Fruit Farming in the Vale of Evesham until the Early 1930s – A Brief History

The Vale of Evesham is a flat and fertile area in the south of Worcestershire flanked on the east by the Cotswold Hills and intersected by the River Avon which flows westward from Evesham to Pershore, joining the River Severn at Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. The fertile soil of the flood plain (the Vale) combined with relatively mild winters, rainfall that is well distributed throughout the year and summers with a narrow temperature range lends itself well to growing fruit and vegetables.

Fruit and vegetable growing probably began with the Benedictine monks of Evesham Abbey who planted perry pear and cider apple orchards. By 1870, pears and apples were grown on a large scale with Worcestershire cider and perry well known across the country.

The expansion of the fruit and farming industry in the Vale was closely associated with the industrial developments in the Midlands and South Wales and greatly assisted by the development of the railways. Evesham was served by two lines, the LMS (London, Midland and Scottish) and GWR (Great Western Railway). The companies designed ventilated wagons to aid transportation of perishable items and soon fruit and vegetables loaded onto trains in the afternoon in Worcestershire could arrive fresh and ready for markets in London, Bristol, the Midlands and north of England by 6am the following morning.

Plum Plantations in the Vale

Apple and pear production in the Vale had dropped after 1900 as the demand for cider had fallen and it proved to be no longer profitable. By 1910, production had turned to plums and they became the major crop in the Vale. The Ministry of Agriculture records that Mr G.F. Bomford planted the first commerical plum plantation at Atch Lench following two years of disastrous sheep farming and failed corn crops in 1881-82. Bomford favoured the Pershore Yellow Egg Plum discovered between 1822 and 1827 by George Crooke and his son Thomas in Tiddesley Wood, Pershore. By 1833, the Pershore Yellow Egg became the most commonly grown plum. This was later followed by the Martin’s Purple Pershore Plum (discovered in 1877 by Mr Walter Martin of Drakes Broughton near Pershore), then the Victoria, Czar and Prolific varieties. In the 1920s and ’30s these five varieties accounted for two thirds of the total area of plums cultivated in the Vale.

The Pershore Yellow Egg is a prolific cropper with a long season that can be picked before it is ripe. The fruit is firm so it can be transported long distances without deterioating and losing its appearance. But it is a poor dessert plum so lends itself to cooking, canning and jam making. 

Similarly the Purple Plum is only really suitable for cooking, canning and jam making. The Purple Plum was particularly popular with fruit farmers in the 1920s and by the 1930s was processed in large quantities for the canning industry.

The Victoria (a cultivar of the egg plum) is a good all-round plum and was in great demand by the dessert and domestic market in the 1920s and 1930s and still is one of the most popular varities today in the UK. Demand for Victorias drove the price up making it a more expensive variety for jam and canning. The Czar, a large round fruit, was also priced out of the canning market as the cans contained fewer fruits.

Between 1916 and 1920 landowners sold considable areas of land, the buyers often willing to pay high prices to secure the land for fruit farming. In one particular case a plantation of plums near Pershore changed hands at approximately £200 per acre1. Fruit production was particularly important during the food shortages of the First World War when plums and fruit from the Vale were transported by train throughout the country. The postcard (insert photo) is of Hampton Park, Red Lane, Hampton, Evesham, William Deakin’s first residence and fruit farm in the Vale of Evesham.

Fruit Farming, Preserving and Canning

Fruit grown in the Vale in the 1920s and ’30s also included varieties of gooseberries, red and blackcurrants, strawberries and raspberries. Acres of strawberries were solely grown for the canning industry with the soft and over-ripe fruits going to the jam factories. Plantations of plums were often underplanted with gooseberries and currants and in season tens of tons of fruit would be picked every day.

Fruit and vegetable harvesting was done by casual labour picking from first light to dusk. Around Pershore, pickers worked in distinct groups, the ‘locals’, the ‘Worcesters’ and the ‘Dudleys’ (labourers from the Black Country). An interesting British Pathé newsreel filmed on 16th August 1937 has various shots of men, women and children picking plums in an orchard near Evesham. Mrs W.R. Deakin (Mary Jane Hartley Deakin) pictured left with fruit pickers on a Deakin fruit farm in the Vale of Evesham c.1920 (photographer unknown – insert photo).

By the late 1920s fruit growers faced competition from cheaper imports and new ‘exotic’ fruits from Europe and South Africa which were more carefully graded and attractively packed in small boxes rather than wicker pots2, known in Evesham as the ‘Evesham Pot’ and in Pershore as the ‘Pershore Pot’. Foreign imported fruit arrived on the market often up to three weeks before British varieties and importers were therefore able to command higher prices. Imported plums reached the market by the middle of July whereas home-produced plums would not appear until early August.

