The red 'London' of 1852 was a whopper. Around the size of a small hen’s egg and weighing in at 37dwt, 7gr in old Troy weights (a little over 56g (2oz) in modern units), measured on apothecary scales sensitive enough to balance a feather, it set a record in gooseberry growing which remained unbroken until 1978.
It’s not clear why the locally-named ‘goosegog’ (or ‘goosegob’) became the competitive berry of choice favoured by northern working-class men in the 19th century, although the cool, damp climate certainly favours the fruit. At the time gardening was flourishing amongst the labouring classes and flower and vegetable shows offered a competitive hobby, social gatherings and a ‘right gradely do’.
For over a century labourers to hand-loom weavers gathered in the public houses and inns of Lancashire and the Midlands to weigh gooseberries. Neither flavour nor improving the strain or even appearance was important to them - just a big, heavy fruit with an unbroken skin. Rules were simple but strictly enforced and late payment of subs, often including a few pence for ‘one’s shot’ of liquor, meant disqualification from showing. Categories were for red, white, green and yellow berries, rare twins (two on a stem) and maiden, or first-time, growers. Once exhibited berries were ‘topped and tailed’ to prevent them being shown again.
Meetings date back to the mid-1700s and in 1815 The Gooseberry Growers’ Register appeared. Published annually this mine of historical information recorded all the year’s meetings, the rules, prizes, competitors and winners, the seedlings ‘going out’ and even obituaries of respected gooseberry men.
Through its pages we are transported to smoky Victorian pubs to meet the ‘honest growers’ who’d stayed up all night to protect their fruit, and now gathered before the stewards with earnest faces, their precious berries swaddled in moss-lined boxes. Not only reputations were at stake - cash prizes paid from stewards’ subs were augmented by landlords and local ‘gentlemen’ to include copper kettles, sets of knives, pewter teapots and brass pans.
The register records the once-enormous range of gooseberry varieties – over 700 are named. The 'London' (which took heaviest berry for 38 seasons between 1829 and 1867) and other regular winners like 'Crompton’s Queen of Sheba', the locally-named 'Lancashire Lad', and 'Dan’s Mistake' (cultivated from a discarded seedling by a rival grower who won the show) survive. The wonderfully named 'Whack ‘em', 'Farrow’s Roaring Lion', or 'Thumper' are now rare or obsolete. The register is also a potentially fascinating resource for anyone interested in their family ancestry and, with pubs currently closing at rate of around 30 a week, commemorates many 19th century drinking establishments from the Golden Cross, Oswaldtwistle to the Blue Bell, Attercliffe.
The arrival of mildew disease from America, followed by World War One, saw the end of the golden age of the northern 'goosegog' shows and the register ceased publication in 1916. In its heyday up to 180 shows were listed in a year, as far afield as America, but today fewer than a dozen carry on the tradition, the oldest of which is Egton Bridge, Yorkshire, established more than 200 years ago.
Copies of the Gooseberry Growers’ Register are held in the Lindley Library London reference collection and are available to view by appointment.
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