The Cottage Garden and its origins

We all know what a cottage garden looks like don’t we?  We might even be able to describe its main features, although a short  definitive account is quite elusive. So where does the phrase come from? When is it first used? I confess to being stumped when someone asked me recently. You’d think the answer was obvious but actually it isn’t.

I’m sure you knew there is a Cottage Garden Society – large and flourishing – so I thought they’d know if anyone does – but no. Their website doesn’t have  a definition of what constitutes a cottage garden, although there’s a lot about what are nowadays known as cottage garden plants.

So it was off to  Collins Dictionary which defines it as an informal style of garden which has beds planted with a great variety of traditional flowers. Michael Symes in his handy little Glossary of Garden History says it’s “a garden attached to a cottage where the planting is informal, apparently artless crowded with flowers, vegetables and fruit trees, with trailers climbers and creepers on the woodwork.”    It’s the “apparently artless” which gives away the fact that nowadays a cottage garden is another form of horticultural artifice.

It remains an aspiration for many. “What everyone wanted, from the Lady of the Manor to the humblest suburbanite, was a romantic cottage garden, a private bucolic retreat that would provide an escape from modern world.” (Penelope Hobhouse/ Ambra Edwards in The Story of Gardening).  But was it always so?  I suspect that most people wouldn’t aspire to it if they knew what it used to mean…

A Cottage Garden by Helen Allingham – but where does this style originate?

It’s pretty clear the concept is an old one. After all most rural folk had to be self-sufficient in both and basic physic or herbal medicine. But it’s clear that from the mid 17thc onwards the idea of what one of these gardens might contain is widening.  As John Worlidge wrote in Systema Horticulturae, in 1677, “there is scarcely a cottage in most of the southern parts of England, but hath its proportionable garden, so great a delight do most men take in it, that they may not only please themselves with the view of the flowers, herbs, and trees, as they grow, but furnish themselves and their neighbours, upon extraordinary occasions, as nuptials, feasts, and funerals.”  However the first specific use of the term “cottage garden” doesn’t occur according to the Oxford English Dictionary until  1765 in a book named the Correspondence of  Theodosius & Constantia by John Langhorne, a little-known clergyman-poet.   [Exactly! I’d never heard of him or it either] He has one of the protagonists write  a letter from “in a Cottage-garden, at a Village in Lorrain” which doesn’t really make it that significant a usage.

Some thirty years later in 1796 Thomas Bernard a wealthy social reformer who devoted most of his time to social work for the benefit of the poor  wrote a short pamphlet entitled An Account of a Cottage and Garden near Tadcaster, in which the term takes on  specific associations.

It used  the story of a 67 year old farm labourer named Britton Abbot  to promote a scheme for using marginal land to encourage self-sufficiency amongst the rural landless poor, in the face of the growing number of enclosures.[Enclosure was the legal process of the fencing in and effectively handing over previously common land to large scale farmers or landowners.  Although it was known from the 13thc, by the 18thc its effect was to  create a rural landless class  who often ended up as  cheap labour  in the factories of the Industrial Revolution.] 

Abbot  had worked in the fields from the age of 9, but  had prospered, eventually moving to a    cottage  where “with 2 acres of land and his common right, he kept two cows… And resided very comfortably for nine years” with his wife and six children.  Then “an inclosure took place and … obliged him to seek for a new habitation.”  Abbot was lucky. He “applied to Squire Fairfax, and told him that, if he would let him have a little bit of ground by the roadside”,  then “he would show him the fashions on it.”

Bernard reports this was a great success.   The garden yielded fruit worth £3 or £4 a year from  ‘fifteen apple-trees, one green gage, and three winesour plum-trees, two apricot-trees, several gooseberry and currant bushes, abundance of common vegetables, and three hives of bees’.   Abbot worked for others during the day while his wife ran the gardens and it produced “about 40 bushels of potatoes, besides all the vegetables”.   It was  said Bernard proof that “the condition of a labourer, who has a well stocked garden, a couple of cows, a pig, and just ground enough to keep them, is affluence,” compared with the alternative.

This pamphlet was well-argued “propaganda” published by a group Bernard had co-founded with William Wilberforce and a number of more enlightened landowners: The Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comfort of the Poor.  Remember this is the time of the French Revolution with considerable fear of the poor becoming radicalised and fomenting trouble in Britain too.  So the aim of the society was to encouraging landowners help prevent this, by building decent cottage style housing, promoting self-sufficiency, so keeping people off parish benefits and thus keeping the parish rates down.

