Gooseberry Clubs in Regency Britain

Gooseberry clubs, or societies, were first formed in England in the mid-eighteenth century, but they reached their peak of popularity during the Regency, along with the national craze for gooseberries. Yet few people today are aware of that craze, or the fruit which sparked it, since gooseberries went into a sharp decline and then, nearly out of fashion, in the early twentieth century. However, since gooseberries were very popular during the first decades of the nineteenth century, there might be a place for gooseberries or gooseberry clubs in a romance set in Regency England.

Gooseberries and their clubs into the Regency . . .

Several species of gooseberry grew wild across many regions of northern and central Europe. They flourish best in cool, moist areas, particularly in high altitudes. It is part of the flowering genus ribes, which includes edible currants. Gooseberry shrubs range in size and growth habit, based on the specific variety, but they all tend to be rather scraggly in appearance. The branches of most shrubs were covered with thorns and the surface of the fruit was rather hairy. The color of the berries ranged from yellow to white (pale green), to green, or red. There were some varieties of gooseberry which were native to England. It is also recorded that other varieties of gooseberry shrubs were brought to Britain in the Middle Ages from northern France. In 1275, they were included in a large collection of plants purchased from Normandy by King Edward I. Those first French shrubs were planted in the King’s garden in Westminster. However, it is believed they were gradually propagated across the country over the years, possibly by birds, and may have inter-mingled with the wild native varieties. Nevertheless, gooseberries did not come into favor during that period, since the fruit was small, covered with tiny hairs and very sour.

It was not until the sixteenth century that gooseberry bushes were grown in an increasing number of gardens, mostly in London. It is known that Henry VIII introduced a new pale green variety into his garden, which he imported from France. At about the same time, a growing number of cooks, mostly in the London area, began to find uses for the small, sour berry. It was discovered that the tartness of the gooseberry made a perfect complement to rich, fatty meat. In Normandy, the berries were used to make a sauce for the oily meat of the mackerel, and were known as groseille à maquereau, or mackerel currant. In England, they were used to make a tart sauce to enhance the flavor of roast goose. There, the berries acquired their best known English name, "gooseberries." Cooks began experimenting with other ways to use this new fruit in their recipes. Over the course of the next two centuries, gooseberries increased in popularity for use in a number of different dishes.

By the seventeenth century, gooseberries were no longer left to grow wild in the hedgerows or hidden away in a few gardens on large estates. Instead, a number of varieties were gradually put under wider cultivation all across the country. Though gooseberry shrubs can be propagated from seeds, the use of cuttings produces new, sturdy plants more quickly. Because gooseberries produced in cool, moist climates are the most flavorful, gooseberries were widely cultivated across the Midlands, northern England and into Scotland. As with any plant which humans chose to cultivate, a number of their growers experimented with crossing different varieties with the goal of producing larger, sweeter, smoother berries with better flavors. In the process, a number of new colors were introduced into the new gooseberry varieties. These early experiments were so successful that the popularity of gooseberries steadily increased demand for them. This, in turn, encouraged even wider cultivation and more experimentation.

In the 1740s, gooseberry clubs began to be founded. The first few appeared in Lancashire, where there were many gooseberry growers. These clubs organized annual competitions and contests during which prizes were offered for the largest, the smoothest or the most flavorful gooseberries. As the century progressed, an increasing number of gooseberry clubs or societies sprang up all over Britain, in both England and Scotland, as more and more growers expanded the varieties of gooseberries they produced. In addition to annual competitions, many of these gooseberry clubs also sponsored shows where growers could put their newest and best gooseberries on display. The interest in the competitive growing of gooseberries was so widespread that The Gooseberry Growers Register was published in Manchester to serve this steadily increasing group. The date of the earliest known issue is 1786. The Gooseberry Growers Register listed the prize winners in gooseberry club competitions as well as details about any notable new varieties.

Through the second half of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century, more and more gooseberry clubs and societies were founded across Britain as the rage for gooseberries spread. Gooseberries were not cultivated commercially until the second half of the nineteenth century. Therefore, most of these gooseberry clubs were established in rural areas, serving their local members, most of whom were hoping to supplement their incomes with developing and growing gooseberries on small patches. Membership in these gooseberry clubs continued to grow, reaching their peak during the Regency. Many of the larger, more prominent clubs were in competition with one another to offer the most impressive gooseberry shows and the most exciting and compelling contests for the best gooseberries grown by their members. As gooseberries became more and more fashionable, the shows and competitions sponsored by these gooseberry clubs and societies were attended not only by gooseberry growers, but also by many members of the general public who wanted to know more about the newest varieties of gooseberries.

