when it was sold to Charles Cooper. The main business of these men was the village grocery shop, where they sold the fruit grown in the orchard. A succession of owners in the post-1945 period allowed the orchard to fall in to decay and neglect. Jenny Ravenhill purchased the cottage, shop and garden in 1986, adding the orchard by separate purchase in 2006. Since then what remains of the old orchard has been restored by Jenny and her husband, Charles; the undergrowth of brambles cleared and the old fruit trees heavily pruned back to encourage new growth. At present there are approximately twenty fruit trees, including half a dozen Cambridge Gage, three or four very mature Bullace, an old Rivers Early Prolific and a more recently planted Victoria. Amongst the apple trees are some Bramleys, a Blenheim Orange and a few old unidentified dessert varieties. The orchard also retains an old cooking pear and two Concorde pear trees have been planted more recently. The orchard now produces about 120 litres of apple juice per year, juiced locally by Cam Valley Orchards in Meldreth. This restoration is one of the last bits of old orchard land remaining in the village.[18]

Nigel Hanscombe remembers that in the 1940s and 50s, when his grandparents, Fred and Ellen Lee, were the landlords, The Plough had two orchards at the rear, with greengages, Victoria plums, Cox’s Orange Pippins, Bramleys and Blenheim Orange apples, mainly for domestic consumption, although some fruit was sold from the pub. As a boy he worked for his relative, John Handscombe, of Meldreth, who had orchards at his farm in the High Street and the Moor End of Meldreth.

At the end of the High Street, the 1886 OS map shows 2.75 acres of orchard situated behind Grove House, running from the junction along Meldreth Road. When offered for sale in 1888 this property, including the house, shop and orchard was let to William Collins, the village wheelwright. The orchard was planted with choice Normanton and other apples, pears and plum trees.[19] The Land Valuation Survey of 1910 records Grove House and adjacent orchard land was then owned by Emma Mumford of Chrishall. She retained occupation of the barn and orchard, now measuring over 2 acres. Grove House, with a shop and adjacent premises were then tenanted by Charles Pearce.[20]  He was the son of Charles Pearce who lived in Orwell, owning property and orchard land in Town Green Road (see above). The son raised cows and pigs and had a slaughterhouse behind what is now Blenheim Close, leading from Meldreth Road. He acquired ownership of this whole parcel of land including the orchard and is listed as a fruit grower in Kelly’s Directory, 1933, 1937.

His granddaughter, Eve Hardman (b.1927) remembers fruit picking in the orchard, which was known for its Blenheim Orange apples. There were also greengages, plums and soft fruit. Charles Pearce delivered fruit to Shepreth Station by horse and cart, usually a dozen wicker sieves twice a week, sent down to Covent Garden. He also used the cart to take fruit to the Monday morning wholesale produce auction at Cambridge Cattle Market. He left Shepreth at 4 o’clock in the morning, walking his cows to market.  His property along Meldreth Road was subsequently divided between his children. His son, Les Pearce, who became a master builder, retained the orchard after the Second World War, using his van to deliver fruit to the station. In the late 1950s the orchard land was placed under a compulsory purchase order for housing development. Local Authority retirement bungalows were built and later Blenheim Close housing estate, its name commemorating the former orchard.[21]

Of the manors in the village, Tyrell’s Hall had a small kitchen garden orchard but no large fruit plantations.[22] Docwras Manor House, on the north side of Meldreth Road, had an orchard of just under an acre in 1886, with small orchards of 1 and 2 roods attached to rented dwellings in what is now the residential close known as The Bramleys.[23] In 1910 one of the properties was occupied by Alexander Hopwood.[24] Hopwood was still the tenant when the estate was sold to John Gray in 1919. This sale also included 3 acres of orchard on the east side of Station Road, then occupied by W. Waldock.[25] A row of council houses was built along Station Road by 1927, but later OS maps show some orchard land retained until the 1950s.[26]

