On the Life of a Jobbing Gardener

I was giving some lectures recently on one of my favourite horticultural characters, John Claudius Loudon, who, having already written a shelf-load of books, in 1826 founded The Gardener’s Magazine, the first real piece of regular horticultural journalism. I had only just started  browsing through the first few issues looking for examples of gardeners wages and working conditions that I could use in one of  the lectures when I  discovered a letter written to Loudon by Mr Archibald M’Naughton of Hackney on 29 November 1825 entitled “On the life of a Jobbing Gardener”. By the time I’d finished reading it I had already decided that Archibald’s story needed to be better known…

…and what better way of doing that than by sharing it here…

[I’ve copied the letter in bold and added comments  in italic]

Sir, I’m very glad to see your proposal for a gardener’s magazine, for I have long thought that that the gardeners should have an organ to represent them and instruct them as well as the farmers and mechanics.  I have been upwards of 50 years in the line, and was one of the first to set agoing the London Gardeners Lodge, described in your Encyclopaedia  though I have long since left it, from not being satisfied with its management.

This is probably a reference to a branch of The Order of Free Gardeners,  which was a fraternal society, somewhat akin to the Freemasons. It  was founded in  Haddington  in 1676 and then spread gradually through the rest of Scotland and into England and Ireland.  Like most friendly societies it aimed to share professional knowledge and also to provide a network of support to its members.  By the mid-19thc there were more than a hundred lodges and a formal federation was set up. The Order eventually had branches in North America, Australia ,South Africa and the Caribbean.  However, with the rise of the welfare state in Britain , like most other friendly societies the Order virtually disappeared by the mid-20thc. This is such a fascinating subject I’m going to do some more research and write about it in due course.

 

I left Edinburgh in the year 1777, and after working some time Mr Christopher Gray’s nursery at Fulham,

Gray was one of London’s  leading nurserymen, with a nursery garden based in part of what had been Mark Catesby’s garden in Fulham.   In 1713 he acquired some of Bishop Henry Compton’s American collection from the gardens at Fulham Palace.  He was, with Thomas Fairchild and Robert Furber, one of the founders of the Society of Gardeners , and helped publish its  Catalogus Plantarum.  Later in 1755  Gray published his own Catalogue of Trees, Shrubs, Plants and Flowers, and then In 1763  Catesby’s Hortus Britanno-Americanus.  The nursery stayed open after  Gray’s death  but finally closed in 1810.  

I got a very good place with Mr Rolls, a great stockbroker, whose affairs went wrong after I had been six years with him, and I was obliged to quit.

It’s likely he would have obtained the job with Rolls via Gray’s nursery. Nurserynen and seedsmen often seem to have acted as intermediaries between gardeners seeking work and potential employers as in this case. Indeed that’s exactly how he got his next job.

After going down to Scotland to see my friends, I came up again and got a place from Mr Hare, then a seedsman in St James’s Street, to go to Mrs Wilson at Putney, where I remained until her daughter married, When her husband having an aversion to scotch servants, I was obliged to leave

Hare is recorded as giving seeds to Chelsea Physic Garden in 1820 [Memoirs, historical and illustrative of the botanick garden at Chelsea; belonging to the Society of by H. Field.]   My own research on late 17th/early 18thc gardeners show a similar pattern of  job insecurity  with no employment rights and frequent moves between posts.

Soon after this, a fellow workmen and myself attempted to set up a small nursery at Epsom, part of which is now occupied by Mr Young of that place;

It’s obviously difficult to estimate how much setting up in business as a gardener or nurseryman would be. However in The London Tradesman  published in 1747 Richard Cambell did just that. He not only attempted to describe the work of each trade but also the cost of establishing a business, together with the amount of money that could be expected for taking on an apprentice, and even likely working hours. 

Charles Young is listed as a nurseryman and seedsman in the 1846 Kelly’s directory for Epsom, the earliest listing I can find. If anyone knows more about him please let me know.

composite from several pages of Campbell’s The London Tradesman, 1747

 

 

 

 

A man pulling a wheelbarrow, 1813 Wellcome Collection

but, after struggling hard for little more than two years, we were obliged to give up, after losing all we had saved, and about £50, which my partner had borrowed from his aunt in Kinross, and which prayed so upon his mind, that I verily believe it was the cause of his death, which happened about a year afterwards at Windsor; where he got into a small place to look after a garden and some fields in which vegetables were grown for sale.

We must remember there was no welfare safety net. Like everyone else gardeners were often called on to do a whole range of other jobs or to take whatever work became available.  A lot of basic garden work, such weeding or watering, was undertaken by other servants. So at least M’Naughton’s partner was able to stay in horticulture.

Not liking to go into servitude again, I began jobbing on my own account, and a poor business I found it ever since.  When I first began, the highest wage I could get was three shillings a day, and obliged to find my own tools.

