This document can’t claim to be a definitive history of pear growing and perry making in the UK, but I hope to give you a flavour of the subject. If you want to know more then there’s a further reading section at the end of this article.
This document was compiled by Gillian Grafton. The contents are as accurate as I can make them, but no liability is accepted.
A History of Pear Growing in the UK
The pears cultivated in Europe are thought to have arisen from Pyrus communis which is a native of Europe and Northern Asia and is found growing wild in Britain. This species probably wasn’t indigenous to Britain. There has probably been natural cross-hybridisation in the wild between P. communis and P. korschinskyi and P. heterophylla. In Japan and China cultivated pears developed from P. serotina which is not used at all in Europe. In the United States, a variey of P. serotina, the Chinese Sand Pear, was one of the parents of the Kieffer pear, a poor quality pear widely used for canning.
The fruits of P. communis are small, hard, gritty, sour and astringent so it is not surprising that there is little evidence of its use for food by prehistoric people in Europe. Pears are not referenced in the Bible but are mentioned in The Oddyssey. Their use seems to have been well established at this time. Cato the Elder wrote about pears naming several varieties: the Volema, the Ancian Frost Pear, the Tarentine, the Must pear and the Gourd pear. Varro described methods of propagation of pears. Pliny the Elder discussed pear varieties and mentioned that Crustumian was the nicest variety and that Falernian pears were the best for making wine. He named a further 38 varieties varying in colour, texture, flavour, season and keeping qualities. He also maintained that pears were harmful to eat raw but were good boiled with honey. Medicinally he recommended them as poultices. Several writers in the 16th and 17th centuries also maintained that pears were poisonous to eat as the following quotation from a 16th century manuscript written by monks in Worcestershire (quoted from Williams in “The Perry Pear”), testifies: “Peres causeth ye colyck passion in ye bowlles, wyld peres stoppeth and noyeth ye stomake, but ye grete tame peres byn better usid in meates than the lyttle, and the uice of both usid before dyner stopeth ye bely, and usid after dyner layeth ye bely.”
Tacitus implies in some of his writings that pears were cultivated in Britain at the time of the Roman occupation. Charlemagne (circa 800) issued a list of plants to be cultivated which included pears. In Britain however, definite records are not available until after the Norman Conquest. The Domesday Book of 1086 mentions old pear trees several times as boundary markers, implying their cultivation before this period.
Court accounts in the reign of Henry III (1207-72) show that pears were imported from France and for many years French varieties dominated English orchards. Pears were imported from the La Rochelle area of France which was famed for its pears.
Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, developed extensive orchards and there is a record in 1262 of the court gardener planting six Cailhou (Cailloel) pear trees. Eleanor of Castille, wife of Edward I, was a keen gardener. In the court accounts for 1276-92 the following pear types were noted: Kaylewell (Calswel); Rewel (de Regula); and Pesse-Pucelle. Kaylewell was a synonym for the Caillou and was seen as a pear fit only for baking but was very popular with the royal family at the time. Other pear varieties noted at this time were: Martins; Dreyes; Sorells; Gold-Knopes; Regul; and Chyrfall.
Sometime before 1388 the first important English pear variety, the Wardon, was introduced by Cistercian Monks at Wardon in Bedfordshire. It was widely used for pies, which became known as Wardon pies.
Harris, fruiterer to Henry VIII, introduced pears from France and the Low Countries in 1533 for planting at Teynham in Kent. There had been a deterioration in orchard management until the revival of growing in the 16th century. William Turner mentions this revival and the introduction of new varieties in his Herbal of 1568. Gerard (1597) showed that the number of pear varieties had increased since the beginning of the century and claimed that one friend of his had 60 high quality varieties in his orchard and perhaps as many again of lesser quality ones. He illustrated 8 pears, the Jenneting; the Pear Royall; the Quince Pear; the Katherine; the Saint James; the Burgomet; the Bishops; and the Winter Pear. He mentioned wild or hedge pears inculding the Great Choke, the Small Choke, the Wild Hedge Pear, the Lowsie wild and the Crow pear. He said that many of these pears were harsh and bitter and others of such a choking taste that they could not be eaten. These pears were often used for making perry.
At the start of the 17th century new varieties were being constantly introduced from Europe. Parkinson described 65 varieties most of which seem to have been recent introductions. Few of the varieties he mentions are grown today. Those that are include the Gergonell (now known as the Jargonelle), Catherine, Winter Bon Chrétien, Windsor and the Bergamot.
