This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
The Gooseberry is generally supposed to be indigenous to the island of Great Britain; but whether this be so or not, there is certainly no country in which it arrives at a greater degree of perfection than in the British Islands. It is always found to flourish best in temperate climates, and where the climate inclines to cold rather than warm. It is not found, for instance, in Africa, in the South Sea Islands, or between the tropics of either hemisphere, but is found in the temperate parts of Europe, America, and Asia. In the southern and eentral parts of Africa the plant is perfectly unknown, except in some situations where, among the high mountains, the temperature is low enough to suit its requirements. Persons who have resided a long time in India, and who during that time had never seen a Gooseberry or Currant, speak with delight of the European character which these plants give to the scenery of the mountains in the north of that country.
It is not exactly known when the Gooseberry became an object of cultivation in this country, but it had become a garden fruit in the reign of Henry VIII.; for the old writer Tusser, who lived in that reign, says, in his 'Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie,' - "The Barberry Respes, and Gooseberry too, Look now to be planted as other things do".
Soon after this period descriptions were given of about a dozen varieties - and among the rest, one called the Blue, a colour not now found among the hundreds of varieties in cultivation. The fruit was apparently very small when the plant was first brought under cultivation, resembling the small tasteless fruit which is still found in the south of Europe; and in point of size, at least, it does not appear to have improved much for more than a century after Tusser's time, as may be inferred from the surprise expressed by Pepys at seeing Gooseberries as big as nutmegs. At every subsequent period (says an interesting and useful little tract, called ' The History and Cultivation of the Gooseberry,' printed at Sheffield, and from which much of the information in this article is taken) the Gooseberry has claimed a share of attention from horticulturists. It has found a place alike in the garden of the nobleman and of the cottager, and has amply rewarded by its abundant and profitable produce the skill of the gardener, and by-its increased size the care of the amateur grower.
Indeed, the success which has attended its culture under the spare hours of the artisan seems to entitle it to the distinctive appellation of the poor man's fruit.
It has been ascertained that under favourable circumstances the Gooseberry will attain to a considerable age and grow to a great size. Bushes have been grown to measure from twelve to eighteen yards in circumference after being planted about fifty years. The garden of Sir Joseph Banks, at Overton Hall, near Chesterfield, contained at one time two remarkable Gooseberry plants. They were trained against a wall, and the branches of each measured upwards of fifty feet. In this country the plant shows a marked preference to cool situations. The fruit in the southern parts of England is not nearly so good as it is in the north, and in general the flavour of the Scotch Gooseberry is much superior to those produced in any part of England; while in Scotland itself, the Gooseberries grown about Dundee, Aberdeen, and Inverness, exceed in flavour those grown in the southern counties.
As far as regards mere size and appearance, however, the Gooseberries of Lancashire are unequalled by any in the world. Growers there have devoted so much attention to them as to have attained to almost absolute perfection in the matter of their cultivation. In the counties of Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, and Warwickshire, the striking improvement which has taken place in the cultivation of the Gooseberry is to be attributed less to the professional gardeners or market-gardeners, than to the mechanics who very generally spend their leisure time in the pleasing occupation of gardening, and particularly in the culture of the Gooseberry; and it is to their industry and perseverance that we owe the production of most of our largest and best varieties. The custom of gardening has a tendency to improve both the health and the morals of the people. Any pursuit which makes men acquainted with the peculiarities of vegetable economy, in however small a degree, has a beneficial effect upon the heart and understanding; and it is certainly better for working men to vie with each other in raising large Gooseberries, than in those games of chance, and in cruel sports, to which the leisure hours of the working classes have been too often devoted.
The one is a rational and innocent emulation, the other a degenerating excitement or a brutal indulgence.
The origin of the different kinds of Lancashire Gooseberries is often indicated by their names, which are generally fanciful, often local and personal, sometimes even absurd, but frequently characteristic of the manners of the county in which they are produced. Galloper, Green Corduroy, Tom Joiner, Lancashire Witches, Dan's Mistake, Roaring Lion, Richmond Lads, Cheshire Lasses, Jolly Miner, Porcupine, Jolly Painter, Top Sawyer, Crown Bob, etc, are sufficient specimens. It is not to be expected that so much attention should, however, be given to the cultivation of the Gooseberry in the counties named without the operation of some external stimulus; therefore Gooseberry shows have long been established in different parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Cheshire. The time and conditions of these meetings are determined by certain rules, and the minor details of each show are generally settled in the spring, from which time until the day of the exhibition each competitor entered in the list subscribes a small weekly sum towards the purchasing of prizes. The prizes are sometimes given in money, but often in kind.
The exhibition of the fruit, and adjudication of prizes, generally take place in July or August, and the weight of the different sorts is published in the report of the shows given in the newspapers of the town where the show has been held, while the result of the shows in various parts of the kingdom have for a long time been printed in Manchester, and circulated chiefly among the growers, in what is called 'The Gooseberry Book.'
We may now state a few particulars to illustrate the progress which has been made in the cultivation of the Gooseberry. About a century ago it was considered an extraordinary thing when a Gooseberry was grown which weighed down the old spade-ace guinea which was then in circulation. Berries were soon after produced that weighed twice as much; and now, little would be thought of show fruit which would not weigh five or six times as much. The largest Gooseberry on record was a handsome yellow fruit called Teazer, which was shown at Stockport in July 1830, and weighed 32 dwts-. 13 grs. The heaviest red berry on record was the Roaring Lion, exhibited at Nantwich in 1825, and weighed 31 dwts. 16 grs. The heaviest white was a fruit of The Ostrich, 24 dwts. 20 grs., shown at Ormskirk in 1832, in which year the largest red was only 27 dwts. 13 grs. In the same season a seedling green was exhibited at Nantwich of the weight of 30 dwts. 18 grs. To this statement of the weight to which the fruit has sometimes been grown, it may be of interest to add that a seedling plant of reputation has been known to produce when sold upwards of £32. This is a rare case; but it is not at all unusual for twenty guineas to be brought in by the distribution of a single bush.
J. G., W.