Thomas Fairchild was one of the greatest horticulturists of the 18thc. But his contribution was not confined to his own age but extends right up to today. That might sound a bit over the top – and perhaps it is – but as you will soon discover I’m a great fan of this humble Hoxton nurseryman. Professional to his fingertips not only did his tiny nursery ground overflow with unusual plants, he fought to raise the profile and status of horticulture through the Worshipful Company of Gardeners, was the first person known to have deliberately hybridized plants, and the first to write about the pleasures and pitfalls of gardening in London in his book, The City Gardener.
When Fairchild died in 1729 he endowed an annual sermon at his local parish church of St Leonard’s in Shoreditch where he lies buried in the furthest corner of the churchyard. On the first Tuesday in Pentecost the preacher is asked to speak about either “The wonderful works of God in Creation” or “On the certainty of the resurrection of the dead, proved by certain changes of the animal and vegetable parts of Creation.”
The sermon is now organized by The Worshipful Company of Gardeners, and this year, he says humbly, I’ve been asked to give it. It will be given from the pulpit of St Giles Cripplegate this coming Tuesday 6th June in a service starting at 5.30. Although it is officially a private company affair, visitors are welcome.
Unlike politician’s speeches which are usually trailed well in advance no details of my sermon will be released in advance in this week’s post but will be summarized in next week’s.
So, after such a long introduction, as your starter for ten, here’s some more background on the ingenious Thomas Fairchild.
Fairchild was a Wiltshire boy, born at Aldbourne in 1667 and at about 14 apprenticed to Jeremiah Seamer a London clothworker. Quite how this happened, or indeed why, no-one seems very clear. There may well have been family connections or other local links to Seamer but it wasn’t unusual for country lads to b￼e sent to the capital as apprentices.
Its always been assumed that Thomas couldn’t bear the indoor life of a textile worker and so later, in the words of the Dictionary of National Biography “decided to become a gardener.” Nothing could be further from the truth, there was no change of heart at all over his original choice.
That may sound strange but in fact although Seamer was a member of the Clothworkers’ Company the automatic link between company membership and related trades had long begun to fade away. Seamer had no connection to clothmaking whatsoever, other than his company membership.
Like all livery companies Clothworkers Company kept a list of members who took on apprentices and often give the actual occupation of the member concerned. Seamer is described as “a gardener in Hogsden” and we even know what kind because the probate inventory taken after his death in 1685 made it clear that he ran a flower nursery. In fact he is the earliest gardener I’ve discovered in my research who managed to make floriculture a primary source of income. He had about three-quarters of an acre of fruit trees and bushes which must have been interplanted with his stock of flowers which included roses, auriculas, tulips, gilliflowers, pinks and “other small flowers” [Probate inventory at Guildhall Library GL 19504/32/04]. After Jeremiah died his widow Susan or Susannah took over as Fairchild’s apprentice master.
So during his apprenticeship Thomas Fairchild was not, as popularly imagined, stuck indoors learning the textile trade but outdoors wielding a spade and learning horticulture – and much of his basic gardening knowledge came from a woman.
In 1690 shortly after the end of his apprenticeship the 23 year old Thomas set up himself as a nurseryman on a small piece of ground in Hoxton in the parish of St Leonard, Shoreditch, then on the north eastern fringes of the City of London. Over the next four decades until his death in 1729 he built up a collection of rare and unusual plants there,
Surprisingly we know very little about his personal life but we have many insights into his professional life not only from his own book, The City Gardener written in 1722 but also from the writings of his friend Richard Bradley, a prolific writer but unfortunately also a somewhat disreputable character , who was however to go on to become the first professor of botany at Cambridge. Bradley called Fairchild “the most rational gardener I ever met with.”
It’s difficult to know quite where to start explaining Fairchild’s significance because his interests and networks overlap considerably. However he was clearly a talented plantsman so lets start with that.
In Bradley’s 1721-23 General Treatise on Husbandry and Gardening, a rambling and largely epistolary work originally issued in parts, Fairchild’s name crops up with regularity. For example Bradley prints a list of the flowers that were in bloom in Fairchild’s garden every month, April and May‘s were printed first and an abbreviated list for the rest of the year followed. It shows that his small nursery ground was jam-packed with interesting plants – but also the joys of understanding pre-Linnean botany!
In this Fairchild was unusual but not unique. Other London nurserymen were importing, propagating and disseminating botanic rarities as well but Fairchild seems to have gone one better than all of them. He was clearly friends with Mark Catesby, who went plant hunting in Virginia and the Carolinas sending seeds and specimens back to Hoxton. As a result amongst the plants Thomas is thought to have introduced was Liriodendron tulipifera [the tulip tree],
Aesculus Pavia,[the red buckeye], , Catalpa bignonioides [the Indian bean tree] and
Cornus florida [the flowering dogwood] all of which he grew from seed and then distributed widely.
Catesby went to stay with Fairchild in Hoxton in 1726 on his return from the Americas, and was the witness of his will.
Much of this expertise with rarities came was carried out in his hothouses. Again many other nurserymen had them but we are lucky enough to have an illustration of one which served as the frontispiece of The City Gardener, and no less than two accounts written by Bradley.
