Ewelme Watercress Beds

chilternewelmemapThe Village of Ewelme is situated at the Western end of the Chilterns, on the Eastern slopes of the Thames Valley in an area of outstanding natural beauty.  Its name derives from a Spring just to the North which forms the “King’s Pool”, an attractive Pond that empties into the Chalk Stream called the Ewelme Brook or Stream, Ae-whylme is Anglo-Saxon for “Waters Whelming”.  The Ewelme Stream, fed by this Chiltern Spring, once supported a Watermill in the Village and another 2 (or perhaps 3) in the vicinity of  Benson before flowing into the River Thames at Benson 3.7 km (2.3 miles) away.

Watercress is an aquatic plant species with the botanical name Nasturtium officinale.
In former times there was little choice of green vegetables in Winter and that Watercress filled that gap with its ability to crop at least 4 times a Season. The Streams in Ewelme are almost uniquely suited to this crop, despite the inevitable competition for the water supply with the local Mills.  At the height of the Railway Age, distribution spanned much of England. Many remember the Beds in operation in the 1970s, but since then they have fallen into disuse and have also been threatened by building development. The latter has been staved off and in recent years a Community Project has been rebuilding the original Stream Banks with the aim of bringing the Beds back into Production.

The Ewelme Brook was at one time used extensively for the Cultivation of Watercress. Although the Watercress beds are recorded as being present in the 1880’s, they are believed to have been in the Village for Centuries.  The Stream was dammed and widened to provide large Beds of shallow slow-running water, under which the Cress was planted, fed all the year round by Water from the Spring that flows at a constant temperature of 10oC.   However, during the last Quarter of the 1900s, Regulations prevented the Sale of Watercress from Ewelme and this, together with greater competition, led to the Industry’s demise, Production ceasing in 1988.

The Hub of the British Watercress Industry in the 20thC, Ewelme is a picturesque & historical 6.5-acre Site.  Although the Site was once an active Watercress Farm selling produce Nationwide until 1988, it is now a Nature Reserve allowing the local wildlife population to thrive.  The unique aquatic habitat that has been created at Ewelme is a haven for a wide variety of rare & interesting British Wildlife. In addition to the Watercress, dozens of other plant species exist at Ewelme, further contributing to its natural beauty;  nestled in the centre of the Village of Ewelme the plants & animals that live in the clear chalk waters, including the rare Water Vole.

Throughout most of the 20thC, Watercress provided a thriving local Business, with distribution as far as Covent Garden.  The Watercress was grown in specially-built Brick Beds fed by Ewelme Brook, a Chalk Stream whose crystal-clear water is ideal for Watercress.  The Beds flow through the whole length of the Village from South East to North West.  The Brook, fed by Springs supported a Watermill in the Village and another 2 (or perhaps 3) in Benson before flowing into the River Thames at Benson, a couple of miles away.  During the latter Quarter of the 1900s, Regulations precluded the Sale of Watercress from the Site and this, together with greater competition from other Areas & Countries, lead to the Industry’s demise. It was most fortunate that the Chiltern Society agreed to purchase the Beds, and have invested in a programme of Conservation & Revival.


South Weston Church & Salisbury Arms on the Right

The Smith Family: The Founding of the Ewelme Watercress Beds

In 1841, South Weston was the home of a 30-year-old Agricultural Labourer called Eden Smith and his wife and the 1st 5 of their eventual Family of 11 children.  Some 6-yrs later, according to a local Directory of the time, he had become a Beer Retailer, although this seems to have been a sideline, as he is still recorded as a Farm Labourer in the 1851 Census.  However, the Beer Trade obviously did well, and, by 1861, Eden Smith’s main occupation was as a Licensed Victualler.  He died in 1867, to be succeeded by his wife. Some time within the next 14-yrs their 5th son (& 9th child), George, took over.  By 1891, George’s Public House was known as ‘The Salisbury Armsand George himself is recorded as a Watercress Grower & Publican‘.  Whether from the sale of Beer or from Watercress Growing (or both), George was to become a man of some substance.  He was then into the 2nd of his 3 marriages.  His 1st wife, Anna (or Hannah) Maria, after bearing him 4 children, had died in 1878, and he had re-married a year later.  Mary Ann, George Smith’s 2nd wife, bore him a further 8 children before she also died in 1893. By 1900, he had again re-married.  His 3rd wife, Annie, by whom he had a further 4 children, survived him.  

