One of things that I’ve always found fascinating about the history of gardens is the inventiveness of gardeners, and I don’t think there’s a period in horticultural history quite as inventive as the early 19thc. That doesn’t mean that their inventions always work, or even if they did that they stood the test of time.
Sometimes these horticultural innovators are well known but mostly, like Robert Gauen who I’ve written about before they’re not. Sometimes they’re well recorded but mostly they’re not and even when they are there’s usually a bit of serendipity involved in their survival.
That’s the case with today’s subject. I discovered him when I was researching a post about the transplantation of trees because he’d invented a new variation of the machinery involved. In the process I discovered that he’d invented a whole range of other garden-related contraptions and gadgets. So if you’re still looking for Christmas presents for your gardening friends see if you can find something devised by Mr Saul of Lancaster.
Matthias Saul was a nurseryman with a fruit nursery called The Pomological Garden in Skerton, then a small village on the other side of the river Lune to Lancaster. He also had business premises in Sulyard Street in the very centre of the city. A history of Lancaster written in 1891 includes a note about Skerton saying that “times and aspects have changed hereabouts since the eccentric Matthias Saul had his tower-like summer-house at the end of this [Barley Cop] lane.” I can’t find any more about this, or indeed his nursery grounds in Butts Lane, but if anyone has more information please let me know.
However Mr Saul didn’t start out as a gardener. Instead he first appears in an 1810 street directory as a joiner and then by 1814 the Lancaster Gazette noted he was also an undertaker and carpenter and had spent three years study in two “eminent architectural academies” in London.
His gardening inventions start to be reported in 1821 when the Lancaster Gazette and Repertory of Arts and Manufactures carry articles about his long handled fruit gatherer which he said had worked picking fruit up to 21ft off the ground.
From 1826 he became a regular contributor of John Claudius Loudon’s new publication The Gardener’s Magazine.
His first pieces included a short account of his experiments with hothouse flues which he claimed did not need to be vertical chimneys in order to draw properly, and ways to prevent condensation dripping down from the glazing in greenhouses. Another was a letter explaining the Lancashire Gooseberry Society’s decision to weigh fruit with avoirdupois ounces. Don’t ask – check out another post about gooseberry fanatics!
Soon there appeared the description of his newly invented “Transplanting Instrument for removing Plants when in Flower” and how he used it to lift a tulip, a polyanthus and some wallflowers for exhibition, without any observable ill-effects, and how he then returned the plants to their place in the garden after the show. So proud was he of his invention that he sent one to Loudon suggesting he use it to lift up a tulip from his own garden in London and send it up to Lancaster to the next show. Loudon declined but instead sent the transplanter to “Weirs of Oxford Street where it is manufactured for sale under the name of Saul’s Transplanter.” An amazing thought that Oxford Street once boasted a large agricultural store next to where M&S now stands but unfortunately as far as I can see there is no surviving catalogue to see if the transplanter actually sold well or for long.
The following year 1827 Matthias Saul began trialling new methods of cultivating early potatoes, even sending a pot of “Foxley seedlings” down to London for Loudon to do his own experiments. It was followed later by a box of several sorts of large gooseberries sent to resolve a dispute about which was the tastiest and best for growing for exhibition. From the number of other later reports it’s clear that Mr Saul was almost obsessed by potatoes and gooseberries. and regularly visited other growers to report back to Loudon. His advice on growing them features other places too including George Johnson’s Gardener’s Monthly.
Mr Saul helped establish the local Mechanics Institute and was heavily involved too in the “well-managed and useful” Lancaster Floral and Horticultural Society. From 1827 Loudon regularly published Saul’s accounts of their activities in the Gardeners Magazine. Later in 1835 Saul founded the Lancaster Botanical and Horticultural Book Society which “has 20 members each paying 12s pa and they will subscribe to all the leading horticultural journals”.
Accounts of flower shows formed his most regular contributions for Loudon. They tended to be very detailed, with one of a tulip show curtailed by Loudon since there was no room for all the names of 53 prizewinners! Nevertheless Loudon was obviously appreciative of Saul’s efforts and in 1830 presented him with a copy of his own just-published Hortus Britannicus.
