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A History Of Apples and Cider in the UK

This document does not claim to be the definitive history of apple growing and cider making in the UK, but I hope to give you a flavour of the subject. If you want to know more, then there's a further reading section at the end of this article. This document was compiled by Gillian Grafton. The contents are as accurate as I can make them, but no liability is accepted.

A History of Apple Growing in the UK

Apples probably arose in the Caucusus, Turkestan, and adjoining areas, where wild apples (Malus silvestris and Malus pumila) still grow. Natural hybridisation betweem M. pumila and M. silvestris gave rise to edible (non-sour) apples similar to modern forms, without the intervention of people. Apples then spread throughout the fertile crescent (Persia, Caspian Sea to Turkey, Palestine and Egypt). The first written account of an apple orchard is found in The Odyssey (written 900-800 BC). Varro (116-27 BC) wrote on the propogation of apples and described their storage, including the construction of an apple store. Pliny (first century AD) described how farmers would auction the fruit on the trees, a practice still carried out in some Kent orchards.

Malus silvestris grew wild in Britain in Neolithic times, evidence for its use as food has been found at the Windmill Hill site in Wiltshire. However, there is no evidence that there was any attempt to cultivate the trees. Druids are believed to have planted apple trees near sacred oak groves but these probably served as hosts for mistletoe which was very important to the Druids. Traces of apples dating to Roman times have also been found in Bermondsey and Doncaster. During the period of the Roman invasion of Britain, army veterans were given settlements on which to grow fruits (as an inducement to stay), and thus apple orchards were introduced into Britain.

Following the Roman occupation there were waves of invasions of Britain by the Jutes, Saxons, and Danes. This led to abandonment of the orchards. When Christianity was re-established in England (in Kent in AD 597 by St. Augustin) orchards were established in monasteries. The monasteries housed both men and women and were self-sufficient. Despite repeated Viking attacks the majority survived. The monastery at Ely (Cambridgeshire) was particularly famous for its orchards and vineyards. A manuscript (circa 1165) of part of the plan of the garden of Christ Church monastery in Canterbury shows a pomerium, an apple garden, consisting of apples and pears for eating and apples for cider making. Similarly in 1275 Battle Abbey in Somerset records the sale of cider to the public.

The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought the most profound changes to apple growing in Britain. Not least of these changes was the replacement of the Church establishment by French-speaking Normans. The Normans had a strong tradition of apple growing and cider making. They introduced many apple types to Britain, the first recorded of which were the Pearmain and the Costard. The Pearmain was particularly valued for cider making. The Pearmain (Old English Pearmain) was first recorded in 1204. The manor of Runham (Norfolk) had to pay to the Exchequer each year 200 Pearmains and 4 hogsheads of cider made from Pearmains. The Costard was first recorded in 1296 when 100 fruits were sold for 1 shilling. In 1325 29 Costard apple trees were recorded as having been sold for 3 shillings. The name Costard is preserved in the word costermonger, originally a seller of Costard apples.

The Black Death and the Wars of the Roses led to a decline in fruit cultivation, but this decline was reversed by Henry VIII. In 1533, Richard Harris, fruiterer to the king, began a program of importation of apple trees from France, and apple growing underwent a large expansion. Harris planted a model orchard at Teynham which was used to distribute trees to other growers.

Apple orchards were extensively planted in Kent in the 16th and 17th centuries. The growing of apples was also well advanced in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, and Worcestershire. The bulk of these apples was used for cider making. The building of canals in the late 18th century expanded the market for cider. By the end of the century it was estimated that 10,000 hogsheads (1 hogshead = 110 gallons) of cider were exported each year from Worcestershire alone.

Towards the end of the 18th century the quality of fruit crops declined because of canker and also because of poor orchard management. Cider orchards declined in Herefordshire as it became more profitable to farm wheat and cattle. Protection of the fruit market during the Napoleonic Wars, and high tariffs on imported fruit after the wars led to an expansion of new orchard planting in the 1820s and 1830s. The lowering of these tariffs in 1837 caused a collapse in the apple market. This led to Kent apple growers turning their cooking apples into cider which was of such poor quality that there were generalised protests. The situation continued until 1870 when industrialisation of the country led to increased per capita income and fruits once again became profitable.

During the decline of apple production the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club decided to undertake a survey of the Herefordshire orchards. They appointed Dr. Robert Hogg to undertake the survey. Hogg was already well know having been the secretary of the short-lived (1854-1864), but influential British Pomological Society. The survey was published between 1876 and 1885 as the Illustrated Herefordshire Pomona. The club distributed grafts of 92 different apple varieties and successfully revived old valued cider apples such as the Foxwhelph and Skyme's Kernel. The club also visited Rouen in 1884 and selected Normandy apple varieties for introduction into Herefordshire. These include Medaille d'Or and Michelin which are still grown today.

