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.


About jonathanspain

My blog reflects my interests in local history in South Cambridgeshire, growing your own food, and walking in the district and elsewhere
This entry was posted in Fruit Growing in South Cambridgeshire, South Cambridgeshire local history, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Fruit Growing in Shepreth

  1. Colin newell says:

    Hi Jonathan. My grandfather was Albert Edward Newell Not Alfred as you have. Ralph Newell was my uncle. I recall picking apples in Louise Nodders orchard as a boy when on summer holiday while staying at Cornwall House. I have quite a lot of info about the Newell and Nodder families and I am also in to ch with a woman who knows a lot about the Hopwood.

    Has your book been published yet and if so where can I get a copy.

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