At the same time it fitted in with the principles of the Picturesque movement with Uvedale Price even recommending the building of cottages to provide suitable views for painters or from the big house.  So Bernard also suggested that these cottages could be made  “Picturesque” and so disposed around a park, as to ornament and enliven the scenery with much more effect, than those misplaced gothic castles, and those pigmy models of Grecian temples, that perverted taste is so busy with: but it is the unfortunate principle of ornamental buildings in England that they should be uninhabited and uninhabitable.”

James Malton published an essay on British cottage architecture in 1798 driven he said “by a desire to perpetuate…  the peculiar beauty of the British, picturesque, rustic habitations; regarding them, with the country church, as the most pleasing, the most suitable ornaments of art that can be introduced to embellish rural nature.”    Malton goes on to offer a whole series of designs suitable for the landowner to choose from BUT what is significant is there is no mention of gardens at all. The word doesn’t feature in the whole book! Perhaps because as he says of extra living space inside “Too great possession becomes irksome to the possessor.”


 With 10 years the mood is shifting noticeably in the direction of Bernard’s reforming ideas, and is taken up by John Claudius Louden in his 1806 Treatise on Forming Improving and Managing Country Residences. He manages to reconcile the need for practicality for the cottager with the desire of the owner for picturesque. The cottage, and its outhouses etc should be  “made for the purpose of utility by the cottager; but [for] the painter they [should] serve to connect and harmonise the whole.”   He goes on to describe “the decorations of their little garden, and the planting of roses, or some of the smaller fruits, against the pales which inclose it. And now, proud of this little spot, [the cottager] would erect a seat close under the roof and at the side of the door, on which he may sit with his children after the close of his labour, and enjoy the general effect of the whole.”

Yet  there are almost no paintings or other images of cottage gardens at this time, and pictures of cottages even where they do exists  tend to be the more upmarket picturesque ones rather than those of the labouring class.   Loudon even calls such places  “ornamented cottages” and describes how “in place of enclosing a plot of cabbages from the depredations of straying cows it now encloses a parterre from the bite of sheep.”

The society ran until Bernard’s death in 1818 and produced, other pamphlets such as William Pulteney’s “Account of the Produce of a Cottager’s Garden in Shropshire” and  a series of annual reports.  These often included references to the gardens of cottagers, and it’s very clear that there were a group of landowners including  the Bishop of Durham and the Earl of Winchelsea, who combined philanthropy with economic benefits.

Experimental approaches were sometimes tried. For example,  in 1811 there is a report by Rev James Plumptree about the Earl of Hardwick of Wimpole Hall who had built model cottages on his estate which spread over three Cambridgeshire parishes perhaps because  most of the villagers in at least one of these, Arrington, were landless labourers.  His lordship offered prizes of a guinea and a half, a guinea and half a guinea  “to the three persons who should appear to take the greatest care of the gardens and to have a raised and bought to perfection, in the course of the summer, greatest quantities of peas, beans, carrots, turnip, cabbages, onions, potatoes, in proportion to the extent of the ground.”

Plumptree visited the gardens himself taking a copy of the society’s  Information to Cottagers, to give to each tenant. “Besides the encouragement given to the cottages in the gardens the Earl permits them to plant potatoes in his new plantations, and on the Fallows, provided they dung the ground.”  It was said Plumptree   “A plan so well calculated to promote the industry, comfort, and resources of the cottager, and even of those candidates who should not be so fortunate as to gain the rewards naturally excited curiosity.”   Everything was utilitarian in principle and practice and the only mention of anything ornamental in any of these reports was Plumptree’s comment that  “a honeysuckle, twining around the pole, formed an arch over the entrance into some of the gardens.”

Such ideas took hold rapidly: A Mr. Moggridge, of Monmouthshire, wrote  to the Gardener’s Magazine, in January 1827, had been induced by  “his compassionate feelings for  poor labourers” to try the idea and now  “where seven years ago there was nothing but thickets, brakes, and wood…  every cottager has his own oven, and bakes his own bread; he has also a corner in his pantry, which I hope to live to see fitted with a small cask of good home-brewed beer, or ale; but what is worth both put together, he has his garden.”  They were all  well cultivated and productive.”

Once there is a garden it seems its not long before the gardener introduces some ornamentals alongside the food crops, and while It’s always very difficult to identify the various strands and changes in garden design this widening of the mix of plants seems established in the 1820s.    By 1822, for example,  Stephen Reynolds Clark is claiming in Hortus Anglicus that  the “Gaudy yet graceful hollyhock has long been the universal inmate of every cottage garden.” The following year  Henry Phillips writes about how  the laburnum “enlivens the holly hedge row and embellishes the cottage garden” and in 1824 of  Dianthus being “common to every cottage garden”.  However, the most comprehensive review of the state of the cottage garden in the 1820s comes in Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening published in 1824. He suggests that  honeysuckles or monthly roses may be planted next the porch; ivy against the water closet; and the scented clematis against the pigsty. The board around the house should be devoted to savoury pot herbs such as parsley time mint chives and flowers and low flowering shrubs.  And its from Loudon too that  we learn that the best cottage gardeners our tradesmen and operative manufacturers who have a permanent interest in their cottages and many of them excel in the culture of florists flowers.

