The Rise, Decline, and Rise Again (?) of Market Gardens

Last spring, some colleagues and I began a gardening group in the grounds of our workplace growing potatoes, onions, squash and a little bit of everything else we fancied. Some of us were completely clueless (myself included – I entered into the lunchtime activities armed only with an iPhone app) while others already knew a fair amount about the art of ‘growing your own’. The group has developed and prospered, and a year later we are digging a further bed, allocating vegetables to people and looking out for an extra water butt (nb if you’re Norwich based and you can help, let me know!)

I’ve recently come across Norfolk market gardeners in my own family tree, and spotted several listed in trade directories in villages I’ve been doing research on. For this blog, I thought I’d delve into the history of the industry locally in the hope that it may be of interest to others.

While different to modern day land shares and community groups through their commercial nature, employees of market gardens of another age were nevertheless using many of the same skills as modern day gardeners - and doing so far better than many of us. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing to see a return to more localised, seasonal and organic farming, and it would be wonderful to ensure that the East Anglian market garden heritage and skills aren’t completely lost to history.

A ‘market garden’ was historically a term for farming aimed at producing vegetables and berries, rather than grain, dairy or orchards; in other words farming by the hoe, not the plough. Although the word ‘garden’ may suggest a small set up, this was not always the case. Most gardens, especially towards the beginning of their rise to prominence, were necessarily located close to their markets. Those of the mid 1800s were growing all kinds of produce for local consumption and, by the time of the expansion of the railways, urban areas much further away.

Great Plumstead (arguably meaning ‘dwelling place near plums’) was one of many Norfolk villages to boast successful market gardens – other locations included Mulbarton and Bracon Ash. All three were within striking distance of regular markets in Norwich. In Suffolk*, one of the most wellknown villages for market gardening was Belton, and the recent discovery of market gardener and grave digger Richard Pole’s diaries (see article here) has reawakened interest in an industry which boomed with the railways and the need to feed an ever-growing population. Richard’s diaries describe growing wheat, barley, potatoes, beet, turnips, peas, lettuce, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, gooseberries and other fruit….showing just how varied the produce of a market garden could be. Richard, like others in Belton and villages like Filby, further north, were able to sell their produce in Great Yarmouth and later export their goods by train to London. A hundred years after the surge in market gardening took hold, the industry started to decline. The end of the Second World War brought foreign imports into the country and the growing move towards largescale monoculture encroached on previously market garden dominated areas.

(*I should note that Belton was part of Suffolk until 1974, when the border moved and it became part of Norfolk.) 

A key word search in the census for ‘market gardener’ reveals the growth of this type of farming as an occupation across the country during Victoria’s reign. About a thousand were recorded in 1841. This figured tripled over the next decade, and almost doubled again over the next (by 1861 there were 5100). The total more than doubled all over again during the next twenty years to 1881. By 1901, a total of 28,700 individuals were employed as market gardeners – and those are only the ones captured by the census.

Somewhat entertainingly, several of the men recorded also had the surname ‘Gardener’!

On a more local basis, Suffolk, and particularly Norfolk, were strong market gardening counties. Then, as now, being known for their agricultural produce.

During the middle of the Victorian period, Norfolk contributed a little over 5% of the Country’s market gardeners, and Suffolk was about 1.5% behind its neighbour. Based on Norfolk’s population, market gardening rose from the occupation of less than one in every ten thousand people in 1841 to one in every 500 by 1901. In Suffolk, proportions were roughly half that recorded in Norfolk. 

The 1908 map of Norwich South shows acres of Allotment Gardens which are today underneath modern-day developments. Nowadays, the local council has a waiting list chock-a-block with local people wanting to get hold of a piece of land – and what some of them wouldn’t give to have that growing space back!

