Gar­den­ing so­ci­eties

Putting down roots for over 150 y years

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - Bill Laws

Af­ter the cus­tom­ary ban­ter about poor weather, in­dif­fer­ent blooms and unco-op­er­a­tive veg­eta­bles, the guest speaker’s pro­jec­tor whirrs into ac­tion, the lights are dimmed and the gar­den club’s au­tumn pro­gramme be­gins.

Gar­den­ing clubs have been meet­ing for at least a cen­tury-and-a-half. In 1865, the Glouces­ter Jour­nal re­ported on the found­ing of one such so­ci­ety: “Nine years ago the much-beloved Rev Cor­nelius Witherby set on foot a move­ment which was very soon dis­tin­guished as ‘The Bream Cot­tage Gar­den­ers’ So­ci­ety’.” Ian Hendy is au­thor of Un­earthed: The His­tory of Bream

Flower Show and said of Bream Cot­tage Gar­den So­ci­ety: “The So­ci­ety was never ex­pected to last – even in 1877 it was de­scribed as ‘a hope­less un­der­tak­ing’ – and yet thanks to an al­most Churchillian cussed­ness, it’s still go­ing to­day.”

Thirty years be­fore Bream’s found­ing, the Vic­to­rian gar­den writer John Claudius Loudon com­mended what he called ‘Pro­vin­cial Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­eties’ for their in­for­ma­tive al­manacs, spon­sor­ship of cer­tain plant hunts and an­nual shows. He put it suc­cinctly in the En­cy­clo­pe­dia of

Gar­den­ing: “The ten­dency of th­ese so­ci­eties is to dif­fuse gen­er­ally a taste for gar­den­ing, which may truly be called one of the most agree­able and hu­man­is­ing of pur­suits.”

There are no records of Ro­mano-Bri­tish villa own­ers or earnest Fran­cis­can fri­ars reg­u­larly con­ven­ing to “dif­fuse a taste for gar­den­ing”, but, ac­cord­ing to Loudon, gar­den­ers had started for­mal meet­ings in the 17th cen­tury. At the time, they were con­cerned that “mere labour­ers and other un­qual­i­fied per­sons” were pass­ing them­selves off as pro­fes­sional gar­den­ers and threat­en­ing “great in­jury to the no­bil­ity’s and gen­try’s gar­dens and plan­ta­tions”.

Yet the am­a­teur gar­dener, like the

Gar­den­ing clubs have been meet­ing for at least a cen­tury-and-a-half

am­a­teur nat­u­ral­ist, had much to con­trib­ute to the grow­ing sci­ence of horticulture, es­pe­cially in the early 1700s. This was a time when the for­mal, Con­ti­nen­tal-style gar­den was giv­ing way to more ro­man­tic, nat­u­ral­is­tic land­scap­ing. The new de­sign­ers were men such as Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown and Wil­liam Kent who ac­cord­ing to Ho­race Walpole, “leapt the fence and saw all Na­ture was a gar­den”.

Philip Miller (1691-1771), gar­dener to the Wor­ship­ful Com­pany of Apothe­caries at Chelsea Botanic Gar­den, was also sec­re­tary of the So­ci­ety of Gar­den­ers. Stim­u­lated by the in­tro­duc­tion of new plants from the Amer­i­cas and the East, this group would even­tu­ally meta­mor­phose into the Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety (RHS).

As an am­a­teur gar­dener and nat­u­ral­ist, the par­son Gil­bert White (1720-1793) strad­dled both dis­ci­plines and was the au­thor of the Nat­u­ral His­tory of Sel­borne and Gar­den Kal­en­dar.

White gave up his Kal­en­dar in 1771 just as sev­eral new clubs or ‘ lodges’ were be­ing founded. Their aim, ex­plained gar­den mag­a­zine editor John Loudon, was to pro­vide mem­bers with mu­tual in­struc­tion in the art of gar­den­ing both by “se­cret in­struc­tions, and also by com­peti­tory ex­hi­bi­tions of gar­den pro­duc­tions, such as flow­ers and fruits”. The lodges raised an an­nual sub­scrip­tion to meet ex­penses and pro­vide funds for “brethren in dis­tress”. They also, some­what mys­te­ri­ously, op­er­ated a kind of se­cret so­ci­ety, as­sist­ing mem­bers trav­el­ling from one area to an­other, re­marks Loudon, “by way of signs and pass­words as in Ma­sonry”.

