Fruit picking in Witchford orchards

A reproduced 1961 article on fruit picking at Dan Ward’s farm in Witchford, Cambridgeshire.

Highlighting my love of using newspapers in research, I found this article on fruit picking in the orchards of Dan Ward in Witchford, Cambridgeshire, England.

Whilst it contains a nice insight into village life and agriculture, it includes photos of, and quotes from, my Great Grandmother Louisa Pope, and her youngest daughter Audrey Giddens. So, here it is 54 years on, re-created for the web, with original headline. It was published in the Saturday Pictoral on July 29, 1961.

It’s a ‘plum’ job but you need a head for heights

Mrs M Coe with ladder
Mrs. M. Coe shoulders her ladder and sets off to start picking another tree.

In the last fortnight the fruit picking scene in the Fens has changed. Changed from the back aching grind of strawberry picking to the arm stretching task of plum picking.

So drastic has been the change, that in parts of the Fens growers were gathering in the first part of the plum harvest at the same time as Wisbech growers were finishing off ‘the straws’.

In the most southerly parts of the Isle, fruit growers have been picking plums earlier than ever before. Not only have they completed the programme of early varieties but they are well ahead of schedule with the Czars as well.

Full gang

Dan Ward inspects a plum crop
Bowls player and Special Constable, Mr Dan Ward checks over the crop.

“This year is even early by our standards”, explained Mr Dan Ward of Witchford – certainly the ‘Little Kent’ of the Fens. “We have got all the Rivers Early and some of the Pershores off and now we are well on the way with the Czars – a later variety – and by Monday we should have a full gang of about 30 on the gardens”.

But although the plums have come early in the Witchford gardens – the locals use this term instead of orchard – the crops are not as heavy as they might be. Whereas, Mr. Ward has had 40 or more pickers in other years, he will be able to make do with far less this season.

But that does not take the shine off the crops for the pickers for plum picking is obviously a time of year that they look forward to very much. When we called in at the Ward farm this week we saw them busy at it and obviously enjoying every minute of it.

But it is only at Dan Ward’s that the Witchford people get the chance to do any amount of plum pulling. There is hardly another big orchard in the district – the next nearest centre being at Wilburton. I asked Mr. Ward how he came to be a fruit grower in such an area.

“As long as people can remember the Ward family have been growing fruit in Witchford”, he explained. “My grandfather and father before owned the gardens that I have now. I think that the industry must go back more than one hundred years in fact”. Despite the fact that the land has been in the Ward family all this time, most of the trees in the orchard are young. Mr. Ward went on to explain that he has replanted several acres – getting the trees from the Wisbech area.

Not only the trees but the end product as well have connections with Wisbech. Much of the fruit comes to Wisbech before being shipped off to various markets.

Having so many plum trees in an area where fruit growing is not regarded as a major industry could present problems to some people – but not to Mr. Ward. The organisation during the peak season at Witchford is equally as good as that at Wisbech and he has his own regular pickers who come each year to tackle the crop for him.

Louisa Pope picking plums at Witchford.
Mrs. L. Pope may not look a bit of her eighty years but as she says – “you are as young as you feel and if you keep working you always feel young”. She has been working on the Ward’s fruit farms for over 50 years and really enjoys the plum picking season.

One of them is Mrs. L Pope – who has been working in the plum gardens for over 50 years. Mrs. Pope picked from the ladders at the tops of the swaying trees last year and quite expects to repeat the performance during the next few weeks. She claims that it is the outdoor life and plenty of work which keeps her looking fit and young – she is actually over 80.


One of her daughters, Mrs. A Giddens, is following in her footsteps. As Mrs. Pope was picking from the ground when we were there, Mrs Giddens was towering above her on one of the ladders.

Audrey Giddens on a ladder, picking plums.
Mrs. A. Giddens reaches high for plums. This sort of work gives the women of Witchford a good head for heights and a chance to get out in the open air.

Monday will see the season rise to its heights. Pickers, baskets and plums will pour in and out of Dan Ward’s gardens and Witchford produce will take its place beside fruit from all other parts of the country in the nation’s major markets. So keeping up a centry-long tradition in the Ward family.

A group of plum pickers at Witchford, Cambridgeshire, in 1961.
When dinner time rolls round the workers take things easy. They find a bit of shade and have a nice quiet drink and a rest. Within minutes of this picture being taken, they were all swarming up the trees again.


Saturday Pictoral, July 29, 1961 – Denis Chamberlain
Pictures taken by staffman Harry Naylor.

Surname Saturday: Poll

This week’s Surname Saturday theme looks at the POLL family of Norfolk, their silk weaving roots, and fascination with Hebrew names.