So many of my blogs have shown just how much history repeats itself – not least where it comes to corsets, first names and vegetables in recent times! As we strive to cut carbon emissions, know more about where our food comes from and support the local economy, we are (hopefully) beginning to learn from the past while moving forward into the future. The tide appears to be turning on some of the processes which we once called ‘progress’ and we are perhaps beginning to appreciate how much better some of our forebears may have understood the environment that we live in.

It seems quite right that the Bracondale Gardeners (perhaps soon the Knucklebone Gardeners – but that will need the honour of its own post!) are making the most of a patch of land which was once in the middle of a thriving market gardening area. Hopefully we will soon be proving that we can produce just as many fabulous vegetables as the original Lakenham vegetable growers. One thing is for certain though. None of the fruits of our labours will find themselves on the train for London’s markets. If last year is anything to go by, they’ll be enjoyed much closer to home!  

Ipswich's links with the Corset Industry

Corsets. I think most people like them. Personally, I love them, although I wouldn’t want to wear one every day. Now with connotations of glamour, weddings, burlesque, lingerie and (dare I say it ) fetish –  we have moved away from the days when scores of women wore them daily. 

This is not a blog post about the development of corset fashions. Alas, my knowledge of haute couture is limited and there are other historical blogs on the web written by people far more knowledgeable about the finer points of stay and corset design than myself. Rather, as a family researcher with a particular interest in Norfolk and Suffolk, I am interested in the industry as it grew in Ipswich in particular. 

Wikipedia opens it’s article on corsets with the following definition: 

“A corset is a garment worn to hold and shape the torso into a desired shape for aesthetic or medical purposes (either for the duration of wearing it, or with a more lasting effect). Both men and women are known to wear corsets, though women are more common wearers. 

My understanding of the difference between a ‘stay’ and a ‘corset’ is that they are the same thing. However, a ‘stay’ is the older term for the garment and over time, the name ‘corset’ gradually replaced ‘stay’ in common usage and the latter came to mean a bone in the finished bodice. My research took me through the census records for 1841 all the way to 1901, looking for the numbers of people employed in the industry and in which parts of the country. 

In terms of the figures represented, my counts are based on key word searches. I searched stay maker, machinist, factory worker, manager, shop girl and worker, but only stay maker and stay worker had significant numbers of employees. As with any key word search, there could be issues with transcription so these should be treated with a sensible degree of caution. ‘Corset’ as a less common word was a useful search term. Although there were individuals with the surnames ‘Stay’ and ‘Corset’ these were insignificant totals compared to those employed in the industries. 

Nationally, the number of women employed in ‘stay making’ seems to peak in 1851. It is interesting to see how ‘corset making’ took over by the turn of the century: 

Corsets were one of the first mass produced garments, and while they became popular again in the 1820s (supposedly they were first worn as early as 1550), by the 1850s mass production with steel boning made them more accessible to more women. Originally, workers would have made pieces in their homes, but gradually their production was centralised in factories, like so many other trades. 

So, to Suffolk, and in particular Ipswich. The number of people employed in the industry in Ipswich was typically between 60 and 80% of the total in the industry in Suffolk as a whole. The figures jumped between 1871 and 1881, probably as factories opened and began mass producing garments: 

At the peak of the industry, over 500 people, almost all women, were employed as stay and corset makers in Ipswich alone. Firms such as The Atlas Corset Co. (on Lower Orwell Street), E Brand & Sons (on Tacket Street) and William Pretty & Son (Tower Ramparts) were big employers. The property on Tacket Street is better known to many of my generation as a night club, while the dominating factory at Tower Ramparts with its tall chimney was pulled down in the 1980s. For interested locals, the site is now the car park behind the department stores on modern day Tower Ramparts. A photograph of women working at the factory can be seen here, now being used for retro prints and household items – 

Pretty & Son Photo

At the beginning of the stay’s rise in popularity, Suffolk started small with most ‘stay makers’ doing piece work at home. In 1871, workers in Suffolk were still outnumbered by Devon, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Lancashire, London, Somerset, Warwickshire and Yorkshire. With the help of ten year’s local development, by 1881, the number in Suffolk had almost quadrupled to 606, bringing the County to fifth in the country for number of workers in the trade, taking over manufacturers in the north. By 1891 the industry had become even more influential on the national ‘scene’ and while numbers were leveling off, the County was only ‘beaten’ by London (916), Gloucestershire (962) and Hampshire (1084) in terms of employees. 

