What’s going on the Shrubbery? And what’s it got to do with Mr Repton?

The Shrubbery Scene, from the Trial of the Rev. James Altham, 1785

This post started out life months and months ago as a draft piece on eroticism in the garden generally. I’d found some great images and references and was looking forward to surprising you, my readers, with a little naughtiness….surely not on a Parks and Gardens blog!

I  began compiling a list of snippets, references and images to include, and then  thought I’d discovered two unknown women garden designers when I read a paragraph in a 18thc newspaper which said that  “Lady Foley and Mrs Arabin have kindly undertaken to plan the intended shrubbery behind Gower Street – can anyone doubt their capability, who reflects with what art they displayed the beauties of nature in their own gardens.” [Daily Universal Register, 2 Sep 1785]  although that turned out not to be quite the case.

As one thing led to another I realised  there was far too much for a single post, and that there was a good concentration of stories from one particular period, SO here are some tales about what went on in the Shrubbery… and probably elsewhere too … in the late 18thc.

BUT what has all this got to do with this year’s hero Humphry Repton? Read on to find out



The story begins to unfold in a snippet in the Times in its first year of publication, 1785.






What on earth was all that about? Who were Lady Foley and Mrs Arabin? Why were there sneers about shrubberies?  And what on earth were the ladies up to?

detail from The Lascivious Squire, Thomas Rowlandson, c.1800

Shrubberies were certainly still a new landscape feature at this time. Although, according to the OED the first known use of the word was in a letter of 1746, it was being used to describe gardens in newspaper ads for house lettings and sales  from the early 1760s.  As Jane Austen shows shrubberies soon became a must-have garden feature for the owners of large estates.  In Mansfield Park for example Lady Bertram advises Mr. Rushworth:  “if I were you, I would have a very pretty shrubbery. One likes to get out into a shrubbery in fine weather.” Later Miss Crawford rather snobbily comments: “Between ourselves, till I came to Mansfield, I had not imagined a country parson ever aspired to a shrubbery, or anything of the kind.”  But, as other Austen references show the shrubbery quickly became a location for seclusion and solitude, usually associated with women.

The Driving Scene, British Library

One place that definitely had a shrubbery was Stoke Edith in Herefordshire, the home of the Foley family.  In 1778  Edward, the second son of the newly ennobled Lord Foley married Lady Anne Coventry, the daughter of Capability Brown’s friend and patron, the Earl of Coventry of Croome Park in Worcesteshire.   It was not a successful match to put it mildly.  As one family acquiantance put it: “You have heard, I suppose of Ned Foley’s match with Lady Anne Coventry. The trustees settled the jointure; who settled the match, God knows.” The couple had to be supported financially by her brother, the heir to the earldom.

Apparently Edward Foley was a rake and inveterate gambler whilst Anne was said to have had a whole string of lovers. The combination provided the scandal sheets with plenty of material, particularly when she was reported to have sent a note to a Captain Fitzpatrick: “Dear Richard, I give you joy. I have made you the father of a beautiful boy… PS This is not a circular.”  

Despite these potential problems the couple  turned a blind eye to each others conduct until that is he had spent her dowry and she began an affair with Charles Henry Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough. The earl had a reputation as a serial womaniser and libertine.   Their liaison soon became public knowledge, and not just reported in the press but the object of ribald cartoons based on scenes in the trial.

The Oak Tree Scene, British Library

Foley ended up bringing charges of “criminal conversation”against the earl: this was effectively a claim for compensation for his loss of property rights over his wife, since  she was legally considered  merely to be his chattel.  At the time this was quite  ‘normal’ following adultery, where the rich were concerned  and Foley was awarded the huge sum of  £2,500 in damages. He then sought to divorce his wife and obtained a private bill in Parliament to do so. Rather than take this lying down [so to speak] she was blatant. Her lawyer admitted that  “Lady Anne Foley had been guilty of infidelity with many persons before” but crucially that “Mr. Foley knew it in some instances, and was cautioned against Lord Peterborough, yet that he kept him in his house when his lordship wished to go, and told him not to be vain of Lady Anne’s favors, for that she shared them to all men alike; that he left him in the house alone with her for days.”  

The Furze Bush Scene, British Library

At the trial it was pretty clear that Anne and Charles Henry had been “carrying on” pretty blatantly, but they didn’t think about the servants!  A coachman reported what they were up to in the carriage on one journey.  That became The Diving Scene which opened this post. Another spied on them in the park and reported the salacious details in full, including the incident that became the cartoonist’s Oak Tree Scene. A third, John Davis, was an estate bricklayer at Stoke Edith and “had been that day employed in pulling down a pigeon-house..and was returning from his work along a  public road which ran parallel with the shrubbery in Mr Foley’s grounds [when] he heard the voice of a female crying “Oh Dear you hurt me!”..which induced [him] to look and see who was there.”