This week’s Surname Saturday theme posting takes a look at the Poll family – one of the few Norfolk families in my tree.

My most recent ancestor to bear the surname of Poll was Elizabeth Poll, my Great Great Great Great Grandmother, who was born on 12th April 1796 in the market town of Wymondham, less than 10 miles from Norwich, in Norfolk.

Elizabeth was the oldest of the ten children of silk weaver Ishmael Poll and his wife Mary Fiddamont. Ishmael and Mary had married just 13 days prior to Elizabeth’s birth.

The couple went on to have 9 other children – including an unbroken line of 6 daughters before having their first son – then two more daughters – and ending on their youngest child in 1816, also a son.

Elizabeth married my great x4 Grandfather John Howlett in Wymondham, Norfolk on 17th May 1824, and my ancestry then passes through them and their son Thomas’s brief life.

Silk Weaving in 19th Century Norfolk

On the 1841 census, Elizabeth’s father Ishmael, is noted as a silk weaver despite his advanced years (he was 70yrs old). He dies in April 1847, predeceasing his wife Mary, who then appears on the following 1851 census living alone as a pauper.

Ishmael is most likely to have apprenticed for many years in the skills of producing beautiful quality silk weaving, and he would have most likely have worked from home, using huge weaving machinery.

It’s understandable to see why Mary was living in poverty after Ishmael’s death, as his trade was so highly skilled, that it is unlikely that she could have simply continued it on after his death without having had training.

By Hogarth (The Industrious and the Lazy Apprentice) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A 1747 illustration of weaving from a series by Hogarth (The Industrious and the Lazy Apprentice) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Hebrew names

The Poll family is not only unusual in my research because it comes from Norfolk, but it also provides me with some of my most usual names (in comparison to the rest of my family tree) in the 18th Century – Ishmael (male) and Keranhappuck (a female name) – both featuring in the Hebrew bible.

What inspired the use of these names, when the rest of the Poll children were fairly common names?

Earliest Ancestors

The earliest ancestors in my Poll tree are my Great x 7 grandparents – Simon Poll and his wife Ann. They would have been born around 1720, seeing that their son (my next ancestor – Great x6) was James Poll, born in 1741. James married a Mary Syers and they were the parents of Ishmael.

Surname Saturday: GILBERT

Surname Saturday: GILBERT – The Gilbert family of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire are the focus of this week’s meme day.

This week’s Surname Saturday post is that of my paternal Gilbert family. My connection is through my paternal Great Grandmother, who was born in 1884, in Littleport, Cambridgeshire.

With the help of the research of distant relative Colin Tabeart, the tree has been found to stretch back through time as far as 1694 when the family turns up in Abbotsley, Huntingdonshire (now part of Cambridgeshire). It is here that they are noted in the parish records and taxation records.

It appears that the earliest Gilbert I’ve found (with, as yet, an unproven connection) was in Abbotsley, Huntingdonshire in 1605, when a John Gilbert takes his daughter Maria to be baptised in the parish church of St Margaret on 24th February.

Abbotsley Church
St Margaret’s church at Abbotsley, Cambridgeshire.

By the beginning of the 18th century, the Gilbert families in Abbotsley were booming with each seemingly having at least 9 children, and up to as many as 13 children over a 24 year period – as was the case of James and Anne Gilbert between 1752 and 1776.

In 1767 at Abbotsley, Elizabeth Gilbert (née Hale) – the widow of James Gilbert – is noted as paying a Land Tax of £1, 19 shillings to a Mr Robert Edsope.

In 1828, the son of my Gilbert line – William – leaves Abbotsley and heads about 40 miles North East to Littleport in Cambridgeshire, where he married Elizabeth Brightly. The couple settle down in Burnt Chimney Drove – an area of rich agricultural fenland just to the North West of Littleport, where William becomes a farmer. The couple bear 12 children, although sadly a few of these don’t survive their early years.

Whilst William’s relocation may well have been because of his love for Elizabeth, his parents – Edward and Susan Gilbert have fallen on hard times –  by 1851 they are both noted as ‘paupers’ and are living with their daughter Mary and her husband Thomas Cade. Susan has become blind, but goes on to live another 8 years. Edward only lived until 1852.

Elizabeth Howlett and James Gilbert
Elizabeth Howlett and James Gilbert

Despite this hardship, William and Elizabeth were making progress for themselves and managing to live outside of poverty thanks to farming. Their 9th child (also Edward and Susan’s grandson), James, was my Great Great Grandfather, and he survived his two older brothers. In doing so, and in an act not unusual or unlike primogeniture, he inherited his father’s farm in 1879, which by 1871 had grown to 40 acres and employed one family.

