The seeds of pomology in Great Britain
It is probably fair to say that the earliest developments of British pomology (the study of fruit and its cultivation) were tightly bound with the making of cider and perry, an industry that developed with great intensity during the latter half of the 17th century. With the end of the English civil wars, farming life was returning to normal, perhaps with renewed energy. At the same time, conflicts on the Continent meant that foreign wines were maybe not so easily imported, so the production of local wines became an important topic that exercised the brightest minds of Britain. This beginning of a golden age in the production of cider and perry in England proved to be a driver to adopt more reasoned, scientific approaches to cider and perry. In particular the selection, care of, and preservation of the apple and pear varieties most likely to give the best drinks, thereby planting the seeds of British pomology that would reach its height in the 19th Century.
One way to measure the importance of apples and pears in a society over time is to look at the pomonas it produces. In general terms, a pomona is a book that describes in detail the characteristics of fruit, capturing their qualities so that readers can determine the suitability for their purposes, and how to best grow them. But they are also used to help identify what varieties you might have, based on key characteristics described in each listing, aided with detailed illustrations or photos. As we will see, just like everything else, what they contained and how they were used evolved over time.
One of the earliest pomonas published in Britain was John Evelyn’s Pomona, first published by the Royal Society in 1664 as an annex to his Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest-Trees (here is a link to the 5th Edition, 1729). It was introduced as “an appendix concerning fruit-trees in relation to cider”, and this focus is clear from the very first paragraphs. It delves into the matters of apple and pear varieties suitable for cider and perry, rootstocks, grafting, and the improvements that can be made by importing scions from other countries with traditions of cider or perry making. While it discusses the planting of orchards and the caring for trees in detail, it doesn’t quite present detailed technical descriptions or illustrations of any fruit, other than mention of the key properties of those varieties considered at the time to be most suited to the purpose of making cider and perry. Later editions include more contributions from other writers, such as John Beale, that give wonderful insights on the state of cider and perry in Britain at the time.
In 1729 Batty Langley, an English garden designer, published Pomona, or The Fruit Garden Illustrated, which outlined the care of fruit trees, with more details on cherries, apricots, plums, apples, pears and other fruit, with descriptions of a limited number of key varieties. This time, the Pomona included plates of key fruits , however they could not be considered diagnostic for the purposes of identification, as later pomonas would be understood. While not specifically targeted at fruits suitable for cider and perry, of special interest to us cider drinkers is that Langley’s Pomona included an extended section by Hugh Stafford, dedicated to discussing the most valuable cider fruits of Devonshire, again strongly linking the need to describe apples and pears with the making of cider and perry. Twenty-four years later, in 1753, Stafford would republish his letter to Langley as part of a treatise on the making of cider which would become relatively famous, also being translated to German in 1772.
The growth of modern pomology in Britain
It wasn’t until 1811, with the publication of Pomona Herefordensis by Thomas Andrew Knight, that a more systematic approach to the description and, more importantly, the detailed illustration of apple and pear varieties was undertaken in Britain. This beautiful work was illustrated by Elizabeth Mathews und Frances Stackhouse Acton (Thomas Knight’s daughter), with William Hooker, a student of the Austrian botanical artist Franz Bauer, bringing them to life with magnificent colour. The primary focus was very much on cider and perry fruits, further testament to the importance of cider and perry in the development of pomology in Britain. Although published by the Agricultural Society of Herefordshire, Knight was president of the Horticultural Society of London (later to become the Royal Horticultural Society), and by 1815 a primary goal of the Society was to resolve synonyms in fruit varieties, one of the key tenets that has remained in modern pomology. It would appear that the whole continent was moving in the same direction, as it is surely no coincidence that Knight was a contemporary of the father of German pomology, Dr. Adrian Diel, born within three years of each other, and Diel dying within a year of Knight’s death in 1838
The Horticultural Society supported the publication of further pomonas and acted as a focus for the development of fruit cultivation and the development of new varieties that spread across the globe. It was a few years after the publication of Pomona Herefordiensis that the Society embarked on a new form of investigation of fruit varieties by planting a garden at Chiswick, near London. This was the first time the Society had a dedicated garden, rather than relying on the collections of individual members, and it allowed for more consistent research, conservation, and propagation. It remained one of the largest individual fruit collections in Europe for many years. In 1826, the collection was catalogued by Robert Thompson, recording the names and synonyms of some 1,400 apple and 622 pear varieties.