But it’s his almost endless string of inventions that catch the imagination. Amongst the earliest was a way of protecting tulips from the weather. Fed up with the usual “inelegant” or “clumsy” awnings he devised a hooped arrangement 9ft x 4ft based on window blinds
It was accompanied by a plan for the best arrangement of a flower show, both in terms of the hall layout, and the way to arrange the exhibits and even the judging. If this sounds unnecessary we must remember that, as I showed in a. previous post, until George Glenny began to try and lay down rules every local society made up its own.
Saul was clearly a very practical man. In 1828 he discussed alternative shapes for heating pipes in hothouses, and ways of cleaning hothouse flues which often got blocked up.
Those Dickensian stories about climbing boys being sent up were clearly true, because Saul suggests getting rid of “Man Friday” and instead installing a system of chains and rollers, an iron trap door high up the flue so they could be brushed from the bottom but also from the top.
1831 was another bumper year for Matthias Saul. The magazine has a description of a three legged ladder that would be useful for picking fruit or pruning trees. This came complete with an illustration and instructions.
It was also the year when Loudon undertook a tour of northern nurseries and visited Saul at his newly established Pomological Garden. Untypically he left very little by way of a record except that Saul was a “man of strong and original intellectual, and of great patriotism and disinterestedness” who had “turned his attention to the introduction of new fruits.” It turns out that Saul was corresponding with other nurseries in Britain and America and even importing new varieties from New York nurseries to trial in his own grounds and later exchanging trees or perhaps grafts with others.
Apart from the regular short news articles in Gardeners Magazine about apples and pears Saul exhibited as many as 70 varieties of apples at shows. By 1834 he was, in addition to selling orchard trees, also selling grafts of apples and pears for 4d each – getting Loudon to suggest that other nurseries should do the same as a way of saving amateur gardeners money.
It’s in 1831 as well that his tree planting machine [a variation on those of Sir Henry Stuaurt that I’ve written about earlier] was published. Next was an account of Saul’s Water Dispatcher: a modified watering can, which he boasts is superior in several respects to two other modified watering can recently featured by Loudon.
He also found time to devise a machine “by which linen could be both ironed and mangled at the same time” and could be operated by a child of 8 or 9.
Saul’s next invention seems to have been inspired by Loudon, who on a visit to Lancaster commented on the problems of opening and closing of turnpike gates. This must have set Matthias thinking and in 1832 the Gardener’s Magazine carried a description of a device to open estate lodge gates at night without the watchman having to get out of bed! Actually his brain was so active that he devised two different systems which Loudon later included in his Encyclopaedia of cottage, farm, and villa architecture and furniture.
But there was more to come that year. Next was a gadget for “removing choice florist’s flowers from one pot to another without injury.” For once it was a simple and seemingly feasible idea which might be useful today as well. The pots had removable bases, rather like some cake tins, which could be pushed out taking the plant with it.
After Mr Saul had been given a tin tulip transplanter – did you even know such a thing existed – which was different to his own patented transplanting device that we saw earlier, he tested it. It did not work to his satisfaction so he devised an improvement which incorporated a spring.
In 1833 Loudon received another present from Lancaster. This time not a plant or a tool but a chair of Saul’s own devising. For once it didn’t go down too well with Loudon who didn’t like the design as it wasn’t realistic enough.
“Our principal objection is to the manner in which the seat is supported by single and unconnected leaves. When nature is imitated by art, there ought always to be, in the object produced, at least a semblance of truth ; for, though no leaves of the kind shown, however placed, could actually support a seat of this kind; yet, if they had been made to spring from a root or stem underneath the seat, and spread out under it on every side, like the leaves of the capital of a column, they would have had much more the appearance of communicating support.”
Nor did Loudon like the colour: “There is a degree of dullness and monotony in introducing leaves and green as objects of art,” and preferred any colour apart from blue. There was plenty more in the same vein.