By this time, James had got married to Elizabeth Howlett – and they had already bore two of their eventual family of nine children.

The family still lives and farms in the area today.

The death of a child

William Martin died aged 10 in 1890 when he was entrusted with a horse and cart. The Factory Act (1891) could have protected him and many others from a working childhood.

Long before health and safety was invented, before ‘risk assessments’ unified a workforce with a sigh, and compulsory education was implemented, children were commonplace in factories, mines and other workplaces.

William was the fourth of the twelve children of my Great Great Grandparents, James Martin and his wife Sarah Elizabeth (née Giddings), and one of two of their children to die that year.

An inquest was held at Pyemoor, on the body of William Martin, a boy of ten years of age. He was entrusted, the previous day, with a horse and manure cart. He was lifted on the horse and afterwards found face downwards on the ground with an internal injury and died before the doctor arrived. The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental Death”, expressing their disapproval of children so young being entrusted with a horse and cart, the boy’s master being one of the jury – 31st July 1890.

Like most of those families living in fenland during the 19th century, children working in agriculture meant that the family could afford to keep food on their table and avoid the workhouse.

Whether William, at 10yrs of age, was employed or whether he was just there, is unclear (‘master’ may have been employer or his father), but his accidental death would never have been an easy situation to deal with.

The Factory Act (1878-1901)

The Factory Act (1878) meant that children under the age of 10 could not be employed in any trade, and that compulsory education ran up until the age of 10.

Group of child workers from the 19th century.
A group of unknown Victorian child workers.

This act was key at keeping the youngest of children away from dangerous environments such as mills, mines, glassworks, and other industries with heavy machinery – or at least it meant that those who continued to employ children under 10 could be prosecuted (and this was quite common).

The act also meant that 10-14yr old children were allowed to work half-days.

The act was revised again in 1891, upping the age to 11 years, and again with the introduction of The Factory and Workshop Act in 1901 to 12 years.

The slow pace of laws to protect children in the UK, and the harsh reality of bringing up a family on a railway labourer’s wage, may have contributed to William going to work at aged 10 on that fateful day.

National Mills Weekend 2012

National Mills Weekend 2012 – visiting The Great Mill at Haddenham, Cambridgeshire.

This weekend has been National Mills Weekend in the UK.

The Great Mill
The Great Mill at Haddenham, Cambridgeshire.

I only realised that this was the weekend – but I was able to make the journey to The Great Mill at Haddenham, just 5 miles from me. The weekend also coincided with Haddenham’s ‘Blossoms and Bygones’ event, so the village was decked in bunting, musicians, fair rides and vintage vehicles.

I’d been to the Mill a couple of years previously and the current owners were very kind to show me around this 5-storey mill both then and now.

The reason I first went along originally was because of the unfortunate and violent death of my Gt x 5 Grandfather, Philip Newman, a miller and baker, died when he was caught in the workings of a mill.

Inside The Great Mill
The mill is essentially a vast wooden machine.

The mill (seemingly known most recently as ‘Neville’s Mill’) where he met his gruesome end no longer stands, but The Great Mill was standing opposite ‘killer mill’ back in 1809 when the accident happened. I wanted to find out what it would have been like to be inside a windmill similar to the one that my ancestor would have worked.

Neville's Mill, Haddenham
A photo of Neville’s Mill which stood opposite The Great Mill and killed my ancestor in 1809.

The Great Mill was built in 1803 by Daniel Cockle, and it’s still clear today as to what an engineering feat it was, with cogs, wheels, bells, sails all over the place – each with their own specific purpose in cleaning grain, moving it around, grinding it, sifting it etc.

The Mill was handed down through the Cockle family for almost 100 years until 1901 when it passed to the Peters family. It then moved on to the Lawrance family in 1906 until becoming unloved in 1980.

It stood derelict until 1992 when it was restored. 20 years on, and the Mill is undergoing a new restoration with the kerb (the part up in the top that allows the entire cap and sails to change direction) needing some attention.

The current owners are busily restoring it, and hope to one day have it working again like the one a few miles away in Wicken (which i visited on National Mills Weekend in 2010).

National Mills Weekend 2010: Wicken
The working windmill in Wicken village, Cambridgeshire.

If you’ve never been inside a windmill, i recommend it. It is cramped, there are lots of awkward stairs/ladders to navigate, but it’s a wonderful experience. I imagine that millers like my ancestor Philip, would have been able to quickly ascend and descend those ladders, fueled by necessity.

