Todays post is about a senior Victorian divorce and ecclesiastical court judge who was a fellow of the Royal Geographical and Anthropological Societies, and, believe it or not, a member of the Cannibal Club. He also thought that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare and apparently had more than a passing interest in pornography. So perhaps not the sort of person you’d expect to read about here, and especially not over your breakfast on a Saturday morning. But today’s star turn was all of those things and more – and in particular he was a keen gardener.
He was Lord Penzance and you might recall his name from nursery catalogues in connection with rampant thorny roses.
So read on to discover more about his interest in the queen of flowers but not the other things. [ However I’ve added some references at the end if you want to pursue them further under your own steam.]
He was not always Lord Penzance but started life in 1816 as James Wilde. Born into a prominent legal family he followed in their footsteps, eventually becoming president of the relatively new Court of Divorce where he established a liberal regime from 1863 until his retirement in 1872. He later became Dean of Arches, a senior ecclesiastical court. It was only in 1869 that he was elevated to the peerage.
He was married to Lady Mary Pleydell-Bouverie, a daughter of the 3rd Earl of Radnor. This was a rather late marriage, he was 44 to her 35, and they had no children. After their marriage they lived in a newly built  mock-Tudor Jackwood or Mayfield House, at Shooters Hill then in northern Kent but now in the London Borough of Greenwich where they created a grand garden. This included all the usual features including “a charming rosary” which is the circular shape in the middle of the woodland.
On his retirement from the divorce court bench they decided to move to the country and Mayfield was sold. The house was demolished in 1918 but part of its formal gardens and terraces, its high red-brick walls, small water feature, the rose gardens, and some of the woodland have been incorporated into Shooters Hill Woodlands.
The couple then leased Eashing Park near Godalming where they lived for the rest of their lives. Now most people when they retire take up a hobby of some sort – rather like me writing this blog – but Lord Penzance waited a bit longer to start on his. He may have been interested in roses but it was not until about 1885 as he was approaching 70 that he and his wife embarked on the hobby that was to make them famous in gardening circles, both then and now.
Eashing was to figure in an article in Country Life in 1899 just after Lord Penzance died. The article starts: “There is always something interesting in the learned leisure of judges and in the occupations to which they devote themselves”. I suspect, however, they did not mean his lordship’s penchant for erotica but the rose hybridization programme that he and his wife began.
After only four years work he was recognized as being successful enough to give a paper about it at the National Rose Conference held in the RHS gardens at Chiswick in 1889.
In it Penzance gave a potted history of rose hybridization which had really only started in the early 19thc in Holland and France, with the deliberate raising of roses from seed. This had yielded many varieties but, as he said, “if the mere acquisition of new varieties were the sole thing to desired we might be thankful, and well content with a supply which gives us novelties as fast or faster than we can make up our minds to cast away old favourites to make way for them.” But of course out of these “little strangers” as he called them how many had anything really new or improved to offer?
His answer was very few. Although one or two such as Marechal Niel and La France were special, generally there had been little or no progress in improving vigour, disease resistance or lengthening the flowering season. Worse still, scent had almost disappeared as a quality to be improved and he “could not call to mind any rose of modern date..that can equal the old cabbage rose.”
So, overall Lord Penzance thought we gained little or nothing from recent rose breeding. But it was worse than that because many classes of roses had fallen out of favour as a result of it, in particular the Bourbon roses which had only been introduced in 1820. Although they only had small flowers they were known for their sweet scent. To prove his point he cites The Rose Garden written in 1848 by celebrated rose grower William Paul.
It listed 188 Bourbon roses covering all shades between fawn, cream and white to pink, red and crimson. By the 1888 edition Paul listed a mere 33, and “of these many had been so crossed with other races that they cease to exhibit their natural characteristics.” A similar story could be told for the Perpetual Damasks or Portland roses. Paul listed 84 in 1848 but none at all in 1888, although a few had been moved into other classes.
Why was this? In one word his lordship thought it was “Fashion… As new generations of Hybrid Perpetuals were introduced their glories trumpeted forth in all the horticultural publications” their popularity rose and nurserymen had to meet rising demand. That meant old favourites had to give way to “beautiful swaggering strangers.”
So obviously the $64 million question that he posed next was: what could be done about it? And of course he had the answer.