A scientific approach to fruit growing first resulted from the establishment of the Royal Horticultural Society. The first centre devoted to fruit experiments was the Woburn Experimental Fruit Farm, a private establishment set up in 1894 by the Duke of Bedford and Spencer Pickering. This also had a limited existence. In 1903 the fruit research station was established at Long Ashton, Bristol, as the National Fruit and Cider Institute. Following amalgamation with the University of Bristol in 1912 this became the Long Ashton Research Station. In 1913 a second site was opened in Kent, the East Malling Research Station. At the end of 1986 the Pomology Division of the Long Ashton Research Station was transferred to the AFRC Institute of Horticultural Research (the East Malling Research Station) and the cider research was transferred to the AFRC Institute of Food Research at Norwich and Reading. The Long Ashton site was sold and is now owned by a private cider making firm. Trees from the unique collection are now propogated at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Wisley, and the National Fruit Collection at the Brogdale Horticultural Trust in Kent.

Apple growing is presently a much smaller industry than in the past. In 1877 there were 23,000 acres of apples in Devon, 22,000 in Herefordshire, 21,000 in Somerset, 9,000 in Worcestershire, 8,000 in Gloucestershire, and 6,000 in Kent. By 1979 the acreage of cider apples in Herefordshire and Worcestershire taken together was only just over 6,000.

A History of Cider Making in the UK

Although apple orchards were established in England by the Romans there is no evidence of cider making until the Norman Conquest. Cider making was certainly established in Europe before then. One of the earliest references to it was by Charlemagne at the beginning of the 9th century.

After the Norman Conquest there are definite records of cider production in the monasteries of England. In the main apple growing counties, including Kent, Somerset and Hampshire, most manors had their own cider presses and made their own cider. Monasteries regularly sold cider to the public. At Battle Abbey in Sussec records show that in 1369, 3 tuns of cider were sold for 55 shillings.

In medieval times, cider making was an important industry in Kent, and in the time of Henry II, Kentish cider mills were noted for their strong spiced cider. Workers in the monastery orchards in the 13th century received a daily allowance of cider as part of their wages, a practice continued until very recently in the west of England.

Cider and apples were widely regarded as having health giving properties. In his herbal, Gerard advises There is an ointment made with the pulp of apples and swine's grease and rose water, which is used to beautify the face, and to take away the roughness of the skin, called in shops pomatum of the apples whereof it is made. The ointment was used to soften the skin and fade freckles. Cider drinking was widely supposed to promote longevity as this chorus from a Devonshire cider drinking song shows:

        I were brought up on cider
        And I be a hundred and two
        But still that be 'nuthin when you come to think
        Me father and mother be still in the pink
        And they were brought up on cider
        Of the rare old Tavistock brew
        And me Granfer drinks quarts
        For he's one of the sports
        That were brought up on cider too

Other traditions are associated with cider, most notably the Wassail. Farmers and farm workers used to salute the apple trees in a ceremony known as wassailing. Wassail or Wass Hal means Be Thou of Good Health. The time of the wassail varied from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night. Participants carried jugs of cider into the orchards, drank a health to the trees and the anticipated next year's crop, and poured cider around the tree roots. During the wassailing a great deal of noise was created by banging pots and pans. Wheat flour cakes were eaten at these ceremonies and small pieces of the cake were dipped in cider and placed in the forks of the trees as a thanksgiving to the spirit of the tree.

In the 17th century, attention started to be paid to both the apple varieties used for cider making and the quality of the cider. In his Discourse of Husbandrie used in Brabant and Flanders (1645), Samuel Hartlib stated his concerns about the poor quality of the apples used in England for cider making. He praised the cider made in Normandy and northern Spain using specially selected apple varieties. Things evidently hadn't improved by the end of the 18th century. D. Marshall in his book, The Rural Economy of Gloucestershire published in 1796 described the three principal drinks made in the county at the time. They were cider, perry and a cider made jointly from apples and pears. He lamented the poor quality of much of the cider then produced, saying "A palate accustomed to sweet cider would judge the rough cider of the farm houses to be a mixture of vinegar and water, with a portion of dissolved alum to give it a roughness." He then went on to describe in great detail the most common forms of cider mills and presses and gave strong recommendations as to the processes to adopt for the production of good quality cider.

The usual method of harvesting apples was to send men with long slender poles or rods (polting lugs) to beat the trees. Women with baskets then collected the fallen fruit. He condemed the practice, stating "The criterion of a due degree of ripeness is that of the fruit's falling spontaneously from the tree. Nature is the best judge of this crisis. No art has yet been discovered, to mature unripe fruit, in any way equal to nature's process. Fruit, in all human probability, does not quit the tree (in an undisturbed state) until it has received its full complement of nourishment." The book gave much sensible advice on the storage of the fruit and its milling. After the pressing Marshall stated that most farm cider makers reground the residue with water for a "family drink".

