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.’


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. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Fruit Stealing in South Cambs

  1. Nigel Handscombe says:

    Interesting I lived at the Plough in the forties and early fifties the Plough had two Orchards with Greengages, Victoria plumbs Cox Blenheim and Brambley apples, Horse radish also grew in the orchard.
    Regards Nigel Handscombe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s