In Scot­land, there was a Solomon’s Lodge at Banff, an Adam’s Lodge in Aberdeen and a Cale­do­nia Lodge in Ed­in­burgh, its meet­ings, noted Loudon, be­ing “re­spectable, their pro­ces­sions pompous, and their funds con­sid­er­able”. An Adam’s Lodge was founded in Lon­don in June 1781 and boasted 150 mem­bers by 1823, al­though it had ceased to ex­ist a decade later. It was in Lon­don, too, that an early florists’ so­ci­ety was es­tab­lished. Its lead­ing light was said to be a Mr Davey of King’s Road, Chelsea, and it con­ducted an­nual florists’ feasts to show­case mem­bers’ prize blooms.

By the 1830s, Loudon con­cluded that: “The prin­ci­pal mod­ern so­ci­eties for the en­cour­age­ment of gar­den­ing are the Lon­don and Cale­do­nian hor­ti­cul­tural so­ci­eties.”

The Vic­to­ri­ans were also wit­ness­ing a bur­geon­ing of en­thu­si­as­tic ‘villa’ gar­den­ers. They were soon es­tab­lish­ing their own gar­den so­ci­eties and pub­lish­ing their “sum­mary of pro­ceed­ings” in the lo­cal press and in the in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar

Gar­dener’s Mag­a­zine (see Per­sonal File on Shirley Hib­berd).

Ian Hendy adds: “Fol­low­ing the found­ing of the Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety in 1804 and its Scot­tish equiv­a­lent in 1809, pro­vin­cial so­ci­eties spread from th­ese cap­i­tal pi­o­neers. Saf­fron Walden Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety be­gan in 1819, Manch­ester in 1827 and the move­ment even reached the is­land of Jersey by 1833.”

Con­sti­tuted like the for­mer hor­ti­cul­tural lodges ( but pre­sum­ably with­out Ma­sonic signs or strange hand­shakes) their aims sound dis­tinctly pa­ter­nal­is­tic to­day as re­ported in this breath­less piece of jour­nal­ism from the Worces­ter Jour­nal for July 1850: “The first ex­hi­bi­tion of the [Malvern Hor­ti­cul­tural and Flo­ral So­ci­ety], es­tab­lished a short time since by the praise­wor­thy ex­er­tions of the Rev T Dyson, was held on Thurs­day last. The orig­i­nal ob­ject of the So­ci­ety was the en­cour­age­ment of the cot­tagers of the neigh­bour­hood in habits of neat­ness and in­dus­try, for which pur­pose a sub­scrip­tion list was opened and a very hand­some sum speed­ily ob­tained to re­ward those cot­tagers whose dwellings and gar­dens should be deemed praise­wor­thy of com­men­da­tion.”

Malvern’s “hum­ble cot­tagers” were, by now, watch­ing a plethora of celebri­ties, in­clud­ing Lord Ten­nyson, Charles Dar­win,

The Vic­to­ri­ans were wit­ness­ing a bur­geon­ing of en­thu­si­as­tic ‘villa’ gar­den­ers

Florence Nightin­gale and Thomas Car­lyle among them, drop by to take the town’s cu­ra­tive spa wa­ters.

One of those ad­min­is­ter­ing the wa­ters was Dr James Gully who be­came a lead­ing light in Malvern’s new gar­den so­ci­ety.

“Dr Gully was the prin­ci­pal ex­hibitor in the flower depart­ment, and most richly de­serves the prizes awarded to him,” noted the Worces­ter Jour­nal. Gully left town in a hurry in 1876 af­ter be­ing im­pli­cated in a mur­der case.

Saf­fron Walden Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety in Es­sex was founded “for the en­cour­age­ment of horticulture, botany and agri­cul­ture” by Richard Neville, 3rd Baron Bray­brooke, an en­thu­si­as­tic ad­vo­cate for agri­cul­tural im­prove­ment and owner of one of the grand­est and largest houses in the land, Aud­ley End.

