Tenbury Wells may have the only specialist mistletoe market in Britain today but there were many others in the past. Almost every market town in the mistletoe-rich parts of Worcestershire and Herefordshire played a role at one time, particularly from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The Victorian passion for the kissing custom combined with the new easy transport by railways led to a huge trade.
To get a feel for the trade at that time it is worth reading the account by Dr H.G. Bull, who investigated the trade in Herefordshire for a mistletoe research paper* in 1864:
The Mistletoe has now actually become an established export from this County, and there perhaps never was a year when so many people rejoiced in its presence at their Christmas festivities as during that which has just passed. Through the politeness of the Traffic Managers for the Great Western, and London and North Western Railways at Hereford (Messrs. Wall and Cartwright), I am enabled to give you an approximation towards the correct return of the quantity of Mistletoe actually sent out of this County last December. The exact returns are as follows:
making a total of eighty-nine tons, three hundred weight, and three quarters, actually sent off by invoice. But the guards and engine-drivers had the privilege of exporting Mistletoe on their own account, and did so by almost every train that left the County during the early part of December. An immense quantity went off in this way, and I am told that I greatly under-estimate it, when I put it down at 25 tons in addition—thus making a grand total of more than one hundred and fourteen tons.
The places to which it was chiefly sent were Manchester and Liverpool, for their supply, and that of Towns further north, London and Birmingham.
The established price paid for it, when delivered at the stations, was from four to five shillings per cwt. according to its condition ; and the average rate of charge for the transit was about thirty shillings per ton; so that the whole expense of delivery may be said to be from five to six pounds ten shillings per ton. I have purposely given you all these details; they are distinctive of the age in which we live. It is a practical, commercial, unpoetical period, when trains will wait for neither the peer nor the peasant; and when common-place railway trucks carry off romance—in the shape of Mistletoe—at so much per ton!
If Dr Bull thought these commercial practices ‘unpoetical’ and characteristic of the age in which he lived he would be astonished – horrified possibly – by today’s commercial practices, with our ‘just-in-time’ supply chains, speed of transport and, not least, increasingly dominant online commerce.
For adjoining Worcestershire Dr Bull quotes an account from a colleague, Mr J. S. Haywood of Worcester, describing the mistletoe trade at the market in that city. He says:
Many people would be greatly amazed, were they to stand on Worcester bridge for a short time, any Market day a few weeks before Christmas, from about six to nine o’clock in the morning. They would see vehicles of every description, from the largest waggon down to the donkey cart and wheel-barrow, loaded as high as can be piled with the “hallowed mirth-inspiring Mistletoe.”
All this is eagerly bought up by men called ‘Badgers,’ who pack it in casks or crates, and send it off to decorate the houses of our neighbours in Manchester, Liverpool, &c. I have made enquiry of the Badgers, and they say the price of Mistletoe is about £4 per ton, and that upwards of 100 tons are annually sent from Worcester.
The term ‘Badger’ in this context is not, of course!, the animal, but an old name for a trader, specifically a type of dealer who buys goods in one place and transports the goods for sale, at a profit, in another place. Note that the value quoted to Haywood by the Badgers is already higher than the values Bull was quoted.
This is exactly what most of the buyers at the Tenbury mistletoe sales still do every season – buying wholesale at Tenbury to transport elsewhere and sell retail at a profit. All the Tenbury buyers must therefore be ‘Badgers’. Here’s a picture of a recent Tenbury Badger making off with his goods.
*Bull H G 1864 The Mistletoe in Herefordshire Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists Field Club, 5, 59-108.