There’s an old fruit tree at the bottom of my garden with a tale to tell…
Once upon a time St Margarets didn’t exist. Where we live now was an empty space. No station, no pub, no shops, no houses, no post office, no nothing. All that separated Isleworth, Twickenham, Richmond and Hounslow were cornfields, orchards and market gardens as far as the eye could see. Henry 8th called the area “London’s breadbasket” and he was right. From the banks of the Thames and up the gentle rise to Hounslow the business around here was food.
Like today’s modern growers the farmers and horticulturists of the past relied upon seasonal labour from outside the area to gather in the harvest and transport it to market. In the 18th and 19th century this labour was largely women from Dyfed and Cardiganshire in Wales and Shropshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire in the Midlands. Every summer they would walk the 200 miles or so along the old drovers roads to work in the fields where St Margarets now stands. As they walked these’ Welsh Women’ as they were known would knit woollen stockings which they sold to pay for their lodgings once they arrived.
The work was hard and the pay not very good. A woman working in an orchard would be expected to pick 12 gallons of fruit a day and for this she would be paid about 1½d a gallon (one and a half old pennies), which works out at about 50p a week. For some of the women this was not much more than they could expect to earn at home. The 1892 Report of the Royal Commission of Labour reveals that women working in Welsh collieries oiling machinery or unloading coal were paid between 4/6d and 10/-, roughly 25p and 50p a week. But for others it was a cash bonanza. In 1888 Becky Price, a Shropshire pit worker from Ketley Bank was paid only 3/6d, 18p a week. Imagine what 50p a week meant to her. To further supplement their wages some of the “Welsh women’ would also walk the 10 miles to the markets at Covent Garden carrying baskets of fruit on their heads.
For all the miles of walking and the strenuous work they faced once they arrived the ‘Welsh Women’ enjoyed coming here. It was a chance to get away from the endless chores at home and for those whose usual working lives was spent in tedious drudgery screening coal or sorting out cobblestones the work in St Margarets offered a holiday in the sun.
The “Welsh Women” and the fields, orchards and market gardens in which they laboured have all gone now, buried under the advancing suburbs during the 19th and early 20th century. There is little left to remind us that they had ever been here. In Talbot Road in Isleworth village is the Victoria Pub, named not as you might expect after Queen Victoria but after the Victoria Plum that once grew in orchards along the River Crane… and in a few local back gardens you can see find gnarled veterans of the trees themselves - battered and misshapen but still producing fruit.
A beaten up survivor of those days lives at the bottom of my own garden - an old Conference Pear tree that still manages to squeeze out a few fruits every autumn. Sometimes on warm summer evenings as the breeze drifts through its branches I fancy that I can hear gentle laughter, the rattle of knitting needles and women talking fondly about families and friends a long way away.
– from Martyn Day