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A guest post by LH Member Val Bott, @BottValbott.

Review: The Hidden Horticulturists by Fiona Davison.

hidden Horticulturists coverWhen the Horticultural Society’s Chiswick Garden closed in 1904, greenhouses, fixtures and fittings and plants were moved to Wisley. Amongst the items taken from Chiswick was a modest volume labelled The Handwriting of Under-Gardeners and Labourers. Soon after she became Librarian at the Lindley Library, Fiona Davison came across this in the stores there; its record of 105 young men who had been selected as trainees in the Chiswick Garden in a six year period starting in 1822 set her off on a significant piece of research.

The Society began offering training to raise horticultural standards nationally and the young trainees had succeeded in a very competitive selection process. Each wrote in the book in his own hand a short CV, all covering similar ground; often they were the sons of gardeners or had worked on estate gardens, sometimes both. Each recorded his horticultural experience, the name of the person who had recommended him (usually a Fellow of the Society). This demonstrated his literacy and the fact that he fulfilled the eligibility criteria for admission. Most were young men from England and Scotland but a few came from abroad.

Using this apparently modest and limited source Fiona Davison has traced the life stories of 32 of the apprentices to introduce to her readers. Using the clues offered by the entries in the Handwriting Book, she has asked many questions of the sources. While one was the famous Joseph Paxton, much less was known about others and some had rather lowly lives in comparison. From my own research into 18th century gardeners I am aware how difficult it can be to trace the lives of such individuals and, while she had the advantage of additional sources, like the Census and local newspapers in the 19th century, I can see how hard the author has persisted with her inquiries over three years of spare time research to bring us this book!

She has grouped them according to types of experience, from “The Horticultural Elite”, through the “Deserving Men” lower down the horticultural ladder and “Fruit Experts”, to “Criminals in the Garden”. She writes sensitively and almost affectionately about the young men’s experiences at the Chiswick Garden, describes their successes and failures, traces their future careers, as gardeners on large estates, as plant hunters on the other side of the world or as nursery gardeners some of whom had little business acumen.

Many of the trainees went on to have the kind of lives which would not ordinarily have attracted a biographer, though others left their mark on significant gardens which have survived. Nevertheless the narrative is surprisingly rich because it provides the context offered by their family histories and their horticultural activities in a variety of locations in the UK and abroad. Correspondence and press reports show the difficulties encountered by men who went to Egypt, Ceylon, Australia and South America; some were caught up in difficulties in far-flung colonies or became ill in hostile climates.

The records of the Old Bailey reveal the foolishness of young men caught out selling stolen seeds. But she found in the archives evidence of Joseph Sabine’s poor management of the Chiswick Garden and his failure to spot embezzlement by a protegé which led to serious financial difficulties for the Horticultural Society. So stealing seeds may have been an act of desperation for the men involved, when the Society cut labourers’ wages from 14 to 12 shillings a week and the pay of the under-gardeners from 18 to 14 shillings weekly.

This makes for a thoroughly readable book full of good stories about real people; its glimpses of 19th century history will have a wider a wider appeal than pure garden history. Though attractively designed with rich colour plates, its only shortcoming is the fact that a few of the black and white images in the text are rather grey. However, I am already thinking of the friends for whom it will make an excellent gift!

An RHS exhibition about the Hidden Horticulturists at the Lindley Library runs until 6 May.


The Hidden Horticulturists, Fiona Davison, Atlantic Books/Royal Horticultural Society
published 4 April 2019, £25.00 cover price.


Val Bott. Some of Val Bott ‘s research on gardening history can be seen on nurserygardeners.com. She is the Editor of the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal.

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