As noted earlier, terminology changed over the years. ‘Corset makers’ were almost unheard of outside of the capital until the 1881 census. In 1861, no other County could come close to the three figures boasted there. Perhaps this is evidence to support the theory that fashions start in London! The city still dominated the trade in 1871 – Ipswich recorded only six corset makers in that year. Ten years later, while London’s total had more than tripled, Suffolk’s had increased by a similar percentage, but only to 23 (London had 606). 

Change began to arrive by 1881 and by 1891 there were 63 corset makers in Suffolk (and 55 in Ipswich) and the County employed more than 10% of the Country’s stay and corset workers. The change in terminology is largely responsible for the explosion of corset industry workers recorded in the 1901 census (which listed 580 people in the trade and only 200 as stay makers). The peak in Ipswich was arguably the 1890s as as by 1901 several other counties had over taken us in the east , including ('corset' keyword only) Northamptonshire (608), Lancashire (754), Gloucestershire (781), London (1069) and Hampshire (1189). Everywhere showed a decrease in totals employed; likely due to the double whammy of ever increasing mechanisation and, more importantly, changing fashions. 

It is a case of history repeating itself as corsets once again become garments for the minority. Most of the corsets produced in the mid 1800s were white and mass produced. Now we see a resurgence in beautiful bespoke corsetry with hand made beading in a myriad of colours made for smaller markets and high end fashions.

As for Ipswich, the industry may have all but gone, but connections remain. Anyone interested in the historical aspects of the trade could not go far wrong by consulting the Pretty family archives at the Suffolk Record Office. Those who are more interested in having a go at making one themselves are also catered for - with classes available to those wanting to learn the basics (although not at the SRO!).

The rise of the 'monthly nurse'

Every time I come to write a blog I try and think of something that has interested me, and might interest others.

Last weekend I was doing some research looking into a lady in Chatteris. In 1861, she was listed as a pauper, head of the household and sharing with her grown up son and daughter, an ag lab and a seamstress. Ten years later, she appears in 1871 as a ‘monthly nurse’ living with a local family, the Graingers. I was intrigued by the concept of the monthly nurse, as in as little as three generations, the term has pretty much fallen out of use. Those that I have spoken to have not had a clue about the duties of these women, perhaps surprising as only a century ago there were over 5000 monthly nurses in London alone. The figures suggest that many of us will find such a lady somewhere in our family tree.

Given I am something of a Norfolk and Suffolk focussed researcher, I decided to look into the history of the profession in this part of the world. What follows are some of my conclusions, thoughts and ideas.

Firstly, I must answer the question: What is a monthly nurse? As long ago as 1700BC the Egyptions recognised female midwives, who would have both tended a woman during her lying in, during the birth and provided care afterwards while the baby was young. However, by the early 1800s, those who could afford it paid a surgeon to be present at the birth. This left families with less after care, and many families could not afford a surgeon at all. Enter the monthly nurse, to provide support to the family. While the term originates in the idea that these nurses would help out for ‘about a month’ this is a little misleading and the actual employment could last as little as a few visits or as long as several months. Many working class women could not afford to ‘lie in’ as long as their more wealthy counterparts so some nurses would have visited several mothers on a part time basis at around the same time.

The 1851 census shows approximately 4175 monthly nurses across England and Wales. Norfolk and Suffolk had relatively few, 40 and 36 respectively, based on an occupation key word search (and therefore open to some errors). The average age for a woman in this profession was just over 40 in Norfolk and 53 in Suffolk. Requirements for the job were informal, and most women providing the service were experienced mothers themselves. They tended to be older women, often widows, who would likely have been present at numerous births of relatives and neighbours, and very likely given birth themselves several times.