In 1691 Worlidge listed 129 varieties of pear for the table. De la Quintinye, the head of the French royal gardens at Versailles, wrote prolifically on pears and regarded the Beurré Brown (butter pear) as second only to the Bon Chrétien. He devotes a whole chapter to the Winter Bon Chrétien and says it is the same pear as that which the Romans called Crustumium or Volemum.
Up until the 17th century pears had been grown grafted onto pear stocks, or crab apple stocks, or even hawthorne stocks. Sir Thomas Hanmer and his friend, John Evelyn, were amongst the first in England to realise the value of grafting onto quince stock, which is now the preferred method of propagation. This practice was already widespread in France and probably originated there.
Pear production was of particular importance during the Middle Ages in France and Belgium. The French popularised pears but it was the Belgians who gave serious attention to breeding new and improved varieties. Nicolas Hardenpont (1705-1774), a priest at Mons, introduced several varieties among them the Glou Morceau, still cultivated today. Dr. Van Mons, a pharmacist and physician of Louvain, influenced by Hardenpont, developed some 400 varieties of pear, some of which are still grown, eg the Beurré d’Anjou.
Britain already had a great many varieties of pears before the upsurge in breeding in Belgium. In 1770 one of the most important varieties still in cultivation today was developed. It was the William’s Bon Chrétien bred by Stair, a schoolmaster at Aldermaston in Berkshire. This pear was taken to the USA in 1797 by James Carter of Boston. It was planted at an estate in Massachusetts and in 1817 Enoch Bartlett of Dorchester, Massachusetts took over the estate containing these pears and sold them under his own name as Bartletts, not knowing the true name. They quickly became one of the leading varieties in the USA.
Richard Weston, in his Flora Anglicana (1775-89) mentions 120 pear varieties, very few of which still exist except in collections such as that at the Brogdale Horticultural Trust.
At the start of the 19th century Thomas Andrew Knight began developing pear varieties. The Royal Horticultural Society encouraged pear growing and in 1826 had 622 varieties growing in the gardens at Chiswick, rising to 627 in 1831. Another French pear became one of the major varieties grown in Britain, the Doyenne du Comice, grown by the Horticultural Society of Maine et Loire at Angers in 1849.
Correct growing conditions, a sufficient balance of rainfall and sunshine, restrict the growing areas for pears in England, and thus affect the development of new varieties. The areas in which pears were traditionally grown (the counties of the West Midlands: Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Wocestershire) had the correct growing conditions, a long tradition of orcharding, areas of soils which were unkind to apples but which could support the growth of even the largest pears, and most of the indigenous varieties arose there.
The first English pears of note to arise from controlled breeding were Fertility (1875 by Rivers of Sawbridgeworth) and Improved Fertility (in 1934 by Seabrooks at Boreham). Conference, the most widely planted commercial pear in England, was introduced by Rivers in 1894. Other British pears grown on a limited scale include Dr. Jules Guvot, and Packham’s Triumph. Laxton Brothers of Bedford became breeders of some of the country’s leading varieties, their best known variety was Laxton Superb introduced in 1913.
The breeding of some pears at the research stations has not received the same attention as apples but some new varieties have been introduced, eg the Bristol Cross and the Merton Pride. By the 1980s the number of varieties grown commercially became very limited and Conference is now the leading variety with smaller acreages of Doyenne du Comice and some William’s and Beurré Hardy.
A History of Perry Making in the UK
The earliest reference to the use of pears for making a fermented drink was by Pliny who said that the Falernian variety, being very juicy, was used for making wine. Palladius, in the 4th century, wrote of pears being used like apples to make both a drink and a sauce and said that the Romans preferred wine made from pears to that from apples. He also gave instruction on how to make perry, then called Castomoniale.
During the centuries following the collapse of the Roman empire, perry making was well established in France but there is no evidence of it in Britain until the Norman Conquest.
In 1580, Harrison said that pirrie (from the Saxon word pirige meaning a pear) was made from pears along with cider in Sussex, Kent, Worcestershire and other counties. In Worcestershire the importance of the pear was recognised by the incorporation in the city arms of the three pears sable at the direction of Queen Elizabeth I when she visited the city in 1575.
There are various referances to perry in English literature. For example Gerard wrote, in 1597: Wine made of the iuce of Peares, called in English Perry, is soluble, purgeth those that are not accustomed to drink thereof; notwithstanding it is as wholesome a drinke being taken in small quantities as wine; it comforteth and warmeth the stomacke, and causeth a good digestion.
