A Women’s Place Is In The Orchard! – The Historical Role Of Women In Orcharding
By Cath Palgrave
Then Orchard Project
One evening, while waiting for the bus, I got chatting to a man at the stop. He asked me what I did for a living. This used to be an easy question, as previously I was a primary school teacher; everyone knew what that was. Now, I have the grand title of ‘Community Orchard Consultant’, which requires an awful lot of explanation. I was baffled when the response this time was, “That’s no job for a lady!”. Now I didn’t take too kindly to that comment! But it did get me thinking about why this idea persists. After all, it isn’t the first time that I have been told that I shouldn’t be working with trees and tools because of my gender.
This exchange reminded me of a throwaway comment I had heard years previously, while working with a different outdoor organisation in South Gloucestershire to restore an old orchard that had fallen into decline. One of the workers there said, quite disparagingly, that the reason the orchard had become like this was due to women no longer picking fruit for ‘pin money’ (essentially, pocket money) as they had traditionally done before the war. He said, this had led to orchards being grubbed up (ie. the trees and shrubs being removed and cleared).
So, I embarked on a little research into the history of women working in orchards: prior to World War 1, the harvest was picked by a migrant workforce (primarily from Ireland). This heavily supplemented the resident workforce as there was the need of more workers. Resident farm workers numbers dwindled further with increased industrialisation and fruit picking work was carried out by ‘gangs’ which were predominately women and their children. Fortunately the Gangs Act of 1847 saw the decline of forced child labour as children under 8 were not allowed to work the land as cheap labour. The number of women who worked the land also dropped significantly, due to many going into service, but the advent of World War 1 brought about ‘The Women’s Land Army’(WLA).
From their website:
The Orchard Project is the only national charity dedicated solely to the creation, restoration and celebration of community orchards. We aim to make a serious contribution to a better food system, based on people working together where they live to produce and harvest their own fruit.
We work closely with community groups in hubs around England and Scotland helping to design and create new orchards that will last for decades to come, as well as restoring England’s old, neglected heritage orchards. We rebuild orcharding skills and knowledge, hold fantastic orchard celebration events and help groups make the most of their bumper harvests.
Our aim is that every home in every city, town and village across the country is within easy-reach of productive, well-cared-for, community-run orchards. We believe that orchards have the potential to build stronger communities by providing cherished, nature-rich, community spaces and empowering people to contribute to reducing food miles.