Our story begins in 1860 when the strawberry growing potential of the area was first recognised by the Bellis Family. Mr Charles Bellis planted a strawberry in his garden called Black Prince, a dark and very sweet berry. In the following year the runners from these plants were planted in surrounding fields. From these small beginnings grew one of the largest strawberry growing firms in the country.
Eighteen years on in 1878, the Bellis family bought the site you are now stood on, Wrexham Road Farm.
Early commercial strawberry growing
The following years saw a steady expansion of the business and soon many acres of neighbouring properties bought by Mr Bellis were under strawberry cultivation. In 1885 it was agreed to plant the strawberries in rows – a yard apart as this system was found to be much more economical.
Soon Mr Bellis was compelled to look to the markets of the border towns for the sale of his produce. This meant hard work and early rising. At 3 a.m. he and members of his family would be up and about loading baskets of the berries into shandries (horse drawn wooden carts on springs) and later a fleet of horse drawn lorries. These transported the berries to Chester where the fruit was transferred to the railway destined for Birkenhead. On arrival at the port, where there was then no landing stage, the baskets were unloaded on to hand-carts and trundled down the slipway to a waiting paddle steamer for shipment to Liverpool. It was then a quick return to Holt for more picking and dispatching.
In 1878 Mr Bellis recorded with pride “there was to our credit in the bank, £2,000 and we borrowed £4,000 to buy our Wrexham Road Farm”.
As years went by transportation improved with steam wagons commonplace and special trains departing from Wrexham. The trains left every evening loaded with the fruit and by morning this would be on sale in most North-West towns. In some weeks more than 50 tons of the berry would be dispatched in this way. In order to keep an eye on sales, members of the Bellis family would travel on the train in a reserved compartment.
The pickers were called “Strawberry Dodgers”. The term “dodger” is believed to have arisen from the fact that these people used to dodge around the country seeking work in the fields at planting times and harvesting.
Never was a more inappropriate description given to those who slaved through the midsummer sun and rain, at the back breaking task of picking and packing strawberries for dispatching to the markets of the North West.
Hundreds of men, women and children and often whole families from the towns and cities, converged on Holt for an escape into the countryside for the strawberry picking season. They were drawn from all sections, professional men who had hit hard times and others who had become drop-outs either through drink or family troubles. While they crouched over the plants, children armed with wooden clappers walked up and down the rows scaring off the birds.
Life as a Strawberry Dodger
In 1903 accommodation was built for strawberry pickers on what was known as ‘Charlies Yard’ – this is now known as ‘Top Yard’. They were designed by Thomas Cramp, a strawberry dodger himself. The ‘dodgers’ were accommodated in model hutments and no picker was allowed to start work before being medically examined. Only clean and healthy workers were engaged for fruit gathering and packing. The county medical officer of health also regularly visited the campus and a dentist was on call.
Concerts and various entertainments were organised in leisure times, with the dodgers providing much of this with mouth organs, concertinas and fiddles. On Sundays religious services were conducted.
Unrest between the locals and the dodgers
The strawberry season was anticipated with dread by the local villagers with the dodgers being disliked by the local community. Although the majority were sober, hardworking men and women seeking a break in the country from their drab town surroundings, rowdy elements from Wrexham delighted in baiting them, and pitched battles along the road to Holt were commonplace in season. This occurred mostly on Sundays when people from Wrexham, intent on overcoming the then Welsh drinking laws invaded the village as bona fide travellers to fill themselves with ale in Farndon.
The local press were scathing “The scenes regularly prevailing at Holt on Sundays on the Wrexham Road are unbecoming of men and women in a Christian land. Ribald songs are sung and filthy language indulged in; the police should exercise the greatest vigilance that no drink is sold to these Sabbath breakers who cross the border solely for the purpose of obtaining drink. Scarcely can any respectable person pass along this road without being insulted… “
Life as a strawberry Dodger, 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 war years 1914 to 1918
The government authorities mobilised all industries for war purposes. They deemed the growth of fruit a luxury and said we must grow potatoes and vegetables. However, they overlooked the fact that jam made from strawberries was an essential part of a soldiers ration so the government changed its mind and urged us to grow more fruit. Fifty-three of our employees joined ‘his Majesties Forces’, fifteen of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice. During the wartime boys and girls from Wrexham Schools came here to pick for five weeks.
The end of the Great War
When the Great War ended, the family continued farming, growing fruit and vegetables and planting orchards. Beef and dairy herds were established and more farms purchased, but we continued to be famous for our strawberries! Mechanisation meant the work was less labour intensive and fewer workers where required.
In 1973, Roger Bellis built a small Farm Shop in order to sell produce grown from our fields. However, it soon became apparent that it was far too small and the first extension got underway in April 1976.
The biggest change happened in 1986 when the existing Farm Shop was demolished and a new Farm Shop, Garden Centre and Cafe were built. This was a considerable risk because the village of Holt had been bypassed and we no longer had the luxury of considerable passing trade. We were one of the first Farm Shops in the country to diversify into the Garden Centre Industry but such a risk was essential in order for the shop to survive. Several extensions later, we now arrive at the Farm Shop, Garden Centre and Restaurant we have today.
We continue to farm the land here in Holt growing fruit and vegetables for sale in our Farm Shop and for seasonal ‘Pick Your Own’.
While the days of the strawberry dodgers have passed we still invite our customers to pick strawberries in the very fields the Strawberry Dodgers worked many years ago. The demand for the Bellis Berry is as keen as ever!
We proudly remain an Independent Family Run business which is now in the hands of the fourth and fifth generations of the Bellis Family.