The following newspaper articles from the nineteenth century describe the local strawberry gardens, their produce and the unusual means of transportation. The first four articles span nearly 60 years and an anticipated technological advance - the sprung 'cars' described in 1834 - is referred to again in 1856, but it seems women still had a key role in conveying the precious and delicate fruit to London until the second half of the mid-nineteenth century.
The articles have all been found in the British Newspaper Archive through searches in FindMyPast.
Not all strawberries travelled to London, they were also used in jam making by the local Beach family: Janet McNamara researched the family business and her essay provides more context about the strawberry trade.
Caledonian Mercury Monday 23 June 1834
THE MODE BY WHICH LONDON IS SUPPLIED WITH STRAWBERRIES
Some hundreds of persons derive their livelihood, during the time when they are in season, from the various operations which the supplying London with strawberries occasions. It may not, therefore, be uninteresting to take a view of the mode in which that city is supplied with strawberries.
Most of the strawberries consumed in the metropolis are grown within ten miles of it, and by far the greatest number of strawberry-gardens are on its western side. The chief places at which they are situated are Isleworth, Brentford, Ealing, Hammersmith, Fulham, Deptford, Mortlake, Hackney, and Camberwell. The extent of land cultivated for strawberries has been much increased within a few years, and has been estimated at more than a thousand acres for the supply of London alone.
The greatest number of persons who derive employment in producing strawberries for the markets are females, with the exception of those who dress the ground on which they grow. In the season in which strawberries are ripe, which is usually the end of May, the women who gather the fruit assemble in the strawberry garden in the morning, as soon as it is light, which at that time of the year is between three and four o'clock, and commence plucking the fruit. The best fruit, which is gathered earliest in the morning, is taken to the packing-room and carefully put in pottle-baskets; fifty or sixty of these are placed in a large basket, and before seven o'clock in the morning, a number of women are despatched to the metropolis, each with one of these large baskets, which she carries on the top of her head, with only a small cushion to make the pressure of the weight equal over the upper surface of the head. The weight of the baskets and fruit is from thirty to forty pounds, and sometimes even more.
A party of these carriers then set off with their burdens, walking at a quick pace and occasionally running, so that they generally accomplish five miles an hour during their journey. And it is pleasing to observe with what skill and address, from habit, they manage their head-loads (as they are called), seldom having occasion to hold them with their hands. The burden being placed at the top of the head, makes it necessary for the carriers to keep a very upright posture in walking, so much so, that young persons, in higher ranks of life, having been corrected of a bad habit of stooping, by being made to walk with a small weight on their heads, without being allowed to touch in with their hands, in imitation of these poor women. When men occasionally carry the fruit, they have a shoulder-knot, similar to those used by porters, so that part of the weight rests on the shoulder, and part on the head, but by this mode of conveyance the fruit is generally more injured than when carried by women.
The carriers arrive at the principal fruiterers in London early enough for their customers to be supplied with fruit gathered the same morning, The same women sometimes proceed with a second load to London, even when the strawberry-ground is situated seven or eight miles from the fruiterer's.
The employment of females as carriers of fruit, is, within the last three or four years, greatly diminished, by some of the largest strawberry-growers having established light kinds of cars, hung on very pliable springs, like those used for coaches and drawn by a quick-paced horse; one of these cars carries about twenty baskets, each of which would be a load for a woman. Though this mode is a considerable saving of expense, yet it does not convey the fruit in such perfection as when carried on the head.
The fruit not sent by these two methods is conveyed in carts with springs, during the night, to London, for the early markets, which commence at day-break, and is sold wholesale by the gardeners, to the various retailers of fruit.
Globe 27 June 1834
The women employed in gathering and conveying the strawberries to London cannot be estimated at less, during the time they are in season, than two thousand persons. Part of these are the inhabitants of the adjacent towns, but a great number of them are young women who migrate annually from Worcestershire, Shropshire and Wales. And after the strawberries, raspberries, currants, and gooseberries are passed, return to the country in time to assist at the harvest, having usually during their migration saved enough to buy a good stock of clothes, and to lay by some money towards their support during the following winter. They are in general very industrious, neat, and well-conducted in their behaviour. – Saturday Magazine.
Illustrated London News 12 July 1856
These extracts are from a long article headed “Strawberry Culture” about growing strawberries and mentions a new variety, Princess Royal, also four popular varieties: British Queen, Black Prince, Elton Pine, Keen’s Seedling.
The strawberry, up to the time of the Dutch gardeners coming here was called woodberry. One year a heavy hailstorm came over London and spoiled all the woodberries with grit and mould; next year the gardeners laid straw under them, and from that time they were named strawberries. [The article includes an earlier reference to ‘the old Dutch gardener who came over in Queen Anne’s time, and settled on the Grosvenor estate, between Vauxhall and Chelsea’].
At the picking season the best fruits are put into one and two pound punnets, the smaller ones into pottles. They are either sent to market on women’s head, in a large round basket with divisions in it; or, what are now used largely, and which are much better, spring vans. …The women who carry baskets on their heads to London, earn a great deal of money, but it is fearfully hard work, especially from the districts of Isleworth, Brentford, &c. – a distance of from eight to ten miles: two journeys are often performed by the same women. But now nearly all the large growers have sprung vans; some send up by railway, &c.
Pall Mall Gazette 3 July 1890
IN THE WAKE OF THE STRAWBERRY WAIN
Our Bromley correspondent writes: A word about strawberries. Nothing like writing when you are full of your subject: they are plentiful enough this season to be something more than a mere name even to the newspaper scribbler, For the past fortnight wagons of empty punnets – made at Brentford – have been travelling down to the Kentish strawberry gardens about Bexley and Farnborough. They (the punnets) go down by day, and return (filled) by night. A walk in the wake of one of these strawberry wains is a treat for anyone who is sick of the scent of new-mown hay. Last night I followed one from Farnborough to Bromley; and I freely forgave those benighted etymologists who will insist – in defiance of Littre – that fragrum is derived from fragrans. How blame a man for following his nose?
Middlesex Chronicle 13 June 1914
The Strawberry Season
It was decided that the Market should be kept open until 4pm from the 14th inst. To the end of the strawberry season, as in previous years.
Published June 2017