Book Notes: The Commonplace Book of John Gwin of Llangwm

The Commonplace Book of John Gwin of Llangwm, ed. Madeleine Gray, Tony Hopkins and Alun Withey, South Wales Record Society (2022)

A ‘commonplace book’ is a collection of personally meaningful writings – notes, recollections, aides-memoire – amounting to something not quite a journal or diary, but more than a scrapbook or simple notebook. The Commonplace Book of John Gwin of Llangwm (South Wales Record Society, 2022, r.r.p. £18.00) was compiled over a number of years from the 1630s through to the early eighteenth century, by a number of members of the Gwin, or Gwynne family. The original handwritten manuscript has been painstakingly transcribed by the project’s three editors, Madeleine Gray, Tony Hopkins and Alun Withey, and is currently available in paperback edition direct from the South Wales Record Society.

The majority of the content of the this particular commonplace book is financial – lists of rents owed and paid, inventories of possessions, costs of materials, wages paid and so forth – medical – details of cures for smallpox and pills bought from apothecaries – or religious in nature. But there are also a number of entries in the book that tell us that at least one of the several Johns Gwin who were members of the family during the period – most likely John Gwin III, one of the principle authors of the book – had a keen interest in growing fruit trees.

The orchard-related entries range from quick notes as to the location of promising trees, such as:

"The best peares at Attabilla to be grafted as ever my eyes did see being pound peares which now I have store of them grafted."

through to more detailed descriptions of work carried out to establish new orchards:

"Concerning the Poulth new archard &c ...

... Set in the new Archard the 25° of October 1662 the number of eight skore and sixteene yonge trees. About 5 peare trees of the sume, bought of Morgan of Abey of them 49. Soe all the work and hedges was made up and ended for the above said 01:08:00 but the chardge of the frith is not it com to account, nor don being a double frith cost 8d per perch. 

The 49 trees bough[t] cost me 6d per tree is 01. 4. 06"

The entry preceding this one details the number of days of labour required to lay out the new orchard plot. Both the total sum of money involved – two pounds, fourteen shillings and sixpence[1] – and the 196 trees that were planted show that this was no small undertaking. The passage also suggests that although a number of pear trees were bought in, well over a hundred additional trees were planted, suggesting that they were already to-hand, potentially having been grafted by Gwin in previous years.

Another, slightly later entry demonstrates the depth and extent of the author’s interest in and ongoing commitment to propagating fruit trees:

"Grafted in Feb[ruary] last 1665 upon the 20th 21° and the 22° of all sortes of trees about neere 200."

Grafting around two hundred trees in three days is no mean feat by anyone’s standards, I’m sure you’ll agree. A number of the orchard-related entries include lists of the types and numbers of trees grafted at a particular session, and given the date of the next entry, these could very well be the trees that were planted, along with others detailed on the same page, in the “Poulth new archard” in 1662:

Upper archard new frith[2] 15° March 1659
3 pound peares
4 pound peares
5 wheat peares
6 X hogshead peares
7 pound peare

This is the sort of content in Commonplace Book of John Gwin of Llangwm that I find particularly fascinating: details of the types of apples and pears that Gwin and his seventeenth century contemporaries were grafting and growing.

Some of the varieties grown by Gwin are known from other sources of the era. For instance, alongside the previously mentioned ‘pound pear’, there’s the ‘burgamet’ or ‘burgomete’ (‘Bergamot’) pear, and the ‘Katerin peare'[3]. There are several mentions of the ‘Redstrake’, which was the pre-eminent cider apple of the age[4], and fellow cider apple ‘Fox whelps’ (‘Foxwhelp’), plus ‘winter queenins'[5] and the more generic ‘pippins’.

Some names aren’t quite so instantly recognisable and may be the sort of hyper-local varieties that were named for the people who grew them or the places in which they grew, such as the ‘copill pear'[6], ‘rapets’ or ‘rapetes’, ‘Dursley’ or ‘dursley pippin'[7], ‘Hemin’, ‘sufferne’, ‘Sheebreeths’, and ‘Roger Thomas pippins’, none of which ring an immediate bells from any of the sources I’ve perused to-date (although if you do recognise any of them, please do leave a comment below to let me know the details).

Others may describe a characteristic of the fruit, such as the ‘horse apple'[8], ‘grinlines’ (greenling / greening?) apple, ‘Brodlines’ (broadling, flattened and broad?) apple, ‘misumder’ (mid-summer) pear, ‘honey knaps’, ‘sider pear’, ‘Abey[9] sider pears’, ‘Michaell[10] sider peares from Abey’, ‘Rowler'[11], ‘wheat pear’, ‘X Hogshead'[12] or ‘tenn hogsed’ pear, ‘Must'[13] and ‘Red Must’ apples, and ‘ston’ (gritty / hard-fleshed) pear.

Then there are a few more enigmatic names and/or terms, such as ‘peraune'[14], ‘pere awne’, ‘peare aune’ or ‘perawne’ (all four spelling variants are on p. 137), the ‘orlnes’ or ‘Orlins'[15] apple, and then there’s ‘grabsticks’, which the glossary suggests may be ‘crabsticks’, or wild rootstock trees, which seems sensible, judging by the use of ‘set’ and ‘planted’ in connection with the term in the same passage.

