Christopher, Charles and Kirby

After a recent post about the creation of the house and gardens at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire today’s is going to look at the garden in its late 17thc heyday.

The Guernsey Lily at Kirby today

The reason we know so much about the garden at Kirby and what it contained is because  Charles Hatton was an inveterate correspondent. The British Library holds hundreds of letters from him to his brother Christopher, Lord Hatton, at Kirby – often 2 or 3 a week – which are full of political and family news but often with some mention of plants. Between them the brothers created what a visitor in 1692  called  “ye finest garden in England”.

What made it so special?

  Christopher Hatton was, like his father,  Governor of Guernsey and spent much of the 1670s on the island even after the  terrible explosion at Castle Cornet in 1672 which killed his wife and mother.  [See earlier post for more details].  However, although he remained Governor,  from around 1680 he spent most of his time at Kirby and its from then on the garden begins to get developed.  He’s created Viscount Hatton in 1683 as a reward for loyal service but  studiously avoided politics and London, relying on his brother Charles  in London to keep him up to date with the news and send whatever was needed for the house or garden.

Charles is one of those forgotten characters who ought to be much better known. He was good friends with John Evelyn, Samuel Pepys and Hans Sloane, and knew all the leading botanists, plantsmen and nurserymen in and around London – people he called his “botanic acquaintances” or “virtuosos of plants”    As a result Charles got to know about new plants  that were arriving and being propagated, and then was able to acquire them and send them down to Kirby. He also got to visit the other great gardens  and nurseries in and around and the capital and because he was clearly an engaging character seems to get on well with everyone which served Kirby well.

The English Heritage model of the gardens

Tree and plant buying began on a grand scale and the Hattons were  amongst the great nurseryman George London’s customers buying trees from him at Fulham where he was gardener to Henry Compton, Bishop of London. They continued to buy from him after  he joined forces with others to set up Brompton Nursery in 1681.    The available garden ground must soon have been filled to overflowing and in the 1680s work began on an extension of some 500 metres, or 17,000 feet, across the valley and out into the countryside.  It may well have been planned following the advice of London who is known to have visited Kirby in 1693 but it’s very unlikely that was the first occasion.

A plan survives in thee archives of neighbouring Deene Park and its general accuracy has been confirmed by a survey of surviving earthworks carried out by English Heritage in 2013.  It  indicates that the Wilderness was indeed set out in a formal and highly structured way, comprising a series of regular compartments divided by a network of paths and joined by an avenue of trees on its eastern side.

Its construction may have been infuence in part by work being carried out at Broughton House by one of Hatton’s near neighbours, Ralph Montagu.

In the left central section you can see two small mounts which are roughly aligned to the mount in the Great Garden [more below about that] and at at roughly the same heigh.  Were they topped by  features designed to draw the eye out from the main garden into the wider landscape?

It was a mammoth undertaking, despite the fact that the wall on the south side of the Great Garden was not taken down immediately.  Given the change of levels from the Great Garden down to the stream, which was to be canalised,  steps had to be built, and  on the other side large areas of woodland,  shrubberies and an orchard were planted.  It may not all have been laid out in one fell swoop because Charles noted that  more ground had been ploughed up in May 1689.

The dividing walls between  the Great Garden and the Privy Garden and the new woodland area were finally demolished in very late 1693 or early 1694, to open up a view right across the whole garden extension.  It was at this point that the Nicholas Stone gateway that had been in the middle of the wall was moved to the forecourt where it now serves as the main entrance.

from Brian Dix et al Kirby Hall and its Gardens, Archaeological Journal 1995

The woodland and wilderness would probably have been based around saplings of native trees collected from the estate but interspersed with more exotic species. Amongst them we know from Charles’s letters were “Dutch Abele” [white poplar or Populus alba] , horse chestnuts [although they had been difficult to find] broad-leaved elms,  white mulberries, and  Cormier or true Service trees [Sorbus domestica]  which were rare in England but common in France.  Other trees were supplied by George London while later letters suggest walnuts and Virginia oaks may have been  sent from the Bishop of London’s gardens at Fulham Palace, along with  cuttings of plane trees, and rooted layers of arbutus from Elias Ashmole’s.

Trees even came in from Paris, where Mary their sister lived. She sent a caseload of   acacias – at least 5 ft in height – and a quantity of lilacs  in 1682.  Finally in April 1691  Charles sent “several hundreds of ye White Lilacs enough to plant the  close walk in ye wilderness” which was reported almost finished the following year.