From the late 16thc you might be surprised to hear that wage levels in most manual trades were set by local justices of the peace under the Wage Assessments. Gardeners always figure pretty low on the list.  The practice had died out by the early 18thc, but that didn’t imply any great increase in wages. It was also common for gardeners to provide their own tools.

I had a great deal of employment at first partly from the circumstance of being a Scotchman, being called by the people who  employed jobbers, a professed gardener.

The Scots were not always popular as gardeners. Indeed in the early 18thc they were accused of stealing jobs etc etc BUT By the 19th Scots had a reputation for being good gardeners and many of our leading garden designers and horticulturists were from Scotland or of Scots origins.

 

 

 

My wife also took up the greengrocer’s shop about this time, and we did very well til we lost our only daughter, which obliged us to take in a maidservant, who getting some fellows into the house on Sunday afternoon when we were at Chapel, took away all my savings, most of my wife’s clothes, and concealed the bedding in an outhouse, to be taken away no doubt at night.  The maid was never seen again, and we never could hear anything of the thieves.

Crime was rife and there was little by way of a police service. Parish constables would/could do very little.  If you’re interested in knowing more check out and search the Old Bailey records

We now left Camberwell altogether, and my wife and I took a situation in a small family near Hammersmith, where my wife was the cook, and I had a man under me for the garden and for looking after a horse and chaise.  This place did not suit, and I advertised for another, and got one in a large boarding school, which was worse.  My wife was expected to look after the milk of two cows, and I was obliged to assist in brewing.  After doing nothing for some time, I began the jobbing again at Paddington, and my wife took in washing;

The life of a jobbing gardener was the equivalent of a zero hours contract, with no guarantee of work and, in many areas  more seeking work than there was work available, which meant low wages.  With a few exceptions jobbing gardeners were expected to be a Jack of all Trades although the few exceptions were the opposite and Masters of at least one.  Clare Greener in her PhD on 19thc Devon gardeners has identified  a few who specialised successfully in particular skills such as pruning and grafting, which had always been more highly valued. Those who became jobbing gardeners could either have been like Archibald who had fallen on hard times or those who were less than competent etc.  Early adverts for jobs in gardening said things like  “I want a coachman that understands gardening for a Gentleman in Herts.” or “1 want a man to be a Groom that understands a Gun and a garden.”  One successful applicant worked in the gardens for the “Chief Gardener” but  also used “to look after the Waters” and “the water closets” and “go up and down the House to fetch the Ashes away, and clean the Grate Hole in the Kitchen”.

but she falling ill, we would move to Hackney, on account of the air where I have been ever since, being just able to gain a livelihood, by laying out the gardens for the new buildings going on in the neighbourhood. I have often been advised to take up a public house; but besides that my wife is against it is considering it beneath the dignity of her family, I consider it would be degrading the profession to which I belong if I were to become publican.

Despite gardening being pretty low in status it clearly wasn’t the lowest! The inner eastern suburbs of London were still thought to have “good air” despite growing industrialisation  but they were also areas of rapid expansion of housing development.  For all the problems this caused, it had least had the advantage of giving M’Naughton a job.

Having now, sir, giving you a shortage of my life you will see what a very poor business gardener’s is, and especially a jobbing gardener’s.  When I first began it, I was preferred as being considered a regular gardener; but now a labourer who has, perhaps, worked a year or two with some market-gardener is just as much employed and as well-paid as myself; it is true, I’ve hurt myself much by going into the job; but what led to that was my vain ambition of being a nurseryman without having the means.

Professionalism, then as now, was sadly always undervalued.

I need not say anything of the prospects of an old man near 70; my wife is dead, and if  the disease which shall carry me off be a lingering one, I have no other prospect than the workhouse.

Gardeners like most of the other working manual traders had little ability to set money aside for old age and had to continue working while they could – hence the establishment of the Free Order of Gardeners.

If you think my letter worthy of a place in your magazine, I hope it will be a warning to gardeners when they are in good situations to keep them, and not to let discontent or ambition prey on their minds so as to make them leave their place for little faults; and especially, not to let them give up the condition of servitude for the very uncertain one of being in business for oneself.  And, especially let them never give up any place whatsoever for the condition of a jobbing gardener, for that is greater slavery than being a common labourer.

I am, Sir, your most obedient servant, Archibald M’Naughton

In the December 1828 issue of The Gardeners’ Magazine  came a response from a less than sympathetic point of view…

 

Loudon carried news of Archibald’s death in 1832 and it’s nice to be able to report that at least he  was spared the workhouse, having returned to Scotland to live with relations of his late wife. Sadly Loudon does not report on the will or papers he was sent, so after his obituary appears Archibald M’Naughton disappears from the record…. until today!

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