If you’re lucky to go into a windmill with its sails working, then you will soon realise the sheer power and complexity of them. And you’ll realise too that they aren’t noisy.

Where once every village had a windmill, there are just a scattered few. The cheaper costs of importing grain from the likes of Australia in bulk and then milling it at the UK ports rather than sending vast amount of grain inland, quickly terminated the nation’s windmills and made our millers jobless. By the end of the 1940s/50s, working windmills were all but a thing of the past.

Surname Saturday: NEWMAN

The Newman family of Cambridgeshire are this week’s Geneabloggers topic for ‘Surname Saturday’ – a story of illegitimacy, windmills and dinosaur poop.

A killer windmill, illegitimacy and dinosaur poop all play a part in shaping my paternal Newman family of Cambridgeshire.

Alfred and Harriet Newman
Alfred and Harriet Newman

My earliest known ancestor (so far) was John Newman, the husband of Hannah (née Squire). They lived in and were married in Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire (as it was then in 1750). There’s no record of any earlier Newmans before this date and after parenting my ancestor Philip in 1760, there doesn’t seem to be another mention of them again.

When Philip reached 19yrs old he marries Lydia Ingle in Haddenham, Cambridgeshire in 1779 and they begin a family together. However, after their sons Thomas and Philip are born, baby Philip and Lydia die – both being buried on the same day in Somersham. This appears to leave Philip (senior) with his young son Thomas.

In September 1785, Philip re-marries, to Elizabeth Whitehead of Haddenham. The couple soon grow their family – having six children, although sadly their first (William) and fourth and fifth (Robert and James) children do not survive infancy. This leaves two daughters (Ann and Rebecca) and William.

The Windmill

In 1809 tragedy struck as Philip, working as a Miller at the mill of William and Robert Pate of Haddenham on 20th July 1809 “was caught in the works of his mill, and unfortunately killed” – as reported by the Cambridge Chronicle, dated 22nd July 1809. Philip was promptly buried the following day at Haddenham parish church where the register notes him as being both a miller and a baker. He was 49 years old.

The mill (known most recently as ‘Neville’s Mill’) no longer stands, although the windmill (The Great Mill) opposite the site is still standing and is being lovingly restored – well worth a visit to see what working in a mill may have been like.

Elias Dann

Having lost her father to the horrific sounding windmill accident at the age of about 5yrs, Rebecca Newman gave birth to a son Charles Newman in Somersham at only about 16 years of age. Whilst she was not married, parish records name an ‘Elias Dann’ as the father.

Rebecca does not go on to marry Elias, as it would seem that Elias may have already been living with his wife in nearby Wilburton. Being a fatherless teenage single mother must have been excruciatingly difficult for Rebecca in the 1820s. However, by 1826 she had married  John Seymore of Haddenham and bore him two daughters.

It appears that illegitimate Charles Newman was fully aware of who his father was, as he names him when he marries Emma Levitt at Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridgeshire in 1847. The couple also name their youngest son ‘Elias Newman’. The couple remain in the village, with Charles becoming a blacksmith, and have six children.


Coprolites (fossilised animal dung) were found to be excellent sources of fertilizer in the 1840s. Digging them soon became big business in the fens during the mid 19th century, although it began to decrease by the 1880s. Massive manual labour forces were needed to trace and dig out the seams of dung (you can even buy them today on ebay!) and my Newman relatives briefly became part of the workforce.

The 1871 census lists Alfred Newman (the son of blacksmith Charles Newman and Emma Levitt), along with his brother Charles as a ‘Coprolite Digger’. By the time of the next census though, the industry has downsized and neither are digging for dung.

In 1877, Alfred Newman marries Harriet Cooper in Ely, Cambridgeshire. It is here where the Newman family has reached today – with many descendants of their large family still in the city and surrounding villages.

The Newman family faced terrible tragedies, but they have survived.

Wicken Windmill

This weekend is National Mills Weekend in the UK, and so I decided to head off to one of the few working mills left in Cambridgeshire, in a village called Wicken.

Wicken was once home to my Bishop family during the 1800s, and it is most likely that they regularly looked at Wicken Mill, which stopped being used commercially in the 1930s. In the 1800s, it was cutting edge. Harnessing the power of wind to grind corn into different grades of flour.

Today, our guide showed us how a team of enthusiasts have managed to restore the mill to a working condition where they make (and sell) plain and wholemeal flour.

Climbing up through the levels, I arrived at the grinding level, where two large grindstones sit. Through an engineering feat, corn or wheat is steadily fed to the grindstones. The sails fly past the windows at a regular and fast pace. The stones were not grinding when I visited, but the corn that is hoisted up from the ground floor through trapdoors is fed to the hoppers above the grindstones.