These details offer a fascinating and invaluable insight into a period of pomological history from which not a great deal of written material survives. I’ve taken some time to detail the different apple and pear varieties mentioned by Gwin because tracing and recording historical varieties is a peculiar obsession of mine. But it’s equally valuable to note just how common a practice it was, in the mid to late sixteenth century, to propagate fruit trees by grafting, and in large volumes as well. Clearly the yeoman farmers of the day were highly proficient in the art and craft of grafting.

We know as much in theory, from earlier and contemporary sources such as Leonard Mascall’s translation of David Brossard’s A Booke of the Arte and Maner, Howe to Plant and Graffe All Sortes of Trees (1575), William Lawson’s A New Orchard and Garden (1618), and Ralph Austen’s A Treatise of Fruit-Trees : Shewing the Manner of Grafting, Planting, Pruning and Ordering of them in All Respects (1653, 2nd edtn 1657). John Gwin’s personal records of new trees grafted, as well as entire orchards of around two hundred trees planted in the space of a few days, adds primary evidence of the activity actually taking place.

The time, effort and monetary cost involved also tell us how hugely important orchards must have been in the seventeenth century; a vital element in the agricultural landscape and a key ingredient in the farmer’s recipe for making a good living from their land. The varieties of apples and pears grown also tell us that they were most likely used for both food and making alcoholic beverages in the form of cider and perry; again, a vital part of the agricultural mix and a source of both income and pleasurable personal consumption.

In conclusion: The Commonplace Book of John Gwin of Llangwm is a treasure trove of historical source material and a testament to the scholarly efforts of its modern-day editors. It offers a direct and very personal glimpse into the cares, concerns and matters of personal importance to people who lived through the period before, during and immediately following the chaos of the English Civil War.

The fact that some of those matters of personal importance included the grafting and planting of fruit trees offers me – and anyone who shares my own interest in orchards historical and modern – a sense of common interest and common purpose with people whose lives were so vastly different to our own. Fellow orchardists, separated by the centuries but united by a love of the trees we care for.

The Commonplace Book of John Gwin of Llangwm
, ed. Madeleine Gray, Tony Hopkins and Alun Withey, South Wales Record Society (2022)

The Commonplace Book of John Gwin of Llangwm, ed. Madeleine Gray, Tony Hopkins and Alun Withey is published by the South Wales Record Society, (r.r.p. £18.00). You can order a copy direct from the publisher and it may also be available from some independent high street and/or online booksellers.


1 Around £290 in today’s money.
2 According to Wiktionary, 'frith' could denote woodland, or a hedgerow, or "Land with mostly undergrowth and few trees; also, land in between forests or woods; pastureland which is not in use."
3 John Parkinson lists the ‘Catherine peare’, ‘King Catherine’ and ‘Russet Catherine’ in Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629)
4 Most sources suggest the ‘Redstrake’, later ‘Redstreak’ or ‘Red-streak’, was discovered growing as a seedling and then widely dispersed across Herefordshire and neighbouring counties by John, 1st Lord Scudamore, Viscount Sligo of Hom (now Holme) Lacy, in nearby Hereford from, probably from the mind 1640s onwards. Several mentions in the Commonplace Book show that it had definitely reached Monmouthshire by 1672 as it was repeatedly grafted or planted by John Gwin that year.
5 The ‘queene’, ‘queening’ or ‘quoining’ class of apples were mentioned in various texts of the same era, such as the ‘Queene apple’ and ‘Bastard Queene apple’ of John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629), the ‘Queen apple’ of Ralph Austen’s A Treatise of Fruit-Trees : Shewing the Manner of Grafting, Planting, Pruning and Ordering of them in All Respects (1653, 2nd edtn 1657), and the ‘Bardfield Queening’ of John Rea’s Flora: Seu de Florum Cultura (1665).
6 Via Charles Martell in the glossary: a now critically rare, small, round perry pear.
7 The village or small town of Dursley lies between Gloucester and Bristol, so this seems like a very likely source of this particular name.
8 This could perhaps be another name for a crab apple? Or, perhaps more likely, it’s a reference to the size of the fruit, as the entry describes them as “very greate ones, ay varie lardge”.
9 The “Abey” in question was nearby Tintern Abbey, which would already have been a ruin in Gwin’s day, following its dissolution in Henry VIII’s rein over 130 years earlier. The name of the pear suggests that either there was still a viable orchard there, or there was a tradition that the pear in question had originally come from the orchard at Tintern.
10 Per the glossary, most likely a pear that ripens around Michaelmas at the end of September.
11 A footnote suggests this might be the ‘St Rule’ pear, or possible just a long-shaped ‘roller’ pear.
12 Meaning ‘ten Hogshead’, so named due to its productivity, as noted by Gwin: “on[e] tree did make at once X hogsedes”.
13 ’Must’ could be a term related to cider, suggesting a cider apple.
14 According to the glossary this could be a version of ‘pearjaune’.
15 This could be an ‘Orleans’ apple, possibly an ‘Orleans’ variety. Or, as I put suggested to Madeliene Gray, in the same way that ‘grinlin’ could mean ‘greening’, then perhaps ‘orlin’ could mean ‘golding’, or ‘golden pippin’? The ‘or’ syllable was and is still used to denote gold in heraldry, and the ‘golden pippin’ was a very popular apple of the time. The editors very kindly included this suggestion in the glossary.

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