The first is a proper description, as part of a general piece about such conservatories, and the second a more vague account of some of its uses. Bradley also includes a plate [left] with four small images, the last of which shows the layout of the oven and pipework in Fairchild’s building.
The first thing to notice from the descriptions and plan is that Fairchild’s stove is not enormous, just 10-12 feet wide and about 40 feet long. It has a sloping glass roof, with the back wall about a foot higher than the front, and against the front wall are a series of additional frames. It was joined on to another greenhouse with a doorway [K] so that “the air which enter on opening the door is never overcool.” Bradley comments that such a house would not only enable cucumbers and melons to be grown all year but also bananas pineapples, mangoes and guavas which implies that Fairchild might well have been doing just that. He also suggests that such a house could be divided by glass partitions to allow the particular needs of different plants to be catered for, although it appears Fairchild’s was not.
The stovehouse had an ingenious design which is difficult to make out from the inadequate image, and which unfortunately is also difficult to describe easily.
There was an oven [A] in one corner on the back wall which fed a series of parallel pipes [B] that ran along the whole length of the front wall to a flue [C] at the opposite end. These pipes were covered by a bed of sand about a foot thick. This might seem strange but the area was used to sink in pots of the most tender plants, and apparently the heat could be regulated by adding or removing sand. [complicated though that sounds to me] and Fairchild would have known when to do this because he used a thermometer “carefully graded…like that of Mr Telende”[the gardener who first managed to grow pineapples in Britain], which he also had available for sale at the nursery.
Having reached the far end the flue ran along the side wall, rising 3 ft in the process, before turning back along the rear wall and running [E] to the chimney [F] which stood above the oven itself. In between the two sets of pipes, is a pathway. A set of four Stepped shelves rose from the path to the back wall, the top one sitting over the return flue to make more effective use of the heat. Meanwhile against the outside of the stovehouse on the front were a series of frames, [H& I] which were warmed by the heat of the walls. Bradley suggests that this was for forcing spring bulbs such as jonquils, tulips, hyacinths crocus and even winter aconites,for Christmas. Fruit trees too could be planted against the outside of the side walls again to take advantage of the wall’s retained heat.
Bradley writes elsewhere about the leading gardens in Britain – the 3 botanic gardens at Chelsea, Oxford and Edinburgh – then the best private collections starting with Badminton, and 3 London area gardens – Samuel Reynardson’s at Hillingdon, Mr Du Bois’s at Mitcham and Rev Lumley Lloyd at Cheam – before concluding that the garden of “the ingenious Mr Fairchild, [is] superior I have any yet named at home or abroad.” Obviously its likely there’s more than a touch of flattery in that but there’s also more than an element of truth too.
In 1722 Fairchild published The City Gardener, which recognized different climatic and growing conditions across the capital, described the trees, plants, shrubs, and flowers that grew in each of them and made further suggestions for things which would thrive in its polluted atmosphere. I’ll return to The City Gardener in more detail in another post.
I want to finish with Fairchild’s committment to professionalism. Having completed his apprenticeship he was entitled to take up membership of the Clothworkers’ Company although he did not do so until 1704. At the same time he also took up membership of the then lacklustre Worshipful Company of Gardeners. The company had effectively degenerated to no more than a small social club because although it had been granted a royal charter in 1606 the City authorities refused to recognize it or grant its members any of the usual benefits. He spent the next two decades trying to raise its profile and status. Company records have largely been lost for this period but he certainly became a Warden of the Company and thus almost eqully certainly its Master. The most obvious sign of his determination was his attempt to vote in the Parliamentary election of 1722. He led 7 of the company’s liverymen to Guildhall and they were allowed to cast their votes but these were then disallowed as the City Corporation still refused to recognize the company was allowed a livery. The city fathers’ intransigence may have been a turning point in his relationship with the company.
With its membership largely composed of market gardeners rather than nurserymen and some of its leadership involved in financial scandals and property speculation, the company could not, and probably was not interested in botanical improvements or driving horticultural skills to a higher level. For that Fairchild had to look elsewhere and so joined, if not led, a group of enterprising and pioneering gardeners and nurserymen, including Robert Furber, Christopher Grey and Philip Miller. in setting up the Society of Gardeners.
Founded around 1725 members met regularly in coffee houses and eventually issued Catalogus Plantarum which served as a joint commercial “catalogue of trees and shrubs both exotic and domestic which are propagated for sale in the gardens near London.”
This was copiously illustrated by Jacob Van Huysum, but it did not appear until 1730, some months after Fairchild’s death. However, his name stands at the top of the list of authors. It was a tribute to his desire for professionalism and co-operation amongst his peers.
Fairchild died on 10 October 1729, in Hoxton. He was buried in the furthest corner of the churchyard allocated for the poor in St Leonard’s churchyard, Hackney Road, Shoreditch. Now a small patch of green space in a grimy area on a busy main road, his tomb there has recently been restored. Fairchild left the bulk of his property to his nephew, John Bacon of Hoxton, who took over his nursery ground and was also a member of the Society of Gardeners. Unfortunately Bacon died very soon afterwards too. And finally…and famously… Fairchild bequeathed £25 for the endowment of what has become known as the Vegetable Sermon.
More on that in the next post…