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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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16156Book review by LH Member George Goodwin.
The Civil War in London by Robin Rowles
Pen & Sword, £12.99 152pp

As a reviewer it is well to declare an interest. Robin Rowles is both an active member of London Historians and a highly-qualified guide with a love of London’s history that easily communicates itself in conversation, as it did to me when we talked some months ago about the Civil War in London both as a topic in itself and as the subject of this book. So I can be forgiven for approaching the book with rose-tinted glasses.

Robin takes a somewhat old-fashioned approach and the book is none the worse for that. He is impeccable in the way that he credits his sources and the views of his fellow historians, and he ensures that those with only a limited understanding of the causes of the English Civil War have these background factors explained. He then tackles his subject thematically. I have one quibble with the structure of the book, addressed to its editor rather than its author, which is that it might have been better to have had some part of the penultimate chapter ‘London’s brave boys: the trained bands and the defence of London’ as the opening salvo.

There may not have been any fighting in London itself, but that was partly due to the impressive defensive measures taken by the City of London’s Common Council and to the role of the Trained Bands in repulsing the King’s army at the Battle of Turnham Green, then some miles to the west of the twin cities of Westminster and London. As Robin points out, the London units and their extremely effective commander Philip Skippon also played an exceptionally important role in the wider Civil War.

As to the meat of the book, Robin has a real insight into how the City was able to take on much of the machinery of national administration, with its networks of committees in some ways akin to those that would operate in Paris during the French Revolution. Their taking on this role being natural, due to the City’s long-established institutions and the ability of its governing Common Council to give overall direction.

The centuries-old financial importance of the City of London to the Monarchy was symbolised by the longstanding pre-coronation tradition of the monarch being escorted to the Tower through the City gates by the scarlet-clad Mayor and Aldermen of London. With a detailed knowledge of its Livery Companies, Robin shows how the Parliamentarians were able to utilise the City’s long-established means of financing the monarchy in order to back its citizen enemies. He also demonstrates how this change of loyalty had been made a great deal easier through King Charles’s assault on the City’s privileges during the ‘Eleven Years’ Tyranny’ not least through the Crown’s confiscation of the City’s Ulster plantation.

There are some intriguing details in the book to demonstrate that the City was far from universally solid in its support of Parliament, showing that some moderate Royalists were elected as Mayors during the mid-1640s before Charles’ resumption of hostilities in 1648 cut the ground from their feet, that is before Parliament was itself superseded by the army, with Skippon later becoming Cromwell’s Major General for the London area. The exceptional importance of religion in directing men towards either King or Parliament is affirmed and the means by which the Committee for Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry set about their task are well described. Women also have their moments: not least the 1643 march on Parliament by City women, with their demonstration against wartime taxation and higher food prices being met not by the MPs, who were taking cover inside, but by Dragoons, with the fatal consequences persuading seven peers to desert to the King.

Above all, the book takes you through the streets of the City and is good preparation for accompanying Robin on one of his London Civil War walks, which he lists with those on Sherlock Holmes and others on http://www.strollintime.co.uk/walks.htm


George Goodwin FRHistS is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father.

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Oh dear, I should have done this ahead of Christmas to help solve gift dilemmas. Never mind.

best books 2017
With notable increases both in membership and activities, book reading and reviewing suffered this year more than in 2016, which was very much a vintage year for London history books, I feel. But more of our members are stepping up to do reviews, an activity we’ll do our best to nurture in 2018 and beyond.

Short-listed are Peter Stone’s excellent The History of the Port of London; and Indigenous London by Coll Thrush whose early chapters knitted perfectly with this year’s Pocahontas 400th anniversary.

But our winner of London Historians book of the year is The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn by Margaret Willes, a wonderfully-balanced introduction to these very different Restoration diarists who were nonetheless best of friends. There is plenty here even for those who know these gentlemen well.

These and other good books which passed our desk during the year are here.

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Guest post by London Historians Member Caroline Swan.

main_9781445661117_1It’s a fairly common occurrence for builders to uncover disused burial grounds in London; it can feel as though the entire city is built on top of a vast graveyard. Many visitors and Londoners alike are fascinated by London’s multitude of burial grounds and London’s Hidden Burial Grounds will no doubt be of interest to those who have wondered where Londoners were laid to rest in the centuries before edge-of-town cemeteries and cremations became the norm.

Rather than focusing on London’s famous suburban Victorian cemeteries, such as Highgate and Kensal Green, Robert Bard and Adrian Miles take the reader on a journey through central London’s lost burial grounds, little patches of ground that today serve as parks or playgrounds, or have disappeared altogether. The authors clearly covered many miles whilst researching this book, visiting the featured sites and taking photographs, many of which are featured (in colour) in the book, alongside historic images and some wonderful photographs from the archives of Museum of London Archaeology.

