Orchids, Ferns, Fossils and the Great Flood

We often hear that grand gardens cost money: it’s as true as the old cliché which says “money talks.” But there is a world of difference between a grand garden and a great one.  Great gardens develop when that money meets vision, enthusiasm, knowledge – and a gardener. In the garden I’m going to talk about today and next week there was plenty of all those elements plus a great deal of persistence and more latterly of luck.

Sea Horse Roof finial             National Trust

It is a very special place in many senses and when I was thinking about how to begin describing it here I recalled what John Sales, the former head of gardens for the National Trust said about his first visit in the mid-1970s. “I was totally overwhelmed – in turns amazed, intrigued, excited, baffled and lost in the mixture of styles, moods and plants… here was something entirely different.”

James Bateman

This garden, if you haven’t already guessed  from the images, is Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire. I recently wrote about the great orchid book commissioned by James Bateman, and this continues his story  with the background to the garden he created there.

Bateman [he almost seems too ‘serious’ for me to refer to him lightly, as I would with many other protagonists as just  James], had married Maria Egerton-Warburton in 1838, although the couple continued to live at Knypersley Hall with his parents.  Maria was from a family with a great gardening background – including Tatton Park, Oulton Park and Arley Hall, and she was a knowledgable plantswoman herself. She helped diversify her husband’s horticultural interests away from just orchids, however wonderful they were.

The house in 1871 from the sales catalogue

In 1840, after the birth of their second child, they decided to move.  As it happens James’s uncle was vicar of nearby Biddulph and when he moved to a new house they took over the former vicarage. Over the course of the next twenty years or so, they extended and enlarged it  into a grand Italianate mansion designed by Bateman himself. Given his love of exotics it’s not surprising the house eventually included not just a conservatory, but also incorporated  space for camellias, a large rhododendron house  and an orangery. The dining room also overlooked a fernery  which served as an unusual approach to the house.

The Orchid House at Knypersley

It might seem strange but he  left  his large orchid collection in the hothouses at Knypersley, along with his vast indoor fruit orchard which included not only the usual grapes and peaches but mangosteens, bananas, and granadillas, and was grown in a hothouse measuring 182ft by 20ft.  By the 1860s Knypersley had  14 different hothouses and Bateman even added a reception area there where he could entertain visitors to his collections.  The kitchen garden and orchards also remained at the the old house.

That’s because Biddulph was to be  a different kind of garden.

Work had been underway for a few years, when in 1847 Bateman visited Kew, and was introduced to the artist Edward Cooke .  Cooke also happened to be the son-in-law of  George Loddiges, the great London nurseryman, who Bateman already knew, and was  related by marriage to Nathaniel Ward, so he was botanically very well connected.

Regular correspondence about plants and gardens followed and in 1849 Cooke was invited up to Staffordshire. He stayed a week and  even on that first visit  was offering suggestions and designing new features. According to Peter Hayden whose book on Biddulph is the standard history,  they quickly became good friends, and over the following 17 years Cook visited a further 15 times, corresponding with the Batemans in-between times, and meeting up with James on his regular visits to London.

details of the gardens from the 1871 sale particulars


The garden that resulted of this collaboration was described in a series of articles in Gardener’s Chronicle  in both 1856 [in 7 parts] and 1862 [in 5 parts] by garden designer Edward Kemp. He reveals a garden that combined eccentric buildings, with rockwork, rootwork, and topiary with rare plants from around the world. I’m going to look at all that next week, but today I’m going to concentrate on  just one feature that Kemp wrote about on 7th June 1862:   the Geological Gallery.  At first sight today  the gallery appears to be completely unconnected with the garden, but this is the opposite of the truth because it actually is a significant key to understanding it.

It doesn’t look much from the outside!                                                                                                   Screenshot from a National Trust information video


Bateman was a lay preacher, and  like most of his contemporaries a devout, scripture-based Christian. This, of course included a belief that the story of the Creation in Genesis was the literal truth:  the earth had been created in 7 days, and later there had been a great flood which destroyed almost the entire human race leaving Noah’s family to repopulate the earth. 

