Putting down roots for over 150 y years
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.