Berry interesting….

Here’s a nice one to trigger a few memories from locals, and hopefully preserve a little lost local history – do you remember going fruit picking in Stonnall back in the day?

Stonnall is a village that grew prosperous on the fruit fields, and today, several of it’s road-names recall the days when the fields nearby were host to lines of growing berries: Blackcurrants and gooseberries mainly, I recall. Sadly, the families that farmed these crops moved on, and the days of riding down to the fields on a chilly summer dawn to pick for a few bob have long gone – but will be recalled by many I feel.

1971 aerial photography from Lichfield District Council shows curiously patterned fields – these were growing soft fruit. Westwick Close is named after a strain of Blackcurrant, and Garnet Close is named after fruit farmer Garnet Burton. Berryfields is self explanatory. Click for a larger version.

Well, old pal of the blog Desmond Burton, whose family were the main soft fruit farmers back in the day is starting a project to recall those days, and I think it’s really interesting and worthwhile. It was certainly my first experience of working with folk of other cultures, and it was a fascinating spectacle, if hard work if you wanted to earn a bit.

Desmond is a great historian and I’m sure most regular readers will recall Desmond’s work on lost war hero Richard Meanley Anson which touched so many hearts back last year.

I’ll let Desmond explain – I thank him for his memories and enquiry, and if you have any material or memories you’d like to share – good or bad – please get in touch and I’ll hook you up: You can comment here, find me on social media or mail me on BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com.

Desmond Bur

I parked my bike in Whitaker Farm’s barn here – the blue brick structure, now a private house – and went onto the field s behind to pick gooseberries.

Remembering the Stonnall Fruit-picking Days

Every summer, for 30 odd years from the mid-1950s, the tranquil lives of Stonnall folks were disturbed by the arrival of hundreds of temporary farm workers. These were the fruit pickers, who came mostly from surrounding urban areas to harvest the blackcurrant and gooseberry crops on the adjoining farms of my grandfather Garnet Burton and my father Richard Burton. Lower Farm, Wordsley House Farm and the Whitacre Farm were all involved. Special bus services for the pickers were laid on in the mornings and evenings, covering areas such as Walsall and Bloxwich, while others came in their private cars. Most workers were Asian immigrants, first and second generation, many newly arrived in UK.

I am sure there must be people in the Brownhills area who took part in this annual ritual, and have memories, anecdotes and even pictures from those days. I would love to put together some of these memories in written form before they are lost for ever.

To put alongside the memories, I have a good number of old photographs mostly taken by my father, a couple of which I have added below. Do you have any photos you would be happy to share with me? Everything I use will be properly and gratefully acknowledged, of course, unless anyone requests otherwise.

Image kindly supplied by Desmond Burton.

Remember, your memories certainly do not have to be positive ones! Some villagers obviously benefitted greatly, such as the shop owners in the newly-built row of shops opposite Lower Farm. However, I am well aware that there were plenty of grumbles and complaints from villagers at the time, about things like litter, noise, and occasional rowdy behaviour. On very rare occasions the police even had to be called to sort things out. And even today, when I meet old friends who took part in the picking season, they demand compensation from me for the low piecework rates they got from my grandfather and father. Sorry, that’s a non- starter – and I just tell them they should have worked harder!

Anything you can contribute will be very much appreciated, and I will do my best to compile it all into a readable document: well, that is the goal, anyway. And I won’t try to sell the document and make myself a millionaire, either – all will be freely available here on BrownhillsBob!

Thanks a lot. Des Burton

Image kindly supplied by Desmond Burton.

This is a view of the Stonnall blackcurrant fields in the 1960s during the picking season, looking in a northerly direction. Main Street Stonnall and Lower Farm are to the right of the picture. On the horizon to the right of centre, it is just possible to make out what I think is the spire of St John’s Church, Hammerwich. At this time, some of the trees and original hedgerows had not yet been destroyed in the interest of ‘productivity’. The large tree on the left is actually a copper beech. All the picking at this time was still done by hand, which required a large temporary workforce. This was supplied primarily by immigrant families from the subcontinent of India who had settled in Walsall and the surrounding areas. Early-morning bus services were provided free each day for them, but those who had their own cars could – and did! – arrive even earlier, at first light. Fortunately, the blackcurrant picking season generally coincided with the industrial summer holidays. Whole families would enjoy their days out in the country as a pleasant change to their usual routine factory work, as well as an opportunity to engage the whole family; and many came to Stonnall year after year.

The young children, such as the three in this picture who are taking a lunch break, had a special role to play. Because their English language, acquired in local schools, was normally much more fluent that that of their parents, the children were the ones who brought the buckets of fruit to the trailer to have them weighed and receive their payment. All payment was in cash, of course. As the years went by and the regular pickers became known to our family, a few Asians were given supervisory roles and could deal with any language difficulties that arose.

