August traditionally marks the start of the silly season so in that spirit…..We’ve all heard of tulip mania in the mid-17thc and most will know about orchid-mania and the fern fever in the mid-19th but what about a gooseberry craze? I like gooseberries myself and grow a lot of them but I don’t think I’d describe myself as a gooseberry fanatic and hadn’t realised until I started researching this post that they could be the subject of intense passion. Yet for well over a hundred years they were, and there still are a small band of enthusiasts for whom that continues to be the case.
And if you want to know why then you should have been in Cheshire last week or be getting ready to go to North Yorkshire on Tuesday afternoon. These were/will be very serious occasions and anything but the silly season. Nevertheless in popular culture gooseberries often have strange assocations …
Originally gooseberries were small sour and often hairy and didn’t conjure up much enthusiasm either for their ornamental or food value, so its probably not surprising that there’s little or no mention of them by classical writers. Nor, apart for the import of some bushes from France for Edward I’s garden in the 13thc, is there any documentary evidence of them in Britain before the 16thc. After that they seem to have entered the British garden and then kitchen quite rapidly. But its not until the mid 18thc that things really begin to change and the gooseberry achieves stardom!
Lets start with some early history. Gooseberries or groiselles appear in the 1533 Introductorie for to lerne Frenche and the royal accounts show that Henry VIII bought bushes of a pale Flemish variety. Gooseberries must soon have been considered garden-worthy but perhaps not for their fruit. For example in 1577 Barnabe Googe, in Foure bookes of husbandry, noted they were “nowe a comon bushe vsed for enclosyng of Gardens, and makyng of Borders and Herbers: it wyll easyly growe, but that it is somethyng troublesome, by reason of his sharpe prickles to be bent about sommer houses.”
And they must soon have spread beyond elite gardens because Shakespeare has Falstaff declare: “All the other giftes appertinent to man, as the malice of his age shapes the one not worth a goosbery.”
By the end of the 16thc they appear in all the standard gardening texts clearly growing as Gerard’s Herbal of 1597 notes “in our London gardens and elsewhere in great abundance.” Cooks also seem to have picked up on some possible uses, including as an alternative to sour grapes particularly as a contrast and complement to oily and fatty fish and meat.
But tastes were changing and by the time Stephen Switzer wrote Practical Fruit Gardening in 1724 he could argue that “notwithstanding the Gooseberry may seem a Fruit below the Regard of the Curious; yet it is evident, no Garden can be reckon’d compleat without it.” And Indeed he goes on “I need not say much concerning their Propagation, since every one knows how it is performed.” He lists the best sorts and its clear that there are commercial gardeners propagating them and raising new varieties from seeds – don’t forget this is before scientific hybridisation. Many improved varieties were imported from Holland, which then as now was a centre of horticultural excellence and their Dutch name, Kruisbezie, is possibly the source of the English word.
Later in the 18thc its clear that interest in gooseberries was growing particularly in the midland and northern counties, notably Lancashire and Cheshire, and also in Scotland. Lancashire gooseberries became highly prized, almost like a top brand name.
It was in those areas where the first gooseberry societies and clubs were set up by amateur enthusiasts, particularly from amongst working men like weavers. Like many florists flowers such as auriculas and carnations which were also popular subjects, gooseberries were easy to grow and propagate, didn’t require expensive equipment or heat, or even much space and they were generally problem-free apart from caterpillars.
Even those were easily dealt with according to Dr Nathaniel Paterson: “If it be observed in time, a boy, hired at sixpence a-day, will in two or three days, by creeping under the bushes and gathering the caterpillars from the leaves, save the whole of your crop. If you desire him to put a notch in a small stick with his knife for every hundred he kills, you give him an incredible stimulus to perseverance.”
The result was anyone could and should grow gooseberries. They were according to Dr Paterson “the poor man’s friend, and so acceptable to the rich that none are willing to dispense with it.” [The Manse Garden, 1800]
All this interest is reflected in gardening books. Like Sydenham Edwards’ A complete dictionary of practical gardening they often include long lists of varieties, with berry weights, available from commercial nurserymen.
