I don’t suppose many of us think of Charles Dickens as being a gardener. Novelist, Social reformer, commentator, even actor/performer yes, but gardener, probably not. Yet Dickens was very interested in gardens and gardening and thought England itself was ‘the one great garden’, with its ‘changes of glorious light from moving boughs, songs from birds, scents from gardens, woods and fields’.
Although he did not claim to be a gardener he wrote of “the repose and delight to be found in gardening” adding “probably there is no feeling in the human mind stronger than the love of gardening.”
And once you start to think about it, gardens and the love of plants play an important role in several of his novels. They are a place to escape the harsher reality of the world many of his characters inhabit. So my idea was to look at some gardens in his books, but on the way I began investigating Dickens own garden at Gad’s Hill Place and that’s as far as I got for reasons which will I hope become apparent.
But why the red geraniums?
Although listed Grade 1 by Historic England, this is probably more for its associations with Dickens than its architectural quality. The house stood in more than 20 acres in the village of Higham about halfway between Rochester and Gravesend in Kent. When Dickens bought it, it probably had a typical garden of its day. There were lawns and flower beds to the front and side of the house, an orchard and kitchen garden, and on the other side of the nearby road a shrubbery. He wrote to Angela Burdett-Coutts that it was all “very pretty” but that he had “wonderfully ingenious” ideas for its improvement.
But first he needed a gardener to do the work, although it’s clear that he kept an eagle eye on everything. He took a daily walk around the garden checking everything and one of his gardeners later recalling that Dickens “used to supervise everything himself and would tell the head man exactly where to put the flowers.”
Who better to ask for advice about somebody trustworthy than Sir Joseph Paxton, of Chatsworth & Crystal Palace fame, who Dickens knew from serving with him on the board of the Gardeners Benevolent Society. His friendship with Paxton, who almost certainly visited Gad’s Hill, is shown by his inclusion amongst the invented titles in the shelves of dummy books on the door of Dickens study with the 5 volume set of Paxton’s Bloomers.
Paxton recommended Charles Barber who then remained with Dickens until illness forced his retirement in 1864. Barber had strong views telling his new employer soon after his arrival that his orchards were hardly fit for firewood and that “the stocking of this here garden is worth less than nothing, because you wouldn’t have to grub up nothing, but something takes a man to do it at three and sixpence a day” [quoted by Dickens Letters vol.9 p.123]. Barber also told him to build a conservatory, although this didn’t happen until 1870 when flush with “the golden shower” of profits from his tour of America, one was eventually was bought from Cottam & Co. [More on that below]
“I have turned the garden topsy-turvy at great expense. We have a forcing house for forcing every sort of flower; melon frames, cucumber frames and mushroom beds to produce in every week of the year. One hundred loads of gravel have been put on the paths to raise them…and the devil knows what else to swell the items of the bill.” The auction catalogue after Dickens death lists a lot of this equipment including, for example, 2 dozen rhubarb and almost 3 dozen seakale forcing pots.
The walls of the house were covered in roses and there was not only a pair of geranium theatres under the bay windows of the house [you can just make one out in the background of this photo] but parterres full of the red geraniums that were Dickens favourite flower.
There were always geranium flowers on the dining table and whenever he gave one of his famous readings he is supposed always to have worn a fresh geranium in his button-hole. [I can’t however find any photos showing that] His daughter Mamie recalls saying to him: “Papa, I think when you are an angel your wings will be made of looking-glasses and your crown of scarlet geraniums.” His study overlooked the lawn with his writing table near the window “looking out into the open world which he loved so keenly.”
On the lawn stood a sundial in part made from the balustrade of the old stone bridge at Rochester which featured in both David Copperfield and Pickwick Papers, and there was another lawn set up as a bowling green, a favourite game of his. Elsewhere, the area around the house also contained a large rose garden, and beds of brightly coloured chrysanthemums, azaleas, primulas, lobelia and burning-bush plants, one containing the grave of his favourite caged bird ‘Dick’.