These gooseberry clubs had a profound effect on the development of gooseberries in Britain well into the nineteenth century. So much so that gooseberries came to be seen as a British fruit, even on the Continent. There were a number of gooseberry varieties grown across Europe, but few of them were of the quality of the British varieties, and many were barely edible. Gooseberry clubs in Britain encouraged continued experimentation in the development of new varieties which appealed to the public. Gooseberry clubs and societies had also helped to promote the gooseberry as a fashionable and very tasty product of Britain. There were a number of cases in which the popularity of new gooseberry varieties helped to supplement the income, or even make the fortune, of an enterprising gooseberry grower.

During the Regency, though tart gooseberries were still used to make sauces for rich, fatty meats, particularly goose, other varieties were used in a number of different dishes. The largest, smoothest, sweetest and most flavorful gooseberries were served fresh and uncooked as a light and refreshing dessert. Gooseberries were also used to make tarts, fools and crumbles which might appear as part of the dessert course. In addition, gooseberries were used to make jellies and jams, or they could be dried or pickled. Another increasingly popular use for gooseberries was in the making of wine. In fact, yellow gooseberries, which had a rich flavor that made them a favorite for desserts, were also used to make a fine wine. Wine made from yellow gooseberries, when properly fermented and aged, was considered comparable to the best champagne.

Despite, or perhaps, because of, their prickly branches and fruit, gooseberries had acquired some unromantic, even derogatory sexual connotations by the Regency. An unwanted person who was present when a pair of lovers met was said to be "playing gooseberry." The phrase "gooseberry bush" was a slang term in Britain for pubic hair. It is generally believed that phrase also gave rise to the common saying that "Babies were born under a gooseberry bush."

By the second half of the nineteenth century, gooseberries were being cultivated on a commercial scale. With fewer small growers, gooseberry clubs began to disappear. Then, in the early twentieth century, gooseberry production in Great Britain went into a severe decline when the berries fell victim to a devastating form of mildew which was inadvertently introduced from America, in 1905. Within a few years, few gooseberries were being produced, gooseberries had fallen out of fashion and the gooseberry craze was over. The popularity of gooseberries never really returned and gooseberries today are mostly grown in family gardens by those with a particular fondness for the fruit.

Though few people today have ever tasted a gooseberry or even know what they look like, gooseberries were wildly popular during the Regency. Therefore, Dear Regency Authors, might you find a place for a gooseberry dish, or even a gooseberry club in a new romance? For authors who like to set their stories in Scotland, it might be useful to know that some of the very best gooseberries were grown in Scotland. There were a number of gooseberry clubs established across Scotland just before and during the Regency. The members of most British gooseberry clubs were middle or lower class people who fancied gooseberries, and/or were hoping to supplement their incomes by growing varieties of gooseberries that were in demand. Membership in a gooseberry club would help them to promote their crops and increase their sales. Perhaps the heroine is growing gooseberries to help support her family. Will she meet the hero at a show held by her local gooseberry club? Or, mayhap the heroine is the daughter of the local clergyman who establishes a gooseberry club in order to benefit members of her father’s congregation who need to supplement their incomes. What will happen if the villain, the largest local landowner, is trying to prevent her from doing so, since he wants all the gooseberry cultivation and profits in the area to be his? How will the hero save the day?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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9 Responses to Gooseberry Clubs in Regency Britain

  1. I think the mildew destroyed all the most flavoursome ones as my experience with goosegogs – the common name for them – is that they are insipid. Wine sounds a good idea though. I have a wild plot bunny which involves a comedy of manners about a murder mystery in which the person investigating uncovers the shenanigans and rivalries of the members of a gooseberry club, and the likely looking suspect with no alibi [rendered in italics as a foreign word for the period] was, in fact, a mile in the opposite direction sabotaging his rival’s best gooseberries ….
    I have the recipe for mackerel with gooseberries in the book ‘All the King’s Cooks’ but getting hold of gooseberries is not easy. I was considering using a crabapple verjuice replacement as crabs are plentiful, or even medlars. [medlars are another fruit most people won’t have heard of, they’re a malus of some kind, I believe, and are called by a couple of very coarse country names because of their bilobar shape. You eat them rotten! but they make a lovely wine]

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I had a gooseberry tart many years ago. When I was living in Dublin, I was invited to Commons at Trinity College one evening, and they served gooseberry tart for dessert. I thought it was rather nice, but it was served warm, topped with ice cream! MMMmmm!

