If you were asked to name a great Victorian garden writer I bet John Claudius Loudon, William Robinson, or Shirley Hibberd would spring to mind immediately- but what about George Glenny? He was as prolific as the rest of them, started and edited several gardening [and other] magazines, was the first to have a gardening column in a popular newspaper, wrote a large number of gardening books, was connected [albeit rather grumpily!] with the Horticultural Society and even had green fingers himself winning countless cups and medals at horticultural shows.
So why isn’t he better known?
Maybe it’s because he was a man of decidedly strong views who fell out spectacularly with the horticultural establishment, was incapable of being collaborative and developed a razor sharp and often vitriolic tone. So who was this strange mixture? and is Will Tjaden’s description of him as “a horticultural hornet” deserved? [W.L. Tjaden, “George Glenny, The Garden (1986) 111 pp. 318–23]. Read on to find out.
A word of warning: Virtually none of Glenny’s work is illustrated, so there aren’t as many interesting /relevant pictures as usual.
Glenny was a Londoner, the son of a watchcase maker from Hoxton and born in 1793. He seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, and even married the daughter of another watchcase maker in 1815 and set up home and business in Clerkenwell.
However, he must have had a bit of a social conscience too, because he also worked with City charities helping workers who had fallen on hard times. In 1825 he went on to found the Royal Union Association, a friendly society and charity, under the patronage of the Duke of York, which paid him £200 a year and gave him sufficient status to be called as witness in a Parliamentary enquiry. It also enabled him to branch out and become a wine merchant on the side. This was a bit of a disaster and he was bankrupted, although he managed to keep his job at the Association.
Nor did it stop him taking an active role in organizing the memorial for the Duke of York which now stands on the Mall. By this time he was a widower with two small children but in 1828 he remarried and, moved to a villa in Twickenham with his new wife Louisa.
She probably bought quite a lot of money with her and this enabled George to stand back from day-to-day routine work. They subsequently had 7 children together all of whom were baptised at St Clements Dane where, in the register, he described himself as “a gentleman.”
Glenny had also started writing early. A few articles for The Anti-Gallican magazine, led to him taking the editorial chair of a small weekly, The British Luminary before starting a new magazine of his own. His charitable work helped gain the tacit support of Queen Adelaide who was known to be interested in gardens and even had her own flower painter Augusta Withers. She consented to Glenny’s new title: The Royal Lady’s Magazine and Archives of the Court of St. James’s. The first issue appeared in January 1831 and was concerned with fashion, religion, literature and other such things, but a year later Glenny began to include short horticultural articles.
That same year the Queen became patron of the Metropolitan Society of Florists and Amateurs founded by a group of nurserymen and amateur florists [then meaning flower growers rather than the modern flower seller], one of whom was George Glenny.
It began to organize competitive flower shows and as a result the Society was “likely to be secure a prominence and rank not inferior to that of Horticultural Society.” [the future RHS] Maybe that was to do with the free gift that came when buying a ticket for this dahlia show in 1833.
These shows were clearly sociable occasions, and some were held in taverns with lots of prizes and the exhibitors dining together afterwards. Amongst the early prize winners was George Glenny.
Soon the Metropolitan Society and its shows were being written about in great detail in the national and local press …and of course in The Royal Lady’s Magazine. But by then Glenny had started a second title The Horticultural Journal and Florists’ Register because of “the silly manner in which the periodical magazines connected with floriculture were conducted, and the total incompetence of the persons who profess to edit them.”
And who were these incompetents? He was probably talking about those horticultural nonentities John Claudius Loudon, Joseph Paxton and Joseph Harrison who was gardener to Lord Wharncliffe and editor of The Floricultural Cabinet another newly started gardening magazine. But George was quite astute, and decided to edit Horticultural Journal anonymously for reasons which I’m sure you can deduce for yourself.
The first issue in July 1833 attracted the attention – or perhaps earned the disdain would be more apt – of John Claudius Loudon and his Gardener’s Magazine in August 1833.
Paxton also took aim. But far from running away from the criticism Glenny reprinted it in full.
And soon the acid began to flow more freely. In The Royal Ladies Magazine – he returned the fire . “It is well known that the established periodicals took fright at our success, and each had a kick at our early numbers. Paxton was an exception, at least his kick was unlike the others’ kicks; he thought us too insignificant to hurt him, and found us useful.”
How on earth could Paxton find Glenny useful you might ask? It’s because “he published portions of our articles under new names, in his own work and thus profited by our labours….We hardly know which amuses us most; the man’s offended vanity at being overlooked or underrated by the Metropolitan Society and its patrons, his envy at the unprecedented patronage extended to us, or his alarm at our increasing influence in the floricultural world.”
Harrison then got his own personal assault:
I wonder what Queen Adelaide made of all this?
