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Market Gardening 1878-1923 – James Hall, a Badsey Grower

In 1968, a series of articles appeared in The Evesham Journal about James Hall, a market gardener who lived in Badsey until his death in 1923.  The articles were written by R W Sidwell (1909-1993), a horticulturalist, gardener, teacher and writer, as part of his “History of Evesham Horticulture” series.  They were based on the diaries which James Hall kept and give a detailed insight of life as a market gardener in the latter years of the 19th century and early years of the 20th century.  Where these diaries are now is not known, but we are fortunate to have copies of the press cuttings in the Badsey Archive, and these have been transcribed below.

DIARIES OF JAMES HALL – 1 (Evesham Journal, 5 January 1968)

R W Sidwell begins the story of a successful Badsey gardener, and looks carefully at the books he kept.

Market gardening, creeping out from Evesham, reached the village of Badsey around the middle of last century.  Farms were on the verge of bankruptcy and landowners and speculators found that they could get much bigger rents by letting the land out in small lots to farm labourers for market garden purposes.  The rise in population which resulted from this change of land use was remarkable.  The population of Badsey increased from 487 in 1871 to 1,127 in 1911.  Purely agricultural parishes whether near Evesham or elsewhere in the country all declined in population during this period, often by as much as 30%.  Nor was this the whole story, for there was often insufficient labour in the village of Badsey to meet its needs and men travelled from Evesham and neighbouring villages to supplement the local supply.

Today, of course, Badsey is becoming just another dormitory village.  A few good growers remain and the best of these are as good as ever they were but numbers decline and much of the land slides back into indifferent farming.

The remarkable revolution during the late 19th century, which made Badsey almost unique among the whole of the villages of Britain, is now a piece of interesting social history.  But what sort of men were they who brought such a change in the life of this village?  Stories abound of men who mixed hard work with hard drinking.  They were often illiterate but they brought soil management to a degree of perfection far beyond the grasp of university educated soil science lecturers or authors of popular gardening books.

A family that contributed to the rise of Badsey was that of Thomas Hall.  He was the village shoemaker and was born at Dumbleton in 1818, coming to Badsey in 1844.  His three sons, Charles born at Dumbleton in 1839 and Theodore James and Owen Joseph, born at Badsey in the years 1845 and 1849 respectively, were all market gardeners and in 1890 had about 20 acres between them.  The two younger sons seem to have been known by their second names and will be so called from now on.

The changeover from farming was not accomplished without friction.  Farmers resented the land being split up among their labourers.  Many who took land to work in their spare time were dismissed.  When they saw how things were turning out, landowners were only too willing to fall in with the new trend and mortgagees were ready to foreclose when the opportunity occurred for the enhanced rentals which they were able to get when the land was let in small lots.

In this somewhat turbulent world, Thomas Hall was the small man’s champion.  Arrogant and truculent, he was a born rebel, but he was not without a cause and by the time of his death in 1908, at the aged of 91, it was possible to walk over a thousand acres of land around Badsey village without touching farmland at all.  Most of the growers had about five acres but some would have more.  Badsey had become a village of small master men.

At least one of Thomas Hall’s brothers had settled in America and in the mid 1870s James decided to do likewise and took his younger brother, Joseph, with him.  James had married Jane Field of Aldington, in December 1866.  Settling near Auburn, in the west of New York State, they began farming on a small scale and from March 1 1876 he began a daily diary in which all business transactions and domestic expenses were recorded.  He does not record what capital he had to start with but his profits after two years were 945 dollars 89 cents – a little under £200 at the rate of exchange of the time.  This was real wealth for a man of Badsey who as a farm labourer would have received about £100 or even less as his gross income during that period.

Whether James and Jane tired of the American way of life or whether news from home told them of the new prospects that Badsey had to offer we do not know but they certainly decided to return.  They left New York on April 27 1978, arriving at Liverpool at 11 pm on May 6.  Joseph had returned the previous November and was already gardening at Badsey.

After spending a couple of weeks visiting relations they took temporary accommodation with his sister, Mrs Thomas Moisey, at Badsey.  On Wednesday May 22 1878 he paid brother Joseph £12 in going for a piece of land at Aldington, owned by Thomas Byrd, bought a hoe for 2s and recorded that he spent the day “hoeing banes”.  James Hall was back in business.

The diary continued with almost daily entries, mostly records of financial matters, until his retirement in April 1914, apart from a break of five years, ie 1887-1891 inclusive.  This break is unfortunate as it covers a most vital period.  The diary is in three books – no doubt a fourth book has been lost.  Regrettable though this is, we are most grateful for what has been preserved, as it reveals the pattern of living of the successful men of Badsey during this interesting period.

