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The Gardens of the British Working Class

The Gardens of the British Working Class

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    The Gardens of the British Working Class
    Book Description:

    This magnificently illustrated people's history celebrates the extraordinary feats of cultivation by the working class in Britain, even if the land they toiled, planted, and loved was not their own. Spanning more than four centuries, from the earliest records of the laboring classes in the country to today, Margaret Willes's research unearths lush gardens nurtured outside rough workers' cottages and horticultural miracles performed in blackened yards, and reveals the ingenious, sometimes devious, methods employed by determined, obsessive, and eccentric workers to make their drab surroundings bloom. She also explores the stories of the great philanthropic industrialists who provided gardens for their workforces, the fashionable rich stealing the gardening ideas of the poor, alehouse syndicates and fierce rivalries between vegetable growers, flower-fanciers cultivating exotic blooms on their city windowsills, and the rich lore handed down from gardener to gardener through generations. This is a sumptuous record of the myriad ways in which the popular cultivation of plants, vegetables, and flowers has played-and continues to play-an integral role in everyday British life.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-20625-8
    Subjects: History, Botany & Plant Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Plates
    (pp. None)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    While writing this book, I have talked to many people about the areas of my research. Often the response has been ‘Do you mean allotments?’ I do mean allotments, but much else besides, which I hope will surprise and perhaps change perceptions.

    Our image of rural working-class gardens, for instance, has been coloured by the writers and artists of the nineteenth century. In the Regency period, Mary Russell Mitford published a series of sketches of her village, Three Mile Cross in Berkshire. She described her own ‘flower-yard’ in romantic terms: ‘the walls, old and weather-stained, covered with hollyhocks, roses, honey-suckles,...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Finer Points of Husbandry
    (pp. 8-32)

    In March 1609 plague struck the village of Upton-by-Southwell near Newark in Nottinghamshire. Upton was by all accounts a typical agricultural community of the period, and the plague, sadly, was an intermittent threat.¹ What is unusual, however, is that the churchwardens’ books for the period have survived. As a result, we get a rare glimpse of the inhabitants of the village, and the kind of gardening and husbandry in which they were involved.²

    Upton, with a population of about 300 to support, was unenclosed at this time, with five great fields, three of which were cultivated in a yearly rotation...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Vital Remedies
    (pp. 33-63)

    When Thomas Tusser drew up a list of useful seeds for the gardener in hisFive Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandriehe included plants that might stock the housewife’s medicine chest. Two dozen plants from ‘annis’ to ‘woodbine’ were recommended ‘for Physick’, though he did point out that herbs and flowers on the other lists could also be used.¹ The range of remedies that the housewife might be called upon to provide was dauntingly wide: for agues and fevers (including the plague), coughs, swellings and inflammations, problems with menstruation and childbirth, ulcers, vomiting and domestic injuries such as burns and...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Working Gardeners
    (pp. 64-89)

    ‘Gardener’ is a term that covers a multitude of roles and diverse social status. Market gardeners were featured in the preceding chapters, but here those who earned their living working for private households will be the principal focus. As John Harvey points out in his pioneering study of nurserymen: ‘At the professional end of the scale, as it were, was the landscape gardener or garden designer, who might well be the same person as the chief gardener to some noble estate. A few gardeners with exceptional botanical knowledge also took a high position. Beneath these in general estimation, but nonetheless...

  8. CHAPTER 4 A Passion for Flowers
    (pp. 90-112)

    In 1623 Sir Henry Wotton, scholar, diplomat and observer of gardens, wrote to an acquaintance about ‘some excellent Florists (as they are stiled)’.¹ This is apparently the first published reference to the term in English, but it was to resound over the next three centuries. Wotton was not using ‘florist’ in its modern sense, a retailer of cut flowers, a definition that dates from the nineteenth century. Instead he was describing enthusiasts who developed and exhibited pot-grown plants. These men, and very rarely women, were mostly amateurs, although some nurserymen mixed their profession with their passion. The original florists’ flowers...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Two Nations
    (pp. 113-140)

    One of the most familiar images of a nineteenth-century village or hamlet garden is represented by paintings of artists such as Helen Allingham or Myles Birket Foster. A charming, flower-filled space is set before a picturesque cottage with thatched roof and roses climbing up the walls. A woman and child in impeccable dress are often shown amid this lovely scene. This image is echoed by much of the poetry and literature of the time. But how true is it?

    The question is simple enough, but the answer is quite the reverse. The challenge facing any examination of the gardening practices...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Hard Times
    (pp. 141-169)

    John ward, a cotton weaver from Clitheroe in Lancashire, noted in his diary a journey he took, beginning on Good Friday of the year 1860. His purpose was to revisit the industrial villages to the east of Manchester where he had been brought up twenty-eight years earlier: ‘Villages have grown into large towns, and country places where there was nothing but fields are now covered with streets and villages and large factories and workshops everywhere. I made enquiries many a place after people who had lived there, but they were either dead or gone to America or gone somewhere else.’¹...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Climbing the Wall
    (pp. 170-197)