      The term “goosegogs” appeared a few times while I was researching this story. It seems to have originated during the Regency, but I did not include it in the article since I was not sure how many people would know it was a name for gooseberries. Particularly on this side of the pond.

      Your plot bunny sounds quite lively. I love the idea of gooseberry sabotage as an alibi.

      There are still few gooseberry clubs active in Britain. One of the oldest (founded in 1800) and the most active seems to be the Eaton Bridge Gooseberry Club. They are based in Yorkshire, near Whitby. You can find their home page here: http://www.egtongooseberryshow.org.uk/index.htm

      Not sure if you can get gooseberries from them, but they might be able to advise you where you can find them in your area. Seems a pity not to use real gooseberries for the sauce for your mackerel.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Gooseberries hard to come by? Yes, now I think about it, we seldom see them in the shops. Luckily for me a friend grows long runs of gooseberries, mostly gold but one black, and each summer l manage to divert a fair few into gooseberry crumble. His true reason for growing them, however, is to make wine, and as soon as the technology becomes available I’ll send you both a glass as an email attachment. It’s pink-tinged, fragrant, and tastes of sunshine.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am delighted to know that gooseberries live on in Britain!!! And that they are still used in the making of desserts.

      During my research, I discovered that both gooseberries and currants are actually illegal to grow in the state of Maine, though the climate there is perfect for them. It seems that both can be the source of pine blister rust, which destroys white pine trees, an important crop in Maine. I am not sure if either of them are illegal to grow in nearby Massachusetts, where I live. But I have never seen them in the shops here, either.

      I appreciate your offer of a glass of gooseberry wine, once the technology becomes available! After your description of the taste, I shall eagerly look forward to it! 😉

      Regards,

      Kat

    • I need a friend like yours, Charlotte… Now I have the time to think about my garden I might see if I can get some gooseberry canes in our local and quite old fashioned nursery. They have a selection of ribes. And if I plant them in the front garden to run in and out of the rosa rugosa they might even deter the drunken louts who can make trouble even more than my Thornrosa hedge.

  3. Summer says:

    Gooseberries caught my eye in a regency planting guide last week but I had noooo idea of the extent of their popularity (or the naughty bits.) Very interesting.

    We had a German neighbor who had bushes of the green kind and I can remember the texture and tart perfectly but I can’t recall the exact taste. I would probably have a serious flashback if I could get my hands on some. Unfortunately that’s unlikely as Houston is emphatically not a cool climate.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      From what I learned in my research, gooseberries tend to mature very slowly and have much less flavor if they grow in warmer climates, so Houston-grown gooseberries would probably not be very good.

      In these days of the Internet, I wonder if it is possible to find someplace that sells gooseberries online. Otherwise, I suspect most of us, at least in the US, are unlikely to enjoy gooseberries.

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. Thank you this was really interesting. Being from Massachusetts as well, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen gooseberries at any of the local farmers markets, but I’m unsure tif hey are banned here as up in Maine. Formerly I thought they were similar to wild juniper berries which I thought also were used mostly to make sauces/flavored alcohol. And I thought junipers were a more of a wild/menthol berry. But this may only be my remembering reading Little House in the Big Woods, when they were in Wisconsin there was this whole section about them gathering these berries in the winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, we had a woman start a small shop for catering and she named it: Gooseberries. It was very high end, even though she set up in a former sandwich shop slash convenience store. She made very tiny pastries garnished with berries and I think she wanted to do mostly teas and dessert catering. Sadly, think both her timing and location was off. Her shop/business closed pretty quickly. And I have no idea if she was drawing on the legacy of the British gooseberry or not.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for taking the time to post your recollections. With regard to the shop you recall, gooseberries were not restricted to Britain. They were also grown in America from the late 18th century. However, they do not seem to have been as popular here as they were in Britain. From what I can tell, growing gooseberries and currants was not outlawed in Maine until the 20th century. That suggests they were grown there before the ban.

      Regards,

      Kat

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