Parkinson, in 1629, referred to the Choke pear which in his time applied to any wild, very astringent type of pear: The Perry made of Choke Pears, notwithstanding the harshness and evill taste, both of the fruit and juice, after a few months, becomes as milde and pleasante as wine. In 1652, Samuel Hartlib, encouraging the greater planting of orchards in England, suggested that Normandy should be taken as an example: There are two wayes of making Cider and Perry; one by bruising and beating them, and then presently to put them in a vessel to ferment or work of themselves. The other way is to boil the juice with some good spices, by which the rawness is taken away and then to ferment it with some yeast if it work not of itself.
Hartlib considered that the White Horse-pear made a perry of a quality similar to cider and gave special mention to the Bareland pear. Worlidge, in 1691, said that the Red and Green Squash-pears, the John-pear, the Green Harpary, the Drake-pear, the Mary-pear, the Lullam-pear, were all good for perry, but the most esteemed were the Bosbury and Bareland pears and the White and Red Horse pears. He also said that the Turgovian pear yielded the most superlative perry and lamented that it was not more widespread.
Perry pears need sunshine and warmth – more than is provided by and average English summer. The dependance on good weather produces wide variations in vintage quality from year to year. This variation and the habit of some perry makers of using dessert pears (leading to a thin, tasteless perry) led to perry being held in low esteem in many areas.
Choice of variety is very important. At one time it was said that no seedling pear should be grafted until it had cropped and the quality of its juice had been determined. Many new varieties were propogated only on one or two adjacent farms or only over one or two parishes within a district. This localisation meant that varieties predominant in one parish were unknown a few miles away.
Other varieties have a more widespread distribution. Some are of high vintage quality and have been renowned for over 300 years, eg Arlingham Squash and Taynton Squash. One of the most important is the Barland pear, reputed since the 17th century for the treatment of kidney disorders. The Green Horsepear, the Red Horsepear, and the Huffcap are also widely distributed.
The first indication of distribution from a commercial nursery is the variety Holmer, introduced by Knight. This variety appears to have been raised and distributed by the Kings’s Acre Nurseries at Hereford in the early 1800s. Other varieties of more recent origin are the Moorcroft or Mlavern Hill pear, the Rock and the Harley Gum.
Other widespread varieties are general purpose types. Many of the pears grown in the 1600s, though astringent, were used for eating and cooking and the surplus sent to the mill. These include the Thorn Pear, the Hastings, and Brown Bess. In the 19th century these were joined by the Cannock and Blakeney Red.
Naming of pear varieties is very confused. Some varieties change name as they are planted in adjacent parishes and districts, for example the Rock variety is known as Mad Cap in the parish of Arlingham, Black Huffcap in Highnam, Brown Huffcap in Tibberton and Red Huffcap in Newent. In a similar manner pears have aquired the same or similar names in disparate parishes despite being completely distinct varieties. An example of this is a pear generally known as the Red Pear; in most of the country you will be given the correct variety, but in Blakeney the pear called Red Pear is in fact the variety Blakeney Red, a quite distinct variety. The confucion in naming reflects the restricted distribution of most varieties. The definitive study of this confusion which defines the accepted names for varieties according to the International Rules of Botanical Nomenclature, is that of Williams and Faulkner (reference at the end of this document).
Perry pear varieties have a special charm. There are over 100 perry pear varieties in Gloucestershire covered by over 200 names. The names are often vivid with respect to the perry they produce. Some of the most colourful examples are: Merrylegs; Mumblehead; Lumberskull; Drunkers and Devildrink. The longest name on record is A drop of that which hangs over the wall.
There is a saying he who plants perry pears truly planteth for his heirs which is usually meant to be derogatory, implying that little fruit can be expected in the life time of the planter. For most varieties this is simply not true and the saying probably reflects the long life span of the pear tree. Mature trees can frequently give rise to crops of one ton and 2 tons per tree is not unknown.
The history of perry development in the UK is essentially the story of a few great men and of one highly influential but short lived society. The first of these was Thomas Andrew Knight, born in 1759 at Wormsley Grange in Herefordshire. He was called the father of modern scientific pomology. He carried out physiological experiments on fruit trees, eg grafting, pruning, juvenility, senescence, ascent of sap, and nutrition requirements of the trees. Produced new varieties by selective breeding, and wrote the Treatise on the Culture of the Apple and Pear in 1797 which gives the first accurate descriptions of the life histories of many of the common pests and diseases of fruit trees, and this at at time when blights of fruit trees were usually held to arise from lightning or noxious air! One of his major contributions was that he was one of the first to realise that perry quality depended on the vintage quality of the fruit. He published the Pomona Herefordiensis in 1811 which describes the Holmer pear and four other vintage varieties. This book was a landmark in perry pear history since it was the first book which included illustrations of pears.
