Is gardening a classless pursuit? It might appeal to many people but is there any connection between the wealthy and their ability to garden on a grand scale, perhaps employing staff, or having historic structures and settings, or being able to buy the latest rarities: think stately homes, Gardens Illustrated and Chelsea…and the rest of us, constrained for space, time and money: think suburban back gardens, Gardener’s World and the local garden centre?
One person who knew that there wasn’t much but definitely thought there ought to be more, was Rev. Reynolds Hole, Canon of Lincoln and later Dean of Rochester, who was one of the co-stars of a recent post – 5 vicars and some roses – on 10th Jan 2015. His sympathies are clear: “Not a soupcon of sympathy can I ever feel for the discomfiture of those Rose-growers who trust in riches .” Read on to find out why….and to hear about the surprising people he thought were the real gardeners.
Canon Hole wrote A Book about the Rose in a light conversational style, but even so, late Victorian light conversation was rather circumlocutional, so I am taking liberties in further shortening his brief chapter: “Causes of Success.” In it he tells how he first came to realise that a love of gardening – and especially of roses – has little to do with money or class, and the effect that discovery had on him.
At the end of one cold and miserable March he”received a note from a Nottingham mechanic, inviting me to assist in a judicial capacity at an exhibition of roses, given by working men, which was to be held on Easter Monday.” Hole had no roses in flower then, nor did any of his gardening acquaintances, nor did he expect any by Easter so “I threw down the letter on my first impulse as a hoax.” However, “upon the second inspection I was so impressed by a look and tone of genuine reality that I wrote ultimately to the address indicated, asking somewhat sarcastically and incredulously, as being a shrewd superior person … what sort of roses were so kind as to bloom during the month of April at Nottingham, and nowhere else. By return of post I was informed, with some much more courtesy than I had any claim to, that the roses in question are grown under glass – where and how, the growers would be delighted to show me, if I would oblige them with my company.”
So on Easter Monday, a “raw and gusty day”, he went to Nottingham and was met at the General Cathcart Inn by the landlord, “with a smile on his face and with a Senateur Vaisse in his coat, which glowed amid the gloom like a red light on a midnight train”. Inside he met “a crowd of other exhibitors, some with roses in their coats.. and some without, for the valid reason they were there in their shirt sleeves… just as you would see them at their daily work, and some of them only spared from it to cut and stage their flowers.” He was “welcomed with outstretched hands, and [they] seemed amused when, on the apologising for their soiled appearance, I assured them of my vivid affection for all kinds of Floricultural dirt… I counted no man worthy of the name of Gardener whose skin was always white and clean.”
When the “roses were ready” Hole was escorted upstairs to the assembly room and found it “empty, hushed and still” and the large pine table “covered from end to end with beautiful and fragrant Roses…The bottles, which, once filled with creamy stout and with the fizzing beer of ginger, now, like converted drunkards, were teetotally devoted to pure water, and in that water stood the Rose.”
“A pretty sight, a more complete surprise of beauty, could not have presented itself on that cold and cloudy morning; and in no Royal Palace, no museum of rarities, no marked of gems, was there that day in all the world a table so fairly dight.”
“I have never seen better specimens grown under glass, than those which were exhibited by these workingmen. Their tea roses…were shown in their most exquisite beauty; and… I do not hesitate to say that the best Marechal Niel and the best Madame Margottin which I have yet seen, appeared at Nottingham in the ginger beer bottles!… Many of the Hybrid perpetuals were shown in their integrity…and one of them, Alphonse Karr, I neer met with afterwards of the same size and excellence.” [There were at least 3 roses named after Karr but none of them, like Madame Margottin, appear to be in modern cultivation.]
“When the prizes were awarded… I went with some of them to inspect their gardens. These are tiny allotments on sunny slopes, just out of the town of Nottingham, separated by hedges or boards, in size about 3 to the rood -such an extent as a country squire in Lilliput might be expected to devote to horticulture.”
The Nottinghamshire Guardian of 8th March 1867 claimed “no town in England displays the gardening spirit more manifestly than old Nottingham. Independently of gardens attached to residences, there are, we believe, nearly 10,000 allotments within a short distance of town; and as many of these are divided, and in some cases subdivided, it is not too much to affirm that from 20,000 to 30,000 of the inhabitants, or nearly one half, take an active interest in the garden. And where will you see such Roses as produced upon the Hunger Hills by these matters… Such cabbages and lettuce, rhubarb and celery?”
The Hungerhills [probably from Old English for hillside of clay] had been used as gardens from at least 1605 when there are records showing that Nottingham Corporation leased two or three acre plots to 30 Burgesses or Freemen of the town. Known as Burgess Parts by 1832 they had been subdivided into as many as 400 separate gardens, although they were still used mainly by the wealthier citizens of the city.
But with the rapid industrialization of Nottingham and the consequent demographic boom – from about 11,000 in 1750 to 50,000 by 1831 – there was a slow transition from gardens that were used by the middle classes for recreation to allotment gardens for poorer workers. They offered a good opportunity to supplement low wages by growing their own fruit and vegetables.
In 1835 William Howitt explained that many of these allotment gardens had “excellent summerhouses and there they delight to go, and smoke a solitary pipe, as they look over the smiling face of their garden, or take a quiet stroll amongst their flowers; or to take a pipe with a friend; or to spend a Sunday afternoon, or a summer evening, with their families. The amount of enjoyment which these gardens afford to a great number of families, is not easy to be calculated – and then the health and improved taste!” [Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine p.739] Howitt also advocated that Nottingham’s example should be emulated by every other “great town” – but that’s a story for another post!