About 6-miles from South Weston, on the other side of Watlington, is the Village of Ewelme;  a Village with extensive historical connections.  The Village also has an attractive Stream, which runs down the Main Street, before turning away to run past the backs of houses to the Site of the former Watermill.  The Site of a Wooden Mill destroyed in 1886 by Fire.  Its location is identified by a change in level in the current Watercress Beds.  The Miller’s House remains.

The Millers House

On 20th November 1886, the ‘Reading Mercury and Oxford Gazette‘ contained this item:
Watlington – Sale of Property – Mr Richard Spyer, who has recently resumed the Business of an Auctioneer, Established by his father in Watlington some years since, conducted a successful Sale on Wednesday of a small Freehold Property at Ewelme, consisting of 2 Cottages, with about half an acre of good Garden Ground, abutting on the celebrated Ewelme Trout Stream.  The Property, which produced a Rental of £10 per annum, was sold to Mr George Smith for £180.”
This is the only record to have come to light of George Smith acquiring Land in Ewelme, but it was probably about this time that he also acquired the Site of the Ewelme Watercress Beds.

The Watercress Beds in Ewelme stretch for about ¾-mile. They run from the point where the Ewelme Stream is separated from the Village Street by Houses to the Bridge where the Benson Road crosses it.  Beyond the Bridge, the Beds continue through the old Millpond and the Site of the former Watermill to end a little way below.  George Smith’s son, Wally was Interviewed in 1977 and said that his father & uncle had dug out the Beds in about 1870, a date which has been widely accepted as the date of the Founding of them. However, Adelaide Smith, his sister-in-law and Predecessor as Owner of the Beds, is recorded in 1950 as saying that the Beds were opened ‘about 60 years ago‘, which would have made the Founding date about 1890.  The latter date seems more likely.  The Watermill was operating on the lower part of the Site until 1886. The 2 Ordnance Survey Sheets covering the Site, dated respectively 1877 & 1881, show no trace of Watercress Beds.  When George Smith bought the Cottages mentioned above, they are described as ‘abutting on the celebrated Ewelme Trout Stream‘ again without any reference to Watercress Beds.  On Friday 5th February 1886, the Wallingford Times‘ reported:­
Ewelme Mill Burnt Down. – On Sunday morning, Ewelme Mill, the property of Mr J Slade, was almost entirely destroyed by Fire.  Mr Slade and his men had been working in the Mill till 12 noon of the Saturday, and shortly after they left, and Mr Slade had got home, his attention was called by his sister to the fact that smoke was issuing from the Roof of the Mill.  On proceeding there, he found the whole Premises in Flames.  An Alarm was given, and several persons soon arrived on the spot.  In a very short time, the Benson Fire Engine also arrived, but nothing could be done to extinguish the flames. The Mill was burning all day on Sunday, and a portion of the following day.  It is conjectured that the Bearings had got too hot and had set fire to the Woodwork and the whole Building being very Old, it easily caught Fire.  A considerable quantity of Corn & Flour was in the Mill, and the damage sustained amounts to several Pounds. Mr Slade, however, was heavily insured in the ‘Law’ Office.’