There were several nurserymen and fruit growers in the village. Mention has been made of Ronald Allen and Edward Clement. To this list we must add Frederick Bartholemew (Kelly’s Directory, 1908-12), who in the Land Valuation Survey of 1910 occupied greenhouses and 7 acres of land ‘near Station Road,’ then listed as owned by ‘Messrs Woodham’, presumably linked to the Nash-Woodham estate, but not included in the sale of 1919.[27]  In the late 1920s ‘Messrs Woodham’ entered into partnership with another Shepreth fruit grower, Stephen Waller, (Kelly’s Directory, 1916) to establish Waller and Woodham’s Enterprise Nurseries, a large greenhouse business producing indoor cucumbers and tomatoes, located on what is now the Shepreth Wildlife Park.[28] Kelly’s Directory, 1916 also lists William Boyce as a Shepreth fruit grower. In 1921 he was elected the village representative of the Melbourn Branch of the West Cambs. Fruit Growers Association.[29] His son, Edward Boyce, ran a wholesale fruit merchant business from the village in the 1930s.[30]

Several large residential properties on the outskirts of the village, near the Royston – Cambridge road had orchards of more than one acre, including Rushmore House, owned by George Percy Gildea, who was the owner of the Rhee Valley Portland Cement Works, situated near the Railway Station.[31] In the 1920s the Meldreth fruit grower, Charles Farnham, owned The Chestnuts, situated near the Royston – Cambridge Road, with 1 and a half acres of paddock orchard with mixed fruit trees in full bearing.[32]

The 1950 OS Map of Shepreth shows an extension of orchard land along the road towards the parish boundary with Meldreth.  Just beyond the railway crossing was a field of 3.5 acres where an orchard was laid down and a large residence built in 1931. This was owned by Louise Stearn, the daughter of the Meldreth fruit grower Alexander Nodder, of Cornwall House, Stone Lane, just across the parish boundary. Cornwall House and nearby orchard were later sold to Alfred Newell. (See Meldreth section). The Nodders and Newells were linked by marriage. Alfred’s son, Ralph Newell, helped his Aunt Louise to manage the orchard by Shepreth crossing after 1945. She purchased The Maltings at North End, which were used as an apple store, in particular Newton Wonder which could produce a very large crop, (see photo). Margaret Fuller, who has lived at The Crossing House, on the other side of the railway line, since 1959, is also connected to the Newell’s through the marriage of her son to Ralph Newell’s daughter, Janet. Margaret remembers helping, with her children, in the orchard during the 1960s and 70s.

The orchard was comprised of one third gages, plums and pears (Conference), two thirds apples. Amongst dessert varieties there were Cox’s, Worcester Pearmain and Ellison’s Orange. The main cooking variety was Newton Wonder, which was marketed as a dual purpose apple. Bramleys were also grown and chickens were penned in the orchard. Ralph Newell had a small Bedford lorry with an open back, which he used to collect the bushel boxes of apples from the orchard and take to the mid-week fresh produce auction at Royston market. By the 1970s little money was to be made from the orchard fruit. Ralph had diversified into the growing of bedding plants, daffodils and chrysanthemums. After his Aunt Louise’s death, Ralph retired in 1979 and removed to Dorset. The remnants of the orchard were grubbed up by the most recent owners to make way for stables.[33]

As with Meldreth and Melbourn there was an expansion in soft fruit cultivation in Shepreth. In the mid-1960s Mick Day, a county council tenant farmer, planted 10 acres of strawberries, raspberries, currants and gooseberries next to the railway line, behind his farm house. Initially the fruit was marketed through Cambridge Growers, the local cooperative venture. The fruit was collected by lorry from local growers, including the Day family, for distribution to wholesale markets – the growers receiving the same collective price. His son, Steve, remembers his mother was heavily involved on the fruit side of the farm and they employed three women from the village to pick the fruit, and when the soft fruit season was over, move on to harvesting potatoes. The farm developed a ‘pick your own’ operation. People would come up to Shepreth on the train from the New Towns, such as Welwyn Garden City and Stevenage. The local market for PYO soft fruit was very competitive. Steve remembers that local growers would check on each other’s prices and look to undercut each other. At the beginning of the season their most important crop, strawberries, commanded high prices, which then began to fall until the end of the season when customers would come and pick larger (cheap) quantities for domestic jam-making.