At the same time it’s also clear that the gardener at Kirby was growing trees from seed. Over the years Charles sent ” a great quantity” of beech and hornbeam mast from his father-in-law’s park as well as  seed of “Arbor judic”, “virginia sloes”, chestnuts and  laburnum, “cones of silver fir” and seeds of bay, cypress, juniper, cedar of Lebanon and even carob. They also succeeded in getting mistletoe to grow on some of the trees.

The orchard too must have been enormous.  The earliest reference is in 1679 when 8 apricot trees are sent by George Ricketts, a Hoxton nurseryman. But that autumn Charles organises 2 consignments of cherries – 60 trees in all of 12 different sorts. There were also     4 Mulberry trees… and 6 plants of “ye great Turkey Hazel Nuts”.   Even more cherries arrived from Ricketts in March 1690.

More peach, pear and apricot trees  came later from George London, and a  letter from Charles in Jan 1682 says “they are the choicest in England.”   Peach trees came over from Paris too with one large case being sent in December 1685 from “The Chartereuxes”  garden in Paris via Mary , and  another  the following month.

Other friends  contributed towards the stock. Figs including “an admirable white fig which is forwarder than any other in England” came from Easton Neston with instructions that they should be planted betwixt the buttresses in yr Lordshippes garden over by ye Holly hedge.”  Charles also got grafts “of all ye best Peares in ye Kings, Bp of London’s, Lord Mordaunts and Lord Arlington’s gardens,”   while the gardener was sent to Sir Thomas Chicheley’s garden at at Wimpole Hall to “take what grafts he thinks fitting.”

It paid off.  The gardens were described by John Bridges in the early 18thc as “stocked with a great variety of exotic plants and adorned with a wilderness composed of almost he whole variety of english trees, and ranged in an elegant order” 

The Great Garden itself was almost certainly redesigned around 1685. Unfortunately, as we’ll see in a final post soon, the first reconstruction pf the garden in the 1930s destroyed almost every trace of this in the attempt to get back to the earlier layout. But I’d guess this is where the “bastard” orange trees that I mentioned in an earlier post that Charles bought from a Lambeth nursery were displayed in tubs.


from Brian Dix et al Kirby Hall and its Gardens, Archaeological Journal 1995

There is one more unusual feature on the edge of  the Great Garden which is of an uncertain date: a small stepped mound or mount  at the end of the west terrace. Archaeology shows that it covers the the remains of the mediaeval village church.

Mounds and mounds were popular features of Tudor and Jacobean gardens but less fashionable  by the end of the 17thc so, since the last date a priest was known to be in charge at Kirby is 1584,  its possible the mound was created in the construction works of either Sir Christopher or Baron Hatton, but the other likely time would be the demolition of the adjacent southern wall and the garden extension.

from Brian Dix et al Kirby Hall and its Gardens, Archaeological Journal 1995

Excavations at the site in the 1980s show that the graveyard was cleared and the bones placed in the remains of a watercourse before the mound was build over them,  but gave little indication of when this happened.

The mount and long woodland garden extension were, however,  not the only horticultural innovation.


The south front and site of the Privy Garden

On the southern side of the house, separated by a wall and steps, from the Great Garden was the Privy Garden which was almost certainly largely for flowers.  Here the list of what was being grown is even longer and  show the garden packed with interesting plants including several new introductions. There was celastrus with Charles reporting that Kirby was  “the only place I ever saw it till I saw it at Mr Ashmoles” and unusual double yellow roses from which Charles begged for cuttings for friends.

Some plant names give away their supposed origins and revel the difficulties of identifying plants pre-Linneaus.  There were   “Persian iris”,  Apios americana, “Persian jasmine”,”ye large Nasturtium Indicum with a scarlet flower”, “Hyacinth of Peru” [Scilla Peruviana?],   “Narcissus of Japan” [amaryllis belladonna?] and Spanish broom. There were plenty sourced abroad including jonquils from Flanders bought direct from the importer for a penny a root, double scarlet ranunculus from Paris,  and “Guernsey flowers” which I think must be nerines, although these were also sometimes described  as “Narcissus of Japan”.


It’s often said that the first nerines were washed up on the shores of Guernsey when a Dutch ship was wrecked off the coast but research shows that there were no shipwrecks around the time they are first recorded. Instead its almost certain they  were  bought by the Hatton’s from Pierre Morin’s nursery in Paris, and probably given  to General Lambert when he was imprisoned on the island. To admit that would not have been a popular move with the king so I suspect the shipwreck story was invented to cover it up.


Other plants came from a range of London seedsmen or  friends gardens, including  dogs-tooth violets, oleanders, myrtle,  pomegranates, virgin’s bower [clematis] , and sea cabbage [Crambe maritima?].   Jacob Bobart of Oxford Botanic Gardens sent “curious roots” while Chelsea Physic Garden in 1691 supplied  melianthus,  “balsamic geranium” and Passion flowers “all very beautiful plants”.

