David SD Jones takes a look at what life was like working as a gardener for a wealthy family
As spring sets in, the greenfingered among us like to be out in our gardens. But for many of our ancestors gardening was a job, not a hobby. Gardeners have been employed to grow vegetables, herbs and flowers at country houses, stately homes and royal residences since Tudor times. Over the ensuing centuries gardening gradually evolved from being a relatively menial job into a highly skilled profession embracing flower and vegetable gardening, the propagation of exotic fruits and plants in heated greenhouses, and landscape maintenance. Teams of skilled and semi-skilled men usually undertook the more specialised tasks while women and labourers were hired on a casual basis during busy periods to weed, pick stones and rake leaves.
From the late Georgian period onwards, employing a large staff of gardeners was a symbol of prestige and landowners competed to have the most expensively laid-out garden. By the early Victorian era villa residences in the newly laid-out suburbs on the edges of towns and cities were surrounded by relatively large gardens, many of which covered several acres and boasted a conservatory. So it’s no wonder that there was an insatiable demand for gardeners of all grades.
Traditionally a gardener began his career as a garden boy helping members of the gardening team with their day-to-day duties, as well as carrying out menial tasks such as weeding, raking paths, washing flowerpots, cleaning tools and stoking the various boilers used to heat the frames and greenhouses. If employed on a country estate, he would usually be the son or nephew of a gardener, the son of an estate worker or a village lad from a respectable family. In the years before state education it was not uncommon for boys as young as 10 to be recruited to work in a garden.
Jobs for the boys
Some of the more progressive estates and prestigious commercial nurseries engaged apprentices, on an indentured or an informal basis for varying terms of years. Under this system boys with above-average ability received an elementary education in land surveying, botany and other relevant subjects, and were given a good grounding in all branches of horticulture working alongside experienced men in the various gardens on a country estate. This enabled them to be fast-tracked to a more senior position.
Most gardeners, however, spent about two years as a garden boy before progressing to under-gardener, a job that involved digging and trenching, hoeing, manuring, mowing lawns, mixing compost, watering and other laborious tasks. Having served for two or three years as an under-gardener, a young man would move up the ladder to journeyman gardener, a position that enabled him to work on his own without supervision.
It was usual for a young man to take a journeyman gardener’s position on another property in order to broaden his experience. Now he began to specialise in a particular branch of gardening such as maintaining flower gardens, vegetable production or greenhouse propagation. He might be employed in this capacity on a number of estates, often for stints lasting two years at a time, before taking a foreman gardener’s job at a large stately home, becoming a senior hand in the gardens at a small country house or working as a single-handed gardener to a middleclass household in a town or a city. The foreman gardener was responsible for looking after one of the garden sections on an estate such as the kitchen garden, the glasshouses or the pleasure grounds. He ranked immediately below the head gardener, and had his own staff. A successful foreman gardener eventually progressed to head gardener in a large suburban garden or on a country estate. Responsible for managing the gardens and pleasure grounds, he was accountable either to the owner or his land agent but would also report to the owner’s wife to discuss produce, flowers and pot plants required for the house. The head gardener spent much of his time undertaking administrative duties in the garden office, or walking around the gardens supervising staff and inspecting their work. On many properties he lived in a comfortable house within the garden’s complex.
Gardeners of all grades worked a 12-hour day during the 19th
It was not uncommon for boys as young as 10 to be recruited to work in a garden
and early 20th centuries, plus unpaid overtime. The working week ran from Monday to Saturday, but staff had to carry out watering, stoking greenhouse boilers and other necessary duties on a Sunday on a rota basis. Wages were lower than those paid to skilled industrial workers, with no holidays allowed apart from three annual ‘feast’ days. For example during the mid-Victorian period a garden boy might earn 3–4s per week and a journeyman gardener 10–14s; a blacksmith or a carpenter could expect to be paid 25–30s weekly. Gardeners did benefit from free housing though; cottages were provided for married men, while hostel-type accommodation in a purpose-built house with dormitories known as a bothy was available for unmarried staff.
The heyday of the gardener both on country estates and at large suburban residences ran from the middle of the 19th century until the outbreak of the First World War, with large numbers of men employed on properties throughout the country. The 2nd Duke of Westminster, for example, retained a head gardener and 45 other gardeners of various grades at Eaton Hall in Cheshire to look after 100 acres. Even town gardens owned by prosperous businessmen and professionals had a staff of two or three men to maintain their five or six acres.
Hordes of gardeners enlisted when war was declared. Some gardens were given over to vegetable production and cultivated by old men, children and Land Girls, while others were abandoned in their entirety. And when war ended a combination of high taxation and increased wage costs prevented most landowners and upper-middleclass suburban householders from restoring their gardens to their former glory. Many tried to ‘keep up appearances’ with two or three multi-purpose gardeners, employed part-time staff or used a gardener–handyman or chauffeur–gardener to carry out work ‘as and when’. However, the introduction of motor mowers and other early power tools, weedkillers, pesticides and fertilisers helped gardeners to work more efficiently.
Many gardeners also joined the services when the Second World War broke out in 1939. Some also went to work on farms, or combined their duties with Home Guard, Civil Defence or Auxiliary Fire Service activities. Large gardens in and around towns and cities were converted into allotments as part of the Government’s ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. Some derelict kitchen gardens on country estates were revitalised and converted into market gardens for vegetable production, too, in many instances by a former member of the gardening staff.
Gardening came into its own once again in the post-war era due mainly to a shortage of imported foodstuffs. Landowners and others employed gardeners to grow vegetables on a commercial basis in former country-house gardens. The emergence of heritage tourism created a need for gardeners as well, both in the private sector and at properties owned by public bodies. In addition many affluent people in towns and villages hired gardeners to maintain gardens ranging in size from several acres to little more than a backyard.
Records to dig up
Gardeners who were employed at country houses are usually mentioned in wages books, garden accounts and other estate records. On censuses they are sometimes referred to as “gardener (domestic)” instead of “gardener”, especially if working on suburban properties. Head gardeners are occasionally listed in trade directories, and can also feature in landowners’ autobiographies and histories of stately homes.
Gardeners on Scottish estates during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods were often expected to wear a kilt at work, and received a ‘kilt allowance’ to compensate for the discomfort suffered from midge bites.
This gardener was photographed in 1912, when the profession was booming
This gardener at a large country house may have specialised in vegetable production