One of the 18th century methods of cider making condemned by Marshall was described by A. fothergill, a physician commissioned to determine the extent of copper contamination of ciders. He described the production of cuit cider thus: "Cyder wine prepared after the method communicated by Dr. Rush, as practised in America, viz by evapourating in a brewing copper the fresh apple-juice till half of it be consumed. The remainder is then immediately conveyed into a wooden cooler, and afterwards is put into a proper cask, with an addition of yeast and fermented in the ordinary way. The process is evidently borrowed from what has long been practised on the recent juice of the grape, under the term of vin cuit, or boiled wine, not only in Italy but also in the islands of the Archipelago, from time immemorial." The report further states that the practice was much imitated in England, and especially in the west of England. The author condems the process stating that "The evapouration of the must by long boiling not only occassions an unnecessary waste of both liquor and fuel, but also dissipates certain essential principles, without which the liquor can never undergo a complete fermentation, and without a complete fermentation there can be no perfect wine. Hence boiled wines are generally crude and heavy and flat, liable to produce indigestion, flatulency and diarrheoa."

The report condems the inconsistency in production especially the conduct of fermentation. Some brewers used open vats, some closed hogsheads and some even tried to prevent the fermentation under the impression that it was a fault. There was no use of thermometers, "And that for fining down the liquor, many have recourse to that odious article, bullock's blood, when the intention might be much better answered by whites of eggs, or isinglass." The author highly recommend cider and perry produced by more straight forward traditional methods: "When the must is prepared from the choicest fruit and undergoes the exact degree of vinous fermentation requisite to its perfection, the acid and the sweet are thus admirably blended with the aqueous, oily and spiritous principles, and the whole imbued with the grateful flavours of the rinds, and the agreable aromatick butter of the kernels; it assumes a new character; grows lively, sparkling and exhilerating; and when completely mellowed by time, the liquor becomes at once highly delicious to the palate, and congenial to the constitution, superior in every respect to most other English wines, and perhaps not inferior to many of the foreign wines."

Following the attention given to the improvement of cider during the 18th century, there was much planting of cider apples in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Somerset, and Devon. Cider was very popular and on farms in the West Country workers received a daily allocation of cider as part of their wages. Cider was supplied to ships in Bristol harbour and was often shipped by sea from Devon to London. Once in London it was often adulterated and sold as imported wine.

Attention began to be paid to cider apple varieties. The Foxwhelp, which appeared in the mid 17th century, became popular and was used in the finest ciders. According to Hugh Staffor, the Styre or Stiar apple was noted for producing a bold, masculine, and strong cider and at one time was almost the only apple esteemed for producing rough cider. In Devon at the beginning of the 18th century, Royal Wilding came into prominence. Other varieties were alse developed such as Meadgate, White-Sour, the Irish Cockagee, and Elliot. Somerset, not reknowned for good cider until then, gave rise to the most famous cider apple of all, the Kingston Black (Black Taunton).

In the 19th century much of the art of cider making which had been developed during the 17th and 18th centuries seems to have been lost. Revival of interest in cider apples was encouraged by G.W. Radcliffe Cooke of Hellens, Herefordshire who, in 1898, wrote A Book about Cider and Perry. Neville Grenville of Glastonbury, Somerset, in co-operation with the Bath and West and Southern Counties Society aided by small grants from the Board of Agriculture, began experiments on cider production in 1893. These experiments were one of the factors leading to the setting up of the National Fruit and Cider Institute.

In 1903 apple varieties included Foxwhelp in Herefordshire, Sweet Alford and Woodbine in Devon, Morgan's Sweet in Somerset and Kingston Black. The National Fruit and Cider Institue ran extensive trials in the mid 1930s leading to the widespread use of Yarlington Mill, a seedling raised in Somerset at the end of the 19th century.

The 20th century has led to a marked change to factory production of cider in Britain. Factories buy fruit from France and now import concentrated apple juice from abroad. There has been some interest from the larger producers in locally produced apples accompanied by a welcome improvement in the standard of cider. However, it is still true to say that the best ciders are produced by small farms using their own cider apples.

Further Reading

These are the sources I used in the preparation of this document:
  • Cautions to the Heads of Families in three Essays: I On Cyder-Wine, prepared in copper vessels, with hints for the Improvement of Cyder, Perry and other Fruit Liquers by A. Fothergill MD FRS. Printed by R. Cruttwell of Bath. 1790. - A highly entertaining pamphlet which gives a good description of the "vin cuit" method of cider production.
  • The Rural Economy of Gloucestershire by D. Marshall. 1796. - An exhaustive survey of the agricultural practices of the time. It includes an excellent description of cider making.
  • Cultivated Fruits of Britain. Their Origin and History by F.A. Roach Published by Blackwell Ltd., Oxford. 1st edition 1985. ISBN 0-631-13969-9. - An excellent well researched book.


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