ID: DJG_PIE / Douglas J. Gurton

TitleTollesbury Gooseberry Pie Fair
AbstractTollesbury is a large compact village, situated on rising ground, and joins on the west to the villages of Tolleshunt D'Arcy, Tolleshunt Knights, Goldhanger and Salcott cum Virley, in the County of Essex. It is bounded on the sout, east and north-east sides by marshlands and saltings. The River Blackwater runs on the south to the sea, and Tollesbury Fleets, creeks, etc., partially encircle the parish on the east and north-east extremities. Its name is derived from the words "Toll" - toll or custom, and "Burgh" or "Bury" a town, for unquestionably in ancient days it was the place where tolls or customs were paid by ships entering the River Blackwater. The village is mentioned in Domesday Book and is referred to as "Tolesberie".

For centuries past the livelihood of the villagers was dependent on the fishing and agricultural industries. Prior to 1904 no other industry was available to the men, but at that time the light railway was established and further extended across the marshes to the River Blackwater, where a wooden pier ¼ mile in length was built by the Great Eastern Railway jutting out into the River (the railway and pier were axed in 1954).

At the turn of the century there were close on 100 fishing smacks operating on the River and off the East Coast. Some of the larger smacks ventured further to the coasts of Brittany for scallops and to the North Kent coast for "five-fingers" or starfish largely used for manuring the land. As can well be imagined the work in the olden days was hard and long, both on the sea and land, and there was scant reward for their labours. As travel was difficult in those far off days, and there was very little money in circulation, the villagers had to provide their own recreation and pleasure and the focal point of this would have been the village "Green" in the centre of the village, dominated and overlooked by St. Mary's Church which dates from the early 11th century and embodies traces of Roman and Saxon origin. At one time there were at least six taverns in the village, two on the "Green", and it would appear that at times there was some riotous and rowdy behaviour, for in the shadow of the church, stands the weather-boarded village lock-up which dates from the 17th century. In the Church can be seen the font bought forr £5 in 1718 being the fine levied on a man for disturbing divine service. The font bears the inscription - "Good people all I pray take Care, That in ye Church you doe not sware as this man did." These tow existing monuments serve as reminders of the incidents which occurred in the past, possibly as a sequel to some village festivity.

The origin of the Gooseberry Pie Fair is shrouded in the mists of time, but like so many other feasts and festivities it undoubtedly had a religious significance and connexion for according to Morant's "History of Essex" (A.D. 1772) reference is made to "Tollesbury Gooseberrie Pie Fayre" being held on Saint Peter's Day (29th June - Patron Saint of Fishermen), whereas the traditional established Fair in the adjoining village of Tolleshunt D'Arcy was held on the feast of St. Barnabas 11th June. Accordingly it is only logical to assume that the "Fair" in its circuit of the countryside would move on to the nearest village, hence it is quite feasible that the "Fair" reached Tollesbury in time for the Gooseberry Pie festivities, and would pitch its stalls and booths on the village "Green", alas no longer "green" but tar macadam and more popularly referred to as "The Square". In the mid nineteenth century the "Fair" was banned from the "Green" for the disturbances it caused, and since that time has been held in various fields and open spaces close to the village proper.

As previously stated, prior to 1902, transport facilities were very poor, and a good deal of the bulkier everyday requirements, coals, building materials, beer, etc., had to come in by sea routes, and in turn agricultural produce including livestock would be sent away from the landing places at Woodrolfe or Mell in the unladed sailing craft. The principal cargo carriers were the tradiitional sailing barges of that era, and small collier brigs known as "Billy Boys" which brought in the Tyne coals and pots, pans and dishes from Sunderland. The Sunderland earthenware pans figured largely in the village cooking, and were used for baking the celebrated gooseberry pies. Up to a short time ago one such pan existed and was repeatedly used for baking a monster pie comprised of some 2 ½pecks of gooseberries. At other times of the year these large pans were used for pickling hams in brown sugar and vinegar, and the pan mentioned could hold tow large sized hams, side by side (see photo).

Much rivalry existed amongst the villagers to see who could bake the best and biggest gooseberry pie. The pans were too large for the cottage ovens so recourse had to be made to the local bakehouses ovens (there were three bakeries at one time), and it is said that it was quite a sight to see these pies being trundled in handcarts and barrows to the bakeries where they would be put in the ovens and left overnight. The next day the pies would be baked a golden brown, nad when the crust was broken revealed the succelent blood red gooseberries.

