Gooseberry clubs, or societies, were first formed in England in the mid-eighteenth century, but they reached their peak of popularity during the mid 19th century. Few people today are aware of that craze, or the fruit which sparked it, since gooseberries went into a sharp decline and then, nearly out of fashion, after the First World War.
Gooseberries are a native of Piedmont and other regions of northern Italy. They flourish best in cool, moist areas, particularly in high altitudes. It is part of the flowering genus ribes, which includes edible currants. Gooseberry trees range in size and growth habit, based on the specific variety, but they all tend to be rather scraggly in appearance. The branches of most shrubs are covered with thorns and the surface of the fruit can be rather hairy. The color of the berries ranges from yellow to white (pale green), to green, or red. In its wild state it is small, acidic and flavourless and did not appear to have attracted Roman cultivators.
There were some varieties of gooseberry which were native to England. It is recorded that some varieties of gooseberry shrubs were brought to Britain in the Middle Ages from northern France. In 1275, they were included in a large collection of plants purchased from Normandy by King Edward I. Those first French shrubs were planted in the King’s garden in Westminster. However, it is believed they were gradually propagated across the country over the years, possibly by birds, and may have inter-mingled with the wild native varieties. Nevertheless, gooseberries did not come into favour during that period, since the fruit was small, covered with tiny hairs and very sour.
It was not until the sixteenth century that gooseberry bushes were grown in an increasing number of gardens. In Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire it was known as ‘Fea-berry’
It is known that Henry VIII introduced a new pale green variety into his garden, which he imported from France. At about the same time, a growing number of cooks, mostly in the London area, began to find uses for the small, sour berry. It was discovered that the tartness of the gooseberry made a perfect complement to rich, fatty meat. In Normandy, the berries were used to make a sauce for the oily meat of the mackerel, and were known as groseille à maquereau, or mackerel currant. In England, they were used to make a tart sauce to enhance the flavor of roast goose. One theory is that this is where, the berries acquired their best known English name, “gooseberries.” However, George William Johnson in his 1817 book ‘The Cucumber and goosberry’ states it is more likely that ‘gooseberry’ is a corruption of the Dutch name Kruisbes, or Gruisbes. Over the course of the next two centuries, gooseberries increased in popularity for use in a number of different dishes.
By the seventeenth century, gooseberries were no longer left to grow wild in the hedgerows or hidden away in a few gardens on large estates. Instead, a number of varieties were gradually put under wider cultivation all across the country. Though gooseberry shrubs can be propagated from seeds, the use of cuttings produces new, sturdy plants more quickly. Because gooseberries produced in cool, moist climates are the most flavorful, gooseberries were widely cultivated across the Midlands, northern England and into Scotland. As with any plant which humans chose to cultivate, a number of their growers experimented with crossing different varieties with the goal of producing larger, sweeter, smoother berries with better flavors. In the process, a number of new colours were introduced into the new gooseberry varieties. These early experiments were so successful that the popularity of gooseberries steadily increased demand for them. This, in turn, encouraged even wider cultivation and more experimentation.
In the 1740s, gooseberry clubs began to be founded. The first few appeared in Lancashire, where there were many gooseberry growers. These clubs organized annual competitions and contests during which prizes were offered for the largest, the smoothest or the most flavorful gooseberries. As the century progressed, an increasing number of gooseberry clubs or societies sprang up all over Britain, in both England and Scotland, as more and more growers expanded the varieties of gooseberries they produced. In addition to annual competitions, many of these gooseberry clubs also sponsored shows where growers could put their newest and best gooseberries on display. The interest in the competitive growing of gooseberries was so widespread that The Gooseberry Growers Register was published in Manchester to serve this steadily increasing group. The date of the earliest known issue is 1786. The Gooseberry Growers Register listed the prize winners in gooseberry club competitions as well as details about any notable new varieties.
Through the second half of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century, more and more gooseberry clubs and societies were founded across Britain as the rage for gooseberries spread. Gooseberries were not cultivated commercially until the second half of the nineteenth century. Therefore, most of these gooseberry clubs were established in rural areas, serving their local members, most of whom were hoping to supplement their incomes with developing and growing gooseberries on small patches. Membership in these gooseberry clubs continued to grow, reaching their peak during the mid 1800’s. Many of the larger, more prominent clubs were in competition with one another to offer the most impressive gooseberry shows and the most exciting and compelling contests for the best gooseberries grown by their members. As gooseberries became more and more fashionable, the shows and competitions sponsored by these gooseberry clubs and societies were attended not only by gooseberry growers, but also by many members of the general public who wanted to know more about the newest varieties of gooseberries.
These gooseberry clubs had a profound effect on the development of gooseberries in Britain well into the nineteenth century. So much so that gooseberries came to be seen as a British fruit, even on the Continent. There were a number of gooseberry varieties grown across Europe, but few of them were of the quality of the British varieties, and many were barely edible. Gooseberry clubs in Britain encouraged continued experimentation in the development of new varieties which appealed to the public. Gooseberry clubs and societies had also helped to promote the gooseberry as a fashionable and very tasty product of Britain. There were a number of cases in which the popularity of new gooseberry varieties helped to supplement the income, or even make the fortune, of an enterprising gooseberry grower.
Charles Darwin was fascinated. He wrote in the Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication (1868), ‘The most interesting point in the history of the gooseberry is the steady increase in size of the fruit’. He recorded wild gooseberries were generally around 4.5 pennyweights; already in 1786 show berries were being exhibited at double the weight. In 1830 the largest Yellow Gooseberry on record was shown at Stockport and weighed thirty-two pennyweights, thirteen grains and was named the Teazer.
However after the First World War the number of Gooseberry Societies declined, with the last publication of The Gooseberry Growers Register in 1923.
Today only a few Gooseberry Societies remain. The oldest being Egton Bridge Gooseberry Society . The remaining eight in the UK in Cheshire centered around Goostrey village and form the Mid Cheshire Gooseberry Association. The newest one being Skillinge in Sweden.
In the Mid Cheshire Gooseberry Association Societies, on the day before the show, each club divides its members into groups of three to witness the picking of the Gooseberries. Once picked, they are boxed in to the different categories of colours, which are: Red, Green, Yellow and White, they are also split between twins, triplets (which are rare) and there is a category for the largest berry – “The Premier”.
Once boxed it is tied with string and sealed with hot sealing wax – all this is
witnessed and checked. The growers’ take them home and leave them overnight in a cool place ready for showing the next day (berries do run the risk of splitting or weeping overnight in the box and it is only when the boxes are opened in front of all the members of the show that their condition is known split or weeping berries cannot be shown). The shows usually start in the afternoon, when all the growers gather. Once at
the show the ‘seals’ are checked, boxes opened and the weighing begins, with
all the members present The first category is the largest berry (Premier Class) followed by the twins, triplets, colours and then the championship plates (the plates are 12 berries of each colour).
Berries are then displayed in special cabinets.
Each class winner gets a prize and there is a prize for the most points and
trophies. Gooseberries are measured using the old tray weights of “penny weights and grains”. Prior to the picking of Gooseberries a lot of hard work is put into the growing with many secrets; what to feed, how to prune etc and if tips and secrets are
not passed down to the next generation, often go to the grave with the growers.. until now..
For further inspiration have a look at Forgotten Fruits , a short film on the Egton Bridge Gooseberry Show:-