However, times change and by the latter half of the 19th Century the focus that the Society had on fruit had somewhat waned. It fell to the likes of botanist and nurseryman, Robert Hogg (a contemporary of Eduard Lucas, founder of the Pomological Institute in Germany), to keep British pomology pushing forward during the period. In particular, his significant contribution to the classification of apples and pears. He published British Pomology in 1851, and between 1860 and 1884 published 5 editions of The Fruit Manual, an immensely detailed work that by the fifth edition described 717 apple and 647 pear varieties.
During this period, it appears that the Society’s collection at Chiswick became less and less relevant to commercial apple and pear growers, as regional groups began to take things into their own hands. Again, Hereford came into focus as one of the mainstays of English cider and perry production, and over the course of several years, 1876-1885, the Pomona Committee of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club of Hereford held an annual autumn show featuring local apple and pear varieties. They invited pomologists from all over the country to help identify samples, and one of the main purposes was to promote and preserve local varieties that they believed merited wider appreciation. Hogg, by then Vice-President of the Royal Horticultural Society, and Dr. Henry Graves Bull, former president of the Woolhope Club, set about documenting the fruit displayed at these annual shows, and published these over seven parts before finally combining them into a single monumental work, The Herefordshire Pomona. The fruits were illustrated in wonderful detail over a period of eight years by Alice Blanche Ellis and Edith Elizabeth Bull, H.G. Bull’s daughter, now serving as a stunning visual record of the apples and pears exhibited over those years. While not limited to fruit deemed mostly suitable for only cider or perry, it does dedicate a considerable portion to such fruit, which was almost to be expected coming from Herefordshire. The original illustrations can be viewed at the Museum of Cider in Hereford.
Hogg and Bull collaborated again to publish The Apple and Pear as Vintage Fruits in 1886, though Bull did not live to see the final printed edition. This volume, still very much worth a read by today’s cider afficionados, was completely focussed on the techniques for making of cider and perry and provided detailed technical descriptions of a wide variety of cider apples and perry pears used at the time, and how to best grow them. The discussion of the state of cider and orcharding at the time could very well have been written in more recent years, so it’s reassuring to know that the problems we see now are certainly not new. The pomological descriptions that make up the bulk of the work were not just limited to those fruits from the County of Hereford, but also covered Devon, Somerset, Gloucester and Worcester, all respected strongholds in English cider and perry production. In the introduction, Hogg said it had been nearly a century since any systematic British work had been published on apples and pears, referencing Knight’s work in particular. This was almost a foreshadowing, as it would be again nearly a century till equivalent works would be produced focussing on the fruits used primarily for cider and perry production in England.
From the beginning of the 20th Century, more and more scientific approaches were taken in the production of cider and perry, and the consequent studies, categorisation and identification of relevant apple and pear varieties. In 1903, the National Institute for Cider Research was founded at Long Ashton, near Bristol, an institute well worth exploring by cider fans the world over. As well as educating cider makers and carrying out research, part of its remit was the identification and preservation of apple and pear varieties. Although it was disbanded in 2003, the work carried out there resulted in several Pomonas, including Perry Pears by Luckwill and Pollard (editors), published by The University of Bristol in 1963.