Beds c.1895, looking South-East, Brook Cottage (Smockacre) is visible just left of the Stream

It seems quite likely that, after the Watermill went, its Site and the Land occupied with it (which could well have included the whole of the eventual Watercress Beds Site) were put on the Market, and that George Smith then bought them.  Whenever it happened, the digging out of the Beds was a Colossal Undertaking.  The Work had to be done by hand, creating a series of 39 Levels, each about 25 yards long, with Steps down between them.  At the end of each Bed was a Wooden Partition, made of Elm, with slots cut in it at exactly the right place, and to exactly the right depth to ensure an even flow of Water throughout the System.  Where the Site allowed, the Beds were in pairs, side by side, separated by a Low Dam of Chalk so that it was possible to drain one side whilst keeping Water in the other.  To facilitate this, there was also a Channel along one side of the Beds, from which the Beds could be fed with Water, or into which they could be Drained, according to the state of the Crop, and the Operation which was required at any time.  In all, the Beds occupied some 6½ acres.

The ‘Salisbury Arms‘ also dates from the 17thC, though it was refaced in the 18thC

Although George Smith appears to have provided the inspiration for the opening of the Ewelme Beds, and probably the Capital, it was his younger brother, Robert, who seems to have been responsible for the day to day running of them.  Successive Local Directories, of 1891, 1895 & 1899, refer to ‘Smith, Robert, Watercress Growerin relation to Ewelme, rather than to George.  George had other interests, including the ‘Salisbury Arms‘ & Watercress Beds in South Weston, Bourne End, and probably elsewhere.  In 1902, he also acquired a substantial Farm, Church Farm in Lewknor, employing 13 or 14 men, where he again grew Watercress, as well as carrying on more General Farming.  He was, however, nominated as a Parish Councillor in Ewelme in 1896.

By the turn of the Century, the Ewelme Watercress Beds were well Established.  Their produce, mostly at that time packed in 5616 hampers, was taken by Wagon or Cart to Watlington Station about 4 to 5 miles away, and then by Train to the Midlands & Manchester.  Ewelme Cress acquired a very high reputation in the National Markets and was much sought after.

The Ewelrne Watercress Beds in the 20thC
Smith retired from the Salisbury Arms‘ between 1905 & 1910. He would then have been in his late 50’s or early 60′s.  He died in 1918.  In his Will, he left his Land & Business interests upon Trust for his Wife & 14 surviving children;  The Will provided that his 3rd son Sidney should have the right to buy from the Trustees the Farming Business at Church Farm, Lewknor and that his 4th son, Edward, should have the right to buy the Watercress Business at Ewelme. Others of his sons were to be offered the Businesses if those named did not want to take them on, but for some reason, the 2 eldest sons, George & Henry were specifically excluded from this.

Edward did take over the Watercress Business, being joined for a short time in the late 1920s by his younger brother, Bert.  However, this arrangement did not work oµt well, and Edward eventually bought Bert out, unfortunately leaving himself short of Capital in the process.  At this time, Edward was married, with a young son, Gerald.  Gerald remembers the trips over to Watlington with his father, to take consignments of Cress to the Station.  These were usually sent on Thursday & Friday evenings to be sold in Birmingham, Wolverhampton & Manchester Markets at the weekend.  At this time, the Cress was sent packed in 2816 Wicker Baskets, which still bore the identification plate ‘GSSW’ (for George Smith, South Weston).

Ford from Nellie Bridge c.1950

The Cress was washed and then women tied it into bunches using raffia & packed it into special Baskets known as ‘Flats’, which took either 28lb or 56lb of cress ready to be taken by Horse & Cart to the Station.  By now the Horse & Cart previously used to take the Cress to the Watlington Station had been replaced by an Austin Car drawing a specially designed 10ft Trailer.  However, in other respects, the Business would have carried on year by year in exactly the same way as it had been from the start.  The Baskets of Cress joined with supplies coming from other Growers destined for Covent Garden. The Ewelme Cress destined for the Midlands formed the greatest proportion of the Cress Traffic, which in itself formed the main Goods Business of the Railway on these evenings.