And what he saw became The Furze Bush Scene, which  was Of course it was Anne and the earl “together in the walk in the shrubbery, near the grotto.”  “He …was standing in the said walk with the said Rt Hon Lady Anne Foley in his arms”. That might have been fairly innocent I suppose except that “her legs were round his with her clothes up to her waist and her nakedness exposed from her waist down, and their bodies were in motion.”   Shocking stuff even then.  The local paper The Hereford Journal was more tasteful in its account  merely stating that “the transaction that gave rise to the action was in a shrubbery”

from Journal of a Libertine, British Library

Of course it was a masculine world and Foley was granted his divorce and then proceeded to publish an account of the trial in which you can find all the gory details.   Unfortunately  Anne and  Peterborough also fell out so instead of becoming a Countess as perhaps she hoped she became homeless. Luckily for her  she soon met and  married an army officer and retired for a quiet life in the the countryside.

Its quite intriguing to know that our old friend Humphry Repton was well known to Edward Foley and worked for him after he had inherited Stoke Edith. It was there in 1790 just as the scandal was dying down that Foley  consulted him about the estate.  One of Repton’s recommendations was moving the public road which ran across the estate, and past the shrubbery. This  meant demolishing and relocating the entire existing village,but it also meant that the park could be private and that no-one would ever be able to spy on goings-on in the shrubbery – or indeed the parkland –  which was like shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted!   Incidentally also working at Stoke Edith was the architect John Nash and it was Edward Foley  who introduced him to Repton. [More about the disastrous relationship between Repton and Nash in another post one day!]

Mr S & Mrs A in the Shrubbery, British Library

But Lady Anne and the Earl were not the only ones caught in flagrante in the shrubbery. I’ve found  several other cases notably Arabin v Sutton in 1785. Here Major Arabin, one of the royal equerries, sued Mr Sutton for ‘criminal conversation’ after his adultery with Mrs Arabin. They too were caught out by the servants. Not just once but a large number of times, sometimes indoors by someone peering through the keyhole, but several more times outside in the shrubbery.

This too led to some cynical comments in the press about the effects of such adultery on the nursery trade:   “It is pretty remarkable that Mrs A-b-n’s shrubbery frolic should have been the exact counterpart of that of Lady Anne Foley. From the above examples the nurserymen have been applied to for the purpose of planting with thick grown shrubs, several fashionable villas!” [Morning Post 28 June 1785]

Such asides continued a long time indicating that the embers of the scandal died slowly. In 1789 an author  referred to conversation that “might amuse Mrs. Arabin on the carpet, or in the shrubbery,” [Edward Baldwyn, Further Remarks on Two of the Most Singular Characters of the Age].

There was a sadder case slightly earlier which probably contributed to the furore over Lady Foley and Mrs Arabin. This was the 1781 trial for adultery, defamation, and obscenity of the Rev James Altham, who vicar of St. Olave Jewry, and rector of St. Martin, Ironmonger-lane, both in the City of London, and Rector of Harlow in Essex too.  Altham became infatuated with Ann Saunders, one of his domestic servants. They met and were observed in ‘carnal lust’ many times including  ‘at a place called the Shrubbery behind the house of John Edwards’.  It led to cartoons in the published  trial transcript where you can find all the salacious details. Altham was found guilty but also insane and ended his days in an asylum.

Later I’ve found the 1794  case of Biscoe v Gordon, where Mrs B eloped with Mr G and lived with him as man-and-wife where one of the key witnesses was the gardener who had seen them together in the shrubbery. There was also the case of Gregson v McTaggart – which involved them visiting the greenhouse and shrubbery together alone. [Morning Chronicle, 28 July 1808]

Shrubberies and plantations around London squares were also linked with illicit sexual shenanigans, and not just by the elite. John Buonarroti Papworth in his Select Views of London [1816, p.36] notes that  Grosvenor Square “has of late years been deprived of much of its shrubbery, in consequence of the cover afforded by it to the servants in the neighbourhood, whose noise disturbed the nobility and gentry during their morning repose.”  Perhaps that also explained why Loudon suggested a few years later in 1822 that such shrubberies and the other planting should not be so dense as to obscure the view from the first floor of surrounding houses.  According to Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, other squares also seem to have had their planting thinned out for fear of misdemeanours taking place.   So, its clear in the late 18thc how gardens were planted had moral overtones.

For more on this see: Sarah Lloyd, “Amour in the Shrubberies: Reading the Detail of English Adultery Trial Publications in the 1790s”. Eighteenth-Century Studies Vol 39, No 4 (2006) 421-442.   & Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, The London Square, pp.98-99

And just as I was finishing this post, I discovered this cartoon which I’ll leave you to puzzle out for yourselves!

Lady Strachan and Lady Warwick making love in a park, while their husbands look on with disapproval.  ca. 1820. The Wellcome Library (L0029887).

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 2.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/


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1 Response to What’s going on the Shrubbery? And what’s it got to do with Mr Repton?

  1. Chrhistine Hodgetts says:

    The Lady Warwick affair was recorded (though not with a shrubbery connection) in another cartoon Henry Richard, the third Greville Earl had married her in 1816, the same year that he inherited the title and estate. She had been Lady Sarah Elizaberth, daughter of John Savile, Lord Mexborough and had been previously married to Lord Monson. their son, the infant Lord Monson seems to have lived in the Greville household. (after her re-marriage it might have been expected that he lived with his father’s family) There are some expenses relating to Lord Monson’s garden at Warwick, location and character not known.

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