The development of a National Fruit Collection
In parallel to the developments of describing and cataloguing fruit, there was also a new push to develop a National Collection of fruit, for trialling fruit suitability, and to act as a reference collection for resolving synonyms (old varieties could have many local names which can cause confusion) and providing true-to-type material for propagating. The Royal Horticultural Society collection at Chiswick had continued, despite being considered more suitable for gardeners than commercial fruit growers. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that Edward Bunyard introduced the idea of new commercial fruit trials, similar to those that had been run in Hereford in the 1880s. Bunyard was originally a nurseryman with a considerable collection of fruit trees, and he self-financed the publishing of the quarterly Journal of Pomology from 1919 – 1921. In the early 1920s, work began to establish these new fruit trials and an accompanying collection primarily to test new varieties, but also “to define the characters of varieties under trial and to compare them with known varieties, so that accurate descriptions may be made, synonyms determined, and the nomenclature of the fruits made more exact”. This new collection found a home at Wisley, in Surrey, with the trials carried out by the Royal Horticultural Society and the Ministry of Agriculture. In the meantime, The National Fruit and Cider Institute at Long Ashton had also developed 50 trial orchards spread across six counties, primarily of cider apples, but also perry pears.
By the early 1950s, the collection at Wisley had grown to the extent that there was no longer room, so a new site was sought. In 1952, the Ministry of Agriculture purchased Brogdale Farm in Kent, and by 1960 the transfer of the fruit trials and collections from Wisley to Brogdale was complete. Today the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale is home to one of the largest fruit collections in the world, including over 2,300 named Apple varieties, 550 Pear, 350 Plum, 220 Cherry with a number of Bush fruit, Vine and Cob Nut cultivars. Now owned by the Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the university of Reading has taken over management while the Brogdale Collections Trust are developing the site as a visitor attraction.
With the development of DNA analysis, the collection at Brogdale has become even more critical as a reference collection for the identification of fruit in Britain, and for resolving synonyms as per the original remit. But rather than replacing traditional pomological investigations and technical pomonas, as some might think, it rather serves to enhance and refine such work by allowing pomologists to definitively match synonyms and create new descriptions for general use by the public and experts alike. The value of such collections cannot be overstated.
Specialised collections: The National Perry Pear Centre
While the beginnings of pomology in Britain in the mid-17th Century had a major focus on cider apples and perry pears, the changes in fortune of these drinks and the way apples were farmed for increasingly industrial production techniques meant that a great many heritage varieties were slowly forgotten. In some cases, the very existence of many of the varieties that had helped usher in a new model for the study of apples and pears in Britain were under threat.
In the early 1990s Charles Martell, a cheesemaker and distiller in Dymock, Gloucestershire, became concerned with the losses of heritage varieties in this traditional region of perry making, and set out to establish a national collection dedicated to perry pears. With advice from Ray Williams, the former cider pomologist at Long Ashton, orchards in the region were searched for heritage perry pear trees. Fifty-nine varieties were identified and propagated, later to be planted around the Three Counties Agricultural Society showground at Malvern, and by 1998 this site was registered as a National Collection.
In 1999 another collection was started by Jim Chapman at Prestberries orchards in Hartpury, near Gloucester, to replicate and extend the original Malvern collection. Later, in 2003, Chapman gave an adjacent 10-hectare site to the Hartpury Heritage Trust to establish an independent national collection under charitable ownership. This has since become the main National Perry Pear Collection for public use. In 2008 the National Perry Pear Centre was built in this orchard. By then the core collection had increased to over 100 varieties with the aim, as far as space at Malvern permitted, to replicate it on these three sites.
The first orchard at Malvern was established as a perry pear reference collection, a source for propagation and to conserve the genetic resource for the nation. Its purpose has not changed, and it is intended to add varieties, where space permits, to include as many of the core perry varieties as possible. In 2020, the Malvern orchards contained 149 trees of 73 varieties.
The main orchards at Hartpury Orchard Centre (with public access), the official home of the National Perry Pear Collection, contain 287 trees of 121 varieties, and a small trial orchard. The purpose of this collection is to provide the space needed to extend the original Malvern collection to include more of the pears used for perry, including a number that originate in other parts of Europe.