By 1835 Glenny decided to merge the two titles he was editing. First they became The Horticultural Journal and Royal Lady’s Magazine, but after one volume it was renamed again this time as The Horticultural Journal, Florists’ Register, and Royal Lady’s Magazine and that ran until 1840.
While all this was going on the London Horticultural Society decided to copy the success of the Metropolitan Society’s flower shows by staging some of its own competitions at its gardens at Chiswick and at its regular meetings in its Regents Street HQ office. Not wishing to miss out Glenny applied for membership of the Horticultural Society and was duly elected a Fellow. He then began to exhibit flowers at their Chiswick shows, with great success. In 1834 alone he won prizes for greenhouse plants in March, submitted the “finest and most tastefully arranged” display of pansies in April, a silver Banksian medal for violas in May, exhibited a stand of ‘georginas’ in June and August and won a gold Banksian medal for a display of 100 of them in October. [Georgina was then an alternative name for dahlia and they were to become a passion of his]. In fact he must have had a large collection of them because he gained another award in 1835 for a display of no less than 328 different varieties.
Even more spectacular was his achievement at the May 1837 London Horticultural Society show. He picked up no less than 15 silver medals for exhibits across a huge range of plants from Brugmansia to roses, orchids to azaleas and cacti to Kennedya. He also seems to have entered plants into many of the local flower shows that were now being held in many parts of the country. You get the distinct impression that George was quite competitive! The story was told later that he once entertained no fewer than fifty-seven guests, and could put a silver cup won as a prize for his flowers before each of them.
However George was also rather central London-centric and writes scathingly about many of these local and provincial horticultural societies. How would you feel if you were a member of the Stamford Hill Horticultural Society after reading this?
Despite being so abrasive in some ways, at the same time Glenny maintained that benevolent streak which had him working with charities most of his adult life. He was one of the founders of the Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Institution [now Perennial] in 1839, and apart from persuading the Duke of the York to act as patron, was the subscriber of the first 20 guineas. Loudon who had been on the receiving end of George’s attacks, was fair-minded enough to report that the Society was almost entirely down to Glenny and “the energetic manner in which he follows up everything he takes in hand” [Gardeners Magazine April 1839]. Loudon gives another example – the labelling of trees at Kew – in his June 1839 issue which shows how Glenny often achieved his objectives. It isn’t quite as flattering.
George Glenny clearly got things done and as a result had a high opinion of his own skills and talents as well as his own plants. One of the side effects of this was to give him contempt for most judges at flowers shows, considering none of them to have his own level of knowledge and plantsmanship. He certainly had several run-ins with judges over decisions affecting him.
In one case, for example, The Royal Lady’s Magazine in August 1834 has yet another go at Joseph Harrison for publishing a letter in his “Cheap and Nasty” that accused Glenny of subborning one of the judges when he won a prize for some auriculas. The letter was signed TC who Glenny cheerfully describes as “one of the scavengers who supply his [Harrison’s] work with the filth and folly which characterise it.” [Full account]
Of course since the Horticultural Journal was edited anonymously Glenny could take his own side and express editorial outrage. He does the same thing a few months later when he explains how poor Mr Glenny had been cheated out of another prize and forced to return it. Over two pages he explains every last detail and shows how wronged Mr Glenny had been saying that his rival “might enjoy the profit but that the honour is not so easily transferred.” [Full article]
One way round this was to avoid such shows and organize his own in conjunction with the Metropolitan Society. He began by running some in his own garden. The first in 1836 was clearly a great success and attracted a long list of the great and good in the horticultural world and the aristocracy. The band of the Royal Horse Guards played pieces from popular operas and Glenny was congratulated for his “excellent arrangements” and “very great taste”.
The following year it was the Coldstream Guards who played, and the throng celebrated Queen Adelaide’s birthday with many of her household in attendance and they admired Glenny’s conservatory packed full of exotic plants.
George now went one stage further in January 1837 and set up yet another magazine in parallel with his Horticultural Journal. This was The Gardener’s Gazette and Weekly Journal of Science, Literature and General News: the first weekly gardening publication in which he continued his various campaigns, in his usual abrasive way. It cost him £2000 to establish but within in two years was yielding an annual profit of about £1000.
His empire grew again when he decided to build his own floral exhibition hall in the grounds of Stafford House, just down the road from the Horticultural Society’s own gardens at Chiswick.
There were 3 shows that year, all reasonably attended, and with of course military band accompaniment. Press reports say that over 200 people dined at the local tavern afterwards. “Mr Glenny presided and the festivities passed off under his social auspices in the best possible spirit.” [Canterbury Journal, 28 Sept 1839).
And it wasn’t just a Grand Dahlia Show…he laid on other attractions too, but financially it was not a great success. By the end of that first show season Glenny was in severe difficulty and by the end of the year he had been declared bankrupt.
But as you might have guessed he might have been down but he was certainly not out…and he was soon back on his feet and as pugnacious as ever as I will report soon.