said I wasn't and explained why I was on the Moss. He was pleased that someone was documenting it, but said I should have been around 20 years earlier. He was openly hostile to Moss Crop's policy of riping up the hedgerows and creating huge, open, featureless fields. Similarly, he didn't have much time for the new Roland Bardsley housing estate at Littlemoss. "Just look at it" he said. I gazed towards the luxury dream homes. The houses themselves didn't look too bad, but for some odd reason the roof tiles were bright orange colour. They hardly blended in with the landscape.
The bloke walked off with his dog in disgust. I headed up Rayner Lane towards the top end of the Moss and Snipe, briefly stopping at "Syd's Shop" to buy some satsuma's. I then followed a narrow path around to the "Snipe" pub, where I stopped for a quick pint before heading off to Oldham, with my satsumas, to watch a football match.
Orange Tree Cottage, Romiley. 20 November 1989.
Orange Tree Cottage is the home of Jack Ashby, who until 1973 worked on the Moss. His family had worked the Moss since 1889. Stan Miller of Moss Hollow Nurseries had suggested I contact Mr. Ashby if I wanted some background information on the Moss. This I did, and Mr. Ashby agreed to talk to me. We met on the evening of Monday 20 November 1989, and talked for nearly 3 hours, mainly about the Moss. The following is a brief resume of our conversation - or more accurately of what Mr. Ashby had to say. Once I had explained my interest in the Moss and my reasons for visiting him, he did most of the talking. I just prompted him with the occasional question.
1889 : Joe Ashby, Jack's grandfather, a greengrocer from Salford moved onto the Moss. Apart from a 5 year spell, when he worked as a road haulier, Jack spent all his working life on the Moss. He was now 75. His family farmed a holding at the bottom of Moss Lodge Lane, part of it is now Moss Hollow Nurseries. Apart from vegetables : celery and cucumber were the principal crops, they also grew bedding out plants. In their prime years they turned out 12,000 full trays (96 plants in each tray).
History of the Moss
According to Jack Ashby the Moss is reclaimed marsh land, made up of decomposed ferns which produce the sphagnum peat of the Moss. Dykes were dug and the area was drained. Cultivation began in the 1840s, coinciding with the arrival of the railways in the area. Mr. Ashby dismissed the claim that the Moss had been farmed for 200 years.
The original holdings were small, perhaps 3 acres, their size being determined by the layout of the dykes. Eventually to create larger holdings the dykes were piped over. The dykes were also used to wash the vegetables, washing basins created in the dykes for this purpose. A piped water supply was eventually laid on in the 1930s, prior to this water was drawn from wells.
Until the 1950s the Moss was essentially cultivated with hand tools, horse ploughs were used briefly, but the horses either sank into the peat, or disappeared in the drainage ditches. Similarly early tractors were also found to be too heavy. In the 1950s mechanical hoes were finally introduced, Gents were one of the first Market Gardeners on the Moss to successfully use tractors. At this time the Moss was then intensively cultivated without no crop rotation, but it was also heavily manured. In its heyday 60 market gardeners worked the Moss.
Mr. Ashby explained that all the Market Gardeners on the Moss were tenants, the whole area being owned by the Earl of Stamford. Cordingley's, the Estate Agents, acted as stewards on behalf of the Earl. At some stage a (no precise date was given) Mrs. Bissell of Stourbridge, possibly a relative of the Earl, acquired half of the Moss, along the Manchester Road side of Rayner Lane.
The old Smithfield Market on Shudehill, Manchester was a major outlet for products from the Moss. The Market would sell the goods on a commission basis. A number of Market Gardeners decided to cut out the middle man and maximise their profits by selling direct to the public. Jack Ashby did this by standing on Grey Mare Lane market for many years selling his products.
Albert Hulme (Bill's father) sold his fruit and veg. direct to the barrow boys. Jack Ashby could still vividly recall a line of barrow boys down Rayner Lane awaiting Bill Hulme's products.
Produce would have been taken, by horse and cart, to the nearby railway stations and then be transhipped into trains.
Jack informed me that Ashton Moss was once famous for its celery. But not any more, it's now virtually extinct. Potatoes have taken over. Other principal crops in Jack's time were cauliflowers, spring onions, radish, beetroot and cabbage. Mr. Ashby said that Lomas's still produced good radishes and spring onions. He also acknowledged the success of the Italian's in introducing dhania a new crop, to the Moss. He was less than complementary, however, about some of the other Market Gardeners and their methods of farming, being wary of the use of chemical fertilizers. He seemed to imply that over use of them would result in the land becoming inert. Jack also hinted that the drainage system on the Moss had also been unwisely disturbed and altered by some less scrupulous Market Gardeners.
Early buildings on the Moss were very basic, being constructed from turf, these primitive buildings and the small holdings they stood on would probably have been the forerunners of today's allotments.
Mr. Ashby recollected some strange sheds and shacks on the Moss these included : disused trams, used as hencotes, and a brick building (still standing) used by Ashton Moss colliery to store TNT (O.K. for them to blow up the Market Gardeners, but not the colliers, he said).
Mr. Ashby told me the lopsided nature of many of the buildings on the Moss was as a result of them sinking in the peat, not through mining subsidence.
The far end of the Moss, near the colliery, was dominated by a racecourse, used initially for harness racing (trotting). The ¾ mile track was later adapted for greyhound and speedway racing. It was demolished to make way for a housing estate.
Not surprisingly Mr. Ashby didn't have too many good words to describe the Moss today. He cited Gents and Lomas's as good Market Gardeners with high standards, but was critical of many of the others. The loss of much of the hedgerows, particularly along Rayner Lane (or the Long Lane as he called it) upset him. He described much of the Moss as a desert.
I showed him some of the photographs I'd taken of the Moss. Whilst he was very complementary of them, I could tell that the conditions of many of the buildings and the estate saddened him.
I asked Mr. Ashby if anyone else had documented the Moss. No, he said. But he had been interviewed by a journalist from the Manchester Evening News, who'd later written a piece on the Moss. He said he'd written some narrative on the area himself. He searched for it but couldn't find it.
He did, however, manage to locate some photographs of the area which he showed me. They were mainly of the family holding : a panoramic view of the estate, with rows of celery as far as the eye could see; a young looking Jack Ashby in a greenhouse surrounded by cucumbers; one of his father, again in a greenhouse full of cucumbers; his wife stood alongside a grapevine in another greenhouse. Jack said that in their youth he and his wife cut a dashing pair, and they did. Even now he retained his good looks. His wife had died two years ago, they had been married over 50 years.
Of the photographs Jack showed me one stuck in my mind, it was a horse and cart full of crops stood motionless. Joe Ashby's name was elegantly written on the side of the cart. The photograph was probably taken on Moss Lodge Lane. Somehow this simple snap captured the spirit and time of the place perfectly.