There isn’t much mention of a kitchen garden but there were certainly melons, and vines while “collyflower” seeds  came from Cyprus with  more from Italy via Paris.

Henry Compton, Bishop of London, 1632-1713, by Kneller

When Henry Compton, the Bishop of London, visited Kirby, with a small party, in 1688 it was a good opportunity for Charles to twist his brother’s arm into building a stove house.  Charles hinted at some of the plants Compton might be persuaded to send to Kirby ” but without a stove you cannot keepe them, and, if you desire very curious plants, you must have a stove, and I wish you wou’d have a discourse [with] my Ld Bpp as to ye making, ordering, and advantage of one.”    I am sure George London made a similar plea for a hothouse for exotic plants  and  by August 1692 one had been built with  Charles writing to his brother  back in Guernsey that he had  “sowed both in a box into ye greenhouse and on a hot bed a great deal of seleli aethiopica an evergreen plant which is now grown very rare. If it comes up some will deserve to be kept in ye greenhouse in potts or cases.”

from Brian Dix et al Kirby Hall and its Gardens, Archaeological Journal 1995

from Brian Dix et al Kirby Hall and its Gardens, Archaeological Journal 1995

Archaeology in the 1980s and 90s in the Privy Garden revealed previously a complex series of paths, drains, possible water features and walls as well as range of unknown service buildings’.   Unfortunately no detailed excavations were carried out and the area has been left for further investigation when money becomes available.

From the report it’s not possible to do more surmise whether a greenhouse was part of the range but there was definitely a hearth in an earth-floored room only 11 feet wide,  that had connecting doors to  to other areas.

I realise that simply by listing the plants I have probably made the stocking Kirby’s  garden from London or even Paris suppliers sound simple. Charles just  tours the nurseries buying anything that catches his eye, wraps it up carefully and send it to Kirby by one of the carriers who took passengers and parcels along regular routes. I should add that it’s not just plants that he sends but bell jars, frames, pots of all shapes and sizes, and gardening books including 14 in French sent over from  Paris by Mary.

In fact of course,  it was anything but simple.    I’ve already told the story of acquisition  of some orange trees and the difficulties there were in getting them from a nursery in Lambeth to Kirby over the course of some six weeks , but this was nothing out of the ordinary.  Things got delayed or lost en route. Boxes were damaged, the weather was inclement and delayed travel, carriers  left early or late and there was, in any case, a very limited service, perhaps only once a week to Oundle or Northampton.  The result can be seen in the correspondence: “I am very sorry ye Passion flower had ye misfortune to be soe spoiled in ye carriage. Had ye carrier been as careful as he ought to have been ye boxes had been strong enough but if ye carriers will be careless there is noe box but may be broke.”  Packages sent from Paris went via Calais and when landed in Dover then had to await a carrier who was prepared to take them to London and be paid on arrival.  It’s actually amazing that anything got through at all.

The range of plants and the scale of the garden  meant the Hattons employed a gardener who was highly skilled and whose  expertise was highly  valued. Sadly he is anonymous in the correspondence but it’s clear  that the brothers took care to train him, and keep him up to date with the latest techniques and introductions.  He visited Charles in London and “hath been at most of ye eminent Gardens neare ye Towne. I sent my man with him today to Hampton Court to show him the way and I was with him at Hogsden at Ricketts today. He saw a very good way at Ricketts to preserve ye passion flower tree. Tomorrow he goes to Chelsey.”  The gardener was also sent to ‘to see my Lord of Kents and my Lord Carterets gardens. Had he come six weeks sooner or about yt time later he might have taken severall plants down with him but he was here at a time when nothing could be taken up”. So there was a clear understanding that professional networking was important and key to the system of keeping plant exchange trustworthy and honest.

The gardens at Kirby continued  to grow and flourish until Viscount Hatton died in 1706. Although the exact date of Charles’s death remains uncertain, his last known letter is dated January 1708.  After that Kirby goes into a steep decline as we will see soon.

Its a sign of how the relative importance of things changes that when Lord Hatton’s papers were published in 1878 having been abridged by Edward Maund Thompson  almost all the letters relating to horticulture were omitted. so the only way of discovering the rest is to look at the Finch-Hatton papers in the British Library.  There are also estate records in Northampton record Office which I have not looked at.  Otherwise for more information see Teresa Sladen, The Garden at Kirby Hall 1500-1700, Journal of Garden History 1984;  Brian Dix et al Kirby Hall and its Gardens, Archaeological Journal 1995, and the English Heritage Guidebooks.

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