Gerald remembers that whilst the Consignment was being Weighed & Labelled and Loaded on to the Train, he was allowed to buy one item (usually a Fry’s Chocolate Bar) from the Vending Machine on the Station.  It seems to have been about this time that the Legend grew up of the Ewelme Watercress Babies.  It was said that a childless couple anxious to start a Family had only to come to Ewelme in the Spring to gaze on the Watercress when it was Green and their wishes would be Granted. (and if they were not anxious for children, they had to be very careful not to come at this time!)  The story is told in the Village of a wife who came to live in the Village and became pregnant.  Her sister-in-law came for a visit, and she too immediately became pregnant; then her mother came for a visit and also found shortly that she was expecting a late Child.  The Legend was still current well after the War and was featured in the National Press.

Edward Smith died in 1939 when his son was only 10.  As Gerald says, he had no interest in the Beds at this time, but his mother, Adelaide, took them over and continued to run them until the 1950s.  The War years must have been very difficult for a Widow with a young son to support, trying to run a Business in the face of the many restrictions of the time.  The younger workers would have been called up, and Transport facilities would have been limited.

Adelaide Smith & Percy Strickland 1950

Adelaide battled through, but certainly after the War ran into some financial difficulties. She was helped out by her Brother-in-law, Walter or Wally (George Smith’s penultimate son), and Walter eventually took over the Beds himself in 1957.  Gerald had at 1st become a Motor Mechanic, but was eventually attracted by the open air life of the Watercress Beds, and came to work with his mother.  He continued to work for Walter. In 1951, possibly as a local contribution to the Festival of Britain, a ‘Pageant of Ewelme‘ was put on at Ewelme Manor, celebrating the History of the Village.  One scene in the Pageant was the Mime of the Water-cress Men & Women‘, an indication of the importance of the Watercress Beds in the life of the Community. It included a song, ‘The Watercress Queen‘, which the Watercress men are said to have sung whilst they were working:-
The Watercress Queen
While strolling out one evening Down by the running stream,
Where Water Lilies were growing, It was a lovely scene.
The sight I saw was better, A Damsel like a Queen;

She was gathering Watercresses Down by the old Mill Stream.
Her hair hung down in Tresses, As gently flowed the Stream,
She was gathering Watercresses, Was that fair Watercress Queen.

I asked her if she was lonely, She answered with a smile,
“Oh! no Sir! I am not lonely, For this is my daily toil.
I have to be up so early, To gather my Cresses Green.”

She told me her name was ‘Martha’, Better known as the Watercress Queen.
…………………………………………………….. The name would be changed at the choice of the singer.

Edward Smith & Harry Winfield c.1930s

Harry Winfield, a notable Character in the Beds at this time, remembered singing this song.  He was aged over 81 in 1951, but was still working in the Beds after more than 60-yrs, having been George Smith‘s Foreman almost from the start.  In 1965, Walter Smith retireand advertised the Beds for Sale.  They were bought by 2 Businessmen from Thame, a Mr James Chavasse and a Mr Ken Austin. For the 1st time in their History, the Beds were no longer owned by a member of the Smith Family, although Gerald Smith continued to work for the new Owners for a time.  However, they had new ideas about the working of the Site, with which Gerald did not feel comfortable.  After a short time, therefore, he left to get a job in a Dairy but returning occasionally to help out in times of need.  For another 23-yrs, the new Owners farmed the Beds, but they were proving less & less viable. They closed rather suddenly in 1988, bringing to an end around 100 years of Watercress production in Ewelme.

Watercress Beds Closure 1988

The Waterbeds Since Closure
That might have been the end for the Ewelme Watercress Beds. Once they were no longer cultivated, the Site was very quickly colonised by weeds, particularly Great Willowherb. This grows to over 6ft tall in the summer. In the Winter, its hard, woody stems die & fall, and these were soon choking the Waterway and beginning to fill in the Beds.   In addition, the Structure of Wooden Dams had received little maintenance for some years, and these rapidly began to rot and disintegrate.  For 3-yrs the Beds deteriorated & dried up, the Brook reverting to a narrow Channel, swinging from side to side of the former Site.  The Beds became an eyesore rather than the attractive feature of the Village scene which they had been for so long. The Habitat which they had previously provided for much wildlife, especially the endangered Water Vole, was disappearing.  Many people in the Village regretted what was happening, not least of them Gerald Smith, still living adjacent to the Beds in Watercress Cottages, the property bought by his grandfather so many years ago.  One man, in particular, decided that something needed to be done.  In 1975, Des Dix had bought a house, then newly built, by the side of the Ewelme Beds.  One of the things which had attracted him to this house had been the prospect of the Beds which came with it.  When Cultivation stopped, and the Beds were obviously deteriorating, he approached the Owners for permission to work on the Site, and then in 1991 set to work with his son to clear the Weeds and restore the Site to good condition.

