The year following William’s birth in 1844, was the first year of the failure of the potato crop in Ireland and parts of the west of Scotland. The potatoes grew normally and produced a crop — but before they were harvested the foliage was attacked by a fungus, commonly called blight. The warm, moist conditions that favoured the growing of potatoes were also the conditions in which blight thrived. The fungus caused the potato tubers to rot in storage, resulting in the terrible famine in communities for whom the potato was their staple food. So William was born into a community in which the fear of further attacks of blight was ever present. Other problems had specific names: blight was known simply as ‘the disease’. Before the true cause of blight was identified, farmers hoped that it might be possible to breed new potato varieties that were resistant to attack.
William started experimenting with hybridising potatoes in the early 1870s. Producing a new variety by crossing two existing varieties required an understanding of the biology of the plants, care in planning and making the cross pollination, good record keeping and patience while waiting for several years to see if the cross had resulted in any new varieties worth keeping.
The breeder had to select two varieties as the parents, which had strengths that might come together to make a worthwhile new variety. The flowers had to be protected from any transfer of pollen by insects before the breeder had carried out his pollination. The resulting seed, which in the case of potatoes, looks like a tomato, had to be dried and stored for planting the next year. Each of the seeds would produce a plant with different characteristics, just as siblings in a family are different. The breeder rejected any that were poor, keeping the tubers of the better plants. These were planted the next year and so the process of planting, assessing, rejecting the poor and keeping the best went on for 5 years until the breeder believed that there was one worth keeping — or perhaps there were none of sufficient quality to keep. Accurate record keeping and careful storage were essential throughout the period.
William produced several new potatoes between 1886 and 1916, which were good enough to be sent to trials of new varieties at the Royal Horticultural Society. The best of these, and the variety for which William is well known, was Duke of York, introduced in 1891 by the seed merchant Daniels Brothers of Norfolk. William gave away his new potato and did not make any money from its success. Duke of York received the Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. Duke of York was widely grown commercially as an early variety in UK and many other countries but by 1940 it had become overtaken by new, higher yielding varieties. It is still grown on small farms and by gardeners and is particularly valued for its flavour. Two variants of the original white-skinned potato appeared in cultivation. These have red and pink skins.
William also bred new varieties of peas: Saccharine, Honeydew, Red Cross and Queen Mary. He sent these to trials at the Royal Horticultural Society and Saccharine and Honeydew received the Award of Merit. In 1916, it is recorded that: “Some of the finest peas now selling in the country were originally produced at Gourdas'”. William sold some of his peas to a seedsman — but which company and do any records still exist?