This book draws extensively on two key nineteenth-century sources: Gatherings from Graveyards by George Alfred Walker (1839) and The London Burial Grounds by Isabella Holmes (1896). Both of these figures had an interest in improving the health of Londoners – Walker, a surgeon, wanted to see inner-city graveyards shut, as he was concerned that overcrowded burial grounds were the cause of high levels of disease and mortality in the areas surrounding them, while Holmes campaigned for disused cemeteries to be transformed into parks and playgrounds for the use of people with little access to outside space.

London’s Hidden Burial Grounds is divided into three main sections: “Plague Pits and Pest Fields,” “London’s Worst Nineteenth Century Burial Grounds,” and “Disused and Hidden Jewish Burial Grounds.” The chapter on plague pits and pesthouse grounds looks at sites from both of London’s famous plague outbreaks, in 1349 and 1665, as well as other sites of mass graves such as workhouse burying grounds. These sites are generally indistinguishable as burial grounds today – one of the featured burial grounds is now beneath a multi-story car park in Soho. Many of the Jewish burial grounds featured in the book’s final chapter are also hidden, but behind high walls and locked gates in unassuming corners of the East End.

The main part of the book is dedicated to the huge number of little churchyards and urban burial grounds that began to disappear during the nineteenth century. Many of the burial grounds used in London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were profit-making ventures run by often unscrupulous owners who crammed thousands of bodies into spaces that were nowhere near big enough. George Alfred Walker’s investigations helped to uncover the horrific practices going on in many of these places; the famous scandals of Spa Fields and the Enon Chapel are recounted here, along with accounts of churchyards literally overflowing with the dead. Bard and Walker also include an account of a woman thought to have died of cholera who, not actually dead, broke out of her coffin en route to burial in Southwark. The horrors of these overcrowded graveyards makes for grim but compelling reading – it is hard to imagine the sights and smells that Londoners must have been confronted with when visiting any of these places.

London’s Hidden Burial Grounds sheds light on the often-overlooked history of burials in London before the advent of the “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries and their successors, and makes for a great guide to central London’s forgotten cemeteries. It is superbly illustrated with colour photographs, while an extensive bibliography includes a wide range of titles for further reading. The use of archaeological reports adds another dimension to the story, providing physical evidence to back up the often-lurid Victorian accounts of overcrowded, squalid burial grounds. All in all, it makes one grateful that the persistence of the likes of George Alfred Walker paid off and that the people of London are no longer forced to bury their loved ones in such dreadful places.

London’s Hidden Burial Grounds by Robert Bard & Adrian Miles, is published by Amberley, 2017. Cover price is £14.99.

 

 

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Best London History Books of the Year 2016

For various reasons this year I didn’t get around to as much reading as I usually manage so have probably done someone an injustice of omission. However, our shortlist of favourite books of the year is as follows:

Benjamin Franklin in London by George Goodwin
Mr Barry’s War by Caroline Shenton
Curiocity by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose
Mansions of Misery by Jerry White
The Boss of Bethnal Green by Julian Woodford

Our winner of London Historians Book of the Year for 2016 is Curiocity by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose. Unconventional format compared with “regular” titles, but so utterly brilliant, we couldn’t not. Thank you Henry and Matt, and congratulations to everyone for such outstanding work.

Previous winners:
2011 Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun
2012 Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly
2013 Beastly London by Hannah Velten
2014 Played in London by Simon Inglis
2015 The Street of Wonderful Possibilities by Devon Cox

A tad late, but there are still four shopping days left till Christmas. Any one of these will get you brownie points on Sunday morning. Merry Christmas.

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When Middlesex had two members of parliament these seats were fought for at often boisterous elections which took place at the Butts in Brentford, today a tranquil estate comprising handsome town houses, a nunnery, the old Boatman’s Institute and other features of interest. Tucked away in a cul-de-sac nearby is an Aladdin’s cave of wonderful old books. Here is the home, office and HQ of long-standing London Historians member Hawk Norton, a talented book dealer who specialises in old London books.

I visit Hawk frequently for a coffee, a natter and to wallow in and marvel at his latest acquisitions. I’ve bought some real treasures from the bottom end of his price list: first editions of all H.V. Morton’s London output from the inter-war period: wonderful; a first edition of Nairn’s London, Ian Nairn’s 1966 masterpiece; other bits and pieces. I’ve held in my own hands a first edition of John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London. Holy Grail stuff.

At any given time, Hawk has over 3,500 books in his collection. Not only that, but also maps, illustrations and other London historical ephemera. All are for sale at great prices, universally under the market rate. Hawk numbers some of London’s leading and great historians among his customers.

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You’ll make somebody very happy this Christmas with something from Hawk’s list, especially if that somebody is you! Get his latest catalogue (PDF format) by emailing him on hawk@btinternet.com. He welcomes visitors by appointment.

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Review: Mr Barry’s War by Caroline Shenton.

mrbarryswar“What a chance for an architect,” exclaimed 39 year-old Charles Barry as he observed personally the 1834 fire which destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. This was the subject of Caroline Shenton’s previous award-winning book, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012).

