The Hidden Horticulturists: The Untold Story of the Men Who Shaped Britain’s Gardens by Fiona Davison - review by Tim Richardson

Tim Richardson

A Raker’s Progress

The Hidden Horticulturists: The Untold Story of the Men Who Shaped Britain’s Gardens


Atlantic Books 352pp £25 order from our bookshop

When, in 2011, David Cameron included gardening in a list of low-skilled, manual jobs, alongside street-sweeping, he touched a nerve among professional horticulturists. As a columnist at the time on a trade journal, I attacked the assumption, and Alan Titchmarsh followed up elsewhere, though no apology was expected or given. The slight is still widely remembered. Gardeners are understandably sensitive: most of them spend years at college learning this strange craft, which involves both art and science, with the weather always present as a kind of capricious boss, destroying as well as creating. Yet because they work outside in all conditions, and with their hands, gardeners are often thought of as unintelligent or somehow fit for nothing else. The truth is rather different: gardeners at the top of their profession are among the most impressive and creative people you are likely to meet. This book – the first by Fiona Davison, chief librarian at the Royal Horticultural Society – tells the story of a cadre of promising young men who qualified as gardeners in the early 19th century. Some met with success; others bumbled along and were then lost to posterity; a few went spectacularly downhill and ended up in prison or the workhouse. What is refreshing is that nearly all the names unearthed will be unfamiliar, even to garden historians.

The starting point for Davison’s quest was a cardboard box that she found on a high shelf in her office after taking up her post. In that box was a modest cardboard-fronted notebook labelled ‘Handwriting Book’, in which she found 105 handwritten entries from 1822 to 1829, all provided by gardeners who had successfully applied to work at the garden of the Horticultural Society (‘Royal’ came later) at Chiswick. This was a sort of training establishment: the recruits comprised only the most talented young men in the horticultural profession; a third of them at the time came from Scotland (George Eliot once remarked, ‘A gardener is Scotch as a French teacher is Parisian’). Most of these gardeners had left school aged fourteen or fifteen, but they were all capable of writing what we would now call their CVs in a neat copperplate hand. Typically they were in their early twenties when they came to Chiswick and had been recommended by an employer or by a representative of the Horticultural Society, having shown themselves to be more than usually capable at the big houses where they had worked. Standards at Chiswick were high: the great Victorian horticultural journalist John Claudius Loudon observed that a ‘gentleman’s gardener’ should ‘not only be a good practical botanist, but possess some knowledge of chemistry, mechanics and even the principles of taste’. He had to have good reading skills and know how to conduct himself among ‘the quality’.

Since they contain only the barest biographical details, the handwritten entries are not particularly interesting in themselves, which is perhaps why the notebook languished unregarded for so long. But Davison has conducted deep research into the later careers of most of these gardeners, discovering what happened to them after they left Chiswick. The result is a revealing insight into the lives of aspiring working men in this period.

One gardener stands out – because he became the most famous head gardener the world has ever seen. Joseph Paxton enrolled at Chiswick in 1823. Three years later he met the sixth Duke of Devonshire while he was working there (the duke had a key for the door that connected the garden with his own at Chiswick House). The duke invited him to work at Chatsworth, where he became head gardener. This was only the beginning: Paxton later created the Crystal Palace and became rich in his own right as an early investor in the railways. Davison reveals that in his application to work at Chiswick, Paxton claimed to be two years older than he was to hide the fact that he had left school at just thirteen to become a gardener’s boy. We also learn that even as head gardener at Chiswick, Paxton remained very much a servant, on one occasion being commanded to procure a set of billiard balls at short notice.

In the 19th century the horticultural profession could be the springboard to an international career. The Horticultural Society sent plant hunters to exotic climes – the most famous being David Douglas of ‘Douglas fir’ fame. This was dangerous work: of the six plant hunters dispatched in this period, only three came back, and Douglas was not one of them. Marginally safer was the option of taking up a post in a colonial botanical garden or at the palace of a potentate. The latter option was chosen by James Traill, who travelled to Cairo in 1829 to work for Ibrahim Pasha at his palace on the island of Roda, on the Nile. There, Traill made an ‘English garden’ of temples, a grotto, lawns and a Chinese bridge that became a must-see for visitors. He ended up with a staff of over two hundred, which was more even than Paxton had at Chiswick.

Most of the gardeners who graduated from Chiswick stayed in Britain, working at large estates (‘gardening on an almost industrial scale’, as the author neatly puts it), or at the new villas built in places like St John’s Wood, or casually. The most affectionate pen portrait here is of the apple specialist Robert Thompson. A modest and retiring man, Thompson spent his life describing apple varieties and recommending the best – Ribston Pippin, Blenheim Orange – to professional colleagues. A contemporary at Chiswick, James Barnet, also a fruit specialist, was a rather different character. He was eventually dismissed from the garden of the Royal Caledonian Society, which he then vandalised in a fit of rage.

This brings us to the nether regions of the book: the miscreants. There are only a handful of these, but in context their misdemeanours seem startling, ranging from simple laziness, negligence and
dissent to vandalism, theft and violence. The denouement of the book concerns the discovery of a theft of seeds from the Chiswick garden. In 1828, a London seedsman received an anonymous letter offering a consignment of the seeds of rare plants. Immediately suspicious, he passed the note to a Bow Street Runner named William Ballard. After comparing the letter with the entries in the ‘Handwriting Book’, he deduced that the culprit was one John Wood, who had trained at Chiswick. Wood was by then working at the upmarket Knight’s Exotic Nursery in Chelsea, and when his lodgings there were raided, the seeds were found under his bed.

This was not exactly the crime of the century, and Davison seems relieved that Wood received only three months’ imprisonment. Thereafter, he disappeared from view completely, his fate at the opposite end of the spectrum to that of his illustrious contemporary Joseph Paxton, billiard balls notwithstanding.

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