1887 Tasmanian apples shipped to England

The colourful labels of Tasmanian apple boxes are Australian folk art

The introduction of refrigerated shipping allowed more primary produce to be transported around the world. The first cargo of cool-storage Tasmanian apples, about 1300 cases, was shipped to England in 1887.

Not for nothing is Tasmania’s nickname “the apple isle”. From the earliest days of colonial settlement (and even before), the climate proved ideal for apple cultivation. In their paper, The History and Heritage of the Tasmanian Apple Industry, Anne McConnell and Nathalie Servant give a comprehensive account of the development and more recent decline of one of Tasmania’s most significant agricultural products.

The first settlers planted orchards around their homesteads,  McConnell and Servant quote one of them, W. B. Boyles, who wrote in his diary in 1831:

The apple grows here in the greatest luxuriance, it appears indeed to have found a home in Van Diemen’s Land and revels in the wildest profusion-the last two years the trees have broken down with the weight of fruit. With the exception of the small quantities used in housekeeping the apples either heap the Pig trough or rot upon the ground.

The first commercial orchard – or at least the first in the Huon Valley south of Hobart – was established by a Mr Williams of Garden Island Creek (near the present-day town of Cygnet). Even before this, a sample of local apples had been sent to Scotland. However, the consignment, despatched in 1829, did not travel well. For several decades, the successful export of apples was mostly to the other Australian colonies, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, although some were sent as far afield as California and India.

Despite a major setback in the late 1870s, when the codlin moth pest was introduced from America, the apple industry in Tasmania continued to grow. The improvement in shipping conditions led to a substantial trade with England. A shipment was sent aboard the SS Warwickshire, which had a small coolroom fitted in 1886.  Notable figures promoting the export of Tasmanian apples were jam-makers Henry Jones and William Peacock, as well as William Shoobridge, who travelled to London as a representative of the Tasmanian government.

By 1915, McConnell and Servant report, there were nearly 4.5 million apple trees in Tasmanian orchards. The number of trees declined during the 1920s and ’30s, but the industry remained strong, with exports to Britain underpinning its success. Then, on 1 January 1973, Britain joined the European Economic Community. The effect on the Tasmanian apple industry was sudden and devastating.  The Tasmanian government sponsored a “tree pull scheme” that saw the life’s work of many orchardists destroyed. The area of apple orchards was reduced by half.

By 2022, there were only about 20 apple growers remaining, with Tasmania exporting just just eight per cent of Australia’s apples and contributing only 16 per cent of the domestic market.

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