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Early Days of Market Gardening

Until the third quarter of the 19th century, Badsey was a poor farming community. One particular reference of the time, although possibly somewhat exaggerated, tells us that “as there is no particular attraction at Badsey, it must be repulsion from some other unfit place which will send them here” (Karl Marx – Das Kapital, 1867). But that rather depressing situation was soon to change.

Slowly at first, but then gaining momentum during the last two decades of the 19th century, a new market gardening industry replaced farming as the chief occupation of the Badsey people. Here, farms were divided into small plots, rarely more than five acres in size and sometimes no more than an acre, thus giving an opportunity whereby men, many of whom had been farm labourers, could set up as self-employed market gardeners. It says much for the dedication and strength of character of these men, many with little in the way of formal education, that they were willing to take on these new ventures; certainly it was a journey into the unknown.

By 1900, most of Badsey’s farmland had been split up in this way. The detailed reasons for the transition are outside the scope of this short article, but the great agricultural depression of the late 19th century, which rendered traditional farming largely unprofitable, the coming to the Vale of Evesham of the railway network with its fast transport of perishable produce to distant markets, and the rather peculiar system of land tenure known as the Evesham Custom, all played a part.

The earliest reference to a market gardener in the Badsey parish registers occurs on 23rd March 1870, whilst an examination of the 1871 census of population reveals nine men so described – George Addis, William Bennett, Henry Bradford, Thomas Canning, Henry Keen, John Keen, Lot New, John Pethard and Richard Sadler. By 1881, this figure had increased to 28, then about 100 after a further ten years, rising to over 200 at the end of the century. This was growth on a remarkable scale.

As the industry grew, so too did the population of the village, from 487 in 1871 to 574 in 1891 and 1127 in 1911, an increase of 96% in the space of 20 years. This was a quite different scenario from many villages across the whole country, where a rural depopulation happened, as farm labourers left their homes to seek alternative work in large towns and cities or even to emigrate. In 1911 about 78% of Badsey’s male population above school-leaving age earned their living from market gardening. At Aldington, with a much smaller and fairly static population, it was 61%.

By the time that war came in 1914, Badsey’s market gardening industry was in good shape and by then it had probably reached its peak, bringing prosperity to the village and its inhabitants. Whilst this brief review gives some idea of the development of the new industry, the full story of its growth, as well as its eventual decline, may be found in the book, Digging for a Living, which was published by The Badsey Society in 2011.

T C Sparrow