Demand for local gooseberries, a natural source of pectin (a gelling agent) for jam making, started to decline after 1914 with the introduction of commercial pectin. The use of commerical pectin meant that the jam factories could use cheaper pulped fruit imported more economically in larger quantities and before English varieties were ready, thereby extending the jam making season. This increase in the use of imported pulped fruit saw the fall in demand by the jam factories for local soft and over-ripe fruit leaving local farmers with an excess supply that was often left to rot. 1926 in particular saw a significant increase in imported pulped fruit for jam making blamed on an unfortunate rumour that English crops had been destroyed by frost which increased demand for foreign orders that year.

The onset of the industrial depression of 1929-30 also contributed to the decline of the fruit and vegetable farming across the Vale. Before the First World War, there was great demand for the Vale’s vegetables and fruit in South Wales, but that market feel with the general depression of industry in South Wales. Farmers turned to markets in Birmingham and London but those markets were already saturated and many were left with a surplus. 

1930 saw particularly heavy losses in the fruit-growing industry across England. Commander Sir William Bolton Eyres Monsell, Conservative MP for South Worcestershire at the time, during a House Commons debate on the state of the fruit-growing industry in the November of that year, described the ‘tragic state in which the industry has been this summer’ around Evesham. A glut of fruit led to acres of fruit being left to rot on the trees and unemployment amongst fruit pickers for the first time. Land values had fallen since their post-war high and growers’ costs had increased. Growers across the country were not making any money, consumers were paying much higher prices and the intermediaties between the grower and the consumer, were making most of the profit. The fruit, before it reached the consumer could go through as many as 20 different handlings including the commission salesman who charged commission at percentage rates and a flat fee when prices were low, the wholesale buyer and wholesale and retail dealers. In the summer of 1930, Pershore Yellow Egg plums were reportedly selling for 1s 6d per pot in the markets at Evesham (a pot held 72lbs and there were about ten Pershore Plums to the lb). The plums costing c.9d to pick and being sold c.1s 6d left very little profit for the grower.

Freight rates had also increased. The railways advertised in foreign trade journals to attract the growing overseas market and introduced lower rates for freight trains carrying fruit from the ports up to London for sale at Covent Garden. This saw trains with English fruit being held up in sidings with the result that by the time the fruit got to market it had often started to perish and therefore commanded lower prices that the foreign imported fruit.

Canning increased in Britain in the early 1930s but so did the volume of imported canned fruit. In 1931 the total imports of canned fruit into Britain had risen to 2,198,000 cases, out of these the United States sent 1,888,000, Canada 25,000, Australia 109,000, and South Africa sent 5,0003. Imports of pulped fruits also rose and many jams were made of foreign pulped fruit or preserved fruit. Concerns were raised about the quality of foreign preserved jam fruit as it was preserved using sulphur dioxide, often for up to 2 years before being boiled down and made into jam which could then be sold as ‘home-made jam’. Pressure was placed on the Government at the time to bring in legislation to require that jam made from preserved or foreign fruit be labelled as such to encourage the sales of canned English fruit and jams made of English fruit.

The English fruit-growing industry seems to have either very good years or very bad years but over time was just unable to compete with overseas growers and suppliers. Following the November 1930 debate in The House of Commons it was resolved ‘That this House deplores the present condition of the Fruit-growing Industry and the heavy losses incurred by growers, and calls upon His Majesty’s Government to put into effect schemes which, without penalising the consuming public, will secure to the grower an economic return for his crop’4. The Government proposed help under the Agricultural Marketing Bill (The Agricultural Marketing Acts of 1931 and 1933), with a producers’ board and a standardisation scheme under the National Mark to be applied to jam made from home-grown fruit to also include plums and bottled fruit. The Import Duties Act 1932 also introduced a tariff on most imported fruit and vegetables.

By 1934 supplies of British plums increased as newer plantations across the Vale fruited but the demand for the fruit was still at a very low level and the demand for plums from British canning factories had fallen. Many orchards and plantations across the Vale started to close down as the industry continued into decline.

For more information about commercial horticulture in the Vale visit:


  1. Source: A History of Worcestershire Agriculture and Rural Evolution, R.C. Gaut 1939.
  2. The pot is a unit of crop measure originally based on the wicker pannier baskets carried by packhorses. Rates for plum picking were determined by pot equalling 72lb. Wicker pots were used until the Second World War.
  3. Source: British Food Journal, Vol. 35 Iss: 3.
  4. Source: Hansard, 19 November 1930.