This is the second part of the story of Owen Thomas, the son of an Anglesey labourer who rose to the peak of the horticultural profession and became Queen Victoria’s gardener at Windsor and Frogmore. Last week’s post finished with his time at Drayton Manor, the home of Sir Robert Peel and his family. Read on to see how Owen became everything a Victorian head gardener was expected to be, with the highest professional standards in all his work. He took a wide ranging interest in every aspect of gardening, hybridizing and selecting new strains of fruit and vegetables, training young gardeners, serving on RHS committees and being involved in charitable work and finally after his retirement, writing and judging.
After the Peel family closed up Drayton Manor Owen took a post with John Corbett, an MP and a wealthy industrialist who owned the Droitwich salt mines in Worcestershire and so was nicknamed “The Salt King.” He had bought the Impney Manor estate on the outskirts of the town in 1869 and commissioned designs from a Parisian architect, Auguste Tronquois, in honour of his wife who was partly French and had grown up in Paris. The result was Chateau Impney an elaborate recreation of a Louis XIII palace, described by Pevsner as “the showiest in the whole county” :
Corbett also bought in William Goldring who was at the start of his career to totally transform the 155 acres of the estate. He created parkland, lakes, waterfalls, tropical gardens, and planted over 3,000 varieties of trees. Work was finally finished in 1875 and cost Corbett £247,000. Despite that his wife left him anyway!
Without her Corbett opened up the grounds to the public once a week on Wednesdays and it must have been into this atmosphere that Owen arrived, around 1880, to take charge. Impney was sold out of the family in 1911, and by 1928 had become a luxury hotel, which, although it has changed hands many times, it remains to this day.
But Impney was just another brief stop along the way to fame because Owen had hardly got his feet under the table there, when in February 1884 he was offered the most prestigious private garden in the country: Chatsworth.
He was apparently not the first choice from the several hundred names before the Duke. The previous incumbent, Thomas Speed, died in January and Gardeners’ Chronicle reported just a couple of weeks later that Thomas Bannerman, head gardener to Lord Bagot had been “engaged by the Duke”. Something obviously went wrong because a month later they reported that the job had been offered to Owen.
He may have been second choice but he fitted in fast and quickly developed a reputation not just for his horticultural skills, but for his courtesy and enthusiasm. It was not long before he was being called “a worthy successor” to Joseph Paxton Chatsworth’s most famous gardener.
Gardeners Chronicle‘s correspondent W.Wildmith visited Chatsworth in September 1887 and his account is laudatory in the extreme. Chatsworth he wrote had always had “a reputation for good gardening” and since the change in management it “had lost none of its prestige”: indeed quite opposite. Mr Thomas “was bent on not only on maintaining but advancing” it. Wildsmith had been “totally unprepared to see each and all departments in such a state of excellence”, and then reviewed each and every department in turn.
He was shown round by Owen himself, as were many other parties of visitors such as the 250 members of the Notts Horticultural &Botanical Society who visited in 1889 [Nottingham Evening Post – Saturday 20 July 1889]
Gardens were, even then a popular toursit attraction and the Duke and his gardener both obviously thought fit was important to welcome them in style, but also forge links with the wider local community. So, for example, Owen offered advice on the development of Queens Park in nearby Chesterfield, as well as doing things like laying on a floral display for their fundraising bazaar [Derbyshire Courier – Tuesday 28 May 1889] He also became a popular judge at local flower shows.
But this concern went further than just locally. Owen became very involved the Royal Gardeners Benevolent Fund and the Gardeners Orphans Fund, as well becoming as a member of the Council of the RHS. He often wrote to the gardening press with advice, comments on articles, or offering specimens or giving accounts of what was growing at Chatsworth partly because the estate had a reputation for quality and rarity of its plants especially hothouse exotics and ,most famously, the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica.
The Duke was an enthusiastic sponsor of plant hunting expeditions, particularly for orchids and Owen rose to the challenge of not only growing and looking after, but exhibiting these rarities both locally and nationally for the Duke. The report below shows the standards that he maintained and gives some idea of. the medals that he won on a regaulr basis.
In 1891 the local paper reported another visit to Chatsworth in, of course, glowing terms: “Suffice it to say that every horticulturist should see Chatsworth before he dies, and spend not some hours there but some days… the perfect cleanliness and orderliness pervading kitchen and flower garden and the whole of this princely establishment redounds greatly to the honour of Mr Owen Thomas… it was one of the most delightful excursions it has ever been our good fortune to enjoy.” [Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald 1st August 1891]
Yet all good things come to an end. That visit took place after Owen had been head gardener there for 8 years, but only a few weeks before he left for one of the very few jobs in horticulture that was on a par with his role at Chatsworth: superintendent of Queen Victoria’s gardens at Windsor Castle and Frogmore, as well as the private gardens at Hampton Court, White Lodge and the Royal Pavilion at Aldershot.