Image kindly supplied by Desmond Burton.

From the pickers’ buckets the currants were tipped into wooden pallets provided by the companies, and later in the day at Lower Farm the pallets were loaded onto trucks and speedily transported to the factories. The largest contract for many years was with Beechams Foods, the makers of Ribena. To reduce transport costs, the Stonnall farms formed a loose consortium with a number of other farms, including Meanleys at Brewood and Smiths at Codsall.

This entry was posted in Environment. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Berry interesting….

  1. George says:

    I have a vague memory of a few days picking blackcurrants .
    Don’t remember the farm we were on …but I remember the pub where we spent our few bob 😱
    Would have been 1962 or 63 ??

  2. Elaine O'Neill says:

    Hi Yes suddenly had a memory blip I remember picking blackcurrants when I was 10 or 11 in 1963ish but never knew where, I live in Pelsall but we seemed to travel to another world. I went with a neighbour and her children. I can remember the rows of fruit. Had to be careful not to include any leaves with the picked fruit for the weigh in. I really enjoyed the picking and the whole experience. I earned enough to buy myself a pair of new shoes with heels be they only low ones but my Nan was scandalised at them. I loved them.

    • Desmond Burton says:

      Hi Elaine: Thanks a lot for this lovely memory! Glad to hear you had a good time on the farm all those years ago – but sorry to hear your Nan wasn’t pleased with how you spent your hard-earned cash!

  3. Chris Smith says:

    I don’t recall any of our family actually going picking but I do recall seeing the fields of black current bushes at the end of our garden (65 Main St, possibly just to the right of the photo showing the Asian children). I now live about 5 miles from the Ribena factory in The Forest of Dean.

    • Desmond Burton says:

      Yes, Chris, your house was to the right of the photo – just opposite the old post office, wasn’t it? Hope that seeing the Ribena factory at Coleford doesn’t make you feel too homesick for Stonnall!

  4. Suzanne Westwood says:

    I remember going fruit picking with my friend from school.
    We picked blackcurrants for 2s (10p in currency today )per bucket..Happy Days..we used the money to pay for horseriding at fox covey..

    • Desmond Burton says:

      Thanks for this lovely memory, Suzanne, and for reminding me how much (or rather how little!) you got paid. Glad you put the money to good purpose!

  5. Theresa Smith says:

    The man sitting on the tractor is Ken Massey and the young lad in the green jumper is my husband Tony smith

    • Desmond Burton says:

      Yes, that’s right, Theresa; I used to think the youngster was me, until Ken put me right! I’m now connected with Tony on Facebook, by the way.

  6. Tim Kitchen says:

    I did a couple of days back in the mid 60’s with a few friends but it was really warm and it seemed to be too hard work for too little money. Decided a double paper round was easier. I think there was a bus that picked us up in Aldridge?

  7. Desmond Burton says:

    Thanks a lot for this memory, Tim. Yes, I know it was hard work, and probably not very good for the back if you were tall. I’m pretty sure the bus would have picked people up in Aldridge as it was coming from Walsall.

  8. Sheila Norris says:

    We lived on the Chester Road when I was a child but used to see the pickers waiting for the Midland Red bus home every evening. I remember the colourful saris. Mum always referred to the Ribena fields in Stonnall. The buses weren’t all that frequent and one year an entire settee appeared on the roadside verge so they could wait in comfort!

    I also remember the potato pickers on the fields which are now Shire Oak Park. ( Ramsels?) I used to come home for lunch from Shire Oak School and on one occasion as I was walking home along the Chester Road a toddler about 2 came running down between the houses and straight across the road! Amazing he wasn’t killed. I remember a lorry driver blasting his horn at me as though it was my fault! I retrieved the child and retraced his steps. He wasn’t old enough to talk but pointed when I asked where’s mummy. He led me right back over the fields and there was no sign of the potato pickers. Eventually I rang a door bell on Lichfield Road and a woman recognized him and confirmed his mum was one of the potato pickers and said she’d take him home. I arrived home for my lunch very late and my Mum was wondering what had happened to me.

    • Desmond Burton says:

      Thank you very much for these memories, Sheila – what a frightening experience for you. I’m sorry, I don’t know who farmed on the Walsall side of the Chester Road where the Shire Oak Park is now. There was a small farm near Shire Oak (just past the garage towards Stonnall on the left, ie the Lichfield side of the Chester Road). As far as I remember, It was owned by John Craddock when I was young 65+ years ago, but I don’t know if he owned any of the land opposite.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.