Back-breaking days gathering the fruit

By Gordon Ellis

I experienced this work just once and I have not the slightest intention of repeating it. During one of those hot, sultry summers many years ago, I was a dodger in the fields of Holt and from school.

The holidays were coming up and pocket money being in short supply I joined the pickers. The days of the ”professional” dodger had by then long ended and much of the temporary labour force, of which I was a member, was recruited from among the unemployed, from schoolboys like myself, and girls and women from the then deprived areas of Wrexham. And were those females tough and uninhibited? As one old hand put it to me:
”They’ll have your trousers down before you can undo your braces”.

Innocent schoolboy that I was, I learnt more about the latent mysteries of human procreation during that summer in Holt than from all my years at school or from my parents for that matter. But for all their bawdy jokes, and ribald innuendo, those females were good-hearted, honest and ever-willing to lend a hand; If you were hungry they would share their meagre snapping with you and if any valuables, such as watches, were left around, they would be there at the end of the day. Even money, always at a premium, was left severely alone.

As potential pickers, a disparate gang of us had been picked up on Wrexham Beast Market and loaded on to an open wagon for the three- mile journey to Holt, along with others from the surrounding district. Directed on to a field, we started work between two rows of plants, picking on both sides non- stop, apart from food-break, throughout the day. Some of us crouching, others finding a kneeling position more comfortable – knees protected by sacking.

Containers full, they were carried to the end of the row for packing and dispatching The berry was not to be touched, it was removed by nipping the stalk with our thumb-nails and by the end of the day those nails were so hardened that they could have nipped a lead-pencil in two.

The strawberry growing potential of the area was first recognised by Charles Bellis, of Holt, and the story of its progression concerns a small family concern which grew into one of the biggest strawberry- growing firms in the country. It starts in 1860 when Mr Bellis rooted some plants in his garden and in the following year, the runners from these were planted into a field and thus effectively started the industry in Holt. At that time, in Kent only, was the berry grown in open fields.