A recent email from my friend Twigs Way had the headline “This is just SO quirky . .” Clicking it open I found a hyperlink and the message: “thought I would send it to a fellow lover of the ‘strange world of garden history’ ”
The link was to a short piece of newsreel on Pathe News dating from 1952 but neither of us had heard of the subject of the clip and nor had any of the local county gardens trust researchers that she’d asked, so, of course, that was a good excuse to start me off on another of life’s little research byways.
And what’s it all go to do with Cussons Imperial Leather?
The newsreel was 90 second clip about a woman named Anne Ashberry and the hobby she’d turned into a successful business. Whilst neither Twigs nor I hadn’t heard of Anne Ashberry, others clearly had and a quick internet search soon showed she even had her own Wikipedia page. But this was not really concerned with her gardening interests but her earlier career as a pioneering engineer.
Born Hannah Annenberg in Hackney in 1896 her family were Jewish immigrants from Russia, but changed their surname in response to the anti-German feelings prevalent at the time of the First World War. Now Annette Ashberry she worked in a munitions factory during the war but showed such an aptitude that she ended up being given specialist work. After 1918 however there was little such work for women and so encouraged by the newly formed Women’s Engineering Society Annette was one of eight women to form a women-only engineering company based in Loughborough.
The interwar slump was a tough time to be starting any enterprise and the business almost failed. It shrank in size and moved to London becoming Atlanta Co Ltd [named after the Greek mythological heroine] operating just a small machine shop. Nevertheless in 1922 Annette won a prize from the Society for the design of a dishwasher and also patented an improved vegetable peeler. In 1925 she became the first woman to be elected to the Royal Society of Engineers, and the following year delivered the first address by a woman to its members. Incidentally the second woman to be elected was Amy Johnson, the aviatrix who Annette knew.
Unfortunately it looks as if Atalanta folded in the early 1930s but in any case by 1935 Annette had changed track completely. She was living in a flat in London without a garden but had window boxes and decided to turn them into something more interesting than the usual run of the mill display of geraniums or petunias. “Although this could be very bright and gay, it did not seem to me like real gardening. I wanted to watch roses, primulas, daffodils, irises and other plants put forth their buds, bloom and fade in the natural seasons.” But how could she do this on a small scale?
The answer came after visiting a rock garden. Her wishes could come true but only if she thought small. Once she’d realised that it all seemed to flow naturally. Maybe small plants. Maybe small containers. But definitely big possibilities for grand designs.
She began using alpines and the slowest growing dwarf conifers but not just shoved in higgledy-piggledy:
“I had the idea, which now seems so simple and so obvious that a group of carefully selected miniature trees and plants arranged in a definite design would make what I wanted so badly a real garden but on a miniature scale and small enough to have in a box on my window ledge.”
“Soon, after much experimenting with different plants I had three complete gardens in. a bay window… seen from inside… like three individual landscapes views through the wrong end of a telescope.”
Presumably having seen the reaction of friends she decided to turn her hobby into a business. Although she knew that growing collections of alpines in troughs and sinks had been popular for many years [see an earlier post on Clarence Elliott for example] her intention was to make complete miniature gardens echoing Reginald Farrer in his comments that “A little garden, the littler the better, is your richest chance of happiness and success.”
Finding premises in Kensington Church Street she set to work. Her efforts were quickly noticed with the Times noting in 1938 that “each production seen in the South Kensington nursery where the gardens are prepared combined the skill of the horticulturalist and the imagination of the artist, and are delicate down to the last detail.”
Amongst her commissions was one in 1935 from the people of Wales to make a garden as a birthday present for the then 11 year old Princess Elizabeth to accompany Y Bwthyn Bach, [The Little House] a small thatched cottage play house which she had been given in 1932. This now stands in the grounds of the Royal Lodge at Windsor and is still used by the youngest members of the royal family. Anne’s garden is a not a copy of the actual garden but featured an equally formal arrangement complete with a rotunda and rectangular pool. I wonder what has happened to it?
In these early days she admits to making mistakes especially about choice of plants, quickly realising that many of those described as dwarf are just shorter versions of the “normal” varieties and have large leaves or flowers so are out of proportion and consideration for a miniature garden.
