GAR­DEN­ING KIN

David SD Jones takes a look at what life was like work­ing as a gar­dener for a wealthy fam­ily

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - David SD Jones is an ar­chiv­ist for the Na­tional Game­keep­ers’ Or­gan­i­sa­tion and wrote Ser­vants of the Lord (Quiller, 2017)

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.

Growth in­dus­try

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

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