The prop­erty is now run by English Her­itage. Its 49 mem­bers paid a guinea each to join, the funds be­ing man­aged by no less than three trea­sur­ers, all of them bankers.

“It was a flour­ish­ing so­ci­ety in the early days,” re­ports John Bullen, a mem­ber of the cur­rent Saf­fron Walden Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety. “The an­nual shows were tremen­dous so­cial oc­ca­sions in which the wealthy paid a fee to come in early and the com­mon­ers were al­lowed in at a dis­counted rate later in the day.”

But it was Vic­to­rian cler­gy­man, rather than med­i­cal men or landown­ing ladies, who were most in­volved in the gar­den so­ci­ety move­ment.

Coun­try cler­gy­men tended to be well ed­u­cated and em­pa­thetic to­wards their poorer parish­ioners. Such a man was Rev John Henslow (1796-1861). A Cam­bridge scholar, he had been of­fered the po­si­tion of nat­u­ral­ist on board HMS Bea­gle, but in­stead nom­i­nated his pro­tégé, Charles Dar­win, in his place. Henslow was more in­ter­ested in the pas­toral care of the vil­lagers in Hitcham, Suf­folk. A pretty place, its streets lined with half-tim­bered houses, Hitcham nev­er­the­less had a high crime rate and du­bi­ous rep­u­ta­tion.

Henslow, said to be such a poor preacher that his con­gre­ga­tion scarcely amounted to more than a pew’s worth, was a prac­ti­cal man – he pro­vided 52 al­lot­ments on his prized glebe land for the poor and un­em­ployed.

The move star­tled landown­ers and em­ploy­erse who, at the next vestry meet­ing,m swore to boy­cott any labourer whow took an al­lot­ment. They ar­gued that,t given an al­lot­ment, most labour­ers wouldw steal their mas­ter’s seed and con­servec their en­er­gies dur­ing the day, ex xpend­ing them, self­ishly, on their al llot­ments in the evening.

The wise Mr Henslow stood his gr round and launched a flower and pr ro­duce show to which the great, the goodgo and the cot­tager were in­vited. The an­nual fruit and veg­etable show, al­ways a so­cial lev­eller, in­tro­duced a spirit of com­pet­i­tive con­vivi­al­ity to the on­cetrou­bled parish com­mu­nity.

Flower and pro­duce shows

Flower and pro­duce shows launched many a gar­den so­ci­ety. In July 1865, the Glouces­ter Jour­nal re­ported on the “phi­lan­thropy and kind­ness shown by the ven­er­a­ble pro­pri­etor of Lyd­ney Park, the Rev WH Bathurst”, who had thrown open his park gates to host a gar­den show. Gen­er­ously con­tribut­ing the “pro­duc­tions of his green­houses and con­ser­va­to­ries” and a large col­lec­tion of prizes, the cler­gy­man in­vited along not only the For­est of Dean Ri­fles Band, but also all the school­child­ren from Lyd­ney and neigh­bour­ing Ayl­bur­ton. Of the 80 prizes awarded that day, 60 were “use­ful ar­ti­cles for the ta­ble or gar­den – tea, blan­kets, tea ket­tles, arm­chairs and hand­saws” – for the cot­tagers and rather more el­e­gant teapots, fish knives, bri­dles, whips and tankards for their so­cial su­pe­ri­ors.

Two weeks later, nearby Bream hosted its own flower and pro­duce show. “There were sig­nif­i­cant signs of sim­i­lar­ity be­tween the two,” ex­plains Ian Hendy. Bream, a gritty lit­tle coalmin­ing com­mu­nity nes­tled down in the For­est of Dean, was very dif­fer­ent to high-so­ci­ety Malvern. As Ian Hendy de­scribes the town: “In the 1840s and 1850s, there were nu­mer­ous small pits in and around Bream, but in 1866-70 a deep shaft was sunk which was to lead to largescale coalmin­ing in the area.” The pop­u­la­tion quadru­pled

and the lo­cal min­ers put theirt weight be­hind both the vil­lage pro­duce show and gar­den so­ci­ety. They also drew up a list of 12 rules and pub­lished it as a poster in 1869. So­ci­ety mem­ber Roy Hav­i­land would later res­cue and pre­serve the orig­i­nal poster, found in a Monmouth junk shop. Rule X in­sisted: “No Gen­tle­man’s Gar­dener, or Mar­ket Gar­dener, is to com­pete for Prizes; they must only be per­mit­ted to ex­hibit as Hon­orary Mem­bers.”