Nor did she include what most people would have expected: bonsai. “Whilst I can appreciate the craftsmanship which has gone into producing these trees, to me, there is something repugnant about reducing to pot culture, beach oak larch and other trees which would normally become kings of the forest. Apart from my personal dislike of these tortured trees, they are not suitable for trough gardens, as they cannot be released from their confining pots without the possibility of losing their dwarf habit.” In any case “remarkably few people know that some of the most beautiful natural dwarf conifers have been raised in England.” She would use them instead.
She also loved roses and hunted for the tiniest roses imaginable. Her favourite seems to have been the absolutely minuscule Rosa roulettii. Although its thought that most miniature roses are derived from Rosa chinensis minima which was probably introduced to Britain in the 1850s although they do not seem to have entered mainstream commercial production. In about 1918 it, or something like it, was “rediscovered” in a Swiss village and soon propagated by the great Alpine plantsman Henry Correvon who also tried to identify its origins. You can read the full story here. Suffice it to say that in a container Rosa roulettii seldom grows much past 5cm or 2inches in height but was always covered in flowers, so you can imagine how it suited Anne. [Beware if you google Roulettii as there are other roses being sold under that name which are much much bigger]
Business ground to a halt, of course, in 1939 and she returned to engineering, working in a factory in Chelmsford that made essential aeroplane parts. After the war was over she decided to stay in the area and bought an old cottage thought to date to the 18thc called Chessins and some land at in the tiny village of Chignall Smealy, where she started up her miniature garden business again.
Within a short while she was advertising nationally, offering a personalised garden put together by her. These were available by mail order.
She exhibited at the Essex County Show and in local venues including shops and even did demonstrations in London hotels and stores. More important venues followed and she had stands at both the Festival of Britain and several Chelsea Flower Shows.
She clearly enjoyed more than just the design and building of these gardens, so after experiencing difficulties in obtaining the right plant material in sufficient quantities she began propagating and then opened her own nursery specialising in alpines and miniature conifers
Her gardens often featured little additional details, and not just garden buildings, ponds and trellises, but occasionally even some “wildlife” to add authenticity.
One of her specialities was planting gardens to celebrate particular events, so for example, she planted a garden on the day Prince Charles was born and used it to show how these miniature gardens developed very slowly over time.
At the same time she branched out again and began writing books. Miniature Gardens was published in 1951 and was, the cover proclaimed, ” The First and Only Book dealing with Designing, Constructing and Maintaining English Gardens in Miniature.” An American edition appeared the following year, and later it was translated in several European languages. It was reprinted many times and has become something of a classic. I was struck immediately by how knowledgeable she must have been about plants. There are detailed descriptions of the soil mix, the design elements, and even to make the containers if necessary. Most importantly she added a very detailed analysis of the plants, especially those should be used and those that should be avoided. All this was delivered in a very readable way.Her fame was growing to the point where Pathe News produced a short documentary about Anne and her work, probably to be shown in cinemas. Soon she made a few appearances on the television, notably in 1954 in an episode of “Out of Doors” an early BBC natural history series.
A major success was having several of her gardens used by Cussons the soap and perfume manufacturer in an advertising campaign in glossy magazines like Tatler and Queen in 1953 . I have no idea why they were chosen since there is no accompanying text and although the ads ran for several months they do not seem to have been continued.
In the end Anne was to write 6 more books on aspects of gardening in miniature. The first few were variations on a theme: Miniature Flowers and Vases , Miniature Trees and Shrubs , Gardens in Miniature  but she widened her scope for two of them. One of these was on making Bottle Gardens and Fern Cases  because both she and her partner the illustrator Creina Glegg were keen members of the British Pteridological Society, and the other on creating Alpine Lawns . Her final book Gardens on a higher level  was back to her first love: window boxes but also covered balconies and courtyards. All were well reviewed and most are easily available second-hand.
Anne also wrote several articles for the upmarket magazines like Tatler that her main patrons must have read. It all stood her in good stead and her nursery and her designs attracted the interest of serious horticultural and botanical institutions, such as Brooklyn Botanic Garden who commissioned her to write articles about her work for their journal Plants and Gardens .
The British Newspaper Archive trail runs out around 1970 but an earlier researcher, interested more in her engineering work, tracked down and interviewed some of her friends as well as her partner, Creina Glegg who was the illustrator of several of Anne’s books. She discovered that Anne died in 1990 at her home. And in case you’re wondering what happened to her own miniature gardens, according to The Alpine Gardener of December 2015 some of them still survive at Forge Nurseries, Rawreth, not that far away from Chignall Smealy. As usual if anyone has any more information please get in touch!