There were even books devoted to the gooseberry for example Thomas Haynes short treatise on their cultivation of 1812, and RFD Levingston’s A Concise and Practical Treatise on the Growth and Culture of the Gooseberry: including a Catalogue of the finest and most esteemed Varieties that are now cultivated in England and Scotland of 1822.
Levingston was a Middlesex nurseryman who listed 49 red varieties,35 yellow, 53 green and 44 white for sale. You can tell how popular gooseberries were amongst gardeners because The Monthly Review reporting the publication of his treatise expressed surprise because “the culture of the gooseberry-bush is now so common , that we did not expect a pamphlet on that branch of gardening.”
Other books report even higher numbers of named varieties: Pomarium Britannicum 182o, for example, reports being shown a catalogue with over 300 including some that still had berries on the bush at Christmas.
These were followed by 70 page booklet in 1847 by the leading horticultural journalist. George Johnson. The Gooseberry: Its Culture, Use and History was one of series of The Gardeners’ Monthly volumes he published on individual plants. It is well-researched and still widely quoted verbatim [usually without any acknowledgement] on modern websites, and contains detailed descriptions of about 200 varieties which are categorised in various ways.
It’s also clear that gooseberries were used for home brewing, from at least the early 18thc. Richard Bradley declared wine made from them “one of the richest and strongest Wines made in England; and is not, in my opinion, inferior to Mountain Malaga.” But it acquired a reputation later for making a champagne substitute, but in the process a byword for inferior. Thackeray, for example, wrote of someone who “pronounced the champagne to be condemned gooseberry.” Punch cheekily suggested in 1872 it was the other way around!
The Gooseberry societies and clubs organised competitions and contests which offered useful “domestic” prizes such as copper kettles or brass pans, for various categories of berries but always crucially the heaviest.
By 1786 there were so many groups and shows that The Gooseberry Growers Register began to be published in Manchester listing details of the shows, the prize winners, details of winning fruits especially their weight and news of new varieties etc. The societies reached a peak in the mid-19thc with the register listing 171 shows in 1845. Later it even included shows in the United States as well.
There were so many that they were satirised in Punch.
With so many growers and so many shows rules needed to be devised. I’ve written before about rules at flower shows but unlike the standards devised by George Glenny for most flowers, judging gooseberries is very different. How do you measure taste or texture, thorniness or yield? But of course you can measure size and weight even if its difficult to accurately weigh something so comparatively small.
There’s certainly more than an element of ritual and set procedures in the process. As one commentator described it : “Gooseberry shows are all about tradition, and the ritual of weighing the berries against each other (weighing off) continues as ever. Using a pair of scales, berries are compared, the heavier one retained, and the next entry balanced against it. Presumably this simplified the process as there was no need to find and then write down the weight of each entry. It’s a slow process with so many classes (colour, single, twin, triplet, multiple and plate), but as one competitor commented, ‘Why rush? If it takes all year to grow them, you may as well spend a few hours weighing them.’
And when the winners are selected they are weighed but not on electronic scales as you might expect but on a a system that probably originated in 15th-century England, which is now really only used now in the precious metals trade. It is based around the troy ounce [which is different to the “standard” avoirdupois ounce] made up of 20 pennyweights, each of which equates to 24 grains.
It must have been standard usage amongst scientists too because Charles Darwin noted in Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication (1868) that “wild” gooseberries were generally around 4.5 pennyweights. However careful selection and presumably growing techniques like careful thinning of the crop meant that by the time 1786 Register appeared many fruit exhibited weighed twice that. By 1830 the largest Yellow Gooseberry then on record – The Teazer – weighed seven times that at thirty-two pennyweights and thirteen grains, and by the 1850s a berry weighed in at 37 pennyweights 7 grains ie c. 2oz, and 7.5 times the weight of a wild one.
Darwin was intrigued by how the fruit had been induced to adapt and grow. I wonder if he’d be surprised by the fact that the 1850s record lasted until 1978 but has been surpassed several times since. The trend seems to be continuing to rise as can be seen in this table showing the weight of the heaviest berry in the shows conducted by the oldest surviving gooseberry society at Egdon Bridge near Whitby which was founded in 1800.
