Today American traveller and writer, Samuel Curwen, passed the afternoon of Saturday the 28th June 1777, strolling with friends: ‘To a strawberry garden where we regaled ourselves with a pottle of fine strawberries and cream’, showing that tastes have changed little over the years. (1)
Strawberries once grown in great number along the banks of the Rivers Thames and Brent were transported by water to nearby markets, or from Heston, Isleworth and Hounslow and other places, by female hawkers.
All it needs is the cream! (See Pic Ref. Below).
‘These women carry upon their heads baskets of strawberries and raspberries of 40-50 lbs. They do two turns a day from Isleworth… three turns from Brentford, a nine miles round trip, and four from Hammersmith of six miles. Often a conveyance was used for return journeys’.(2)
Royal Sovereign Strawberries.
An account of the time records: a ‘willowly strawberry vendor with her teeming basket of fruit and her elegant dress, is a figure of pastoral bounty and graceful urbanity-balancing with the poise of a ballet-dancer and sports a loose hood in vogue of late. A tiny curl ‘passager’ peeks out at the temple with the effect of calculated untidyness’.(sic).
‘She fastens her apron with a decorative bow and binds her shoes with a great bunch of floppy ribbons of a wider gauge than other hawkers and are tied in knots matching the bow on her scarf. The shoes are a remarkable tapering shape ending in half-moon toes’.
The 18th century novelist Tobias Smollett was less poetic however, as his Matthew Bramble’s account of some London vendors is less appetising: ‘I need not dwell upon the pallid, contaminated mash which they call strawberries; soiled and tossed by greasy paws through 20 baskets crusted with dirt and presented in the worst milk thickened with the worst flour into a bad likeness of cream…’(3)
Thomas Laxton was the last of the Victorian strawberry breeders, and responsible for the first large fruited variety we see today. It was bred in 1821 by Michael Keens of Isleworth, Middlesex and named Keens’ Seedling.
All strawberry varieties derive from Fragaria chiloensis, originally cultivated by the Chilean Indians and a popular variety Royal Sovereign from 1892 (crossed from Noble and King of the ‘Earlies’) from hundreds at the time, remains from the latter 19th century, all others succumbing to virus.
In 1851 Thomas William Beach won prizes for the British Queen strawberry at the Chiswick Horticulteral Society and the Great Exhibition with fruit of 4 ounces (oz). It was a time when fruit growing was more profitable than traditional farming.
The article by James Cuthill in the Gardeners’ Chronicle recorded that the 22 year old Thomas [was a]: ‘John Bull ready-witted, dark and sun-burnt’ who had seen potential in the land with its two falls of ground, with soil dark,sandy and loamy. The business prospered and later expanded into jam-making at Brentford well into the 20th century.
Somerset’s, Cheddar Railway was also called the Strawberry Line from the enormous quantities grown locally. These would have been sited on the south-west facing slopes on the Cheddar side of the valley. Strawberries are still grown and sold in Cheddar, Draycott (The Strawberry Special Pub is opposite the station), Stoke Rodney and Westbury-sub-Mendip.
(1) Curwen described the fruit as similar to the American ‘wood-strawberry’.
(2) Described by Steele and Richard Phillips in ‘Laroon’s account (see below). Strawberries were not sold by weight but by the ‘pottle’, on which a refund was offered.
(3) P.97 Expeditions of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett.
Pic ref: Mary Berry’s ‘Complete Book of Cooking’, Dorling Kindersley, 1995, P.469.
Ref: Criers and Hawkersof London, Engravings and Drawings, Marcellus Laroon.
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