And finally, the nearby Prestberries orchard contains 290 trees of 157 varieties, primarily to replicate the other collections, but more recently further types of pear have been included to widen the research brief. This includes early ripening pears that were once used to make Harvest perry, and more European perry varieties including many that have red flesh.
The National Perry Pear Centre works closely with the National Fruit Collection, which only contains a collection of 25 perry pear varieties and no plans to extend that part of the collection, so the NPPC is the most important repository for this important class of fruit in Britain. It should be noted there are a number of similar National Plant Collections that focus on local or regional apple or pear varieties that in effect extend the National Fruit Collection with highly focussed, culturally and genetically important material, all of which can be discovered via the Plant Heritage website.
Special mention should also be made of the contributions made in the past by industry leaders in the field of cider, such as the Bulmers family. Their support of research, such as that carried out at Long Ashton, as well as their own trial orchards, helped preserve varieties. This also includes private family collections such as that held by Gillian Bulmer, who sadly passed away earlier this year, where varieties were rescued from defunct trials and collections, thereby being preserved.
New cider and perry pomonas
Collections such as these are vital for the conservation of heritage varieties so important to cider and perry production, but they are not simply living museums. They act as reference collections for DNA and physiological comparison with fruit found out in the field, but also as repositories of genetic information for propagating, or perhaps for future breeding of new varieties.
But a collection is only made useful when the contents are described and made available to all, so we again return to pomonas as a means to describe the characteristics of the trees and fruit, and to convey their usefulness.
In the past 100 years, there have been comparatively few major pomological works dedicated to cider and perry fruit published in Britain, at least those to a technical level that can be used for fruit identification purposes. There have been many beautifully illustrated books for learning about varieties, and even more encouraging, in more recent decades many local societies in Britain have taken it upon themselves to record, describe and publish books of regional varieties to varying detail, preserving their memory, and raising awareness for future conservation efforts, all worth seeking out.
But to my mind, some of the most significant works, at a technical level, are those that again highlight the importance of cider and perry that so drove the quest for knowledge in the late 17th Century.
There is the aforementioned and hard-to-find Perry Pears edited by L.C. Luckwill and A. Pollard that resulted from work carried out at the National Institute for Cider Research, Long Ashton, in 1963. Renowned cider pomologist Liz Copas also had a long career working at Long Ashton, and later as an advisor for the National Association of Cider Makers. She has published two pomonas dedicated to cider apple varieties, A Somerset Pomona – The Cider Apples of Somerset, 2001, and Cider Apples – The New Pomona published in 2014.
Charles Martell, who began the National Perry Pear Collection has published two detailed pomonas dedicated to apples and pears found in the cider and perry making heartlands of the Three Counties. The first is Pears of Gloucestershire and Perry Pears of the Three Counties, 2013, a by-product of the hunt to track down and propagate the many varieties of almost lost perry pears which are now to be found growing in the National Perry Pear Collections at Hartpury and Malvern. The Native Apples of Gloucestershire, published in 2014, contains descriptions of almost 200 Gloucestershire apples varieties. Martell has re-discovered and propagated 106 of these varieties which now form the National Collection of Gloucestershire Apples, planted on his farm in Dymock. And a third volume was published in 2018, Native Plums of Gloucestershire, closing off a remarkable trilogy of work.
Jim Chapman, curator of the National Perry Pear Centre collections, is currently writing another volume on the history of perry pears to add to the Gloucestershire series, pure heaven for perry pear geeks like myself.
The circle closes
Cider and perry have long had a special status in Britain. As one-time national drinks of great importance, vying in quality with the best of wines from mainland Europe, they held enough sway to strongly influence the development of early pomology in Britain. As the ebb and flow of cider and perry’s fortunes changed it seems that so, too, did that of the status of apples and pears in the scientific and popular discourse of Britain. To me, it feels like we are on another rising tide for these drinks, and as a result, the interest in heritage varieties. While writing this piece I came across a great many small pomonas produced by local groups, which are so inspiring, but just slightly outside the scope I had to set myself.