Towards the end of the 19th century the custom of having the gooseberry pie festivities in public diminished, for a good proportion of the fishermen had to go further afield for work. There was a boom in yachting at that time and up to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Tollesbury men could be found on most of the large racing yachts as their sailing skills gained in the torturous labyrinths of the Maplin and Gunfleet sands off the East coast stood them in good stead. The men found the summer employment lucrative and enjoyable. Not only did the receive a comparatively good wage, but were also fitted out with yachting uniform, oilskins etc., which they retained at the end of the season, and also stood a good chance of gaining a portion of the prize money awarded for winning races for their wealthy yacht owners and employers. Some of the most favoured even received a retainer wage throughout the winter months from their owner employers on the understanding that they crewed again the following season. these were prosperous days for the village, business was good all round, and in the autumn many of the large yachts came back to the Woodrolfe creek where they were berthed for the winter. Tollesbury men travelled far and wide in those days, many were employed in Continental yachts, some in the U.S.A.,and there were even some of the men serving with the german Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm, on the outbreak of the Great War, and by good grace they were allowed to return home, although wages were due to them and never paid. It is generally known that men from these parts crewed in most America Cup contenders over the years, and although unsuccessful in lifting the America Cup are proud of the fact that no less than two were Sailing masters of the Shamrocks and Endeavour in successive attempts, also hat one man was Sailing master of H.M. George V racing yacht "Britannia" in her most successful season or racing. The late King of Spain always had a Tollesbury man and crew for his racing yacht "Hispania".

So far as can be ascertained, it was possibly due to the absence of the men in the village during the summer months which caused the lapse of the gooseberry pie festivities. Gooseberry pies were still made at the appointed time, but there was no jollification as such. One writer referred to Tollesbury during the summer months as an "Adamless Eden", a somewhat backhanded compliment to the ladies.

However, in 1936 a local Sailing Club was formed, and it was unique inasmuch as it was at that time entirely composed of professional fishermen and yachtsmen. At the end of the last War, the Tollesbury Sailing Club decided to revive the festival of Gooseberry Pie, and the Club was fortunate in being able to obtain one of the original Sunderland pie dishes (see photo) and bake a monster pie for the occasion. Other Sailing Clubs in the locality were invited to take part in the celebrations and now it is the customfor the neighbouring Sailing Clubs to race their craft to Tollesbury Creek (Woodrolfe) and take part in the festival of dancing and pie eating.

Unfortunately in recent years it has not been possible to hold the Gooseberry Pie festival on the appropriate date, 29th June. The traditional fair no longer visits the vilage, except spasmodically, and other events, times and tides have to be taken into consideration in order that neighbouring Sailing Clubs may participate. The Tollesbury Gooseberry Pie Festival will take place this year on Saturday 6th July, 1968.

Note: For further information regarding these parts, the following literary works are respectfully referred :-
"Mehalah" by the Rev. Sabine Baring Gould (Rector of East Mersea)
"Modern Fowler"; "Harvest Adventure" by J. Wentworth Day
"The Oaken Heart" by Margery Allingham
"Last Stronghold of Sail"; "Down Topsail" by Hervey Benham

1. St. Mary's Church, Tollesbury
2. The "Square" and environs thereof
3. Woodrolfe Creek looking towards Mersea Island
4. Woodrolfe Creek looking towards the Hard
5. The shipyard more than 50 years ago - winter-time.
7. Gooseberry Pie in Sunderland dish outside Sailing Club 1950
8. Cutting the Gooseberry Pie year 1950.
[ We do not have all these photographs ]

AuthorDouglas J. Gurton
Published23 February 1968
SourceMersea Museum
Related Images:
 Tollesbury Sailing Club - Brightlingsea Sailing Club arrive the same time as the Gooseberry Pie.
 Walter Bibby and Charles Pewter holding the Gooseberry Pie.  DJG_PIE_013
ImageID:   DJG_PIE_013
Title: Tollesbury Sailing Club - Brightlingsea Sailing Club arrive the same time as the Gooseberry Pie.
Walter Bibby and Charles Pewter holding the Gooseberry Pie.
Source:Mersea Museum / Peter Bibby Collection
 Gooseberry Pies
 A feature of village life which became connected to the annual Fair during the last weekend of June, were the Gooseberry Pies. They were slow-cooked overnight in Sunderland clay dishes sold to local women by the bargemen. Some entries are proudly displayed here outside Shynn's bakery in North Road. 'Tollesbury Past by Keith Lovell, figure 71.  KBC_TOL_023
ImageID:   KBC_TOL_023
Title: Gooseberry Pies
A feature of village life which became connected to the annual Fair during the last weekend of June, were the Gooseberry Pies. They were slow-cooked overnight in "Sunderland" clay dishes sold to local women by the bargemen. Some entries are proudly displayed here outside Shynn's bakery in North Road. 'Tollesbury Past by Keith Lovell, figure 71.
Source:Mersea Museum / Kevin Bruce