Inspiration for this week’s post came from daydreaming & looking out of the window and noticing some daffodils coming into flower. I remembered that ages ago I wrote a couple of posts about their history: The Daffodil most dainty and their use in decoration: The Daffodil most dainty2
So I reread them and saw that I’d mentioned Peter Barr a Victorian nurseryman who I’d said was “the unsung daffodil hero” and “who deserves an article of his own” A bit more research led me to a very lively local history blog and then I finally got down to writing about Barr. It’s only taken 5 years but here it is!
Peter Barr must have been an extraordinary man. He not only ran a very successful nursery but he was almost obsessive about plants. He didn’t just collect, catalogue and hybridise them (particularly daffodils) but he went plant hunting, not aimlessly in search of just anything new, but to track down new species of his favourite plant families. He looked pretty extraordinary too. Not just another Victorian with a big bushy beard, but a big bushy beard, wispy hair, little round glasses and sporting a natty little beret.
Born in Govan in 1826, now part of Glasgow, when it was just a Clydeside village he began working for his father who owned a muslin factory. That didn’t last long because as he later explained in an interview he had “born within a few yards of a tulip bed, and I have been amongst flowers ever since”. He found a job with a Glasgow seed merchant, rising to become manager at the age of 20, before moving to similar jobs in Newry and Worcester and finally Covent Garden, very close to London’s premier fruit, vegetable and flower market.
In 1861 Barr branched out in partnership with Edward Sugden, taking on a florists, garden and seed shop in King Street, almost next door to the market. He then opened a nursery in then rural Tooting to supply the shop.
Barr & Sugden issued a long series of catalogues, many of which are available on-line. They reveal the astonishing range of plants he must have been growing. By 1872 they were distributing 30,000 copies a year. From 1881 the company becomes Barr & Sons.
But why daffodils?
Perhaps the key moment in his horticultural obsession was his discovery of John Parkinson’s Paradisus in Sole in which Parkinson described 94 varieties of narcissus and daffodil. Barr realised that very few of them were still available and so he began to collect together those he could track down, together with other old varieties.
Today I suppose that wouldn’t be seen as especially odd, but then it was distinctly so. The Daffodil family was not particularly fashionable and unlike many other bulbous plants very little hybridisation had been attempted, probably because it takes about 5 years for seed-raised plants to flower. Of course it didn’t help that with the introduction of increasing numbers of exotics during the 18th and 19thc many humbler plants, such as daffodils, were generally neglected by wealthier collectors. Indeed Barr said in a newspaper interview that it had become “a tabooed flower.”
Gradually this began to change, in part at least because of the pioneering work of William Herbert, the rector of Spofforth in Yorkshire, and later Dean of Manchester. Herbert was at the forefront of the theological debate about the hybridisation of plants in the early 19thc. If that sounds dull it certainly wasn’t at the time. Most plants hybrids proved sterile, which was thought to be proof that each plant species had been created by God and was immutable. Herbert wanted to know why a few bucked the trend and weren’t sterile, and he conducted a wide range of experiments, luckily choosing daffodils as his subject.
His book Amaryllidaceae published in 1837 argued that hybridisation was a natural occurrence and had already diversified the divinely created plant kingdom. It was a worthy forerunner of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Herbert followed it up with an article on daffodil breeding 1843 and the two publications spurred on a group of gardeners to independantly carry on his work creating new ornamental crosses within the narcissus family. Notable amongst them were Edward Leeds, William Backhouse and Peter Barr.
In 1851 the Gardeners’ Magazine of Botany carried an article by Edward Leeds and included illustrations of some of his seedlings. But he and his work was sadly neglected and by 1874 a couple of years before his death his huge collection which was in danger of being lost was bought up by a group of gardeners led by Peter Barr. Although Barr later wrote ” it contained “monstrosities” he saved the collection from extinction as “they were growing at the bottom of an old wall overhung with great trees & crowded so they had ceased to bloom.” This was Barr’s second major acquisition because in 1868 he had bought up the collection formed by William Backhouse who was working on a different range of narcissus crosses. These were all taken back to Tooting where they were laid down systematically along with his own stock so he could continue his breeding programme. John David, Head of Horticultural Taxonomy at the Royal Horticultural Society, is of no doubt that saving these collections made Barr an early pioneer in cultivar conservation.