Eventually the PYO market became saturated and Mick Day’s soft fruit operation suffered from competition from other growers along the A10 corridor, nearer to the New Towns. The opening of a nearby local factory, Grant Electronics, took away their female labour force. Soft fruit-growing was wound up in the 1980s, when Mick expanded the pig-breeding side of the mixed-farm business.


[1] Cambridge University Library: CUL Maps. bb. 53 (1) 01. 122

[2] Cambs. Sheet LVII. 3, 1886, LIII SE, 1950, with revisions, 1901, 1938, 1946.

[3] CUL Maps, Shepreth uncatalogued sales particulars, 9 June, 1875.

[4] Cambs. Sheets LVIII.11,12, 15., 1886 and LIII SE, 1950, with revisions, 1901, 1937, 1946.

[5] VCH Cambs., vol.5, p. 252.

[6] Cambs. Archives: CA 296 SP/172, sale of 27 June, 1888.

[7] CA 470/071. Shepreth Land Valuation Survey.

[8] Shepreth, Distant Voices. Shepreth in the 20th Century, ed. Brian Farmer, 2004, p.44.

[9] Ibid, p.51. Tim Brightwell’s story.

[10] CUL Maps, Shepreth uncatalogued sales particulars, 3 June, 1922.

[11] CA 296 SP/1184, sale of 9 July, 1935.

[12] ‘Wisbech’s progress in Canning,’ The Fruit Grower, 29 May, 1930, p.881.

[13] CUL Maps PSQ 19.291. Sale of 12 July, 1919, (Docwras Estate sale), part of lot 2. This orchard does not appear on the Tithe Map of 1840. It is still indicated on the 6 inch OS Map of 1950.

[14] VCH Cambs., vol.5, p.254.

[15] CUL Maps Shepreth uncatalogued sales particulars, 27 July, 1918 (Riversdale Farm); 4 June, 1920 (Rockwood House).

[16] CUL Maps, Shepreth uncatalogued sales particulars, 4 June, 1920.

[17] See Kelly’s Directory, 1937, described as Allen and Clement’s ‘Rockwood Nurseries’. Shown on OS Cambs. Sheet L111.SE, 1950. See also CRO 515 SP/2284, sale of Allen’s Nurseries, Shepreth, 18 December, 1959.

[18] My thanks to Jenny Ravenhill and Charles Smith for showing me around the orchard and providing documentary evidence relating to the property.

[19] CA 296 SP/172, sale of 31 May, 1888.

[20] CA 470/071.

[21] My thanks to Alison Pearce and Eve Hardman for their help with this section.

[22] CUL Maps PSQ 19.689, sale of 23 May, 1953.

[23] OS 25 inch Cambs. Sheet LVIII.3. (1886).

[24] CA 470/071.

[25] CUL Maps PSQ 19.291. Sale of Docwraies Estate. Lots 6, 15.

[26] VCH Cambs., vol.5, p.252; OS Cambs. Sheet LIII, 1950.

[27] CA 470/071. Shepreth Land Valuation Survey.

[28] Kelly’s Directory, 1929, 1933. Cambridge Independent Press, 17 February, 1933, p.16. Indicated in OS Cambs. Sheet LIII. SE, 1950.

[29] Cambridge Independent Press, 18 March, 1921, p.4.

[30] Kelly’s Directory, 1933, 1937.

[31] CUL Maps PSQ 19 710. Sale of Rushmore House and orchard, 2 September, 1955.

[32] CUL Maps. Shepreth uncatalogued sales particulars, 18 May, 1927.

[33] My thanks to Margaret and Janet Fuller (neé Newell) for information on the orchard and the Nodder and Newell families.

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Fruit Stealing in South Cambs

Extract from my forthcoming book on fruit farming in South Cambs., from chapter six, ‘Fruit Growing and Village Life’. (Copyright J. Spain, 2016).

