The History of Meldreth Orchards

Fruit pickers in George Palmer's Orchard in 1920s
Robert Elbourn

Meldreth has been a notable farming area in Cambridgeshire since the 11th century.  The soil is ideal, made of up of loam and a middle chalk layer with a good supply of water to the whole area.

Fruit was grown in the Parish of Meldreth as early as the late 13th century when Topcliffe’s demesne sold surplus apples and cherries.

There is evidence that apple orchards were being planted in the neighbouring village of Melbourn in the mid 16th century so there may have been an overlap into Meldreth.

Kelly’s Directory for Meldreth 1847 Population 730  10 farmers listed

Kelly’s Directory for Meldreth 1858 Population 776  17 farmers listed

The farming above would have been predominately arable and cattle/sheep.

In the 1850s there was a substantial increase in the acreage of fruit planted and greengages were widely grown. This could be attributed to the development of the railway passing through Meldreth in 1851 giving the fruit growers access to the London wholesale markets.

In addition Meldreth had a ready workforce of men and women at that time needing work. It would be mainly the wives of the agricultural workers who were picking fruit in order to supplement the wages of the men. Of course this was seasonal work.

By 1886 the village was surrounded by orchards and by 1905 their area had increased from approximately 100 acres to over 200 acres. Later in the 20th century there were better roads for transportation to fruit processing factories in the surrounding area.

The incentive to grow fruit came from the development of Chivers, Stephens and Son fruit processors for jam in Histon, established in 1879.  In 1904 some processing was also done by Alwyne and later Andrew Howard from Chiswick End, Meldreth.

In 1900 George Palmer, farmer, was listed in Kelly’s Directory, as a fruit grower.  He had been growing fruit since 1864 owning orchards in Orwell and later Meldreth. He invested in apples, greengages and plums initially and later included cherries.

By 1901 there were orchards south of Mettle Hill. By 1908 fruit was one Meldreth chief crops.

In the early 20th century there were many smaller orchards such as the Harrups who later founded Fieldgate Nurseries near Sheene Manor. Some of their fruit growing fields were along Mettle Hill.

Main Orchard Owners in 1910 

Smaller Orchard Owners in the early 1900s

In 1922 the Kelly’s Directory entry for fruit growers still included the same names as 1900 except for the Nodder family.

In 1937 Kelly’s Directory included the names Albert Edward Newell and Albert Lambeth as fruit growers.

During the Second World War soft fruits such as gooseberries and blackcurrants were also grown and distributed by rail. By 1948 the soft fruits, as well as apples, plums, cherries and greengages had spread into the Mettle Hill area, Chiswick End, Whitecroft Road and west of Bury Lane.

In 1952 Melbourn Bury Fruit Farm had  approximately 80 acres off Bury Lane in Meldreth, planted with apples, pears, plums, and greengages owned by Michael Clayton formerly owned by Fordhams. It is now a well established farm shop and garden centre still growing fruit.

There were still several fruit growers in the parish in 1978.

Today there is still a thriving local orchard business, Cam Valley Orchards being run in Meldreth by a further generation of the Elbourn family.

References: 

Victoria County History, volume 8

Kelly’s Trade Directories

Names of landowners from the 1910 Land Valuation Map for Meldreth

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