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History of cider making in Devon

History of cider in Devon

Cider has been made in Devon from a very early date, indeed apple pips have been found at archeological sites dating from the Neolithic period. Orchard cultivation of apples certainly arrived with the Romans, if not before. Roman soldiers were encouraged to retire to the frontier lands they had served in, with grants of lands on which to grow fruits. Apple orcharding was further boosted by the arrival of the Normans, with their great love of apple husbandry. Of the varieties of cultivated apple they brought with them, the most interesting to us is the Pearmain apple, probably the first purposed cider apple variety.

Early records of cider production are difficult to determine, as what might well have been cider is often described as wine or strong wine and it’s not really until the middle ages that we find clear evidence of cidermaking in surviving records. In Devon, records dated from 1285AD for Exminster Manor suggest cidermaking was taking place on a commercial scale in Devon at that time. Cider was recorded as part of Church Tythes in Combe in Tynhyde Devon in 1297AD and various other records from around that date.

Certainly by the middle of the 14th Century cidermaking on a commercial scale was well established in Devon, with records of cider being offered for sale in Sampford Peveral in 1358AD and at Plymouth at a similar date. The arrival of the ‘Black Death’ at Weymouth the same year led to the collapse of the agrarian economy in Devon and the rest of England, with orcharding suffered along with every other activity. A 100 years later however It’s likely that the details of pressing and purchasing cider recorded in the Kerkenswell Manor accounts of 1452 preceded a general renewed interest in orcharding and cultivation that occurred following the agrarian reforms of the Tudors.

The production of cider seems to have increased further during the early part of the seventeenth century attested to both by Westcote in his View of Devonshire, written in 1630. Where he relates that

“They have of late years much enlarged their orchards, and are very curious in planting and grafting all kinds of fruits for all seasons, of which they make good use and profit, both for furnishing their own table as furnishing of the neighbour markets.

But most especially for making cider, a drink both pleasant and healthy; much desired by seamen for long southern voyages, as more fit to make beverage than beer, and much cheaper and easier to be had than wine.”

And by Tristram Risdon in his Chorographical Description of Devon of similar date where he relates

“of fruit trees great variety and those of the best kind which I forbear to name for the great choice and such plenty of cyder made as many copy holders may pay their lord’s rent with their cyder only which is found a drink very useful for those that navigate long voyages whereof one tun serveth them instead of three tuns of beer and is found more wholesome drink in hot climates” Risdon also adding “Staverton stands between these two Hemp sions a place passing fruitful insomuch that report giveth out there are more hogsheads of cyder made communibus omnis than are men women and children living there This manor hath anciently belonged to the dean and chapter of Exeter”

In 1794 Robert Fraser wrote in his “General view of the county of Devon” the most detailed description of cider making in Devon surviving from the period devoting an entire section to cider


Throughout a great part of this county particularly the southern districts cider constitutes a very material article of rural economy. Every farmer has his orchard which supplies him in the first place with an agreeable and wholesome beverage for himself and family and the surplus he disposes of to the cider merchant. The operations of the farmer in preparing his cider are simple and easy. The juice of the fruit being extracted by means of the pounding mills and the press the liquor is put into large vat’s where it is left to ferment; and when the fermentation is arrived at full perfection of which they judge by the head beginning to break the cider is then drawn off into hogsheads or barrels, and kept for family use or sold to the cider merchant who racks and prepares it for the London and other markets.

