Cherries and other fruit in Three Rivers

Our lost orchards?

This article draws extensively on the book The Orchards of Eastern England by Gerry Barnes and Tom Williamson (Hatfield, 2021). Three Rivers occupies the far southwest corner of the region covered, but nonetheless features in some important ways.

The soil, terrain and climate combine here to make growing fruit relatively easy. Nonetheless, our regular late frosts and occasional droughts make it a rather precarious business, and fruit growing in this area was rarely a mainstream income source for farmers. Orchards were small and often located near the house, with grass grown and grazed around the trees or with soft fruit or vegetables planted between them - what is now known as the 'farmhouse orchard'. There were commercial orchards as well, but they were smaller than in many parts of the region.

Our soil, 'Upper Greensand' over chalk, seems to be suitable for cherries, which do not like excess water or rapid drying out of the soil - plums prefer a heavier soil, but apples and pears are content here too. Before 1850 most farms had an orchard of some sort, but the cherry-growing district of southwest Hertfordshire was particularly notable, with seventeenth and eighteenth century maps regularly showing orchards. Arthur Young in his review of agriculture in this area included a short chapter on orchards, and noted (p. 143) that in '... Rickmersworth, Sarret, Kings Langley and Abbots Langley ... there are many orchards; apples and cherries are their principal produce. ... The apples are most profitable; but cherries are very beneficial to the poor, in the quantity of employment which they require in gathering the crop, for which the poor are paid from 4d to 8d per dozen pounds.' [An agricultural labourer's pay might be 1s 8d a day at this time.] The tithe maps of about 35 years later show that Abbots Langley had 49 orchards averaging 1.2 acres, Sarratt 37 orchards averaging 1.2 acres, and our other parishes very much the same. Almost all the orchards were in the small working farms which were so prominent round here, and the caroon (Hertfordshire Black) cherry seems to have been predominant. But these were domestic and local crops: commercial fruit growing was not yet important.

In the century 1850 - 1950, however, the expanding population of London provided a growing market which could be accessed by the new railways. This period also saw serious agricultural depression prompted by rapidly growing imports, and fruit production will have been encouraged as a form of diversification. Large commercial orchards began to appear, notably in Cambridgeshire, Essex and Suffolk, but in this area there was little overall change between 1850 and 1914, with Sarratt declining most markedly. This may have been due to the industrial development of the paper mills, raising wages and reducing the availability of cheap seasonal labour, but an effect there certainly was, and it will have been exacerbated by the eating up of so much of the land in the growth of Metroland. But the decline of fruit growing continued in this area even after WW2, when government policy actively encouraged the grubbing up of unproductive or uneconomic orchards for more valuable crops.

The story of Stone's Orchard in Croxley Green has been well told by Margaret Pomfret of the Croxley Green History Project, and is typical of what happened here. There were similar orchards in other places, for example off Toms Lane in Abbots Langley, and there is more to tell of this subject.

But that will follow as this site develops.