As a member of the German Pomological Society and, perhaps more importantly, a maker of cider and perry having an obsession with perry pears, I find it really heartening to see the renewed and growing interest in these noble fruits in Britain. And especially the drinks produced from them! It is through use that rare heritage varieties best stand a chance of being preserved. The fact a small group of driven people in Gloucestershire can begin a collection of perry pear varieties that became part of the National Collection, and publish detailed pomonas that preserve this information, is an inspiration. There is hope that such actions can be replicated in other parts of the world with a tradition of cider and perry.
A personal view
In the above text, a lot of my focus was on perry pears, as that is a topic that interests me most. I have been making cider since 2012, and in more recent years have turned my focus to making perry from our local Mostbirnen (the German for perry pears). This interest has led me to explore and map the trees surrounding our village, though the identification of all of them will probably take some years. As in the past, this interest in rare perry pear varieties has helped build contacts across borders, and has led to a kind of personal mini research project with Jim Chapman of the National Perry Pear Centre, in an attempt to trace a near legendary pear from Switzerland that was highly praised in 17th Century England.
My fascination with the old English perry pear varieties led me to graft several varieties this year, many of which were mentioned in Evelyn’s Pomona in the 17th Century. The Barland Pear, Lullam, White Horse, Taynton Squash and the Hartpury Green, all go back over 400 years and were highly praised in their time but have now fallen out of fashion, while others I have grafted, like the Flakey Bark are so rare, there are only six known mature trees. That’s not to say that I don’t have interest in German, Swiss and Austrian varieties, of which I have also grafted a dozen or more. My hope is that we can secure a meadow to plant a collection of perry pears, but that’s very difficult, even in our rural setting.
From a one-time alternative to importing wine from the Continent, the fortunes of Perry in England have waned, with relatively few commercial makers making traditional perry in any significant volume. In Germany, there are also very few traditional perry makers that I am aware of (pear-flavoured cider does not count). The difficulties of harvesting from large trees, the tiny window of opportunity for optimal ripeness, and the challenges in processing the pears make perry a difficult, labour-intensive drink to make. But when it works, you realise why it was such a feted drink in centuries past. Indeed, I think we can still learn a lot from the past, and I have tried to recreate drinks described in old books, including one for a spiced German Birnenwein from 1806. I feel it is important to look both to our shared heritage and to the future, creating modern drinks grounded on tradition.
We all have a part to play in preserving this heritage.
This article is an adaptation of a piece originally written for the 2021 journal of the German Pomological Society. We’re extremely grateful to both Barry and the Society for their permission to replicate it here.
Evelyn, J. (1664). Pomona, in Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest-Trees. Royal Society, London.
Langley, B. (1729). Pomona, or The Fruit Garden Illustrated. London.
Knight, T.A. (1811). Pomona Herefordensis. London.
Hogg, R. (1884). The Fruit Manual, 5th Edition. London
Hogg, R. & Bull, H.G. (1885). The Herefordshire Pomona. Hereford & London.
Hogg, R. & Bull, H.G. (1886). The Apple and Pear as Vintage Fruits. London.
Bunyard, E.A. (1920). A Handbook of Hardy Fruits… – Apples and Pears. London.
Luckwill, L.C. & Pollard A. (editors) (1963). Perry Pears. University of Bristol.
Copas, L. (2001). A Somerset Pomona – The Cider Apples of Somerset.
Copas, L. (2014). Cider Apples – The New Pomona.
Martell, C. (2013). Pears of Gloucestershire and Perry Pears of the Three Counties. Hartpury Heritage Trust.
Martell, C. (2014). Native Apples of Gloucestershire. Hartpury Heritage Trust.
Morgen, J. (2015). The Book of Pears: The Definitive History and Guide to over 500 varieties. Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont.
Chapman, J. (forthcoming). Perry pears: A History (working title). Hartpury Heritage Trust.