It is not a general practice to sort the different species of apples Those which produce the greatest quantity of juice are preferred. The red streak is in general considered as the apple which gives the finest flavour to the cider. The apples formerly were pounded in a hollow trough of moor stone by means of a mill stone of the same revolving on its edge. It is now pounded generally by a machine which mashes the apple much more perfectly. The apple thus mashed is placed on the press with layers of reed between and pressed down with a screw and lever. Of late years, many improvements have been made in this branch of rural industry and they expect to bring it to still greater perfection. In the neighbourhood of Exeter, Chudleigh Newtown Bushel Paignton Totness &c they make great quantities of cider which has a richer flavour of the apple than any I have tasted in other counties. In the parish of Staverton and that neighbourhood the sweet cider is chiefly made. This kind of cider is produced from the same species of apples as the rough cider The sweet taste it has arises from the fermentation being stopped by repeatedly racking off the cider from the lees. It has been supposed by many people that cider is adulterated by adding the juice of turnips to that of the apples There is no kind of foundation for this report The farmers sell the cider they do not use for the family at eighteen twenty and twenty five shillings per hogshead. Sometimes the produce of an orchard is very great An orchard last year belonging to Mr Mathews near Chudleigh consisting of three acres made eighty hogsheads of cider at one guinea per hogshead. Several gentlemen plant nurseries for apple trees and give the plants to any of their tenants who will engage to inclose a piece of land for an orchard. This is a system well deserving the notice of all the proprietors in the county.”

By 1810, the editors of a new edition of Risdons Chorographical Description of Devon said “we find that near 200 years ago Risdon mentions it (cider) in such plenty as many copyholders may pay their lord’s with their cyder only. This is even now probably in some parts and in some seasons the case though the orchards are not either so large and productive or so numerous as they used to be. The cyder tax operated to reduce the number of apple trees, thousands of which were cut down at the time it was imposed and the produce of the remainder is probably lessened by a variety of causes”

The cider tax, the editors refer to, was imposed as a result of the huge cost of the Seven Years War. In 1763 the then Prime Minister, Lord Bute, introduced a tax of four shillings on a hogshead of cider. The result was outrage across the Southwest England. The wide ranging protests were led by the Town clerk of Exeter, Benjamin Heath. Effigies of Lord Bute, often a large boot (Jack Boot) were burnt in many towns in Devon, and a coffin representing the ‘death’ of cider was carried through the streets of Crediton. The effects of the tax on cider sales was disastrous and as a result many apple orchards were grubbed out. The tax was repealed in 1766.

However not everything was doom and gloom as the 18th Century also saw the development of the first significant indigenous cider varieties in Devon.

Hugh Stafford in his 1753 Dissertation of Cyder and Cyder Fruit, describes a selection of the cider varieties found in Devon and Herefordshire; “Though the number of Cyder-fruits here taken notice of are but few, they are the more generally known, and more generally planted than others”

For Devon he describes;

Royal Wilding, White Sour, Blackamore, Meadyate. and the Cowley Bridge Crab. He also describes the effect of the soils found in Devon and how these soils differ in the north and south of the county. He also makes interesting comparisons to the fruit and soils of Hereford and Somerset. Staffords advice on orchard planting remains, in may respects, hard to fault.

“At Michaelmass you fould plough it (the soil) pretty deep, in order to make is loofe for the roots of the trees, which fhould be planted thereon in October, provided the foil be dry; but if it be moift, the beginning of March will be a better feafon”

We cannot leave the eighteenth century without mentioning the sometimes fatal condition known as Devon Colic. The Colic was first described in detail by Totness MD John Huxham in 1738. Amongst a range of very unpleasant symptoms were vomiting, cold sweats, stomach cramps, paralysis and occasionally death. Huxham observed that cases of Devon Colic seemed most widespread in years and in areas where cider was plentiful and he put the complaint’s cause as the consumption of too much fresh rough cider.

In 1767 George Baker, a renowned polymath of his day, pointed out the similarity between Devonshire colic and lead poisoning. His research showed that similar colics were not found in other cidermaking counties like Herefordshire and Somerset and so Baker reasoned that the cause must be unique to Devon, not to cider.

Investigating cidermaking methods in Devon, Baker found that it was common in Devon, for stone apple mills, apple presses, even the vats used for cider themselves to be calked or lined with lead. There was also some anecdotal evidence of Lead acetate, (saccharum saturni) being used as an artificial sweetener.

