John Abercrombie was one of the 18th century’s most prolific gardening writers, although he was initially shy of his talents and didn’t really start writing until he was 50 and even then under someone else’s name. But from there he went from strength to strength publishing a string of books, all based on his lifelong experience as a practical hands-on gardener. From our point of view its sad they are all virtually unillustrated but they continued to be popular, running into dozens of editions and in print for decades after his death.
At the age of 72 he was shown in gentlemanly dress holding a large spade in the new engraved frontispiece for the 16th edition of his most famous book Every Man His Own Gardener first published in 1767.
He was not just a gardener and a writer but also a chain-smoking, tea drinking vegetarian, so read on to find out more…
A very short biography was written by his son, another John, as the preface to later editions to one of his books. Our old friend John Claudius Loudon also carried a short account of Abercrombie’s life in his Encyclopedia of Gardening. These are the principal sources for information about his life, although they contain some errors of dating that were clarified by Blanche Henrey in British Botanical and Horticultural Literature before 1800. [For more information see the links at the end of this post].
Like so many great gardeners John Abercrombie was Scottish, the son of a market gardener from just outside Edinburgh. In 1745, he witnessed the battle of Prestonpans, the first of the the Jacobite rebellion, as it took place beneath his father’s garden wall. John entered an apprenticeship with his own father at the usual age of 14, but when he finished, like so many of his gardening compatriots he set off for England, and in 1751 he was to be found working in the royal gardens at Kew. Later he worked as a journeyman gardener for a succession of elite clients across Britain.
According to local rate books by 1763 Abercrombie was living in Mare Street in Hackney, and probably working as a jobbing gardener. During this time he began to write. There are several variations on the story of how this happened but the one I like best is how he met William Griffin, a bookseller/ publisher and Oliver Goldsmith, who made “encouraging overtures to produce a work on Practical Gardening”.
Abercrombie was apparently reluctant “fearful it might call off his attention to much from his garden and nursery; and at last, only on the condition of his material is being revised, and the style improved by Dr Goldsmith.” It can’t have been too bad as Goldsmith is supposed to have commented “Abercrombie’s style was best suited to the subject of which is treated” and made no revisions at all.
Every Man his Own Gardener was eventually published in 1767 but not under Abercrombie’s own name. Instead the title page carried the name of Thomas Mawe, gardener to the Duke of Leeds. Again the stories vary about why this happened. Apart from the fact that Abercrombie was quite diffident, it seems the bookseller may have sent the manuscript to Mawe to get an opinion of its accuracy. Mawe obviously approved and then, in return for allowing his more famous name to go on the title page was offered £20. The first edition quickly sold out and by the time of the second later the same year the title page was amended to read Every Man his own Gardener. Being a new … Gardener’s Kalendar … By Thomas Mawe … and other gardeners. New editions continued to roll off the press and by the 7th, published in 1787, Mawe’s name is joined by Abercrombie’s as joint authors, with a note from Abercrombie in the Preface saying that he was “the real author or the only writer of the book.” It went through 18 editions in his lifetime and several more after his death.
Another contemporary gardening and agricultural writer, Richard Weston claimed that Abercrombie gives information “in a very confused and irregular manner” but it didn’t stop his work being widely imitated and even plagiarized. Indeed Weston cites the example of The Modern Gardener of 1771 by James Meader, gardener to the Earl of Chesterfield. which “was chiefly copied from Mawe and the plagiary was so very conspicuous as to cause a law suit, in which Meader was convicted.”
The Modern Gardener had one advantage – it was illustrated and so I’m using some of the images here to make up for their dearth in Abercrombie’s works. If you want to check the similarities between the works yourself you can find Meader’s Book at:
Strangely Abercrombie did not meet his “co-author” until after the publication of the second edition, when Mawe invited him to visit Yorkshire. Abercrombie got a bit of a shock when he arrived and ” encountered a gentleman so bepowdered, and so bedaubed with gold lace, that he thought be could be in the presence of no less a personage than the duke himself.”
Mawe obviously thought highly of himself but “they soon came to a right understanding; for he continued his visit for more than a fortnight, and fared sumptuously every day.” They remained friends all their lives and another book, The Universal Gardener and Botanist, appeared under joint names in 1778, although once again its unlikely that Mawe had much to do with it. Abercrombie called himself the author elsewhere and referred readers of another of his books to “my dictionary, The Universal Gardener and Botanist.”
