Sarah Butler, a Meldreth resident, wrote a comprehensive account of fruit picking in Meldreth in the early 1900s, in her 1972 booklet publication.
She stated that gooseberries were grown early in the season followed by blackcurrants, plums, damsons, apples, pears and greengages, which would follow later. Meldreth was particularly noted for these ‘Cambridge’ greengages.
Just before the fruit was ready the farmer would recruit his pickers. Often the same people every year. They would earn about 3/6d (17½p) per day working from 8-00 am to 5pm. The female pickers would bring their youngest children to the orchards and they would bring food with them to spend the day picking. They all knew each other and it appears that although it was hard physical work there was a camaraderie between then all.
After the gooseberries, came the blackcurrants. The only containers were ½ bushel and 1 bushel baskets covered in paper and secured with spits of hedgerow ready for the London markets. Sometimes the baskets were known to have arrived as a basket of juice only! The trains would stop at 4-20pm at Meldreth and Melbourn station before the onward journey to the London markets.
Also in her memories Sarah states that the fruit trains would still be waiting to load the baskets of fruit sometimes until 10 at night. There was also a carrier who weekly took the fruit to London’s Spitalfields Market by road. The blackcurrants on route to Covent Garden market would often have turned to juice during the journey.
There were many cherry orchards in the village and many birds who would eat the fruit. The cherry pickers would have a powder and gun with them and would fire them off to scare the birds. She mentions that the robins were allowed to go free to eat the cherries. The starlings were shot and given to the cats as they had a peculiar taste if cooked. They also had tins tied to trees and children would go to the orchards out of school hours pulling the strings and using the clappers which were pieces of wood loosely tied together.
There were many greengage orchards. Meldreth was noted for growing greengages particularly the Cambridge greengage. The flavour was attributed to the clay soil.
Most of the orchards were known by their given names. Some are still in existence today.
Meldreth and Melbourn railway station was a very busy place particularly during the fruit season when the trolleys of fruit baskets were traveling back and forth from the orchards from early morning until 10 o’clock at night. The goods trains with the fruit wagons would still be waiting. There would be four station men looking after the 4 huge horses, plus shunting the wagons, loading them and working full out collecting goods. The fruit grower had to send a completed assignment note with each load stating the number of baskets and which farm or market they were going to. It was also important to know who was going to pay the carriage for the goods. It was usual to employ an extra clerk to deal with the paperwork.
1885 was recorded as a bumper year for fruit production for the area. Several thousand pounds were made by the growers/land owners. (ref. Royston Crow 1885).
In March 1892 there was a dispute growing between the growers, pickers and agricultural workers. A Nationalisation meeting was held in Melbourn. The speaker, called Arthur Brooks, gave a speech warning that the private land owners were enjoying rich profits unlike the labourers and workers. The workers present passed a resolution in favour of the land returning to the workers. Many of them joined the Eastern Counties Labour Federation. In September of the same year there was a further meeting held and workers were told by the Federation that they would be supported by the members should they be threatened with dismissal for just belonging to this group. Ref ; A Glimpse into Melbourn’s past .