In 1891 Thomas Jones, the royal gardener at Windsor, retired and, apparently on his recommendation, Owen was invited to take over. He inherited 30 acres of gardens, more than 30,000 sq ft of glasshouses and a staff of 45. He left Paxton’s grand gardener’s house, selling off his surplus household effects. If the impressive auction list was the surplus one can only guess at what he took to his new house at Frogmore with him along with the silver-plated inkstand and candlesticks presented to him by his Chatsworth staff.
At Frogmore, the royal retreat very close to Windsor, there were 25 acres of kitchen garden created in 1841 to supply the entire royal household. There was a Frogmore garden-book kept to record everything that happened or was produced, and from it you get a sense of the scale and magnitude of the operation. For example a daily supply of peas was sent to Balmoral – by post – when Victoria was there, whilst strawberries were dispatched in season, to wherever she happened to be, even if she was abroad.
The products of the royal garden, particularly fruit, were also sent for exhibition at horticultural shows all over the country.
Not content with all this, Owen was also interested in hybridizing and selecting new strains of plants which were then released commercially by Suttons and Carters. These included his work on melons such as the introduction of white fleshed varieties named Royal Favourite and British Queen which won many awards. He also bred new varieties of tomatoes which were a relatively new ingredient in the kitchen garden – with only one or two included in catalogues in the mid-century. Owen took great interest in their ‘improvement’ and introduced several new varieties, notably Frogmore Prolific which was “now regarded” according to Suttons “as one of the best sorts in cultivation.”
Although he retired from the council of the RHS in 1896 he remained enthusiastic about supporting their charities as well as amateur gardeners in general, so even as royal gardener continued to travel the country judging at flower shows and other horticultural events. In particular he remained loyal to his Chatsworth connections regularly returning to shows at Clay Cross and Matlock, and he continued to promote and advise on horticulture whenever asked. All this contributed in 1897 to his being one of the first 60 recipients of the Victoria Medal of Honour, introduced by the RHS, to commemorate the Queens Diamond Jubilee.
In 1900 Gertrude Jekyll and Edward Cooke, who were then editing The Garden, chose Owen as the subject of a regular short feature in the magazine: Workers amongst the Flowers.” They summarized his career and commented that he had “through patient study and work forced his way through to the forefront in British Gardening.” It was quite a compliment.
All these good things came to an end once again when Victoria died in January 1901.
Edward VII began his reign by a widespread clear-out of his mother’s domestic staff. The royal household was reorganized and all the royal gardens were placed under one superintendent : Edward’s gardener from Sandringham. The move was announced in May and Owen, at the age of only 58, was pensioned off with effect from that autumn.
The account of his retirement in The Garden reports that he was visibly moved when his staff gave him an illuminated address, which included at the bottom two views of the head gardeners house which he was having to give up. He said ” no man has ever had so kind, so considerate, or so thoughtful an employer as I had during those years, and no gardener had a better or a happier home than I had at the Royal gardens.”
Owen moved from Windsor to Ealing in west London but was obviously not the sort of person who could contemplate retirement from horticulture. He continued judging and became an examiner for the Royal Horticultural Society. And as a sideline he drew on his prestigious career and provided references used in horticultural advertising.
And, as another side-line, he was called as an expert witness in legal disputes about matters horticultural including one over a badly made croquet lawn in Dorking! [Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser – Sat 4th Oct 1913]
He also began writing using his wide and varied experience to turn out 3 practical gardening books, all published by Country Life. In the Fruit Garden co-authored with George Bunyard in 1904 The chapters on apricots,for example, mentions how they were grown under glass at Frogmore as well as how they were grown” by the late Mr Ewing of Bodorgan.”
This was followed up in 1913 by Vegetable Growing Made Easy co-authored with George Wythes, another VMH and head gardener to the Duke of Northumberland. A third book, How to Prune Roses and Fruit Trees appeared in 1921.
He got involved in journalism too, writing occasionally for William Robinson’s journal The Garden right up until his death, and became the gardening correspondent for The Daily Graphic in 1914.
He continued working until taken ill with severe pneumonia, dying a few months later on 28th May 1923. A short obituary appeared in Gardeners’ Chronicle on June 2nd that year [not available on-line] , and a longer more fulsome one in The Garden on June 9th presumably penned by his old acquaintance William Robinson. In his will Owen bequeathed a long list of presents given to him by the royal family and other important visitors to Windsor, which help show the esteem with which he was held.
During his lifetime he was honoured with having several plants named after him, including a zonal pelagonium, and a dark red dahlia with yellow tipsto the petals. Unfortunately none remain in cultivation as far as I can see, nor can I find any images of cultivars named after him… with one exception and I’m sure it’s the one he’d be most proud of, given his particular interest in fruit growing: an apple, which is still commercially available. So plant Owen Thomas in your garden and help celebrate the life and achievements of a great Victorian gardener.
There is, as so often with great gardeners, very little published about Owen Thomas. However, Michael Laurens, a member of his family wrote a short article about him for Royalty in the August 1989 edition.