At the turn of the millennium the society published a commemorative booklet to mark two hundred years of competitive gooseberry growing in the area. Reproduced below are the articles from that publication which still vividly capture the uniqueness of the Egton Bridge Gooseberry Show. Our thanks go to all of the contributors who shared their memories with us.

If you have memories of the gooseberry show that you would like to share with us please let us know on egtongooseberry@gmail.com.

The First 200 Years

Two hundred years of gooseberry growing and yet Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Society is still going from strength to strength.

When other horticultural shows have fallen on hard times, what is it about growing large gooseberries that stirs people’s imagination? Perhaps it is because there are only two gooseberry show areas in the country and the prestige of winning is very great. One is therefore a member of an exclusive band.

The rules of this Society have not changed significantly in the last two hundred years, and, on show day things carry on at a most leisurely pace. So, perhaps in this world of speed and high technology, the old fashioned ways of the Show have special appeal and I am sure that, if the Society continues in this way, its success is assured.

Eric Preston

President, Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Society.

English Gooseberry Clubs

How did this passion for growing giant gooseberries start? Nobody seems to know.

What we do know is that the hobby developed in the late 18th & early 19th centuries and was very popular in the industrial areas of Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the West Riding. It was not confined to these areas, however; in England they were recorded from Bedford and the Cotswolds to Carlisle. There were even two reported in the United States! With such widespread interest it is, perhaps, surprising that the only other club in the North Riding (apart from Egton Bridge) was the fairly short lived one in Whitby. Egton Bridge was more unusual, in that it was, and still is, a quiet rural area.

Such was the popularity of competitive gooseberry growing in the nineteenth century that there was a national publication; The Gooseberry Growers Register. This recorded, each year, the results from all of those clubs who bothered to send them in. Needless to say, this was a bit hit and miss.

In 1843 the register listed 148 shows. The numbers steadily increased to 168 in 1861 and 171 in 1845.Thereafter the popularity of the pastime had started to decline. In 1896 there were only 73 shows and the First World War sounded the death knell. By 1915 there were only 8 results recorded.  The Register ceased publication altogether in 1916.

Today there is only the Egton Bridge Show and a group of about 7 small shows in mid Cheshire, around Goostrey. These are all based on individual villages linked by the Mid-Cheshire Gooseberry Growers Association.

One can see how a hobby such as this might flourish and then decline; especially with the cataclysmic effect of the Great War, but why does Egton Bridge survive for ninety years beyond the others?

The Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Society

Because of the Society’s great age it is inevitable that much of its history is spoken, handed down from father to son, almost ‘folk law’. It is believed that the first show was held in 1800. In reporting that year’s show in 1900 the Whitby Gazette described it as the ‘Centenary Show’ and their knowledge, at that time, was much more recent than ours is today.

The earliest local paper did not appear until 1855 but, initially, it carried only lists of visitors to Whitby and the Hotels in which they stayed; it was not until 1858 that news of local social events was included. In that year the Gazette reported the results from the Whitby Gooseberry Club show at the White Horse and Griffin, We know from the national Gooseberry Growers Register that the Egton Bridge show was also held that year and that many members showed at both events.

It is from the Gooseberry Growers Register that we have the earliest factual records of the Egton Bridge Society: In 1825, in a show held at the Royal Oak Hotel in Egton Bridge, (now a private house) near to the Horse Shoe and to the stepping stones, the champion berry was shown by James Harrison – a red berry of the Sir John variety weighing 17 pennyweights (dwt) and 21 grains.(15 dr. 19 gr in today’s terms); about half the winning weight in a good year nowadays.

The following year the show was held at the Horse Shoe and was, again, won by James Harrison with another red berry; (this time a “Roaring Lion” weighing 15dwt. 14 gr.)  At that time the Shows were held alternately at the two adjacent public houses. After 1831 we have a break in the records until 1843, when it was at the Ship Inn; and then 1854 when they were back at the Horse Shoe and alternating again! Later they settled on the Royal Oak until, in 1869, they became the Esk Vale Gooseberry Show and moved to the Station Hotel Egton Bridge (now the “Postgate”).

 It is not known why these changes were made, but it might well have been an attempt to broaden the membership in the surrounding villages with the opening of the Middlesbrough to Whitby railway in 1865.  Whatever the reason they moved again in 1871 when the Show was held at the Tunnel Inn in Grosmont.  Grosmont was, of course, a railway junction. This move to ‘foreign parts’ was, presumably, not a great success because the next year it moved back to the Royal Oak at Egton Bridge and the Society resumed its old name.

