Market gardening played an important part in Mortlake life from the late 17th century. By 1800 it had developed into a major industry, occupying a substantial part of Mortlake parish land. As London grew so did the demand for fresh food. This demand was met by an explosion in market gardening providing the London markets with produce.
The soil needed to be rich in nutrients in order to grow crops well. The night soil and dung from the streets of London was therefore carried by barge to, for example, the Ship Lane draw dock. Here it was unloaded onto carts and, once composted, spread onto the fields to enrich the soil.
The Mortlake parish tithe map of 1836 shows there were 23 market gardeners sharing 431 acres of land. Asparagus was grown in large quantities, alongside French beans, early peas, carrots, cabbages, celery, turnips, early and late potatoes. Lavender, herbs, flowers for cutting, apples, pears, plums, strawberries, gooseberries and currants were also produced from the market gardens in Mortlake. Both men and women worked the gardens, planting, harvesting and washing vegetables. Wagons destined for the London markets would be loaded late at night so as to arrive in the early morning. Women and girls would also carry baskets laden with fruit on their heads. Work in the market gardens was very hard and these seasonal labourers received no wages for several months in the year. Poverty was the norm.
The market gardening industry in Mortlake reached its peak in the latter years of the 19th century. However, it then declined significantly during the early years of the 20th century, slowly disappearing under local houses, schools and roads. In 1938 the last market garden was given up and built on, but many private gardens in the area still have excellent soil and ancient fruit trees – a legacy of Mortlake's market gardening industry.
For more on market gardening in Mortlake and Barnes see the paper by Maisie Brown.