Poor Mr Saul. He took the criticism to heart and redesigned his chair, casting the legs as vine branches, with leaves and fruit, “and with the depending clusters of fruit made to be removable at pleasure, so as to have them either green, red, or black, according to the time of the year.” The response to that was Loudon being Loudon at his most dismissive: “We like this design still less than the other”. It didn’t stop Saul going ahead and manufacturing these chairs in conjunction with a local foundry, and then displaying them at flower shows. On one occasion, in a note I suspect written by Saul himself, they were described as “of a novel and tasteful design by Mr Saul…and excited much attention.”
Not to be defeated Saul came back in 1835 with ideas for “further Rustic-work for Garden Ornaments” made out of alder wood, “which is remarkable for being curled and knotty”. He sent a specimen to Loudon with “a design for an Elizabethan window, in which the mullions, transoms, and labels are of rustic-work; that is, with branches of alders knotted in the manner above described”. Loudon’s response was scathing again: “Chacun a son gout.” There was no illustration but instead a diatribe about he could “by no means approve of applying wooden rustic-work to permanent architectural structures of brick or stone, such as human dwellings.”
Loudon was however much more impressed by Saul’s 7 ft high combined bookcase, writing desk and clock and gave it prominent coverage in his Encyclopaedia suggesting that 10,000 ought to be made.
After years of seemingly endless correspondence in 1836 Matthias Saul goes a bit silent perhaps because his politics comes to the fore, but also because ill-health forced him into retirement. He was involved in the movement to repeal the Corn Laws, and even organized a petition to Parliament calling for the end of imprisonment for debt . He’s attacked in the local press as “an incubus..and formerly a violent illiterate radical”. This was the time when the ballot was restricted to men whose property was valued at a rental value of £10pa minimum. Local conservatives tried to deny the vote to him and anyone else they thought might be “reformers” . He argued and won with the magistrates finding his property including his greenhouse was worth £15 pa.
Saul must also have been quite litigious. He sued the local highways surveyor for not keeping the drains clear, and got the police to apprehend the vicar’s coachman for riding his pony on the footpath, a coach driver for galloping through the streets, and a labourer for driving his cow along a public footpath.
But by 1842 he couldn’t keep pen from paper and got back in touch with Loudon and the inventions start flowing again! There was an alarm bell system inspired by a local burglary, an improved boots scraper and an elaborate improved dahlia stake. In 1843 there was a long account of potato growing around Garstang and a description of how to use his patented Potato Planter.
It was not just Loudon who benefitted from his enthusiasm. He corresponded with Paxton about the glazing of hothouse roofs
and when John Lindley’s Gardeners Chronicle started in 1841 Saul began to send letters to him too.
He told them about a zinc flange to stop slugs eating plants in a flower pot using galvanic action, how to maintain overnight heat in a hotbed using turf, how to use geese to clear pondweed, about the cheapness and efficacy of turf drains, and his device for watering turnips.
And lets not forget his “fountain flower pots” and his flower pot with hollow sides – a premonition of today’s self watering pots- and a whole array of plant stands. These included ones with revolving and removable arms, and one [sadly not illustrated anywhere] in “cast iron, [which] represents a male figure attired in the exact costume of the Swiss guards, as worn in the 16th century, all painted in proper colours, and bearing in each hand a basin for the reception of flower pots or bouquets.”
Described in his obituary in the Lancaster Gazette on 3rd March 1860 as “eccentric and well meaning… he was of an ingenious turn of mind and planned many things, but we are not aware… that he reaped any pecuniary benefit. Though possessing a rough exterior, and having rough uncouth and eccentric manners it cannot but be said that he laboured diligently for the welfare of his fellow men.”
Practical to the end Matthias Saul designed his own monument and even his own coffin, setting aside the sum of £65 to do so. The inscription reads “In memory of Matthias Saul of Lancaster who died the 25th day of February 1860. Aged 73 years. He was one of the earliest patrons and throughout life a zealous supporter of the Mechanics Institute and for upwards of forty years a well-known contributor to the public journals on mechanical improvements, agriculture and horticulture. This monument was designed by himself.”