So far as is known the Show has remained in Egton Bridge ever since; at the Royal Oak until about  1905 and then back to the Horse Shoe where they remained until  the 1960s, undisturbed by war or peace ,through two world wars; except for one minor disturbance.

While at the Horse Shoe weighing and judging took place in the summerhouse on the lawn, the berries being displayed on St. Thomas’s Island above the stepping-stones.

In 1940, however the summerhouse was commandeered for first-aid training to support the war effort. That year the show was held in the tenants’ room at the Manor.

When the public attendance got too great for the summerhouse and the island the show moved to St Hedda’s school just below Egton Bridge Station where they have been ever since, except for 2001!   In our 201st year Foot & Mouth disease did what neither World War had done and because of the severity of the outbreak in the Esk Valley, the Show was cancelled!

The Berries and the People Who Grow Them

The size of the berries has increased considerably over the years but the number of varieties has dropped dramatically; in 1831 there were listed 171 different berry names, mostly unknown today. Many had names that reflected the influence on society of the famous military and naval victories a few years earlier. Names such as:- Roaring Lion, Nelson’s Waves, Hero of the Nile and Wellington’s Glory!

There has been rather less change in the people than in their berries. Many of today’s growers are the descendants of the early growers so that we see familiar names recurring through the years. Names like Harrison, Bennison , Welford and Harland and many more.

The big difference is in where these people live in the new millennium; our predecessor’s efforts to widen their membership base have really born fruit! Not only do members come from all over the North York Moors, from Whitby to Thirsk and Scarborough to Middlesbrough, but they can, and do live all over the Country. We have exhibitors who come every year from Norwich, Lincoln, Nottingham and many other places. Some are from Egton families who have moved away; others are sometime visitors who have “caught the bug”.

Rules, Prizes and Other Motivation

In order to be able to compete, each member must have paid their modest subscription by the previous Easter Tuesday. Each berry shown must be intact (i.e. its skin must be unbroken). Beyond these basic rules weight is all that matters!

There are classes for red, white, yellow and green berries and the heaviest of the four is the Champion Berry. Classes for twins, heaviest 12, heaviest 6 and for 4 berries of different colours follow. There are also ‘Maiden’ classes for growers who have never won a major prize. Points are awarded in each class (10 for the 1st, 9 for 2nd, 8 for 3rd and so on) The exhibitor with most points is the Champion Grower.

The berries are weighed on an oil-damped, twin-pan scale, which has been in use since 1937. Avoirdupois weights are used, 27.34 grains equal 1 dram; 16 drams to 1 ounce. Prior to 1937 ‘troy’ weights were used (24 grains to 1 pennyweight, 20 pennyweights to an ounce and 12 ounces to a troy pound) this latter system is still used at the Cheshire clubs.

In all there are more than 30 prizes on offer with cups and shields as well for the major classes.

The prizes have changed little over the years and are generally similar in type and value to those presented in the 19th century (mainly crockery, glassware, household and gardening equipment). Not for gooseberry growers are the extravagant rewards of the leek shows further north; pride in winning is enough! In 1974 a sponsor presented a greenhouse to the grower of the Champion Berry, but the idea of sponsorship can’t have caught on because it was never repeated!

The prizes are financed mainly by a grand raffle held on Show Day together with donations from the visiting public.

In one way only is there a similarity to the Leek shows mentioned previously. The secrecy! Many and varied are the secret formulae for fertilisers, methods of pruning, etc. and nobody knows the strength of the opposition until Show Day.

Fifty Years at the “Berry” Show

Memories of our President

When I started work on the Egton Estate in 1951, as apprentice gamekeeper, I remember that the three gamekeepers, Mr. W.Grayson, Mr. L.  Bennison,& Mr. T. Spenceley; as well as  other Estate workers, were all keen Gooseberry growers. As August approached much talk was about the gooseberries as the nearing Glorious Twelfth grouse shooting.   I went to the Show that year & the next two mainly to see how the keepers had done, but missed the next two through National Service. When I came back in 1956, Mr. Grayson , who I was lodging with, gave me a plot in his garden, I got a dozen bushes through Mr. Jack Spenceley, off a specialist grower.

There were a lot of local growers in those early years and we used to visit most of them with many & varied excuses for the visit which always led to the gooseberry pen, you couldn’t get much of an idea by just asking them, they would always say they had ‘nowt’!   I won the odd prize in the Maiden class.