A problem which growers faced at this stage of the season was that of petty larceny – the stealing of fruit, which was punishable by summary conviction by two justices of the peace at the local magistrate’s court.[1] Since the earliest times this form of crime had been one of the offences of youth; scrumping has always been considered a ‘right of passage’ by local lads in fruit-growing districts. As early as 1394 John and William Borle, sons of Robert Borle and William and Philip Waryn, sons of John Waryn, entered the manor of Topcliffe in Meldreth, ‘and there took away unlawfully, namely apples, pears and plums without licence,’ and were amerced the sum of 10d at the manorial court.[2]

With the development of commercial fruit growing in the district in the late 19th century such crimes came up before the Melbourn Bench and it is evident that the local justices were minded to treat the matter very seriously, in defence of the fruit grower’s financial interest. In 1879 John Jude, of Meldreth, a boy of 12 years was charged with stealing apples valued at 1 shilling, belonging to Charles Ellis, also of Meldreth. Jude was seen in the orchard by Samuel Woods, a local publican, who took him along to Mr Ellis. The boy has twelve apples in his pockets. Mr Ellis had lost about a bushel of apples to theft that season and was minded to make an example of the boy, who also had previous convictions for stealing, for which he had been sent to prison but was then too young to be sent to a reformatory. The chairman of the Bench, addressing Jude as a ‘very bad boy’ sentenced him to imprisonment with hard labour for ten days, after which he would be sent to a reformatory for four years – his father instructed to contribute towards his maintenance.[3]

In 1892 five lads found stealing fruit from an orchard in Barrington, namely Percy and Frederick Hardman, Henry Jude, Albert and George Wilkerson, got off more lightly – if not easily. The orchard owner, James Hunt, informed the bench that the boys had admitted stealing… ‘and their parents he understood gave them a severe flogging, which he was glad to hear, and he now asked the bench to consider that and to deal with them as leniently as the law would allow.’  The boys were fined 5 shillings each, including costs and damages, paid by their parents, with the rider, ‘the magistrates felt bound to protect persons growing fruit, and if they were brought here again, the Bench would deal more severely with them.’[4]

The harshness of the Victorian penal system had been ameliorated by 1918 when the Melbourn fruit grower, J.J. Newling, brought an action against three local boys, Frank Herbert, Sydney Cooper and George Harrup, aged 12-13, for damaging crops in his orchard at The Moor. They were brought before a special Children’s Court, bound over for six months and placed under the supervision of the local probation officer. Newling had witnessed the boys throwing sticks at pears and walnuts, causing much damage to his trees, commenting…‘they were always at it, Sunday after Sunday, whenever he went to chapel, these boys were after his fruit.’[5]

In their zeal to press charges fruit growers could sometimes over-reach themselves. In 1878 the Melbourn Bench dismissed charges of fruit stealing brought by Mr A. Coningsby, a Melbourn coprolite merchant, against Lionel and Emily Swift. That summer Conningsby had purchased the rights to fruit in an orchard at The Moor, formerly belonging to the Vulcan Iron Works, recently sold by their father and his business partner, Messrs Swift and Dod. Emily Swift was the tenant of a cottage at The Moor adjacent to the orchard. The charge of stealing fruit against Lionel Swift was rejected as a simple misunderstanding. He was visiting his sister and thought the fruit still belonged to his father.  Emily had also been seen picking up some windfall plums on the way to her watercress bed at the back-end of the orchard, valued at 6d. Emily, being known personally to members of the Bench as an upstanding and respectable person, they refused to convict, on the grounds that her action was not knowingly illegal. Coningsby withdrew both charges, claiming his motive was simply to make known his rights to the fruit and to defend his property.[6] The parents of John Jude might be forgiven for thinking there was one rule for the poor and one for the better-off.