Instead of growing seedlings from a single species attempts should be made to cross two separate ones and then “new races without limit maybe within our reach.” They were already waiting “packed away in the unexplored storehouse of Nature.”
Since previous attempts had been “haphazard” Penzance began a deliberate planned hybridization programme at Eashing Place with some success, but many failures too. An article by his gardener in The Garden of February 1900 just a few months after Penzance’s death explains quite how seriously and scientifically his lordship went about it although they still learned by trial and error.
Admiring the vigour and perfume of Rosa eglanteria, [now R. rubiginosa] the sweet briar rose, which has apple-scented foliage Penzance had “thought how much more attractive it might become if by some judicious crossing the flower could be improved and the scent of the foliage retained.” So he bought lots of potted briars and began a programme of fertilising them with the pollen of various roses, mainly then fashionable Hybrid Perpetuals.
Their first success was a seedling that flowered from a cross with an old hybrid China Rose named William Jesse. Hybrid China roses became the initial favourite for further experimenting, then Hybrid Perpetuals notably the dark coloured Souvenir d’Auguste Riviere increased the colour range.
After that the Penzances tried more species such as Scotch Roses and Rosa lucida before moving on to try working with Tea roses and Noisettes. But, the gardener noted sadly “in no case was it a success: the hard glossy foliage and rambling habit were often produced but no advance in flower was gained.” They also had no scent and usually lacked a vigorous constitution so “that race.. was in future left to itself.”
Nothing daunted the next candidate for crossing the Sweet Briar with the Moss rose, and when their offspring were nothing to write home about they tried Gallicas, Bourbons and Hybrid Perpetuals. Not much better. Next came crosses with the Musk Rose and suddenly things changed.
Several seedlings proved worthy of growing on and propagating. One of these a cross from Princess of Nassau was said the gardener “one of the finest garden roses I know, growing into bushes 8 feet or 10 feet in diameter and covering itself with flowers of a creamy white colour, and with a flowering season extending late into the autumn.” Several other crosses also seemed worthy of a place in the garden. Unfortunately none are named or, as far as I can tell, made it into commercial production.
Another successful coupling was with Rosa rugosa, and the gardener had no doubt that many useful roses could be obtained by working on the strain – they were truly remontant and very hardy, in a wide range of colours although again sadly none of crosses obtained were named.
What is strangest about this article is that it does not mention any of the Penzances greatest successes. These arose from crosses between Rosa eglanteria and Rosa foetida which are still grown today as the Penzance briars. The first two, both introduced in 1894 were ‘Lady Penzance’ and ‘Lord Penzance’.
They were followed in 1894 and 1895 by a series of 14 more successful crosses named after characters in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. These were soon introduced into commercial production and by the late 1890s they were widely available not just in Britain but across western Europe and North America.
That they were popular can be seen from accounts of rose shows and lists of recommendations from famous Rosarians like Samuel Reynolds Hole. Whereas many other roses recommended are now completely forgotten Penzance’s briars continue to be grown. As Country Life said in 1899: “no roses are now more famous than Penzance hybrid sweet-briars, and perhaps long after the disputes of the Court of Arches have been forgotten the name of Lord Penzance will be remembered in association with the wonderful varieties of roses which he may truly said to have created.”
That’s certainly the case because although they have smaller single or semi-double flowers they are completely hardy, are vigorous growers, often over 3m in height, and all have the fragrant foliage his lordship wished for. They are also very thorny, can tolerate a fair amount of shade and poor soil and make good hedges. What’s more, a check on the rose website Helpmefind shows they have contributed to the breeding programmes of many other well-known rose breeders including Kordes, Harkness, McGredy, Meilland and David Austin.
Sadly you can’t go and see the site of Penzance’s rose nursery, because Eashing Park is no more. In 1940 the house was requisitioned for military use and afterwards it fell into decay. It was demolished in 1957.
Lord Penzance died on 9 December 1899 and is buried in Shackleford churchyard, and in a mark of how horticulture is undervalued, his passion for roses takes up just the last 1.5 lines in his lengthy entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.
And finally, if you want to follow up Lord Penzance’s other more risqué interests, then you can check The Romance of Lust a four volume erotic novel which he is thought to have part authored, and read about it/him in context in Angela Woollacott, Gender and Empire(2007); Lisa Sigel’s International Exposure (2005) and Anne Hellmann and Mark Llewellyn, Neo-Victorianism(2010). Extracts from all of them are available on-line.