James Hall 1James Hall was abstemious, he was a lay preacher and was very active in the chapel at Aldington.  In this he differed from some of his contemporaries but it was not easy to earn a living for all that.  He does not appear to have ever been short of money but this was more because of the care he exercised in spending it than because he found it easy to make.  In many years he showed a loss and that was of American dollars must have been very useful.  The record year by year is shown in the table.

These figures require some explanatory notes.  The credit and debit columns show how much his savings grew or shrank during the year after all his domestic expenses had been met.  In some years substantial payment for equipment, such as a pony and cart, were made and this was charged to the one year.  He made no attempt to produce a balance sheet.  It was simply a record of income and expenditure.

The five-year gap was probably a period of affluence.  His first piece of asparagus came into cut in 1886 and from 1892 onwards this crop dominated his whole activity ad provided most of his income.  The missing years, therefore, could hardly have been anything but prosperous.  His known activities during this period including paying £120 for 3 roods 28 perches of land on which he built his house, Bredon View, in 1889 and also lending Joseph £100 towards the cost of building Auburn Villa on the adjoining plot of land.

After 1906 he gave up most of his land and we must not read too much into the last seven years.  The area he now worked could not have provided him with a proper living but it did offset some of his domestic expenses.

In future articles we will consider the diaries in greater detail.

DIARIES OF JAMES HALL – 2 (Evesham Journal, 19 January 1968)

The scale of activities of James Hall may seem very small when compared with the market gardening businesses to which we have grown accustomed in the last 40 years.  Taken in isolation they are certainly puny and insignificant.  But it must be appreciated that this holding was typical of many hundreds which came to dominate the economy of whole parishes on the east of Evesham as well as small colonies elsewhere in the Vale.

James Hall does not often speak of acreages and the rent paid is sometimes the only clue to the area he cultivated.  In the early years he still grew some farm crops and wheat and field beans must have occupied a considerable part of his land.  He seems to have taken about seven acres in the first place and a further two acres was taken rent-free for a year in July 1878.  The references to squitch forking indicate the state of the ground.

In 1883 he gave up this two acres, reverting to his original holding.  This, with the cottage at Aldington to which he moved in November 1878, came to £19 10s per annum rent.  As £6 15s of this appeared to represent the cottage, the net rent for the land was £12 15 per annum.  He retained this land until 1906 but in 1888 he bought almost one acre on which his house was built the following year and in 1897 he took a further 2½ acres opposite the Wickhamford turn on Willersey Road, Badsey, paying £58 to a Mr Williams.  The annual rental was £4 18s but it rose to £5 12s 6d in 1902.  This land he subsequently purchased, but that was after these diaries ceased.

James Hall 2The reduction of his acreage in 1883 coincided with his first sowing of asparagus and possibly a slight change of approach.  Cropping will be considered in detail in later articles but the general pattern of management is well shown in the table.

In the first article the figures for profit and loss were given just as James Hall worked them out.  As some of the expenses were capital items or domestic furniture they have been extracted as a separate item and depreciation spread over a period.  This rough and ready system of accountancy now gives a truer picture of annual profit and loss and is shown in the last column.  This figure represents saving after domestic expenses have been met.

The 11 years 1892-1902 were obviously times of real prosperity, apart from the disaster year of 1895, to which we will return when we look at asparagus.  For reasons given in the first article, the missing five years before 1892 must also have been prosperous.

All of the labour in the first nine years was casual and women were employed very largely for crop harvesting, especially pea-picking.  From 1892 onwards casual labour was less important and regular workers were employed for the busy season.  Harry Geden worked from March to December 1892 and February to December of the following year.  The wages paid were 6s to 7s 6d per week for the first year and 7s to 10s for the second.  E Hartwell did the next year and A Taylor the year after.  Frank Herbert, who died only a year or two ago at a great age, put in the three summer seasons 1896-98 and appeared occasionally later.  After this the amount of casual and women labour increased again but the winter months remained almost devoid of outgoings for labour and income from crops.

In January 1901 there was a change of approach.  A full-time all-the-year-round worker was engaged.  On January 28 James Hall recorded, “Hired George Moisey at 18s a week for about 9 months and 15s 6d for 6 weeks before and after Christmas, the short days of winter.”

George Moisey was 27 years of age at this time and was James Hall’s nephew.  Many Badsey residents will remember him quite well for he was parish clerk for many years and a very highly respected man.