The promptness of these fruit growers in seeking legal redress against fruit-stealing suggests it was widespread and largely undetected – hence their willingness to make examples of those who were caught stealing small amounts, and (in most cases) the willingness of the Bench, composed of landowners, to back them up with the fullest force of the law. This may have been a problem which the smaller grower was more concerned to deal with by legal means. The larger growers would not feel the loss to the same extent.  In the 1960s, Terry Dash has told me he assumed that some stealing went on, particularly from his orchards nearer to Whitecroft Road in Meldreth, but did not consider it a serious problem. Keith Barnes tell me that it was a common pastime in the 1940s. When he and a group of lads were caught stealing apples from River Farm (Chivers) in Haslingfield, the foreman lined them all up to retrieve the fruit hidden in their shirts and gave them a stern talking too – but no further action was taken. Chris Brunning, who grew up in Barrington in the 1950s remembers scrumping was fairly widespread amongst the village boys, particularly from Eastwood’s fruit farm on Chapel Hill.

[1] The offence of stealing fruit from orchards, gardens and nurseries was formally established by act of parliament in 1826 with powers of imprisonment for up to six months with or without hard labour and or a fine, in default of which imprisonment resulted. Prior to that the law was unclear with a technical distinction made between trespass when the fruit was still on the tree and a felony when collected on the ground. See Sir G.K.Rickards, Statues of the United Kingdom…., 1826, pp.300-1. The Larceny Act of 1859, consolidated/updated previous legislation, see clauses XXIX-XXX. Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons and Command Papers, 1859.

[2] London Metropolitan Archives, HO1/ST/K15/5, manor of Meldreth (Topcliffe), Cambs. Calendar of Court Rolls II A, page 31, packet 1, roll 1, membrane 7. The manor was owned by St.Thomas’ Hospital. My thanks to Kath Betts, Meldreth Local History Group, for the use of this evidence from her research.

[3] Royston Crow, 28 November, 1879, p. 9; Melbourn Petty Sessions. ‘A Bad Boy.’

[4] Royston Crow, 28 August, 1892, p.8, Melbourn Petty Sessions, ‘Orchard Robbery in Barrington.’

[5] Royston Crow, 1 November, 1918, p.3, Melbourn Petty Sessions, ‘After Walnuts and Fruit’.

[6] Royston Crow, 30 August, 1878, p.5, Melbourn Petty Sessions, ‘Alleged Fruit Stealing at Melbourn.’


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Leonard Illingworth, musician, chess-player and beekeeper

I am researching the life of Leonard Illingworth, who lived in Foxton from the early 1920s till his death in the mid 1950s. He lived at The Way’s End, with two and a half acres of garden, where he kept an apiary of 5o-60 hives. He was an active chess player at county level and previously at Cambridge University. His bee-keeping interests led to involvement in various related organisations and an active side line as a writer on bee-matters. He was also a gifted musician (piano and organ).

I would be interested to hear from anyone who has information on his life, family background and origins, and local activities, and his property in Foxton.





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The legal dispute between Chivers and Eastwood Cement at Barrington hill in 1930

Extract from my forthcoming book on the history of fruit farming in South Cambs:

In 1900 the fruit-growing and jam making business of John Chivers & Sons began to take an interest in acquiring suitable orchard land in South Cambridgeshire, purchasing the large De La Warr estate in Haslingfield. Previously John Chivers had bought greengages from a local dealer, which had been grown on the chalk hills between Haslingfield and Barrington. The wider low-lying district had suffered very badly from frost damage. Three of the farms in Haslingfield, Grove, Green and River Farms, were retained as mixed-farming enterprises. The rest were sold off and Chivers planted greengages and Victoria plums on the southern side of Barrington hill in 1910. The Land Valuation Survey of that year records Chivers then owned ‘land and plantation’ of 45 acres on Barrington hill. In 1924 8 acres of raspberries were planted below the plum orchard.

By the late 1920s this was a mature fruit orchard of some 85 acres. The large scale 25 inch OS map revision of 1937 shows the detailed lay-out of the fruit farm. At that time the main orchard of 65 acres was set out in six rectangular blocks on the southern side of the hillside, with access lanes leading back to the storage and packing buildings. An adjacent block of 5 acres was also planted and there were three other blocks of 4.7, 6.3 and 5.8 acres on either side of the ridge.