All this obsession with size led to a neglect of other qualities – notably taste. Benjamin Maund argued in The Fruitist of 1843 that “Although we would not discourage the amateur cultivator from indulging in a favourite pursuit, still we know no advantage attendant on a great Gooseberry, if unaccompanied by high flavour. These two qualities are somewhat incompatible. Extraordinary development in size is usually, and particularly in the Gooseberry, obtained at the expense of a proportionate deterioration of flavour….out of nearly fifty of the first-rate Lancashire varieties of Gooseberries, we could select but six of good flavour, and two only that were first-rate.”
Nevertheless the pursuit of size was popular and the giant Gooseberries have even had a song written about them- The Gooseberry Growers’ Song – although sadly I can’t find a recording of it. It is said to be sung to the tune of ‘With Henry Hunt We’ll go, we’ll go’ [which you can hear here] and various versions survive as individual show societies added their own verses.
This version was written in 1885 when a variety called ‘Bobby’ won more prizes (116) across all the shows in the country than any other variety . Its worth looking just to see some of the wonderful names that the varieties were given from the relatively obvious like Queen Victoria to the obscure such Dan’s Mistake, Antagonist and Slaughterman. It opens with this verse…
Come all ye jovial gardeners, and listen unto me
While I relate the different sorts of winning gooseberries –
This famous institution was founded long ago,
That men might meet and drink and have a gooseberry show.
As the 19thc came to an end it was clear the popularity of gooseberry clubs had started to decline and by 1896 there were only 73 shows listed in the Register. This may well have been because until 1876 there had been a tax on sugar which made commercial growing of gooseberries uneconomic. This meant that amateur growers could easily sell their crop in markets but with its repeal large scale production became worthwhile. It didn’t last that long though because all gooseberry growing took a severe downturn when a devastating form of mildew was inadvertently introduced from America, in 1905. Suddenly the gooseberry craze came to an abrupt end. Their popularity has never really returned and The Gooseberry Growers Register ceased publication in 1923.
Today there only 9 Gooseberry Societies left – but they seem to be in fine form. The end of July and beginning of August is the highlight of the their year when they hold their shows. Eight of those societies are in Cheshire which was once at the centre of the gooseberry growing world, and together they form the Mid – Cheshire Gooseberry Shows Association which is supported by the Cheshire Landscape Trust with support from the Heritage Lottery fund. The other one is at Egdon Bridge, near Whitby in North Yorkshire whose show day is on Tuesday This is the oldest surviving group having been founded in 1800 and I’m sure they’re hoping for another world-beating berry!
There’s lots more information about these various groups and their shows on their websites which also have detailed accounts of their history. There is also a wonderfully heartwarming short film – The Forgotten Fruit – about the Egdon Bridge show which captures the quirky spirit of gooseberry growing in a very understated English way.
I’ve written too much to have a lot of space for some of the stranger associations of the gooseberry… suffice it to say that the Oxford Dictionary dates most of them to the 19th century but can’t explain why they started. Punch is full of jokes about gooseberry fools and playing “Old Gooseberry”, a phrase also used by Dickens to mean”causing havoc” , whereas merely “playing gooseberry” without the “old” dates from 1837 and implies being an unwanted chaperone. Calling them Goosegogs apparently comes from Suffolk dialect in the early 19thc, although it’s in pretty widespread use these days. And finally…despite, or perhaps, because of, their prickly branches and fruit, gooseberries also acquired some unromantic, even derogatory sexual connotations with “gooseberry bush” being a 19thc slang term for pubic hair, which may well have given rise to saying that while babies born in wedlock were bought by a stork those whose parents were not married were born under a gooseberry bush. And on that happy note….
For more information good places to start are Christopher Stocks Forgotten Fruits 2008 which includes short histories of some of the most famous varieties and the website https://goosegogs.wordpress.com or look at the websites of the National Collections at Brogdale and Rougham Hall nursery near Bury St Edmunds.