I’m sure that both Howitt and Canon Hole would have been impressed to learn that Hungerhills, now known as the St Ann’s Allotments are now listed Grade 2* on the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England, as the oldest and largest group of detached town gardens in Britain.
There were others around the city but by the 1880s they had largely been swallowed up by development. In the 1880s The Corporation sought to build on Hungerhill too, using unemployed men to make roads and clear sites but the scheme met with such strong opposition from the Independent Cottage Garden Society that it was eventually dropped. Although the size has changed slightly over time, the gardens are still in their original 1830s layout and there are now 670 individual gardens on three inter-connected sites.
Certainly the Canon was particularly impressed by the glasshouses he saw there. “Houses! Why, a full-sized giant would have taken them up like a hand-glass” and being famously tall at 6ft 7″ was unable in most of them to stand upright, and into some, to enter at all. “That ‘bit o’ glass’ had been, nevertheless, as much a dream, and hope, and happiness to its owner as the Crystal Palace was to Paxton.”
On his way home Hole noticed a timber yard which displayed “a neat miniature greenhouse” and a sign offering them for sale for 5 guineas. “How many true but poor florist has stopped to read, and sigh.” But I believe “that many a poor but brave florist has stopped to read, and has gone home to save – has come, and seen, and conquered.…”
“I could hardly believe that the grand roses which we had just left could have come, like some village beauty out of her cottage dwelling, from such mean and lowly homes. But there with the plants and there were the proprietors,…”
“How was it done?… From the true love of the Rose.”
“How do you afford to buy these new and expensive varieties?” he asked and “I would that every employer, that everyone who cares for the labouring poor, would remember the answer, reflect and act upon it.”
“I’ll tell you he said how I managed to buy’ em… By keeping away from the beer shops!”
That of course was probably true but it is also the case that to afford the rent of the allotment some plot holders cultivated flowers, especially roses, for sale, which were sent in large quantities to market in Manchester and Liverpool.
“From a lady who lives near Nottingham, and who goes much among the poorer classes, I heard more of such striking instances… Conversing with the wife of a mechanic during the coldest period of a recent winter, she observed that the parental bed appeared to be scantily and insufficiently clothed, and she enquired if there were no more blankets in the house.
Yes ma’am, we’ve another but… But what? asked the lady. It is not at home ma’am.. surely it’s not in pawn? Oh dear no ma’am; Tom has only just took it. Took it where? Please ma’am, he took it… Took it… Took it to keep the frost out of the greenhouse; and please ma’am, we don’t want it, we’re quite hot in bed.” Hole thought that Tom and his wife “ought to be presented with a golden warming pan, set with brilliants, and filled with £50 Bank of England notes.”
At the end of the day Hole “took leave of the brotherhood … delighted with their gardens, and delighted with them, but not much delighted with myself.
On reflection he felt he had “been presiding like the Lord Chief Justice in court, whereas in fact, “had merit regulated the appointment, I should probably have discharged the duties of Usher.” He was given a glorious bouquet of roses with their “best respects to the Missis” and felt ashamed how little he has done and, “how much more such men would do, with my larger leisure and more abundant means.”
When friends saw the roses he had been given, “one of my neighbours, who I knew had glass by the acre and gardeners in troops” said , that “they were the first roses yet seen this year,” and “when I explained, in all truthfulness that they came ‘chiefly from bricklayers’ there was “an expressive sneer of unbelief… And a solemn silence ensued….which said plainly … ‘we don’t see any wit in lies’.” You can almost sense the good canon’s discomfort as he “collapsed at once into my corner…looking I fear, very like the Beast when he first showed himself among the Roses to Beauty.”
The Nottingham mechanics were equally successful with other aspects of gardening and Canon Hole went on regularly to judge the annual exhibition of “St Anne Amateur Floral and Horticultural Society” which consisted largely of “Artisans occupying garden allotments in the suburbs of Nottingham,” and which “justly prides itself on having developed a taste for gardening among the working classes.”
But he recognized it was not without temptation : “There are difficulties with regard to cottage gardening… to win Premier prizes men are tempted to be dishonest and they fall.”
He then relates some of the stories he was told: ‘If you please, sir, Bob Filch went a-cadging miles and miles for them cut flowers has won last show’…’Lor’ Bless your reverence, I knows for a fact that Jim A gave Jack B one and nine for that Senateur Vaisse in his six’ and his Reverence, moreover, knows the fact, that roses are not only been begged and bought, but stolen just before a show. His Reverence could name some of his Nottingham friends who’ve slept in their greenhouses, fearing a raid, for nights before the contest…
This very Society of St Ann has a subcommittee to inspect the gardens of exhibitors, and to prevent imposture. Discouraging facts!” But “it is high time to leave this digression, and repeat, that whatever may be the infirmities of these poor florists, they are eminently successful in the culture of flowers… And multiply proofs that in rose growing, as in everything else, earnestness and industry, born of love must achieve success.”
This of course is all in the Victorian spirit of moral improvement, but the Canon seems genuinely moved and to genuinely believe “that the happiness of mankind may be increased by encouraging that love of a garden that love of the beautiful which is innate in us all.”
For more information about St Anne’s Allotments see:
“Her Majesty is the only Queen‚ who is more beloved by Her subjects than the Queen of Flowers.”