And now the sequel. It’s all about how Barry won the bid to design and supervise the building of a new Parliament. Little did he know what troubles lay ahead, hence the title of this book, published today.

Sir Charles Barry was thoroughly a Westminster person, man and boy. Son of a local stationer, he was born a stone’s throw from the ancient parliament and the Abbey: he knew the area intimately. Orphaned at 10, he was raised by his stepmother and apprenticed to an architect’s practice. Substantial travel through Europe and the Near East combined with his natural talent turned him – by the mid 1830s – into one of the leading architects on the scene, a rising star. Sir John Soane by this time was on death’s door and Barry was clearly the superior of Robert Smirke, the man best positioned politically to win the job of rebuilding Parliament.

But it was decided to have a competition for the project. This involved the customary procedure of competitors submitting anonymous sealed designs. Barry won. His entry was Number 64 and his accompanying rebus – the diagram on all his drawings – was a distinctive portcullis with chains. This logo device featured heavily in the decor of the designs and eventually became the official logo of the Houses of Parliament to this day. That’s one of many interesting things I learned from this book and I shall try and keep further spoilers to a minimum.

From here, the narriative of Mr Barry’s War, takes us through the challenges, problems and obstacles that were the architect’s constant companions for the next 20 years and more. The first, and as it turned out probably the easiest, was about engineering. How to build an integrated four-storey estate with two massive towers on the swamp that was Thorney Island? Barry sorted this with brilliant common-sense solutions which worked but nonetheless drew criticism that he didn’t know what he was doing, it wouldn’t work etc. This was a taste of what was to come.

Barry’s problem and the main narrative of the book was to do with having over 1,000 masters: the MPs and Peers who waited impatiently for their new accommodation. He found himself answering to a great many of them in addition to corporate the strangely-named Office of Woods (which became the Office of Works late into the project), the Fine Arts Commission and over a hundred select committee enquiries. They meddled, they carped, they criticised. While royal visitors, heads of state, journalists, newspapers and the public were full of enthusiasm for the building; while RIBA presented Gold Medals and the queen bestowed a knighthood, many insiders were openly hostile to Barry (and indirectly, Pugin). For running over budget, for making alterations without informing anyone, and hundreds of other perceived shortcomings, large and small.

Much of the budget overspend and delay was entirely due to the demands of the critics themselves, but they didn’t see it that way. Barry did have supporters in Parliament, of course, otherwise he couldn’t possibly have won through. But his chief antagonists were Ralph Osborne MP and Joseph Hume MP, who never missed a chance to slight Barry in the House (but rarely outside). Then there was the ventilation expert, Dr Reid, appointed without Barry’s approval or reference. The Scotsman was responsible not only for ventilation, but also heating in winter. Unless the two men worked completely in harmony, delay and cost would escalate. They were barely on speaking terms throughout. Reid was eventually replaced, but too late.

In addition to all of this, the project encountered an all-out strike by the masons, the Great Stink of 1858. And managing Augustus Pugin.

Central to the story is, of course, the partnership of Barry and Pugin who largely uncredited and underpaid undertook most of the decor of the palace. Utterly reliant one on the other, the two in the main got on remarkably well considering their wholly contrasting personalities. Pugin was constantly fractious, lovelorn, angry and often emotional as the author demonstrates liberally with extracts from his letters to Barry, but more tellingly to his confidante and supplier John Hardman.

“I am almost wild… I will not go on as I have been – I will either give up altogether or I will not be the servant of a set of architects who get the jobs & leave me to do their keyholes.”

But Barry was always able to soothe the bruised Pugin with charm, flattery, kind words and fulsome praise – genuinely meant, one feels. But ultimately they both shared the same vision so completely that they were chained together, prisoners to the project, literally unto death. After a spell in Bedlam and other institutions, in poor Pugin’s case.

The historical backdrop to this story is also very influential of events. Chartism is at its height and organised labour is emerging (mason’s strike, above); railways have just arrived and London’s great termini are rising from the streets; the old regime under Wellington, Peel is leaving the stage as Gladstone and Distraeli begin to loom.

There are walk-on parts from many leading or interesting players of the time: the queen, Prince Albert, John Ruskin (hostile), Edmund Beckett Denison M.P. (a truly mediocre amateur architect with massively inflated self-worth: great character), Joseph Bazalgette, Thomas Wakley (founder of The Lancet), and more. But one of my favourite bits of the book was Barry’s tour of the country with geologist William ‘Strata’ Smith in search of the perfect stone for the palace. They visited dozens of quarries: thorough doesn’t nearly cover it. The stone they eventually selected was subsequently thought not to be the exact stuff they actually meant to order, but unbeknownst to them!

This is a wonderful tale, brilliantly told. I shan’t ever look at the Houses of Parliament quite the same again and can’t wait to visit soon with new knowledge from this exceptional book.


Mr Barry’s War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834 (288pp) by Caroline Shenton is published by Oxford University Press. Cover price is £25. Kindle edition available. It is London Historians book prize for September and there’s a special price offer for London Historians members coming up in next newsletter!

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