I’m always amazed by the way that some now fashionable upmarket residential areas have a different, more working class past often with horticultural connections. Belgravia, for example, is built on the site of the Neat Houses, once London’s largest concentration of market gardens. Chelsea too was once home to market gardens but also to a large number of commercial nurseries for ornamental plants.
I’ve already written about Joseph Knight’s Exotic Nursery on the King’s Road and today’s post was intended to be about another of these once great, but now largely forgotten, establishments, John Weeks and Co. However, as usual, the research proved diverting… and so, as usual, I allowed myself to be diverted
I’d not really intended to say much about John’s father, Edward Weeks, apart from the fact that he started a garden building business in around 1815, starting making boilers and heating systems and handed over the business to John in the early 1840s. However I happened to see a reference to him in one of John Claudius Loudon’s books and so began the first diversion.
It turns out that Edward Weeks was a gardener from Lleweni Hall near Denbigh, the home of the Hon. Thomas Fitzmaurice MP, the brother of former Prime Minister Lord Shelburne. Lleweni was a vast 200+ roomed mansion on a 4,000+ acre estate where Capability Brown had worked. Unfortunately I can’t find out much about the gardens at Lleweni and the entry on our database is a blank. However Edward must have been an inventive gardener because in 1808 he was awarded a patent for a new kind of forcing frame “for the raising and forcing of Cucumbers, Melons, Strawberries, and various other Fruits and Plants which require the Application of artificial Heat to rear or ripen.”
It was wooden with glass panels on top and looked much like any other frame at first glance, however, it also had an internal frame that was slightly smaller. Nor did it sit on directly on a hot-bed, but had a boarded base. This was attached to a winch system that allowed the contents to be raised up closer to the glass when the plants were small, and for the warm air to circulate freely in the gaps between the external and internal frames, thus warming the space more effectively. It also preventing the roots of the plants from being scorched by the dung in the hotbed.
In 1810 Llanewi was sold by Thomas Fitzmaurice’s son, Viscount Kirkwall, to William Hughes, a wealthy MP and copper magnate and eventually most of the house was pulled down and the materials used to rebuild nearby Kinmel Hall. The sale may have forced [unwitting joke!] Edward to make hard decisions about his future. Describing himself as “Late Gardner” to Lord Kirkwall, in 1814 he wrote a short treatise, The Forcer’s Assistant, which was dedicated to George Frederick Stratton of Great Tew Park in Oxfordshire.
This led to my next diversion. Stratton was an early patron of John Claudius Loudon and in 1808 commissioned him to redesign the grounds of Great Tew Park. Loudon also took up the lease on a rundown farm there where he formed an agricultural college. The story of how Loudon sold the college in 1811 for a handsome profit, then traveled round war-torn Europe only to return to find his banker had lost all his money for him, is well known. The effect of that was send Loudon back to thinking about greenhouse technology. [see previous post] and to writing about them too, and it was in his Remarks on the Construction of Hothouses, of 1817, that I discovered Loudon’s reference to Edward’s patented forcing frame. Loudon points out that it came a century after John Laurence suggested in The Fruit-Garden Kalendar, having an internal floor of wire and tiles between the plants and the hotbed so that the whole contents could be lifted out and moved to a hotter or cooler frame to avoid disturbing the plants. Week’s idea “promised”, thought Loudon, “considerable advantages and deserves trial in all private gardens where early forcing is an object.”
Week’s forcing frame certainly seems to have been a commercial proposition, and he opened the “Patent Forcing Frame Manufactury” in Regents Terrace on the Kings Road in Chelsea and was advertising his frames from 1812. They were soon being widely bought and used by nurserymen as well as private estates. By 1814 the factory had been renamed Weeks and Co Hortulan Manufactory and was experimenting with other new technologies such as using steam for heating, as well as making forcing frames.
In 1829 Edward Weeks was granted another patent, this time for moving hot water between a boiler and a cistern and using the movement to transmit heat
Edward was clearly set on expanding and seems to have entered into several partnerships, One with Thomas Wright seems to have begun manufacturing stoves and ranges as well as his garden buildings. Another seems to have involved having a part share in an ironworks , the Cadogan foundry on Kings Road. His son John seems to have joined him too, because in 1839 John is paid £10 for preparing plans and estimate for the heating system at Paxton’s Great Stove at Chatsworth, although there were other contenders and I don’t think he got the job .