In 1851 the youngest nurse across the two counties appears to be Elizabeth Plantin of Bramford near Ipswich, aged 27 on the census. The eldest in Norfolk was 72 year old Mary Ann Woolsey, living with a family in Great Yarmouth and their young family. She may have been living with them for some time, or perhaps a member of the household was expecting another child. The eldest in Suffolk was 77, May Glass, of Street Farm, Assington near Sudbury.

By 1861, the total number of women recorded on the census as a monthly nurses was half as large again as ten years earlier – around 6425. Numbers in Norfolk (74) and Suffolk (49) had also risen. This time, the youngest seems to have been Mary Barnard, of Heigham, Norwich, who was just 19. In this case Mary was the youngest sister of the wife in the household. Baby Elizabeth was a month old at the time of the census. Norfolk also shows the eldest monthly nurse I found during my research – an 88 year old woman living in Norwich workhouse, listed only as ‘M L’. There is probably no way of knowing whether she was still actively helping women. The average age of the women provided this time was 54 in Norfolk and 57 in Suffolk, slightly older than ten years earlier.

1871 saw another increase in total numbers – 7125 were recorded. Norfolk had 75 and Suffolk 82, not massively different from a decade before. Average ages were almost identical, 56 in Norfolk and 55 in Suffolk. Another ten years, and the total number rose to around 8225 with a significant increase in our Counties of interest (Norfolk, 108, Suffolk, 158) although average ages remained very similar. 1891 saw the first and only decrease, with 7525 recorded monthly nurses. Perhaps due to transciption anomalies, the numbers in Norfolk and Suffolk had almost switched (152 and 93 respectively).

Finally, I looked at numbers in 1901. A staggering 22,300 were recorded as monthly nurses on the schedule this time around, 463 in Norfolk and 371 in Suffolk, with the average age remaining around 50 in both cases. Only a year later, changes to the status of midwifery began the process of transforming the care of women and babies which eventually saw the occupation drop off the radar and the arrival of our modern care processes.

It seems clear that, given skills were generally passed from generation to generation, those with most experience were often considered the best people to have around during a birth and therefore elder women were most likely to act as monthly nurses. However, few of the women had the same level of knowledge and training as midwives of the time. While some worked in lying in hospitals for a limited time, many did this purely in order to open their own, often substandard, establishments and make a living. By 1891, Marian Humfrey MRBNA, reported in “The Nursing Record” that monthly nurses were ‘one of the most despised members of the nursing profession’ and that they had ‘no place whatever in the hospital nursing hierarchy’.

This is not to say that no monthly nurses had skills, and some described them as ‘motherly’ nurses to reflect their value – I am sure there are many women today who would have liked the help of another woman for a month rather than having a few hours in hospital and then heading home. For many widows, passing on their experience enabled them to keep a roof over their heads. They moved from one family to another receiving board and lodging.

Unfortunately some had no interest in being part of a caring profession, had little or no ability and used the title only as a way of earning money, often running dirty establishments. For anyone interested in reading Marian’s article “The Monthly Nurse; her origin, rise and progress” the report, published May 21st 1891, can be found here: The article is followed by a fantastic ‘special prize competition’ for a sewing machine with a walnut case!

As for the subject of my initial research in Chatteris, ten years later, a Tom Grainger, now a decade old, appears on the census with his parents. Sarah, who probably helped deliver him, had moved on. She was 76 when he was born. Who knows how many children she helped into the world - and how well she did it. Still, it is wonderful anecdote for a family research project to be able to surmise that your ancestor delivered babies, especially when you can identify who some of them were. 

Familiar place, unfamiliar past

Having spent many an enjoyable evening with friends at Charles Wesley Court on Belvoir Street in Heigham, it is perhaps surprising that it has taken me a couple of years to research the origins of the Court.


