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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.