I was elected onto the committee some time in the sixties, the Show was held then in the hut on the Horse Shoe lawn, a very attractive location, but as the Show became larger we moved to St. Hedda’s School where we have been made  most welcome, the facilities couldn’t be better, the schoolroom is ideal for the display of berries, flowers & prizes, separate rooms for the weighing, quite a lot of space is required here as there are usually in attendance:- two weighmen, two judges, a recorder & at least another six – taking subscriptions, receiving the berries for judging, putting name cards on the plates, putting any spare berries safe after judging, taking the plates of berries into the schoolroom after judging, & sorting out the prizes.  There are also facilities for making a cup of tea (if we have time).   Seats are placed in the playground area outside the school, this is very popu1ar for people to sit and have a chat, and later, listen to the ever popular Stape Silver Band.   The two local pubs are easy walking distance for anyone requiring lunch, excellent teas are avai1ab1e in the school canteen and plenty of free car parking is provided.

Gooseberries to exhibit are grown from special stock. Cuttings and advice are available free. The weight of gooseberries, as with other produce has increased noticeably in recent years. It is expected that the 2 oz.(32 dram) barrier will be broken quite early in this new millennium. Looking back; Mr Tom Ventress caused a sensation in 1952 with a berry that weighed 30 drams 8 grains, which broke, out of sight, all records of the previous 150 years. The nearest that anyone got to this in the next 30 years was 27 dr. 10 gr. Then, in 1982, Mr. R. W. Bennison, with a 30 dr. 9 gr. Beat Tom’s record by one grain. In 1985Mr. B. Harland took over with 31.22 then, in1994, broke his own record with a magnificent 31.22. Up to 1985 only three winning berries were over 1 ¾ oz. (28 drams). Eight times since then winning berries have been heavier than that. One record, which I think may stand for a very long time, is for the Open Twins 53 drams 3 grains set in 1997 by Mrs. J Brierley who had only been a member for four years!

Mr.W..H. Welford won Champion Berry Cup this year in what was one of the most difficult growing seasons in memory with an outstanding berry of 27drams 11 grains, almost 3 drams heavier than the next best.     This was the first time Hedda who has been a member for a long time & on the committee has won the Championship. He was a very popular winner.

The committee are very much aware of the long standing traditions of the Society, the type of prizes are the same, the rules very little changed   The scales have been in use for over sixty years, although modern scales with an instant readout would be much quicker, the weighing would loose its attraction-as the weighman adds the final grains and steadies the scales with a feather, all eyes watch the pointer finally settle.

I am standing down as treasurer after 26 years but hope to continue on the committee and as a Judge.   I was very honoured to be elected President for the millennium Show.

B. Nellist, Egton Bridge

In 2009 Bryan took possession of the outright world record for a gooseberry, weighed in at 35 drams exactly.  The Committee and the Society members congratulate Bryan on his magnificent achievement after so many years of dutiful service to the Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Society.

Memories of a Weighman

By Colin Gray

People visiting the Gooseberry Show probably do not realise the excitement and anticipation that goes on around the weighing table. Five people (two weighmen, two judges and the recorder) selecting, naming and then weighing the best specimens from each exhibitor’s collection. Exhibitors are allowed to watch their own berries being weighed and it is here that all the hard luck stories are told! To retell them all in this volume would run to several extra pages.

It has been a great privilege for me to have known and been associated with some dedicated growers and workers of this Society:-

  • Mr. Willis Graham, a five times winner, who, after winning the Champion Berry trophy outright, re-donated it as a perpetual trophy to preserve the history of the show.
  • Mr. Fred Beswick, four times a winner, who funded the annual Results Register in its early years.
  • Mr. Bernard Harland, five times winner who would help anyone with cuttings and advice. He also provided various items, which are now a feature of every show.
  • Charlie and Harry Sanderson, brotherly rivalry that lasted many years. Charlie won twice, but Harry never did.
  • Mr. Edmund Raw was Secretary for forty years. He just won once.
  • Mr Len Dowson never grew gooseberries but he was another long serving Secretary and was responsible for the form of our present day register, and for collecting most of our records.
  • Mr. Brian Nellist, Treasurer for twenty six years. and a grower for more than forty. He had his first win in 1997 but in1999 he grew the heaviest green berry ever recorded, a National record!
  • Hedda Welford, another long serving member who finally had success in our 200th show.
  • Mr. R. D Swales never had a champion berry, but his enthusiasm and knowledge was boundless.
  • Finally Mr. Jack Spencely. To me he is the Godfather of the Show. Nothing was too much trouble for Jack. He could sort out every problem and made many bold decisions. To my knowledge he never had a Champion Berry but will be remembered always.

All great men who have left us a legacy to be proud of!