Barr said later that the reason the daffodil caught on was because of Oscar Wilde’s love of yellow. “Wilde used to lecture on aesthetic colours, and to him we owe more than to anyone else the taste for yellow, to my mind the most beautiful colour in nature. He took the sunflower, but that is too ‘lumpy,’ and the people soon got tired of sunflowers. Then my daffodils came—and they came to stay.” [Bendigo Advertiser 1900]
At some point Barr had made friends with the great plantsman Edward Augustus Bowles of Myddleton House, on the northern outskirts of London, and the two exchanged frequent letters about plants, but particularly bulbs. Luckily Bowles copied Barr’s letters into a series of notebooks in a legible script and a couple of these from 1884 onwards survive in the RHS’s Lindley Library. It’s a good thing he did transcribe them or we’d have lost so much – apart from the fact that Barr’s writing was difficult to read to put it politely.
Barr was proud of his work at the Tooting nursery, telling Bowles in 1879: “I had a strong hand in Tooting & doubt if any Botanic gardens in Europe had their plants so correctly named” and wishing “you had been able to spend days among the Daffs. Their beauties are legion and each day revealed something new.” Correct naming was important to him, and he began working with botanists at Kew on a basic system of classification for the narcissus family.
Narcissus growing had already received another boost in 1875 with the publication of The Narcissus its History and Cultivation by F W Burbidge. Burbidge was a writer and artist, who illustrated plants for Barr and worked for as a journalist for William Robinson. When Robinson’s book The English Flower Garden, was first published in 1883, it argued for massed planting of daffodils: “no garden should be without the best of the lovely varieties now known…they are to spring what roses are to summer”
All this helped Barr persuade the RHS to hold a daffodil conference in 1884, and he even wrote his own history of the narcissus, in 17thc style, to accompany it.
The conference eventually led to the establishment of a RHS Narcissus Committee, and eventually in 1898 to the foundation of the Daffodil Society. John David says Barr’s work is effectively “the foundation of the compilation of over 30,000 different daffodil names we hold today”, because the system adopted by the RHS for the classification of cultivated daffodils was devised by Barr and based on his own nursery catalogues. Descriptions were in English not Latin and not based on botanical criteria but on those established by growers. This classification remains largely intact to this day, and, in 1955, the RHS became the International Cultivar Registration Authority for Narcissus.
By the time of the Daffodil Conference Barr, like so many other nurserymen ,sold his Tooting nursery grounds for housing and moved further out, acquiring 25 acres of land next to the railway at Long Ditton in Surrey.
He was still working flat out for 16/17 hours a day, when he hurt his back. In 1887 he told Bowles “I broke down in my business and was ordered off but I could not see my way to obey orders… by dint of close application and free use of the bath and friction I managed in six months to get all things in order so that my sons could take over the business.” But this was not retirement by any stretch of the imagination. It was merely a change of scene and activity. He began plant hunting. “I left England for Oporto. Here I spent a month working the north of Portugal for narcissus. And then I went to the south of Spain and worked it for two months.” Other trips were to the Pyrenees and the Alps.
These weren’t, as his notebooks reveal, 5 star holidays. An entry for June 1887, for example details a 5am start on horseback with his transport abandoned when it could go no deeper into the Pyrenees. He and his companion started on foot over the snow admiring the “splendid views of valleys and mountain peaks [but] further down we were challenged by soldiers who wished to know who I was [because] It had been reported that a famous bandit was about to enter Spain and I was suspected of being the man.”
A newspaper interviewed him in 1898 and added to the picture: “In Spain… he had been sleeping in the open air under rocks, and was naturally travel stained. Like Sancho Panza, he rode a donkey. His chief garment was a blanket, which covered himself and much of his steed.His appearance was suspicious, and his position awkward, for he could not speak Spanish. “Luckily he had a passport., and was, after some delay, permitted to continue his search for new daffodils.”
