Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Gooseberry shows

The competitive showing of gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa) seems to have become popular the Midlands, Cheshire, Lancashire and parts of Yorkshire during the first half of the eighteenth century, by 1740 gooseberry clubs were being formed in the Manchester area, and about a century later there some 722 varieties of the fruit available and there were over 170 gooseberry shows.

It appears that hand-loom weavers were particularly keen gooseberry growers; when weaving was mechanised and home-weaving was no longer viable, the weavers moved to urban areas where they had no room to grow the bushes, and so the popularity of shows waned, with few surviving the First World War.  About eight shows have survived to the present – seven ‘small shows’ in Cheshire, and one at Egton Bridge, in North Yorkshire.

The Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Society Show, held on the first Tuesday in August, claims to be the oldest show; its early history is unknown, but according to a local paper, the Whitby Gazette, the centenary show was held in 1900.  The show is currently held in the local Catholic primary school, and is a curiously low-key event.  People who come to view things are welcomed by a recording of a brass band playing rather sombre music, and and although there is no admission fee, visitors are encouraged to buy raffle tickets.  Teas are available in the school’s canteen, young gooseberry bushes are offered for sale, the Eskulelees provide live music from 5 p.m. and there is a prize-giving at 6 p.m.

No schedule is available, so outsiders are confused about how the berries are judged.  It is apparent that the heaviest berries win, but there appear to be four colour classes: white, yellow, green and red, and although the red ones are identifiable, non-experts would find it difficult to distinguish between the other three colours.   Screens with information about the history of gooseberry shows were placed in one corner, where they were largely obscured by stacks of chairs.

There is an impressive array of shields and silver cups for winners, and a variety of miscellaneous other prizes, presumably presented by local businesses and individuals.

According to the Society’s president, ‘the prestige of winning is very great.  One is therefore a member of an exclusive club’.  Furthermore, ‘On show day carry on at a most leisurely pace.  So perhaps in this world of speed and high technology, the old fashioned ways of the Show have special appeal.’

All photographs taken at Egton Bridge, 1 August 2017.