In 1862 Mamie, perhaps following fashion, asked him to create a fernery. Dickens was always frugal and thought through projects carefully before committing large sums of money to them, so as he reported in a letter to a friend in 1862: “After carefully cross-examining my daughter, I do not believe her to be worthy of the fernery. Last autumn we transplanted into the shrubbery a quantity of evergreens previously clustered close to the front of the house, and trained more ivy about the wall and the like. When I ask her where she would have the fernery and what she would do with it, the witness falters, turns pale, becomes confused, and says: “Perhaps it would be better not to have it at all.” I am quite confident that the constancy of the young person is not to be trusted, and that she had better attach her fernery to one of her châteaux in Spain, or one of her English castles in the air.” Nevertheless in the end she got her way but only outdoors on a rockery as the compromise It was planted by a local nursery called Illmans and in 1999 several large rocks were uncovered during building works, which are thought to be the remains of this.
Although the house has extensive views over the lawns and shrubberies to the countryside beyond it is quite close to a main road and Dickens owned land on both sides. Like Claude Monet at Giverney he decided that, rather than cross it regularly at surface level, he would rather have unfettered access, so had a tunnel built beneath the road. Brick-lined it led to a thickly planted shrubbery with some surviving ancient trees known as “The Wilderness.” The keystones over the entrances are of Comedy and Tragedy and were bought back by Dickens from an Italian holiday.
It was in the Wilderness that he did much of his writing in later years in a two storey Swiss chalet given to him by his friend Charles Fechter. This arrived in kit form at the local Railway Station on Christmas Eve 1864, packed in 58 boxes! Dickens lined the upper room with mirrors, installed a desk and sat working “among the quivering boughs,” where “birds and butterflies fly in and out, and green branches shoot in at the windows .”
He looked out over trees he had planted himself, including a a row of “gleaming limes”. After his death the chalet was moved to Cobham Hall but in 1960 was moved to its present location in the gardens of Eastgate House, Rochester’s museum.
But it’s the consevatory that caught my attention, because while I was researching this post, I discovered the British Library has an annotated sales catalogue for the disposal of the house and its contents. This took place just 2 months after Dickens death and lasted 4 days. Not only does it list the gardening equipment used by his gardeners but also the garden furniture and many of the plants – not those in the ground but those in pots both outside and in.The head gardener, by this time, George Brunt, had a huge range of tools, including some of the latest technology, including two lawn mowers, which were still only catching on, and a garden engine, as well “a length of garden hosepipe with nozzle and union and registering thermometer”.
Outside in pots and urns were 42 choice large flowered chrysanthemums, 8 azaleas, 12 roses, 6 camellias, 6 cytisus racemosus, 6 ipcrius, 6 ericas, 6 dozen primulas. There were lilies, calla, thuya, lobelia, aucuba and …well I could go on but you can check the full list yourself. Dickens love of scarlet geraniums is also clear: 11 dozen pots of them in all.
Inside a Vinery were more potted plants including fuchsias, coxcombs, solanum, nierembergia, ferns, stephanotis, and even more geraniums, plus a lilium auratum, newly introduced from Japan. And then there was the conservatory building itself. Dickens reckoned this was an extravagance costing £452, a quarter of the original cost of buying the whole estate, without of course the cost of the plants. Cottam’s who built it were not dedicated conservatory builders like Crompton & Fawkes but generalists mainly undertaking agricultural and equine building work or civil engineering contracts. In January 1870 as it was being built Dickens told his friend John Forster that it was “brilliant but expensive, with foundations as of an ancient Roman work of horrible solidity.”
It was stuffed full. There were a pair of large iron vases on pedestals with geraniums and lantana. There were hanging baskets of creepers, tree ferns and palms, coleus and camellias, aloes and agaves, yuccas and lilies, as well as more unusual exotics and a range of brightly coloured petunias, balsams and, of course, geraniums. There were even some of Mamie’s long wished for ferns. To make it even more colourful paper Chinese lanterns were hung throughout.
Sadly he left getting the conservatory too late. It was only finally finished a week or so before his death on 9th June 1870. “If as we are told he died in the dining room on the sofa where servants had placed him, the scarlet geraniums in the conservatory, illuminated by exotic paper lanterns in the fading light, may have been the last things he ever saw in this life.” [Darby, for ref see below]
There is virtually nothing of Dickens gardens left today, apart possibly for some urns on the gateposts and one in the grounds, although more recent discoveries have included surviving fragments include the remains of wirework arches and steps.
The house has been used as a school since the 1920s and parts of the garden built over, but pupils are moving into new buildings and the house will open for pre-booked guided tours one weekend a month in the summer. Booking via email@example.com