Reviewed by Christina Hardyment
It might seem unlikely that Margaret Willes (Lady Margaret Hall, 1964), formerly publisher of glossy National Trust tomes, should turn her scholarly and historical gaze on cottage gardens, window-box gardening and allotments rather than the grand designs of Stowe or Stourhead, but think again. The National Trust has hugely expanded its remit, and gets as excited about restoring Birmingham back-to-backs as it does about accepting a dauntingly expensive country house. Moreover, Hidcote and Sissinghurst, two of its most famous gardens, are tributes on a grand scale to cottage gardens, and to the fact that working-class gardens preserved humble plants banished by their ‘betters’. Allwoodii pinks and Spencer sweet peas were both developed from specimens found in village gardens.
Willes, herself an accomplished gardener and garden history writer, now lives in East London, a place full of rich pickings for evidence of working-class enthusiasm for gardens. Victoria Park, named for the queen who provided money to buy its 300 acres — once a bishop’s hunting park but latterly market gardens and gravel pits — rapidly became thronged with locals bathing in its lake, playing cricket, listening around the bandstand and admiring the colours and scents of its flowers and shrubs, and, to the amazement of middle-class Cassandras, ‘only in one solitary instance’ causing damage. Carefully labeled surplus plants from its extensive ‘carpet bedding’ were given away, so the splendid effects could be copied in miniature at home, and entered for flower shows.
But back to history. Willes’ hugely enjoyable and lavishly-illustrated book starts with the sixteenth-century farmer Thomas Tusser, whose rhyming maxims had a huge circulation in oral memories (‘A fool and his money are easily parted’; ‘Christmas comes but once a year’). ‘Wife into thy garden and set me a plot / With strawberry rootes, of the best to be got’ is his September suggestion in //Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry//. Besides the predictable edibles planting, there was also planting for pleasure. John Worlidge declared in his 1677 //Systema Horti-culturae// that ‘there is scarce a cottage in most of the southern parts of England but has its proportionable garden, so great a delight do most men take in it’, and ‘scarce an ingenious citizen that by his confinement to a shop, being denied the privilege of having a real garden, but hath his boxes, pots, or other receptacles for flowers, plants, etc.’
Note that ‘southern parts’. Willes’ research is concentrated in the south-east, for all the ‘British’ of her title. But I suspect that any keen regional gardening historian could visit their local record office and unearth such treasures as that found by Oxford sociologist Rafael Samuel in his study of Headington Quarry: a diary kept by stoneworker Charles Snow that is full of fascinatingly immediate details. Besides vegetables, he grew fuchsias and tulips, gladioli and sweet peas.
Nowhere was the hunger for ‘blessed plots’ greater than in the industrial cities of the north. Philanthropists did their best to provide green spaces, as in Port Sunlight, Cadbury and Rowntree’s New Earlswick, and twentieth century ‘homes for heroes’ were generously provided with gardens. Garden cities and Metroland illustrated the ideal, though the working-class were for the main part housed in tower blocks.
Willes dexterously broadens her brief from the domestic to the professional, giving us histories in brief of market-gardening, the gardeners of the wealthy, seedsmen and florists (as the first sellers of plants were called), allotments and the Dig For Victory campaign, and magazines and books about gardening. She also brings to life such radio legends as Fred Streeter and C H Middleton, the men who made us, in the words of a 1939 gardening magazine, ‘a nation of gardeners’. Are we still? Thronged garden centres suggest that we are – even though it may of necessity be a retirement occupation for most of the ‘hard-working people’ interminably apostrophized by politicians.
Image: Rural reality: hard graft in a Victorian cottage garden, by Myles Birket Foster (The Trustees of the British Museum)