The earliest known mention of apples in England was by King Alfred in his English translation of “Gregory’s Pastoral Care”.
Improved varieties were introduced from France, which included the Costard.
Orchards were developed within the grounds of monasteries and the raising of new varieties was undertaken by cross-pollination. The orchards of the monastery at Ely were particularly famous.
The Costard variety was being grown in many parts of England. Sellers of this apple were known as “costardmongers” – hence the word “costermonger”.
The Wars of the Roses and the Black Death led to a decline in the production of both apples and pears in England.
Henry VIII instructed his fruiterer, Richard Harris, to identify and introduce new varieties, which were planted in his orchard at Teynham in Kent. At about the same time, the red-skinned Pippin was introduced from France but the most common apple in Tudor times was the Queene.
The Bramley Seedling, a single purpose culinary apple that remains the finest apple in the world for cooking was first exhibited, having been grown from a pip of unknown origin in 1809.
The 18th Century saw agricultural revolution. Thomas Andrew Knight undertook a series of careful experiments in pollination which led to the development of many improved varieties. His work greatly influenced many nurserymen in the 19th century including Thomas Laxton who raised several well-known varieties including Laxton’s Superb.
The developing of new varieties reached its height through the work of gardeners employed by major estates in England and also by nurserymen who concentrated on producing apples with outstanding taste. Ribston Pippin, a favourite apple of the early Victorians, was superseded by possibly the most famous of all eating apples, Cox’s Orange Pippin. This outstanding variety was introduced in 1850 having been raised by Richard Cox, a retired brewer from Bermondsey.
Throughout the Victorian age, fruit growing tended to be carried out in small orchards attached to agricultural holdings. Apart from the apples sold at market, they were grown to supplement the farmers’ own needs and to provide cider for labourers in lieu of wages, a practice which became illegal in 1917.
After the First World War, several specialist research centres were developed which investigated improved orchard production methods, the control of pests and diseases as well as the raising of new varieties.
After the Second World War, investments began in apple research to investigate the potential to have smaller trees. Over the next four decades, East Malling produced a group of new rootstocks that are now used throughout the world.
This allowed harvesting to take place from the ground – making long ladders redundant and reducing the costs of labour for picking and pruning.
The smaller trees allowed sunlight to reach a greater proportion of the developing fruit, which increased the density, and consistency of fruit colour. Trees could be planted closer together which resulted in greater productivity.
Once the UK became a member of the European Economic Community (EEC), there was no restriction on the importing of apples from abroad during the English season. This led to British growers facing great competition from high-yielding varieties which were difficult to grow in the UK, as they required a warmer climate. Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Granny Smith were the three most important of these foreign varieties which were heavily promoted and advertised.
By contrast, British growers were producing much lower yielding varieties, which had been bred for taste rather than yield. As a result, they were unable to compete with the relatively low-priced imports. Many traditional British orchards were taken out of production due to lack of profitability and replanted with other crops during the final 25 years of the last century.
Gala and Braeburn, both varieties raised in New Zealand were introduced to the UK market and rapidly increased in popularity. Trial orchards were planted in England and growers began to produce these varieties with great success.
Other new varieties were trialled and planted including for example Jazz, Kanzi, Rubens and Cameo. All these apples share the attributes of great taste and flavour, vibrant skin colours and fine orchard performance.