The arrangement continued more or less until June 1906 when it is very probable that George Moisey started on his own account, for after then he helped his uncle on odd occasions only.  There was also an earlier break of nine months.  It is probable that George Moisey’s leaving prompted James Hall to give up his Aldington land.

In the earlier years the principal seed suppliers were from Webbs and Watkins and Simpson whose accounts were settled punctually in June or July.  In 1884/85 Nash & Co appear as suppliers.  The first reference to Yates is in 1886 and, as this was three years before the Evesham branch opened, it presumably referred to the Manchester business.  Later purchases would have been through Evesham.  Unfortunately after 1893 he makes no reference to seed supplier but just enters the item as “seed bill”.  Throughout, small cash purchases of seed were made locally.

The principal fertiliser was soot and, as this material is stacked for a long time before use, the year of purchase was not the year of application to the ground.

Guano or fish guano was bought from time to time apparently in fair quantity as individual purchases were in the £2 to £5 range.  A few sizeable purchases of leather dust were also recorded.

Nitrate of soda was used regularly from 1900 onwards and occasionally earlier but the quantity was insignificant – usually one to two hundredweights per annum at about [?] per cwt.

On the whole it would seem that fertiliser usage on this holding was well below that of the more progressive Evesham growers of the period, but it must be understood that brassica crops were much less grown than on the Evesham holdings.

DIARIES OF JAMES HALL – 3 (Evesham Journal, 2 February 1968)

James Hall 3Although meticulous in his overall financial records, James Hall did not often show separate returns for mixed consignments.  We are often left guessing as to exactly how much each crop was making, although the broad picture is clear enough.  In the table I have taken some of the important crops and have included the brassica crops for comparison.

Peas were the first crop he harvested when he started in 1878 and in both this and the subsequent year his entire crop was sold to Fred Watkins at 3s per pot.  He apparently thought it better to accept a flat rate rather than to speculate on an unpredictable market.

By 1881 he was more venturesome and, from the special entries that he made, he took pride in the fact that in this and the next two years his few earliest supplies in June made 9s 6d, 7s 6d and 10s per pot respectively, but it is not clear how much the main batch made in any year.  Some of the produce at this time went to Evesham market but most of it was spread over about three buyer sincluding Joseph Myatt, son of the well-known James Myatt.

Even in those days, peas were being grown on a large scale, often on farms.  They were commonly sold on the piece and several well-known Evesham merchants were ready to bargain for them.  They had already ceased to be a small man’s crop, apart from a few very early picks, and James Hall cut down on the crop as the years went by.  Even at his peak he probably had no more than about 1½ acres.

Runner beans are unique among all the crops grown on the holding in that it was the only crop he never dropped altogether.  Every year he grew some, although there was considerable fluctuation.  Once again it is difficult to separate the items to arrive at a price, but two pots in August 1895 made 2s 9d and, over 1901-02, prices ranged from 1s to 4s per pot.

Dwarf French beans were grown almost every year, the extra early pick that they provided being useful.  Sometimes a late crop of dwarfs was grown in addition.

A surprising thing about broad beans is that in only one year, 1893, is there evidence of autumn sowing.  It is practically certain that all of the others were spring-sown.  The crop was mainly concentrated in the earlier years and appeared only sporadically afterwards.  I find this a little surprising, as I had been under the impression that the crop had lost popularity in more recent times and that it would have been grown much more around the turn of the century.

None of James Hall’s land would be considered “cabbage land” by modern growers and he certainly must have thought the same then, for the crop was of trifling importance and then only in the early years – but what of Brussels sprouts?

When one considers how little income was earned during the winter months it is surprising that sprouts were so slow in being adopted as a main vegetable.  From November 1895 to February 1896 the four months’ sales totalled 4s 9d.  In the four months from December 1896 to March 1897 it was nil.

This was not a peculiarity of this holding.  It was much the same throughout the Vale.  Although it was possible to find 100 acres of peas on one farm it would be hard work to find five acres of sprouts.  Yet 40 years later we had growers whose main activity was sprout growing.  Indeed some of these looked upon summer crops as things that had to be grown in order to keep their labour for the busy winter season!

Sprout strains were poor by comparison with those of the present day.  In this they were in contrast with peas and beans, the strains of which were very good indeed at the end of last century.  Sprouts were, in fact, a vegetable for the “gentleman’s garden”.

Of the other brassica crops, a few broccoli were grown in 1878-79 and four pots of cauliflowers in 1899.  Savoys and autumn cabbage were never grown at all.  I find all this neglect of brassicae a little surprising.