The discovery of fossils and complex geological strata and formations began to challenge the truth and consistency of the Biblical story, but led in turn to counter-assertions that fossils had been created by God along with everything else, while the various rock strata were all  laid down as a result of the Deluge.  By the early 19thc Charles Lyell rejected this in Principles of Geology [1830] with evidence that suggested the earth was older than previously thought and that its rock formations had been laid down gradually.  This must have been thought-provoking, to say the least, to many Christians including Bateman, who was also, we should remember, a member of the Royal Society.

Such challenging ideas were taken further by Hugh Miller, a self-taught Scottish geologist and theologian who argued in a series of books published in the 1840s that the earth had once been inhabited by many species who had become extinct. These species succeeded one another and showed progress in development. This he believed showed the direct action of a benevolent Creator, as described in the Bible, but crucially, although the account of the creation in Genesis was true it was not literally so.  Instead Miller argued that a day in the biblical story was a metaphorical day and actually corresponded with an entire geological age. Similar arguments were put forward by William Buckland.

Bateman’s first lectures

It led to intense theological debate, in which Bateman is known to have been actively involved.  He had read and agreed with Miller, and in 1847 and 1848, as  president of the local branch of the Church of England Young Men’s Society,  he had delivered lectures to them about  the relationship of geology and religion.

In December 1857 he gave another lecture to a crowded hall in nearby Hanley on “The  Mosaic Vision of Creation or Genesis and Geology”, which he  repeated several more times in the local area, each time reported in the local press.

This  lecture was illustrated with a series of six large diagrams drawn by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.  Hawkins had been keeper of Lord Derby’s menagerie at Knowsley, assistant superintendent of the Great Exhibition and most famously today was the man who made the concrete dinosaurs that are now in the grounds of Crystal Palace. He also made the models for  several large animal figures for the gardens at Biddulph.



But Bateman, being Bateman, took everything one stage further, and decided to put these theoretical  ideas into direct concrete form by building  the Geological Gallery.  It was probably begun in 1858, after advice from  both Hawkins and also from Professor Richard Owen, a pioneering paleontologist.

Construction must still have been under way the following year, 1859, when Darwin’s The Origin of Species shook the scientific and theological worlds and took the debate to another level.

Darwin’s arguments did not convince Bateman, who had already been corresponding with him about orchids, and even suggesting experiments Darwin  might carry out. But Bateman did not take such a vitriolic stance as other critics  and instead began a more rational debate.: “Though by no means a convert to your theory as to the ‘Origin of Species’ I wish the matter to be thoroughly ventilated and cannot but think that facts of great significance may be gathered in the direction I have indicated.” [Feb 1862].

In a way the Gallery acted as part of his response.

The result was  a narrow building which served originally as the entrance to the garden. It had a grand entrance opposite the main entrance to the Grange itself, which led to a waiting area lined with fragments of classical,  South American and Indian antiquities; let Edward Kemp tell you what he saw on his second visit to Biddulph in 1862 and which he reported in Gardeners Chronicle:

‘The geological gallery, which is upwards of 100 feet long, is lined with stone and lighted from the roof. It is heated with hot water the iron tubes for carrying which are made in the form of plinths or, as in other portions of the house, skirting boards, and are let into the walls so as to produce no more than the ordinary projections. 

The restored Day 1

Advancing into the gallery, it will be found treated in a way that is quite unique, and is singularly illustrative of the great geological facts of the globe. On the one side, at about three feet from the ground, a series of specimens, showing the earth’s formation, and exhibiting all the various strata in their natural succession, are let into the wall, in a layer about eighteen inches wide; and above this are arranged the animal and vegetable fossils that the respective strata yield. Many rare and elegant examples are here bought together, and as the once-living organisms are placed exactly above the strata from which their remains were taken, the series constitutes at once the most simple and complete lesson in practical geology that could be imagined.

The rsetored Day 2

Day 3 unrestored

The whole is distributed into ‘days’ supposed to correspond with the six (so called) ‘days’ of the Mosaic cosmogony, beginning with the granites, and passing into the slates, the limestones, the old red sandstones, the coal formations, etc, with such animal and vegetable remains as occur in each.