    This epitome of a red-letter day was recalled by Joseph Paxton. Aged twenty-two, he had been appointed by the 6th Duke of Devonshire as Superintendent of his Gardens at Chatsworth in Derbyshire. Paxton became one of the great head gardeners of the nineteenth century, famous not only for transforming the grounds at Chatsworth, but also designing and building the huge glass house for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park. He designed and laid out one of the first ‘people’s parks’ at Birkenhead in 1847 and published two influential horticultural journals, theHorticultural Registerand theGardeners’ Chronicle. His...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Sources of Inspiration
    (pp. 198-223)

    Working-class gardeners have for centuries encountered three principal obstacles when seeking to develop their horticultural activities: want of literacy, poverty and lack of opportunity. By the mid-nineteenth century it was estimated that 40 per cent of men in Britain were illiterate, with slightly higher figures for women – scarcely improved since Elizabethan times. For those who could read, books were often beyond their straitened means. The lack of opportunity to view a range of plants being grown and find the latest varieties was noted in 1860 by a head gardener in London: ‘I am sure that many of the working classes...

  13. CHAPTER 9 The Spirit of Competition
    (pp. 224-245)

    ‘Horticultural and Floricultural Exhibitions . . . have within these few years been working a change in tastes and recreational pursuits of the inhabitants of this densely populated island, such as by any other cause would have defeated all the legislators of Europe’, by contrast with the former public taste for ‘a bear-baiting, a bull-baiting, a cock-fight, a dogfight, or mayhap two animals in human form similarly engaged – such being theamusements,as they were termed, which Floricultural Exhibitions have superseded’.¹ This dramatic and sweeping claim was made in 1838 by Robert Marnock, then the curator of the Sheffield Botanicical...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Revolutions in Taste
    (pp. 246-263)

    So pronounced Mrs Loftie in her column ‘Social Twitters’, a wonderfully modern title, but dating from 1879.¹

    As Mrs Loftie noted, some working-class gardeners began in the later part of the nineteenth century to copy features from their grander neighbours, such as switching from mixed hardy planting to massed annual bedding. ‘Bedding out’ had become fashionable in the 1830s and 1840s, producing swathes of colour, often with plants from the hotter climes of South America, Mexico and South Africa: pelargonium, verbena, petunia, lobelia, calceolaria and salvia. These exotic plants not only provided tones that were hot and bright, but also...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Digging for Victory in Peace and War
    (pp. 264-288)

    It is not often that gardening becomes a national political issue, but this is precisely what happened at the end of the nineteenth century. In January 1886 an amendment to an address about allotments, moved by the MP Jesse Collings, was carried by the votes of the bulk of his fellow Liberals, obliging the Conservative Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, to resign, and returning William Gladstone to power. Ironically, Gladstone did nothing to promote the extension of the provision of allotments, preoccupied as he was with Home Rule for Ireland. Many Liberal politicians were, however, determined to carry forward legislation to...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Homes and Gardens
    (pp. 289-317)

    In March 1888 William Hesketh Lever announced: ‘It is my and my brother’s hope some day to build houses in which our workpeople will be able to live and be comfortable – semi-detached houses with gardens back and front in which they will be able to know more about the science of life than they can in a back-to-back slum.’¹ He was addressing his workers after his wife cut the first sod for a new model village, Port Sunlight. Lever’s belief in vigorous marketing and his admiration for American branding techniques had inspired him to launch Sunlight soap, resulting in rapid...

  17. CHAPTER 13 Ancient and Modern
    (pp. 318-340)

    ‘Her cottage stood among the white mounds, with a strip of garden at the back where she grew her “yarbs”. Here were horehound, tansy, pennyroyal, balm o’Gilead, all-heal, mallow and a hundred more.’ This description of a healer’s garden is from Mary Webb’s novel,The Golden Arrow, published during the First World War. Webb is known for her tales of rustic life with their passionate undertones, so effectively parodied by Stella Gibbons inCold Comfort Farmthat the original novels are rarely quoted. However, Webb was a market gardener, selling her produce at Shrewsbury market, and she knew her plants....

  18. CHAPTER 14 A Nation of Gardeners
    (pp. 341-369)

    ‘We have been called a nation of shopkeepers; we might with equal justice be called a nation of gardeners’, proclaimed theNurseryman and Seedsmanon 1 June 1939, paraphrasing the oft-quoted saying made famous by Napoleon. Unfortunately the nation, whether keeping the shop or the garden, was about to be plunged into war, and when the hostilities drew to a close in 1945, Britain once more faced a huge housing crisis. As an official report from the House of Commons had noted in 1943: ‘After the last war we heard a good deal about homes for heroes, and we are...

  19. Epilogue
    (pp. 370-373)

    As I gathered my research for this book, persistent themes began to emerge. The time frame is long, encompassing five centuries, but the threads weave through them all.

    One theme is that gardening has been regarded as ‘A Good Thing’, as the authors of1066 and All Thatwould put it. For ordinary people it has provided a source of nutrition, and sometimes the only source. In the eighteenth century, and probably earlier, it provided a passionate hobby for florists. It has also been perceived by those who considered themselves superior as having a civilising effect on the lower orders,...

  20. Appendix
    (pp. 374-376)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 377-395)
  22. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 396-401)
  23. List of Illustrations
    (pp. 402-405)
  24. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 406-407)
  25. Index
    (pp. 408-414)