Feltham First peas

I wrote this short piece, first posted on 19 April 2012, to inaugurate the Jam Yesterday Jam Tomorrow blog for Richmond Environment Trust. This HLF-funded project was concentrating on market gardeners rather than nursery gardeners, and focussed on the 19th and early 20th centuries. They made a model market garden at Marble Hill House and worked plots at Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham as well as events and activities.

Food tastes often change over time and in response many nursery and market gardeners made a determined effort to develop new varieties which appeal to these modern tastes. Despite this constant innovation traditional English fruit and vegetables still survive. Excitingly, it is still possible to obtain seeds and small plants from specialist nurseries and seedsmen, but to identify the Middlesex ones, you will need a little local knowledge.

Lobjoits cos lettuce

Some varieties were named after growers. For example, the Masters’ Hotspur pea was propagated by George Masters of Strand in the Green, probably in the 1720s. Peas had become fashionable and the way to obtain good profits was to produce them early – this is what Masters achieved. The variety is mentioned in many 19th century gardening handbooks but now seems to have disappeared. However, you can still buy seed for Lobjoit’s cos lettuce from a number of the major seed merchants. The Lobjoits, Huguenot immigrants, became well established a market gardeners in Hammersmith and Barnes and then further west at Worton Farm, Isleworth and at Heston Farm before World War 2. Other seeds are associated with places. Feltham First peas seem to have been a 1940s pea, and an early one, which might have competed with Masters’ Hotspur, and easily available today.

There are also many varieties of local fruit that can be found. Raspberries and strawberries were a major Middlesex crop for London’s markets in the 18th and 19th centuries and were grown in Twickenham, Isleworth and Brentford. In the summer women workers from the Welsh border counties came to the area to do the picking. They began at about 3am, giving them time to walk to the market, then return, and take the next picking into town the same day. The strawberries were placed in small conical baskets called punnets – only one fruit could fall into the pointed base, then the sloping sides distributed the weight ensuring that the upper fruit did not crush that below.

Keens seedling strawberry

Keens seedling strawberry

With strawberries local gardeners were competing for size. Benjamin Horne, a Georgian Brentford gardener, propagated the pine strawberry, using seed imported from America – this is the fore-runner of the large strawberries favoured today. In 1797 Edward West of Twickenham was described as a ‘skilful gardener noted for production of our best and finest fruits, particularly the raspberry, some of which are uncommonly large’.

Another local market gardener Michael Keens from Isleworth, raised the first very large-fruited market variety of strawberry in 1806. He wrote to the Royal Horticultural Society in January 1814, describing how he had sown the seed of the White Chili strawberry, along with a great many others in 1806 and had discovered that one of the Chili seedlings was very different from, and far superior to, its companions. This became the Keens Imperial. The Society awarded him a silver cup and published a description of the berry in Notices of New or Remarkable Varieties of Fruits, ripened in the summer and autumn of the year 1821. Keens’ Strawberry’s great merits were said to be that it is very large, very good, and very prolific. ‘It forces better than any other, carries extremely well, and bears its fruit high enough above the earth to keep it free from the soil. No Strawberry has the same vigorous appearance as this’.

If this appeals to your appetite and you would like to find out more Thomas Etty is a small firm which sells many traditional varieties by mail order via an excellent online catalogue has information about the dates of introduction of some vegetables and is worth a look.”

Discover more about local fruit and vegetables in these other articles on this web-site:
The Chiswick Nursery for the Williams pear
The Scott Brothers for pineapples
The Ronalds of Brentford for apples
The Masters family for kitchen garden plants sold from Strand on the Green