In our part of the world, Belvoir is usually pronounced “Bell-voir” - not “Beaver” as an Belvoir Castle, Belvoir Brewery or the Vale of Belvoir in Leicestershire – we like to be different in Norfolk. As you might imagine, the street takes its name simply from ‘beautiful view’.


Being so close to ‘old’ Norwich, with its rich history of courts and yards, it might have been possible that Charles Wesley Court was, like many others - including Beckwith Court, Chestnut Court and Wright’s Court – a reinvention of an older residential area. The original yards and courts of Norwich grew within the cramped city of Norwich, where development was hemmed in by the old city walls. As rich merchants left their grand houses for the relative space in the earliest suburbs, less well off individuals crowded into the yards and courtyards that remained behind. For anybody with an interest in the Norwich Yards (and that will be a huge proportion of those with Norwich ancestry) I cannot recommend enough – the site provides memories and information about historical and modern incarnations of the locations in question.


However, unlike most of the old courts, Charles Wesley Court is outside the city walls in Heigham, a parish which once was completely separate from Norwich itself. It has been a long while since the parish was separate however – by the middle Victorian era it was already an area bustling with workers and tradesmen in Norwich’s traditional industries. Little did I know, living just around the corner as a student, that I was residing just metres from where some of my ancestors lived. Many were shoe makers, silk factory workers and market gardeners, key trades in the area, but they tended to live in terraced houses rather than yard arrangements like many of their 'old city' peers. (Little did I also know that just another few hundred metres away, was another ancestor on a different line – the owner of what is now the Plantation Gardens and Lord Mayor of Norwich…but that’s another story!)


Looking at the 1905 map of Norwich it becomes clear that in fact the site of Charles Wesley Court was not residential at all. In fact, a chapel occupied the space now redeveloped. Further research shows this to have been the site of the Belvoir Street Wesleyan Reform Methodist Church and Sunday School. The site must have been somewhat cramped - surrounded by workers’ houses - and no graveyard accompanied it. The Church was used as a place of worship from 1869 until relatively recently in 1988 before the site was redeveloped. 

The picture above comes with kind permission for posting here from Jonathan Plunkett. His father George Plunkett took thousands of fabulolus photographs of 'Old Norwich' - you can see more at This photograph was taken 1989 at the very end of the building's life.

Picture Norfolk also includes a couple of older photos - (see Picture Norfolk on the left hand menu then search ‘Belvoir’) .

The Norfolk Record Office holds the Church’s records in FC 106, although closure periods of 30 years apply to the newer records. There are baptisms, marriages and meeting minutes from the choir, Sunday School, Church Committee and Council. The Roll of Honour for soldiers killed in WWI includes several men of the congregation, including the son of one of the church’s ministers. The roll of honour can be viewed at


Now the previous use of the site becomes clearer, the naming in turn becomes clearer. Charles Wesley (18 December 1707 – 29 March 1788) was the younger brother of John Wesley - between them, the pair are widely credited with the founding of the Methodist movement in the UK.


Charles Wesley was born in Lincolnshire and followed his father and brothers into the church in 1735 having graduated from Oxford. Charles was a prolific hymn writer, credited with the words of over 6000 hymns and writing words to fit existing music for yet another 2000, including the popular carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. I have found no evidence to date that Charles himself visited Norwich, but given he travelled all the way to Georgia on a Mission, it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. Charles died several decades before the church on Belvoir Street was built and indeed before the Wesleyan Reform Union split from the United Methodist Free Churches in 1859.


The Heigham area saw a huge amount of damage following the Baedeker Raids in 1942, but the chapel survived. It was not until very much living memory that the chapel was sold off by auction and the site redeveloped and named after a key figure in the history of the Methodist movement.


So, given the very interesting history of my friends’ home now I have spent time doing a little research, I intend not to leave it so long before researching other ‘ordinary’ places in Norfolk and Suffolk that I frequent on a regular basis. Watch this space!