Despite the success of Every Man his own Gardiner Abercrombie continued to work as a commercial gardener. In 1770 he set up as a market gardener in Hackney, selling his produce in nearby Spitalfields Market. According to Loudon this enabled him “to support his increasing family with comfort and decency” which was useful as he and his wife had 17 children! He also leased a public house near Mile End, which he turned into the ‘Artichoke Tea Garden’ although this venture did not last long as his wife apparently did not approve of the lifestyle associated with running such an establishment.
After that, we can see from comments in his books, that he seems to have moved around quite a bit. Between 1776 and 1781 he was gardening near Tottenham Court on the northern outskirts of London, although he still appears in the rate books of the hamlet of Kingsland in Hackney. By 1783 he had moved closer and was nearby on Oxford Street, but he moved again and from 1787 he was gardening at Newington, south of the river near present day Elephant and castle. In both places he ran a seed and nursery business as well as market garden, and also grew and sold flowers.
At the same, his writing career was about to take off and in 1779 Abercrombie published his first book solely under his own name, The British Fruit Gardener and Art of Pruning. The title page claims Abercrombie as “author of Every Man his own Gardener, first published under the name Thomas Mawe.” It was translated into French in 1784. but with authorship attributed to Mawe and Abercrombie. It can be found at:
Then came The Garden Mushroom although as one critic said: “It contained nothing materially new.” But if you want to check that you knew everything about mushroom growing in the 18thc then you can find the whole book at:
In the 1780s Abercrombie published a number of books covering many aspects of practical gardening. First was The Complete Forcing Gardener (1781).
This was followed by The Complete Wall Tree Pruner (1783) and The Propagation and Botanical Arrangement of Plants and Trees, Useful and Ornamental (1784) neither of which I can find online.
The Gardener’s Daily Assistant published in 1786 not only had the usual list of gardening tasks but also a useful list of seedsmen and nurserymen around the city. Slightly different titles were used for each of the various editions, the 11th of which, for 1808 can be read on-line by following the link under the image.
Next came The Gardener’s Vade Mecum where Abercrombie describes himself as “Upwards of Forty Years Practical Gardener and Author of Every Man His Own Gardener.”
Abercrombie was also up to date with horticultural technology and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was the first person to use the terms ‘Hot-House Gardener ‘and ‘Vinery’ when he wrote The Hot-House Gardener on the… Methods of forcing Early Grapes,..and other Choice Fruits, in Hot-Houses, Vineries, Fruit-Houses, Hot-Walls, &c. Other variants on the title included or, The General Culture of the Pineapple and Method of Pruning Early Grapes (1789); a German translation of this appeared at Vienna in 1792.
The full text can be found at: https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=MJhgAAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PP1
That was followed in 1789 by his last book. This was the popular Gardener’s Pocket Journal which only cost one shilling and “at first experienced a sale almost unprecedented”.
Abercrombie’s son added a note to the 10th edition in 1807, saying that “it had for some time regularly passed through an edition of two thousand copies per year”, and this must have continued because by 1857 had reached an amazing thirty-fifth edition.
But Abercrombie was not just popular in Britain. I’ve mentioned French and German translations of his books but his fame spread to Russia. There are stories that he was asked to go to Russia to superintend the gardens of Catherine the Great which is not as crazy as it sounds because she did employ several other English and Scottish gardeners. It’s difficult to know whether he was really tempted by the offer but the story goes that he got to the port and looked out at the rolling ocean, panicked at the thought of sailing on it and backed out sending the empress a copy of Every Man his Own Gardener instead.
All his large family, with the exception of one son, predeceased him and for the last ten years of his life Abercrombie moved to Somers Town [near what are now Euston and Kings Cross Stations]. There he got occasional work surveying and planning gardens and pleasure grounds but seems to have spent most his time revising his books for new editions, and collecting material for one last work which was published posthumously.
Writing presumably didn’t pay because, somewhat surprisingly, in these last years he had to be financially supported by a friend, James Donn, who was curator of the Cambridge Botanic Garden. It was Donn who finally published Practical Gardening in 1813.
So, Abercrombie comes across as a competent horticulturalist who was good at putting across his knowledge to the public. But there are a few human foibles noted by commentators who might have known him.
According to George Johnson’s A History of English Gardening (1829), for the last 20 years of his life Abercrombie “lived in a great degree upon Tea, taking it three times a day, seldom or never eating meat. He frequently declared that Tea and Tobacco were the great promoters of his health. His pipe was his first companion in the morning and the last at night. He often smoke for six hours without interruption. He never remembered taking Physic until the occurrence of the accident which caused his death; nor of having a day’s illness before his last,…”
Abercrombie died on 1st May 1806 after falling down some steps and breaking his hip a couple of weeks earlier. Clearly tea and tobacco don’t solve every medical problem!