As in Hitcham, the Bream show and gar­den so­ci­ety were ex­pectedd to bring so­cial har­mony to a parish once con­demned as “a dark place... in­hab­ited by a peo­ple lit­tle bet­ter than a horde of free-boot­ing ban­ditti”. An 1877 edi­tion of The Dean For­est

Guardian pre­dicted that the new so­ci­ety would stim­u­late “a love of the beau­ti­ful among a class of per­sons whose oc­cu­pa­tion and education seemed to have closed the door of ac­cess to... na­ture’s hand­i­work”.

Gar­den clubs also pro­duced some hor­ti­cul­tural he­roes. One was the sec­re­tary of the Ruh­leben Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety, Thomas Howat, who wrote to the Lon­don RHS in Septem­ber 1916 re­quest­ing for­mal af­fil­i­a­tion, but warn­ing that he might have a prob­lem pay­ing the sub­scrip­tion – Ruh­leben was in an in­tern­ment camp set be­hind en­emy lines.

At the out­break of the First World War, the Ger­man govern­ment had ar­rested all Bri­tish men aged be­tween 17 and 55 then in the coun­try. A to­tal of 4,000 de­tainees were shep­herded onto the 10-acre Ruh­leben race­course out­side Ber­lin and while Ger­man sol­diers pa­trolled the perime­ter, the camp was left to reg­u­late it­self.

The pris­on­ers set up their own camp mag­a­zine and es­tab­lished a clutch of sport­ing teams and clubs in­clud­ing the hor­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety.

The camp was a bar­ren place, dirty and li­able to flood­ing and Howat ex­plained in his let­ter of ap­pli­ca­tion that his so­ci­ety in­tended to “cul­ti­vate and beau­tify the ground around the bar­racks and pub­lic thor­ough­fares in the Lager, and to fur­ther the knowl­edge of horticulture”. The RHS ap­proved his ap­pli­ca­tion and sent seeds, bulbs and in­struc­tional gar­den­ing pam­phlets for the use of pris­on­ers, in­clud­ing men like David Tul­loch.

Tul­loch was a crofter’s boy from Spey­side who knew noth­ing about gar­den­ing. He had been at sea all his life and was serv­ing as en­gi­neer on board SS Ru­bis­law when war broke out and his ship was im­pounded.

Nev­er­the­less Tul­loch, with lit­tle else to do with his time, joined the gar­den so­ci­ety. Since its in­cep­tion, the club mem­ber­ship had risen from 50 to 943 and in the win­ter of 1916 the so­ci­ety or­gan­ised a se­ries of win­ter lec­tures. Cu­ri­ous, Tul­loch be­gan to at­tend and put what he learned into prac­tice on the gar­dens.

Af­ter the war ended, Ruh­leben was all but for­got­ten un­til the RHS ap­pealed for rel­a­tives’ sto­ries in 2014. David Tul­loch’s grand­daugh­ter, Doreen Black from Dun­blane in Scot­land called to re­port that her grand­fa­ther had re­turned safely from Ger­many. Thanks to his mem­ber­ship of the Ruh­leben Gar­den So­ci­ety, he had re­mained a keen gar­dener for the rest of his life. “Ev­ery­thing in his gar­den as ‘neat as nine pence,” as it were.

By the end of the 19th cen­tury, gar­den­ing had be­come a pop­u­lar hobby, as this 1890 photo shows

A va­ri­ety of bill posters from the 19th cen­tury for the Saf­fron Walden Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety

Bream Flower Show at the turn­tur of the 20th cen­tury. The For­est of Dean club is now 150 years old.

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