Loudon also suggests that landowners should encourage their head gardeners to supply cottages with seeds and plants and even  grafted fruit trees and “teach them the modes of culture suitable for their circumstances… at no additional expense whatsoever to the proprietor, much happiness might be diffused; and constantly recurring objects to often indicating wretchedness or at least slovenliness rendered useful neat and even ornamental.”

These small scale philanthropic projects  goes hand in hand with estate improvement on a grander scale too. Rebuilding a mansion often involved removing a village in its entirety and if the villagers were lucky rebuilding it outside the immediate environs of the house and park.  It didn’t just increase the privacy of the landowner or  improve the aesthetics. New villages could also improve the housing stock and health of the inhabitants, and this made practical and economic sense as well as being a moral imperative.  There isn’t time to go into any detail of the planning of such estate villages today but such schemes have a long history – particularly as it happens in Scotland .  Elsewhere   some, like Milton Abbas in Dorset were built in the local vernacular style, others like Harlaxton were plain and functional while  a small number like Blaise were idealised romantic views of what cottages should be like.




As we’ve seen both Bernard and Loudon were recommending the provision of gardens to landowners who are building cottages. At the three I’ve just mentioned gardens were laid out for tenants which included flower gardens for display as well as kitchen gardens for food. Harlaxton, for example, was held up as a model by Loudon in the Gardeners Magazine of 1840  which said that “every garden has been laid out and planted by Mr Gregorys Gardiner; creepers and climbers being introduced in proper places, in such a manner that no two gardens are planted the same climbers.”

Despite all these good intentions its not really until the mid-century that the cottage garden as romantically imagined begins to emerge in two ways.   Firstly it develops a life of its own in published form. The first magazine devoted to the subject of “cottage gardening” appears in 1849 and is followed  throughout the second half of the century by a string of books on the same theme.  The other, and perhaps more formative factor  is the gradual emergence of the cottage garden as a subject for artists, a subject I’m going to look at in the another post soon.

But before I finish – let’s not get too carried away with the idea of the early cottage garden as a romantic place. These philanthropic schemes  were merely scratching at the surface of the problem of rural poverty. Everything was utilitarian in principle and practice, and done for sound political, economic and moral reasons.  Housing was often still squalid and not much had changed in the life of the labouring poor since mediaeval times.  Running a cottage garden was clearly back-breaking work  and surely not a state that anyone would seriously aspire to today.





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9 Responses to The Cottage Garden and its origins

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  5. Elizabeth Allnutt says:

    The problem of the landless labourers was somewhat alleviated by the provision of rural allotments, where substantial wheat and other food crops could be grown if the philanthropic landlord allowed. When allotments became more of an urban phenomenon they probably resembled “cottage gardens” in that they served the same function of supplementing diet and providing basic physic. This seems to have persisted. Many modern allotments have a “cottage garden” look, in the artless way you describe, because they are basically working gardens, where the gardener/plot holder wants some colour, fragrance and pollinators as well as basic veg. Maybe this is where we should be looking now to understand how a “cottage garden” should work. As a real entity rather than a designed caprice.

  6. Caroline Holmes says:

    Pleased you give the link to Anne and Osbert, one of my favourite ‘The Cottage Garden’ is hers, it opened my eyes to the seriously dilapidated state of so many cottages. For a little light polemic you can’t beat William Cobbett’s ‘Cottage Economy’

  7. Twigs Way says:

    An excellently thorough history! Although I had deja vu when I read the first sentence . which is incredibly the very first sentence I use in my talk on the History of the Cottage Garden. It is obviously the thing that strikes us all about the cottage garden .. what exactly IS it? Cottage Gardens have such an intriguing mix of contradictiins in their history and perception. They also have a lively life in literature especially the late 18th and 19th centuries About 10 years ago I wrote a lovely little book on the history of The Cottage Garden for Shire books – those wonderful publishers of all you have ever wanted to know in 10,000 words . . which was great fun and is still available . . that is the other beauty of Shire!. Alas despite being ‘all you ever wanted to know’ there was no room for the literature angle so I tucked it into another talk instead. Brilliant to see all the different images and quotes you discovered and that you too wondered what on earth IS this thing we all think we know!

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