When John Wortley moved to Lambe’s fruit farm at Bolton Hill, Moone in 1957 there were 55 acres under fruit. This was to increase under his management to 175 acres, and raspberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, redcurrants and apples provided the basis for many full-time and part-time jobs during the economic hard times of those years. I remember the lorries which left Emily Square in the early hours of the summer mornings bringing the fruit pickers to Bolton Hill. But for my early morning duties as a Mass server I would not have expected to have shared such early hours with the good women and youngsters who clambered up on the lorries for the short journey to the fruit farm. During the six weeks of the fruit picking season which coincided with the school holidays, upwards of 500 young boys and girls were employed at the Bolton Hill Fruit Farm. “The youngsters were the best pickers” says John, while the older women from Athy, Carlow and Castledermot made up the majority of the full-time staff on the farm.
John recalls some of those wonderful hard-working women from forty years ago. Teresa Roycroft, Nellie Fennell and her sister Mrs. Casey, Mrs. Brennan, Lilly Moore, “Nonie” Kelly, Mrs. McFadden, Josie Burke and Maggie Robinson to mention but a few. They all gathered in the town square in time to catch the 7.30am lorry to Bolton Hill where they started work at 8.00am, finishing at 6.00pm in the evening. The O’Keeffe’s including Mick, John Joe, Eamon and Tony were the drivers employed by Lambes, both on and off the fruit farm. In his early years on the job John failed to understand the difficulties that can arise when county allegiances come to the fore. On one such occasion the Athy women and the women from Carlow came to blows. The occasion was marked by the use of sturdy wooden fruit boxes as weapons by both sides in a futile attempt to batter their opponents into submission. Peace was eventually restored and thereafter only guaranteed so long as the battling women were kept apart. This was achieved by judiciously allocating each group to pick fruit in different and well separated areas of the farm.
In the late 1950’s Lambe Brothers required more and more fruit for their jam- manufacturing process, and sought to extend strawberry growing into the south east of Ireland. John toured County Wexford with a local horticultural adviser on a strawberry-growing mission but got little or no co-operation from the local farmers. Only one Clonroche-based farmer took up the offer and his immediate success in growing strawberries soon encouraged many others to get involved, in time creating the phenomenal success story which is the current Wexford Strawberry industry.
Barleyhill Farm was originally owned by Johnny Moran who sold it to Lambe Brothers in or about 1942 and Johnny then took on the job of farm manager. He was replaced 12 years later by John Wortley. The other Lambe Fruit Farm at Fontstown was purchased around the same time from Mr. Goodwin [Snr.] and was managed by Alo Lawler and later still by his son Dermot.
John Wortley retired on the last day of 1977, moving with his family to the Fontstown Farm where they lived for two years in the mews house. From there he started his landscaping business which was to occupy him for the next twelve years. His first landscaping contract was with the Marine Hotel in Sutton Cross in Dublin where after six weeks work he found himself with a profit of only £6.00. It was for him a valuable if expensive lesson in costing and estimating, but a lesson he would never forget. The Wortley family moved to Oldcourt in 1980 where John built a house in a field purchased from local farmer Jimmy Livingstone. At that time John was involved in producing wood carvings which he is quick to point out are all hand carved and owe nothing to the lathe. He has been working in wood since the mid-1970’s, having earlier executed stone carvings when he worked and lived in the English Cotswolds.
John’s success as a wood carver has seen his work included in art exhibitions throughout the region. His reproductions in different types of wood of the Irish fauna is particularly striking, and is a big favourite with the many persons who over the years have acquired examples of John’s work. Now retired from landscaping and gardening, John, at 84 years of age continues to produce wood carvings, while indulging in his other hobby of breeding and showing prized poultry.
John whose parents were members of the Plymouth Brethern describes himself as a non-conformist. I was particularly interested to hear of his connection with the Plymouth Brethern founded by John Nelson Darby, a one time associate of Athy man Reverend Thomas Kelly of Kellyite fame. John’s un-prepossessing manner belies a wealth of experience on farms as far apart as Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire and Greenstone Point in the west of the Scottish Highlands. The farmer cum artist has spent 47 years in south Kildare, more years than he spent in his native country and by his pleasant and gentlemanly manner has endeared himself to everyone fortunate enough to have met him over the years.