Not only did he bring back new species from his travels, he then used them to introduce new genetic material into his breeding programmes. He also pioneered the idea of naturalising bulbs through mass planting, a move which tied in with Robinson’s Wild Garden and the more naturalistic approach to planting that was spreading around Europe. Of course in the process he stripped their natural homes – such as the Pyrenees and Northern Portugal of much rare material in specific localities. Of course too he was not the only one doing this at the time – whether it was narcissus in European Mountains, ferns in the english countryside or orchids in SE Asia the desire for rare plants often wreaked havoc.
On his return to Britain that autumn he was back to working over-long days, running the business and particularly dealing every evening with a mountain of correspondence, mainly, he tells Bowles, bulb-related, and wishing he was out in the garden. By this point he’s thinking of replanting no less than 4 acres of bulbs of 500 sorts, totalling over 2 million bulbs, although both his clerk and foreman guesstimated the number at 3-4 million not counting the “heavy quantities” in a separate field: “it is a big job!” Apparently newspapers then urged their readers to take a train past just to see the sight of so many daffodils in flower .
It wasn’t until 1895 that Barr finally handed over control of the business to his sons. But as before it wasn’t for a well-earned retirement. Instead it was a world tour. Now in his seventies, [there’s hope for me yet then!] he started travelling through South Africa, Japan, China, New Zealand and Australia, both searching for new plants, but also meeting other growers and giving lectures. His original time-scale for this trip was 3 years but in the end it took seven.
A Melbourne newspaper reported That :”although over 70 year of age, he is a keen observer, with a remarkably retentive memory, and is much more active than many men 20 years his junior. As he strolls about in a garden he will tell you the family history of each flower or plant that catches the eye. Under his guidance the hidden beauties of plant life unfold themselves in such numbers that the dilettante flower-lover feels utterly abashed.” In the Australian gold-rush town of Bendigo, when told , ‘Well, at any rate, we can grow chrysanthemums here,’ he retorted, ‘Oh (deprecatingly), the chrysanthemum; That is only a weed. The daffodil (proudly) wants handling. Anybody can grow chrysanthemums.’
On his return Peter Barr finally retired back to his native Scotland where he died in 1909. He was described by Willaim Robinson in the Garden as “one of the greatest horticulturists of his age… no man of his generation will be more missed”.
Three years later the Royal Horticultural Society began awarding the Peter Barr Memorial Cup for someone who, in their opinion, “has achieved good work of some kind in connection with daffodils.”
The family continued to run the company until in 1954 there was a merger with Robert Wallace’s nursery in Colchester. Wallace and Barr were based in Tunbridge Wells and had grounds in Devon, so, as with many other nursery companies, no real connection really to the past. The last catalogue I can find for them is dated 1970 so I assume they were taken over or wound up shortly after that. Now, even given that Barr’s legacy is well-known to daffodil specialists, his name is probably still relatively unknown to others, but in at least one place that has changed recently. When I was researching the basics for this post I stumbled across an appeal for help getting a blue plaque on his house in Tooting.
I contacted the organisers to ask if they’d made any progress. Too late. Not only was the plaque up but I’d missed the celebrations that went with the unveiling last September. There’s lots more information about Barr and the plaque at Geoff Simmons blog , [which must be one of the liveliest local history sites in the country], and I’m grateful to him for permission to use some of them here. It’s great to know that it’s not just the Capability Browns and Humphry Reptons of this world who are remembered but the equally, if differently, important plantsmen and nurserymen like Peter Barr who have done so much to brighten our gardens.
When I looked at the photos of those involved in the Tooting celebrations I was reminded of some more words from that Melbourne newspaper: “No one can realise how a man can love a flower until he has seen Mr. Barr take a bloom in his hand, and turn its face towards his own. The innocent delight in his eyes, the gentleness and fond delicacy of his touch, are good to see.” Take a look at the Tooting photos and the same could be seen on so many faces there too. So “Thank You” and “Congratulations” to all concerned.