Pull-out geological chart from William Buckland, Geology and Minerology Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, vol.2 1836


On the other side of the gallery the walls are covered with geological maps and sections, and between a set of seats provided for the accommodation of those who wish to make the matter a study, is a series of tables, on which various remarkable geological specimens are arranged; thus rendering the general effect artistic as well as instructive.’

Unrestored Day 6, showing the space where a mammoth tusk was set







For more on the use of fossils in architecture  and the way it suggests the role of a Divine Designer see Michael Kerney in Country Life Jan 27th 1983

Although many were gradually convinced of the truth of Darwin’s theory Bateman continued to have his doubts, and in his  Monograph of Odontoglossums  published in sections between 1862 and 1874 he challenged the way in which Darwin had used the orchid material that he had supplied to him.  Darwin had argued that orchids with their specialised parts,  pointed to an  evolutionary development of the species whereas Bateman was adamant they were a sign of divine creation. In  another version of the thesis offered in the Geological Gallery he wrote:

The marvellous and inexhaustible variety of form in the Order is not due to its ancient lineage, nor yet to the vast periods through which endless transformations are assumed to have been continually taking place, because Orchids- according to geologic reckoning are but a thing of yesterday, and have never been found in the fossil state. Yet their constant companions the Ferns trace their pedigree to the earliest vegetation of the primaeval world! To the believer this problem is not hard to solve. Ferns and other flowerless plants came early in the Divine programme, because the coal, into which they were to be ultimately converted, had need to be long accumulating for the future comfort and civilization of our race; while the genesis of Orchids was postponed until the time drew near when Man, who was to be soothed by the gentle influence of their beauty, or charmed by the marvellous variety of their structure, was about to appear on the scene.

A gorilla and Neanderthal skull towards the end of the story. National Trust

Day 6… but what happened on Day 7?

The Geological Gallery may have been the entry point for visitors to the garden but what Kemp doesn’t describe is what the visitor saw in the last section as they left it to go outside.   That’s rather annoying as no-one really knows!   Our ignorance is largely because in 1921  Biddulph was donated by the then owner for use as a hospital. The gallery was then used as storeroom and even a mortuary. In the 1930s alterations were made to the building and it appears the last section of the gallery – the one corresponding to the 7th Day – was taken down with no record made of its contents. [Hardly surprising since by then Bateman’s vision was extremely old hat] The likelihood is that it would have made some reference to the Sabbath being the Day of Rest although given his comments in Monograph of Odontoglossums  maybe it was a display of orchids which he thought God had created after he had  created humans because otherwise there would have been no-one to enjoy them!

Juvenile ichthyosaur, National Trust


Over time the gallery was  vandalised and well over 50 of the original fossils and other items removed, so its significance was only gradually realised in the 1970s when Dr John Stanley from nearby Keele University rescued the ten surviving fossil specimens. They remained at Keele until the National Trust began a restoration programme in 2012. This lasted until 2018 and the gallery is once again open to the public. There is a detailed account of the fossils found, and the conservation programme for them and the gallery, including several interviews and short video clips,at Earth Heritage, which is well worth a look.

Even if you’ve been to Biddulph recently you may not have noticed the Geological Gallery because it’s tucked away at the end of the mansion and almost out of sight. As the National Trust only own the main part of the gardens, while the mansion and the part of the grounds in front of it, are in private hands, the gallery has lost it original function. Bateman wanted his visitors to enter the garden via the gallery in order to give them a preparatory intellectual background to what they were to see: his  vision of a Garden of Eden. More on that next week



About The Gardens Trust

Email - education@thegardenstrust.org Website - www.thegardenstrust.org
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4 Responses to Orchids, Ferns, Fossils and the Great Flood

  1. cboot says:

    Can you imagine the fuss it was cause developers if they had to get a licence for and relocate an 8-metre long newt? You can’t make it up:

    We did get a sneak preview of the gallery on our Keele Conference way back in 2011, but I didn’t take any pictures then. I think my batteries may have run out by the time I reached it… Great to see it looking so much better now, and with fossils.

  2. A superb, discursive story. Thank you.

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