A report on a visit to the orchard in 1929 describes a mixed orchard of plums, apples, pears, cherries and soft fruit. The largest blocks on the southern slope were greengages and plums. The orchard maintained 70 beehives to assist pollination of the plums, a grove of cherries, pear trees and blackcurrants. It was stated the bees were not used in the apple orchard, where a heavy set was undesirable. The hives were moved about the orchard by means of trucks on a light tramway. Chivers had banned the use of tar-distillate sprays at blossom-time, following evidence of their ill-effects on the bee population.

Meanwhile, in 1914 the Dreadnought Portland Cement Co. Ltd. had purchased Hill Farm, an estate of 151 acres running from the high road towards the boundary with Chiver’s fruit plantation on Barrington hill. A geological survey had revealed that large chalk deposits below the surface of the hillside were of a quality suitable for the manufacture of Portland cement. Work was started. The chimney and power house were built and the laying down of a private standard gauge branch railway line, connecting the works and future quarry to the main line at Foxton station, was completed. However the firm went bust and was liquidated in 1921. The business was bought by the Eastwood Cement Co. Ltd. in 1924. The new works and quarry came into full production in 1927, with a capital investment of £200,000 and a government grant of £100,000, eventually employing several hundred local people.

Sulphurous smells and plumes of light dust and smoke from the chimneys were experienced by the fruit pickers during the course of 1927 and in the summer of 1928 there was large-scale damage to the raspberry crop, with scorching and shrivelling of the plants facing the cement works. In May of 1929 the heavy plum blossom was seriously damaged. Chivers took legal and technical advice and, with the financial assistance of the National Farmers Union, brought an injunction against Eastwood’s to cease operations deemed to be damaging their fruit. The case was heard in the Court of Chancery in early May 1930. The Injunction was granted with a stay of 21 days to allow negotiations over compensation. Eastwood’s took the case to the Court of Appeal in July, where the original injunction in favour of Chivers was upheld. However, a further temporary stay of the injunction was granted to allow the parties to come to an agreement.

Accepting defeat, in order to have the injunction lifted Eastwood offered to purchase the fruit farm from Chivers, offering £7,000 but eventually accepting Chivers’ valuation of £13,000. The sale was completed by the end of January 1931. From that time on the orchards were maintained by Eastwood, taking staff formerly employed by Chivers, working under their own fruit farm manager. Things appear to have settled down. In 1934, at Eastwood’s expense, the fruit pickers employed by the company went on a day’s outing to Southend. In the fruit season advantage was taken of the firm’s branch railway line to deliver fruit to Foxton station for onward distribution to wholesale markets. (One wonders whether they sold any of their fruit to the Chivers Jam factory). Regular passenger trains were shunted into the siding at Foxton to pick up a waggon of plums brought in by the shunter.

In 1945 the fruit farm was visited by a party of 180 local fruit growers. The report of the visit described an orchard of approximately 100 acres of fruit, mainly plums and greengages, ‘for which this orchard is famous.’ The party, who were guided by the orchard manager, Mr Baker, and K.V. Cramp the county horticultural adviser, ‘were quick to appreciate the excellent cultivation on this heavy boulder clay and also the clear condition of the trees and enormous fruit crop.’ In his closing remarks Mr Cramp noted the heavy spring frosts which elsewhere in the district had produced a complete ‘wipe-out.’

The company had always denied that there was a persistent or general problem with emissions and that the damage done to Chivers’ crops in the late 1920s was caused by other factors such as frost, drought or insect damage. However evidence of specific intermittent damage by emissions from the chimneys was considered strong enough by two courts to support the case for an injunction against the company. The judgements given in both courts stated that the other causes cited by Eastwood had existed before 1927 and not produced the same ill-effects. The only new factor to emerge in 1927 was the cement works and the judges in both hearings felt compelled to allow the injunction. The eventual compromise allowed the works to continue and for Chivers to walk away with sizeable compensation – the £13,000 paid by Eastwood for the orchard was spent on extensions to the Jam Factory at Histon.