The ground corn, then drops down chutes to the level below, where it drops into sacks.

The windmill, with its sails spinning round in the windy wet fens, felt like a machine charging up a tremendous power. Its wheels and pulleys working together, would have been the hadron collider of the day, but one that helped put money in pockets and bread on the tables of the entire village.

A couple of years ago, and only a few miles away, I visited The Great Mill of Haddenham. That mill is not a working mill but like many is steadily being restored.

Both are beautiful machines, harnessing an incredible power. I hope that the remaining mills of Cambridgeshire can be restored once again to full working order.

Tombstone Tuesday: James, Elizabeth and Willie Gilbert

This headstone stands in the cemetery in Littleport, Cambridgeshire.

The Gilbert family were and are land owners in the area.

The stone shows that Elizabeth and James died close together – perhaps one of a broken heart?

Willie Gilbert is their young grandson.

Elveden and the Brightwells

One of the family trees that I am currently climbing has a bit of an evolutionary name. The most recent incarnations in the late-19th century are ‘Brightle’, ‘Brightley’ and ‘Brightly’ as found in Littleport and Little Downham fenland, Cambridgeshire.

The latter two are clearly pronounced ‘bright-lee’ as in, ‘well lit’, but the first version seems a little odd. Perhaps it still is ‘Bright-lee’ but with just one ‘e’. However, after stumbling across a note that my ancestor John Brightly was born in ‘Elden, Suffolk’, I decided to see what I could find. Not only did he have this changing surname that I wanted to follow, he was also from outside the county – which in my genealogy is quite rare.

I already had a hunch of where ‘Elden’ was but checked it out on Genuki, which confirmed my suspicions.

Much to my delight, my ancestors appeared to be from the same Suffolk village that I had grown up in, gone to school in, and enjoyed living immensely – Elveden, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. I havent’ lived there for more than 20 years now but this chance coincidence feels like a full circle! Do you ever get that sense of pride or excitement when you visit a place that your ancestor would have known well?

Fortunately, the village is in Suffolk and also classed as West Suffolk, which means that the parish records are deposited at the record office in Bury St Edmunds, so I knew I could easily pay them a visit to check up on the claim of John Brightly’s birthplace.

I found ‘Brightwell’ to be the chosen spelling, and several family members were listed in the births, marriages, and burials – including a Robert Brightwell noted as being a farmer in 1785. ‘Brightwell’ fits with the ‘Brightle’ spelling – if you think of it being pronounced as ‘Bright-all’ – not far from ‘Brightwell’ which with an accent could easily sound like ‘Bright-wall’.

The parish records are copied onto microfiche and it was easy to claim a reader for use. Unfortunately, the mid-late 1700’s registers were subject to some fading (or bad microfiching!) and some dreadfully wafty and artistic handwriting from George Burton the Rector. The earlier entries from the 1600s were immaculate though – clearly written, well organised, and the spelling was perfect.

After collecting up a few Brightwell entries that I could glean from the microfiche I departed, pleased to think that my Brightwell ancestors had lived in a place that I enjoyed living so much, and that I had re-trod their steps quite literally and obliviously by chance, some 200 years after them.

I was also interested to see in the 1700s, that the village was home to three family names that were there when I was a child and I think are still present there today: Harper, Turner and Gathercole – That’s more than 300 years of their family history!

A life consumed

The ‘White Plague’, ‘Consumption’, ‘T.B’, Tuberculosis.

If you’ve been researching your family tree, you’re bound to have stumbled across some of these phrases as causes of death (i’d only not seen the ‘white plague’ term before, but I’ve seen the others too many times).

Although it wasn’t notifiable until 1912, Tuberculosis was probably the cause of one-third of disease caused deaths in the nineteenth century. That’s quite a claim.

Environments with poor ventilation, overcrowding and people with poor nutrition (including the drinking of infected cows milk) were all susceptible to the disease. However, improvements in housing and nutrition halved the number of deaths by the end of the century.

Within my own family, I have found cases where it has claimed my ancestor’s lives: a 35yr old Henry Bowers of Wicken, leaving his young wife with a hungry family of eight young children; two children both under the age of 1 year of James and Mary Martin of Little Downham – (another daughter died aged 9yrs from Scarlet Fever, and James himself was killed by a train not far from his house).

If you’re interested in reading more about poverty and disease (such a jolly topic i know!), i recommend getting hold of a copy of Rosemary Rees’ Poverty and Public Health : 1815-1948 (Heinemann Advanced History S.)

More on Tuberculosis at Wikipedia