Baker finally made an eloquent demonstration of his conjecture. Using the fact that the Sulphides of Lead are black, he got samples of cider from Hereford and Devon and reacted them with Sulphur. The cider from Devon went black, the cider from Hereford didn’t. Baker then added Lead Acetate to the Hereford cider and tested it again. This time the cider from Hereford went black as well.

Bakers report was published in both Latin and English and met a mixed reception, some welcomed his results, whilst others thought the cause of the colic still rested in the type or ripeness of the cider apples or juice. By the turn of the 19thCentury the hazards of Lead were better understood, and Devon Colic had all but disappeared. However, isolated instances of Lead being used as caulking in old oak cider vats continued to be discovered well into the 20th century.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, high tariffs on wine imposed during the Napoleonic wars led to a boom in cidermaking and orchard planting. In Devon the area planted to orchards reached 23,000 acres making it briefly ahead of Hereford with 22,000 acres and 21,000 in Somerset. In his Topographical dictionary of England, Samuel Lewis said of Devon;

“In no part of England are the Gardens on a more extensive scale than throughout this county. The cultivation of apples for making cider was first an object of general care about the commencement of the seventeenth century, A great quantity of cider is now made, in a productive year, for exportation, besides the vast quantity made for home consumption. In the year 1820, eleven thousand two hundred and sixty-five Devonshire hogsheads (each of sixty-three gallons) were sent from the ports of Exeter and Dartmouth (the former including Teignmouth, and the latter Salcombe), besides what was shipped by the growers, and therefore not liable to duty. There are orchards are now to be seen in every part of the county; every valley, indeed, throughout the South Hams is more or less occupied by them, and this district is the most celebrated for the excellence of the cider which it produces”.

Towards the middle of the century French wine consumption had recovered from the odium of the Napoleonic wars, helped no doubt by the the lowering of import tariffs. As a result the popularity of cider declined.

However, towards the end of the century interest was rekindled as industrialization increased agricultural demand and railways improved communications.

In 1851 The Devon Agricultural Society merged with the Royal Bath and West and Southern Counties Agricultural Society as part of a renewed interest in the scientific underpinnings of agricultural activity.

This saw a concomitantly increased role for science in the art and manufacture of cider throughout the South West of England. Of particular note in Devon, H.J.W. Coulson wrote in in the 1898/1899 Journal of the Royal Bath and West and Southern Counties Society, describing how they made their championship winning cider at Lythecourt near Tiverton. The cider competition was held as part of the Societies annual meeting, held in 1897 in Southampton. These annual meetings and agricultural show was the result of the decision, taken back in 1859, by the Society, to start an annual peripatetic agricultural show in combination with their Annual Meeting the first being in Taunton that year.

A cider competition soon became established as an important part of the annual show, and the Societies journals of the period, contain details of the cider competitions as well as descriptions of, and advances in, cider making. The cider competition continues to be held annually, at the Societies now permanent show ground in Shepton Mallet.

Mr Ralph Neville Grenville of Butleigh Court, Glastonbury was a great enthusiast of cider. in 1893 he persuaded the Bath and West’s itinerant cheese technologist, Mr F. J. Lloyd to turn his attention to the science of cider, and to undertake experiments at Neville Grenvilles Home Farm in Butleigh. In 1894 Grenville persuaded the Bath and West Society to support more extensive trials in cider making at Home farm. The results of these trials were presented by F.J. Lloyd in an extensive report in 1903. The importance of Neville Grenville, and Lloyds work was widely recognized and a committee was set up to look at the best way of continuing the progress made. Following the offer of suitable premises by Lady Smyth it was decided to establish the National Fruit and Cider Institute at Long Ashton, Bristol with Fredrick Lloyds as it’s first director.

For the next 75 years the Long Aston Research Station would study the science of cider making and their work provides the foundations of the modern cider industry. Sadly the cider research at Long Ashton closed in 1981. This brings us to what might be termed modern cider making in Devon, which we will look at in another article.

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