The next and probably greatest influence on perry development was the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club which was famous for its Herefordshire Pomona published in 7 parts over the years 1876-1885. The pomona committee was lead by Dr. Robert Hogg (secretary to the Royal Horticultural Society) as the technical editor, and Dr. H.G. Bull as the general editor. The members of the club became strongly impressed with the necessity of some great effort to restore Herefordshire to its true fruit-growing supremacy; to call the attention of the growers to the best varieties of fruit for the table and the press; to improve the methods followed in the manufacture of Cider and Perry, and the quality of these products; and thus to improve in every way the marketable value of its orchard products. The Pomona describes 29 varieties of perry pear. The data given on juice composition and vintage quality are very interesting but of limited scientific value because of the dubious nature of the methods used. There was a chapter on renovation of orchards and the establishment of cider and perry factories by the Rev. Charles Bulmer. These were taken up by his son, H.P. Bulmer who founded the famous cider making firm in 1887.
influenced by the Woolhope Club, the efforts of R. Neville Grenville and C.W. Radcliffe Cooke led to the setting up of the National Fruit and Cider Institute in October 1903. Radcliffe Cooke was elected as MP for Hereford and pressed the case for an expansion of the cider and perry industry so much that he became known as the Member for Cider. He managed to prevent the government from imposing a tax on cider and perry, possibly even saving these industries as a result. His many articles were published in 1898 as A Book About Cider and Perry. He personally selected the perry pear Hellens Early which is still one of the best early varieties.
At the same time as the foundation of the National Fruit and Cider Institute, the actions of Herbert Edward Durham were having an influence. He was born in 1866, studied science at Cambridge and medicine, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1905 illness forced him out of medicine and he joined Bulmer and Co. as director of research until 1935 when he became a director of the company. In the 1920s he surveyed the perry pears of Herefordshire. The lead labels he attached to the trees can still be seen across the West Midlands. He established a reference collection of 40 varieties at Bulmer’s nurseries at Broxwood. Copies of his studies can be found in the Hereford city library.
The final of the highly influential figures was B.T.P. Barker. He was appointed director of the National Fruit and Cider Institute in 1904 and held the position for 38 years. He developed the Institute into a state-funded world- renowned research institute. He initiated the programme of research into the scienc of cider and perry making which led to the institute’s fame. He established that the vintage quality of pears was influenced by the root-stock, climate, orchard management, and soil conditions. An example of this is the Blakeney Red; grown in the Severn flood plain, Hogg and Bull describe it as abominable trash and fit only for the most ordinary purposes when nothing better can be got. However on the high land of the Royal Forest of Dean, it yields excellent perry.
Barker established a trial orchard at Long Ashton in 1903 which began distributing grafts in 1908. By 1917 there were 50 trial orchards in 6 counties. Fruit were returned to Long Ashton for vintage trials. Above all else these trials established that the perry pear is at its best on deep loam, and that satisfactory orchards could be established on acid sandy soils overlying sandstone; on heavy clays and marls; on dry gravels; and on low-lying alluvial land. Complete failures were always obtained in orchards with shallow soil or which was water-logged. On the second group of soil types it was clear that choice of variety is important. In particular, wetter soils would not support varieties such as Barland and Oldfield.
In the late 1940s, Francis Showering, of the firm Showerings of Shepton Mallet, developed modern perry making processes. They developed a market for perry (sold as Babycham) which led to them realising that there was a need for new orchard planting. They bought up farms around their factory in Somerset and began a planting programme.
These are the sources I used in the preparation of this document.
- Cultivated Fruits of Britain. Their Origin and History by F.A. Roach. Published by Blackwell Ltd., Oxford. 1985. ISBN 0-631-13969-9.
- Perry Pears edited by L.C.Luckwill and A. Pollard. Published by the University of Bristol for the National Fruit and Cider Institute. 1963. ISBN? – Contained within this book is the definitive guide to perry pear naming: Chapter III, “Perry Pears of Gloucestershire” by R.R. Williams and G. Faulkner.