But then something seems to have gone wrong. The partnership with Wright was dissolved in 1837 [Globe 26 April 1837], and the one involving the ironworks in 1840 [Bell’s Weekly Messenger 25 October 1840]. Edward was declared bankrupt in 1846 [Globe 9 June 1846] although this was annulled 5 weeks later [Morning Post 18 July 1846] But after that I can find no record of him. However it’s possible that he had handed over the business to John by then because in 1842 John Weeks, now described as “Horticultural Builder and Hotwater Apparatus Manufacturer” moved their headquarters when he took a 76 year lease on 124-126 Kings Road which had previously been a nursery ground.
Now the business began to grow again. John Weeks seems to have formed a successful partnership with Charles Gruneberg, the son of a German nurseryman, and he made horticultural history [I think!] by being the first person in Britain to successfully grow the giant south American water lily then known as Victoria Regia out of doors. The leaves were 4ft across in May and as Illustrated London Life proclaimed “the plant has a more noble appearance in the open air than when growing in the hothouse aquarium – the leaves becoming hypocrateriform, a natural desideratum of much interest.” Of course the water was heated with the apparatus they designed and sold, so it made a great advert for its effectiveness.
Expansion continued when in 1855 Weeks leased another acre of land further west facing Cremorne Gardens, and then purchased the freehold in 1857. This was run as a nursery.
Now calling himself a “horticultural architect” he constructed a ‘magnificent winter garden’ as a showcase for his work on the new site. It was impressive enough to merit a small article in The Times when it opened in April 1857 and claimed to ” exceed anything of the kind yet attempted in this country.” 70ft square and 28ft high it contained bays, orange trees, myrtles, fancy geraniums, azaleas, and many varieties of camellias. Weeks advertised it as the second Crystal Palace.
Sadly I can’t find any images [other perhaps than the one in the first picture in the post] but there’s a full description in Gardeners Chronicle, 2nd May 1857
One of Week’s clients was the garden writer George Glenny. He sang the praise of Week’s boilers for their efficiency and low running costs in one of his columns proclaiming them to be “before all others.” They obviously sold well and were exhibited at all the major shows and exhibitions in Britain including the International Exhibition of 1862 where they received another positive write-up from Illustrated London News. Weeks also exhibited a glass wall.
Although Weeks clearly had grown ‘exotic’ plants for many years as he grew older he decided to concentrate his interests on the building and heating side of the business which as can be seen from his list of clients must have been much more profitable.
He seems to have auctioned most of the stock but kept the forcing houses as this enabled him to show off his heating equipment, and presumably was also quite lucrative. Nonetheless the larger part of the new site with its house, and all the nursery outbuildings and greenhouses were leased to another nurseryman, William Bull, in 1863 for £300 a year. [Bull is another now-forgotten horticulturist and one day I’ll write about him too]
At about the same time, Weeks’ partner Charles Gruneberg moved to the United States and took with him the design of Weeks specialised strawberry house which he said had been very successfully used in Britain and which he wrote about in the American horticultural press.
When he retired in 1869 John Weeks passed the business over to his brother Alfred G.W. Weeks and to three other partners George Deal, George Lillywhite, and Alexander Saunders. In 1874 he also gave William Bull the freehold of his leased nursery, by then known as “Bull’s Establishment for New and Rare Plants”, in return for an annuity of £500 a year. The company continued as J. Weeks & Company until about 1908.
Business must have been good because when John retired he moved to the Hertfordshire village of Preston nr Hitchin where he rented Temple Dinsley. Having ‘googled’ the house I thought it would make a suitable subject for a blog but discovered that there is an excellent village history website that has done extensive research, about the house and John Weeks’ time there, so if you want to know more about it then follow the links under the photos.
And a final diversion: A Weeks hothouse has recently been saved from decay and ultimately demolition and has been restored. Dating from the 1890s it was built for the the Hon. Gwendoline and Algernon Bourke of St Mary’s at Bramber in Sussex. It is the sole survivor of a whole range of garden buildings built for them by Weeks which included pineapple pits, potting sheds, apple store, and no less than five glasshouses. The opening of the restored glasshouse was reported in the Shoreham Herald in June 2016.