Given the excellent condition of the orchard in the mid-1940s, we might conclude that eventually solutions were found to this intermittent problem with emissions and the fruit farm was able to prosper. The quarry, cement works and fruit farm were taken over by Rugby Portland Cement Co. in 1962. The fruit farm survived until the early 1970s, when it was grubbed up, but this was due to market conditions which were having a bad effect across the whole district.

Full references to be be provided in the book form.

(Copyright Jonathan Spain 2016.)

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Shepreth as seen by others

Over the years I have come across references to Shepreth in historical papers, local history books, county guides and other publications and it is interesting to see how the village has been represented down the ages.

If one was writing a description of the village today I would mention the magnificent stand of mature trees along Fowlmere Road, the pleasant chalk stream running through the village, and one or two of the older houses, such as Docwras Manor, Tyrells Hall and Nuns Manor at Frog End, and also the attractive cluster of thatched cottages (and mill buildings) around the bridge in the centre of the village and at Frog End. The gardens at the Meldreth Road crossing house and at Docwras Manor have become well-known local features.

The development of Shepreth Wildlife Park would be worthy of note, with an interesting history, starting out as an animal rescue center. I would mention the modernised village pub, The Plough, newly reopened, which has proved such an asset to the village and restored a greater sense of community. The recent improvements at the railway station, carried out by the small band of local volunteers, with the arrangement of flower tubs, would speak to this improved community spirit.

But what did others make of it in earlier times? Writing in the 1630s the Shepreth antiquary, John Layer, described the parish thus:

‘The soil is very fruitful for corne and grasse, the towne standeth almost in the midst of the bounds, and is environed on all sides, the south-east excepted, with rivers and brooks, and hath a pleasant and sweet brook besides, running through the middle of the towne.’

The vicar of Barrington, Edward Conybeare, wrote a series of local guides and history books in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In his ‘Tourist’s Guide to the City of Cambridge’ (revised 1892) he set out a series of walks based on the railway stations on lines running from Cambridge. In Route ‘C’ from Cambridge to Royston by rail he writes:

‘A footpath from Barrington to Shepreth, the next station, whence the visitor will observe rising all around him the chimneys of cements works, the latest Cambs. industry,’ and goes on to mention Shepreth ‘which is chiefly attractive by the clean and copious stream winding through the village, which is worth tracing to its source (2 miles off) in the old mere, whence Fowlmere is named’.

Conybeare was, like many in the Late Victorian-Edwardian period, a cycling enthusiast, and published a popular book of routes, ‘Rides Round Cambridge. A Cyclist’s Guide to the District,’ 1902. Route VII (Barrington, Orwell, Shepreth, Foxton) contains the following description:

‘Crossing the Cam we reach the Great Northern Railway at Shepreth Station and immediately enter the pretty village…with its shady lane watered by the clearest of brooks (rising in what was till lately the veritable mere of Fowlmere). Turning right after passing the station and immediately left, leads us past the church (barely worth a mention though the chancel arch has curious features).’ The route then turned back towards Foxton.

Conybeare was clearly delighted by the brook for again in ‘Highways and Byways of Cambridgeshire and Ely,’ (1910) he writes of Shepreth, ‘This is a little gem of a village, with a clear and copious brook, running across its maze of thick-shaded lanes’. Members of ‘The Friends of the River Shep’ will take note of this long-standing appreciation of the attractive qualities of our little brook, as a distinguishing feature of the village, going back to John Layer in the mid 17th century and noted repeatedly by Edward Conybeare in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

Shepreth (and its brook) was not always treated so well by writers. Charles G. Harper, (1863-1943), author and illustrator, made an industry of topographical works, with titles such as ‘The Brighton Road’ (1892), ‘The Portsmouth Road’ (1899) etc. In 1902 he published ‘The Cambridge, Ely and Kings Lynn Road. The Great Fenland Highway.’ Harper must have visited on a wet and dreary day for his description of Shepreth is unremittingly damning and snooty. He begins pleasantly enough:

‘Shepreth hides itself from the road. Let us take the winding by-way that leads to it [from the present day junction of Frog End and the A10] and see what a purely agricultural Cambridgeshire village set down in this level plain and utterly out of touch with the road may be like.’