It soon became apparent that he and his son could not do this on their own. He appealed for Volunteers from the Village to help him, and many from the Village rallied round.  But it needed more resources than even the Village could offer, and he therefore also approached the Chiltern Society Conservation Volunteers, who agreed to organise Work Parties in the summer of 1992.  One more thing soon became clear that until the structure of Dams had been completely rebuilt, it would be impossible to retain water at the correct level in the Beds.  In 1994, Des sold his Business, and, having time on his hands, undertook this Project.  He had to rebuild 20 of the most important of the low wooden Dams, originally created by George Smith and his brother, now using Oak, Elm now being no longer available.  Each Dam had to be cut & shaped in-situ, so that it fitted exactly the shape of the Bed, and Des had to re-learn painstakingly the techniques of his predecessors in ensuring the even flow of water through the Site.  It took him a year & a half to restore the part of the Site above the Bridge, the part which was most visible from the Village Street.

EwelmeWatercressBedsOne positive benefit of the Closure of the Beds for Commercial Production was an increase in the use of the Site by Ducks & Moorhen, who had previously been controlled by the Commercial Operators.  Des did some work on the area of the Beds below the Bridge (the Site of the former Millpond & Mill), to restore the Waterfalls which existed there, but otherwise decided largely to leave this area alone as a Wildlife haven.  Whilst the Dams were being repaired, Volunteers from the Village and the Chiltern Society continued to clear the weeds which had invaded and dig the levels back to their former Depth.  This work continued until 1997, apart for a short period following the death of one of the Site owners, Mr Chavasse, in 1993.  With the death of Mr Chavasse, there was a fear that his share in the Beds might pass into fresh hands, which could lead not just to a halt in the Conservation work, but even to a complete change of Land use and the destruction of the valuable Archaeology of the Site. Difficulties experienced in contacting the Solicitors for the Chavasse Estate led the Chiltern Society to seek the help of the Environmental Law Foundation. They, with the help of South Oxfordshire District Council, put the Society in touch with the now Sole Owner, Mr Ken Austin.  The Beds were put on the Market for sale in 1995.

Sale Notice by the Bridge & The Shepherds Hut Pub

People in the Village interested in the future of the Beds set up an informal Support Group, the Friends of Ewelme Watercress Beds.  In February 1999, the adoption of a formal Constitution resulted in a large increase in membership, which now stands at 163, the largest Voluntary Society in the Village.  The Group is Affiliated to the Chiltern Society and the Friends & the Society are together exploring the possibility of acquiring the beds from the surviving Owner.  They have been advised that it would not be possible to resume Commercial production of Watercress, because the Beds could not be made to comply with modern standards of Water Quality & Food Safety without the disproportionate expense.  However, the Site is of Historical interest, as the production of Watercress was an important Rural Industry in the Chilterns, and the Beds at Ewelme, besides being the largest & most important in the area, with a National reputation, were also one of the last to operate Commercially.  As a result of the work already undertaken, much of their basic Structure remains intact, which gives them particular significance.  The Beds and the adjoining Land also have a substantial wildlife & Landscape value, and a Conservation Management Plan has been produced by Derek Highfield of the University of Reading.  In September 1999, the Chiltern Society with the support of the Friends launched a Fund Raising Campaign with Watlington Based Actor  Jeremy Irons as Patron to Purchase the Beds.

Commercial Nurseries – North of the Main Street were established by Stewart Paget before 1899, growing Cucumbers & Tomatoes under Glass.

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