But he was clearly unimpressed, for he continues….’It needs no great exercise of the deductive faculty to discover, on the way to Cambridge, that this is not a place of great or polite resort, [gasp!] for the lane is a narrow and winding way, half muddy ruts and loose stones. Besides it crawls imperceptibly in its deep ditch like bed, overhung with pollarded willows, a stream which takes its rise from the bogs of Fowlmere. By what lazy snakish windings it ultimately finds its way to the Cam does not concern us.’ Evidently, Harper did not appreciate Conybeare’s ‘shady lane’ watered by a ‘clear and copious brook’, rising ‘from the veritable mere of Fowlmere.’

He continues: ‘Here and there mud-walled cottages, brilliantly white-washed and heavily thatched dot the way, the sum total of the village, saving indeed the church standing adjoining the farmyard churned in a sea of mud.’

About the church Harper and Conybeare are more in agreement but Harper is unreserved in his criticism, laced with a touch of ironic understatement: ‘The church is not altogether prepossessing. The south isle has been rebuilt in white brick, in the style rivaling the worst efforts of the old time chapel-builder, and the old tower, whose upper stages have long fallen in ruin, shows in the contorted courses of its stone work how the building has sunk and settled in the water-logged soil’. Harper concludes his description of Shepreth with evident relief: ‘beyond this soddened village, coming to the High Road again, the station and level crossing at Foxton are reached.’

The most detailed description we have of the village (and its history) comes from the report of the ‘Autumn Excursion of the Cambs. and Hunts. Archaeological  Society’, which visited Melbourn, Fowlmere and Shepreth on the 22 September,1922. This coach party was led by William Mortlock Palmer, the local antiquarian and Linton GP, whose family was from Meldreth. He gave a series of talks on various architectural features in the village as the group made they way round.

The first stop was the mill, where the mill house, mill and barns were described as ‘a pleasant group’ before moving on to Manor Farm, adjacent to the church, where Palmer read a paper  on the history of the Manor of the Nunnery of Chatteris, down to the time of John Layer, about whom Dr Palmer was an authority.

Dr Palmer’s detailed description of the history of the village church rather bears out the comments made by Conybeare and Harper. Although first recorded in 1254,  the short heyday of its history was the 14th century when it was largely rebuilt and well furbished. Thereafter it is a continuous story of disrepair, delapidation and periods of non-residence. In 1774 the spire was taken down because it had cracked the tower, causing two bells to fall and be broken. In 1852 the tower remained in a dangerous state and the church’s condition was described as disgraceful. Palmer, like Conybeare noted the chancel arch, possibly Norman, as the best, most important feature. Despite the history of neglect the church still stands, its original clunch masonry patched up with modern brickwork and cement, (not the best means of renovation!)  but the churchyard is rather attractive in a quiet modest way.

The party then moved on to Wimbish Manor, some of the group walking through the ‘well-wooded and well watered park of Tyrells Manor, with Mr Woodham, the owner. On the way to Tyrells, the “pleasant sweet brook” of old John Layer was crossed by a footbridge’.

The report continued… ‘At Wimbish Manor the jaded antiquaries were welcomed by Mr and Mrs Webber. Tea tables had been set on one of the lawns, and the guests enjoyed the good things thereon in ease and comfort.’ To conclude the outing Dr Palmer then gave a paper on the complicated descent of the other manor in the village, Delahaye’s Manor which was eventually divided into Wimbish and Docwras Manors.

John Layer, Edward Conybeare and Dr Palmer, would be gladdened to know that the brook, which we know as the River Shep, is enjoyed and looked after by local residents, long after their time, and recognised as a vital and important feature of the village. Even Charles Harper, one would hope, would have appreciated the efforts of the ‘Friends of the River Shep’ to clear the banks and maintain the flow of the river!

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