Charles McIntosh

Oh no I can almost hear you thinking – another post about a dull old man who happened to like gardening…. but don’t give up yet because Charles McIntosh or M’Intosh as he is often called is neither dull nor ordinary.

A friend of Loudon, Lindley and Paxton but never as well-known he was always interested in the scientific and practical advancement of  horticulture, and his articles, books and inventions are definitely worth hearing more about, as are the gardens he designed and worked in both in Britain and abroad. 

Abercairney Abbey from Neale’s Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, 1831. Built between 1804 and 1814, but demolished in 1960

With a name like McIntosh you wont be surprised to hear that he was Scottish. Charles was born at Abercairney near Crieff in Perthshire into a family of gardeners in 1794.  His grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather had all been gardeners for the dukes of Atholl, while his father was the gardener, forester, and manager of improvements on the Abercairney estate for nearly fifty years.

Although there was apparently some talk of Charles  entering the church his passion for horticulture was stronger than his sense of vocation and so instead he became his father’s assistant at Abercairney.  Perhaps as part of his training when he was about 20 in 1814, like many fellow Scots gardeners,  he followed the high road to England and went to work at the famous Vineyard Nursery in Hammersmith run by two fellow Scottish families,  the Lees and the Kennedys.  They introduced him to their horticultural network which also led to   some talk of him going to work for the East India Company running an experimental garden for economic botany on  Prince of Wales Island [now Penang] which had been acquired by the company in 1786.

In the end he turned this down and instead he returned to work with his father at Abercairney before being recommended  as gardener and forester to the Earl of Breadalbane of Taymouth Castle also in Perthshire.  He was at Taymouth for 4 years during which time Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, the future king of the Belgians,  who was soon to play a major part in his career, visited in 1819.  

The earl had demolished most of the former castle and had it rebuilt in Gothic style between 1806 and 1818.  The result  was popular with John Claudius Loudon  describing it in 1823  as the “most magnificent residence in the country … The mountain, lawn and banks of the waters, are richly clothed with wood, through which are led magnificent walks… scarcely equalled anywhere.”

At Taymouth McIntosh also  met William Atkinson, an architect and founder member of the Horticultural Society of London, who had been commissioned by the earl to design a new wing for the castle.   Atkinson was also interested in greenhouse technology, especially heating systems, which must have endeared him to McIntosh who was to become a hothouse specialist.  Later Atkinson invited him to London  where he was  introduced  to several potential new employers, including Sir Thomas Baring of Stratton Park in Hampshire.  It led to McIntosh accepting Baring’s offer and moving  to Stratton Park for the next  six years in the mid-1820s.  

The estate was formerly a seat of the Russells and was “improved” in the early 18thc by William Russell, later 1st duke of Bedford who “pulled down part of the town or hamlett of Stratton and laid it into his deer-park” and laid out “orchards, and avenues, planted groves, wildernesses and other ornaments to adorn and accommodate this beautiful and pleasant seat.”   Stephen Switzer was born nearby and began his training at Stratton calling William Russell  “one of the best of Masters as well as Gardeners”.

Perhaps it felt slightly old-fashioned when it was sold in 1800 to Sir Francis Baring founder of the banking dynasty and Sir Thomas’s father, because  almost immediately he commissioned Humphry Repton (1752-1818) to produce a design for a new house in a landscaped setting. Repton’s Red Book for Stratton Park survives but his proposals for a new house were not accepted. Instead  the old Tudor mansion was remodelled  in a grand neoclassical style, by George Dance the Younger, between 1803–06.  However some of Repton’s suggestions for the formal gardens, pleasure grounds and landscape park which stretched to 170 acres were  carried out.   There was also a new walled kitchen garden  with an associated bothy and gardener’s cottage which probably welcomed McIntosh when he arrived.  

McIntosh’s work had largely disappeared by the time the estate was divided between  branches of the Baring family in 1955.  John Baring, Lord Ashburton acquired  the house and parkland but soon demolished the mansion  replacing it with a modern house by Stephen Gardiner. All that remained was  Dance’s grand portico – architecturally important as one of the first built in the Greek Revivalist style –  used as what Pevsner called  “a piece of scenery…”  in the garden. 

It was at Stratton where  McIntosh must have begun writing his first book The Practical Gardener and Modern Horticulturalist. which was issued in a series of parts at 2s 6d each. By the time it was  fully published in 1829, with over 1100 pages,  he had moved on again and was back in London, laying out and planting the grounds at the Colosseum at Regent’s Park.

This was an extraordinary new  building by Decimus Burton specially constructed to house a huge painted panorama of London as seen from the top of St Paul’s by Thomas Hornor.  The Colosseum had sixteen sides, each twenty feet in length, and was surmounted by a huge dome which rose to 116ft above ground. Burton took engineering to a new level so that, for example, “by the aid of machinery the visitor is  raised to the level of the panorama and thus spared the trouble of mounting a staircase”.


The grounds were limited in size but were obviously quite impressive. “The front of the edifice is surrounded by an iron railing planted in imitation of bronze, flanked on either side by a tasteful lodge. On a grass plot between the portico and the railing are placed five fine American Aloes. The surrounding gardens, or rather plantations, are so judiciously laid out, as to appear more extensive than they really are. A passage through the south lodge leads to a Swiss cottage, conservatories, and other picturesque objects.”  Just after McIntosh left, “a marine cave and grotto apparently formed in the very bowels of the earth” were added.

McIntosh  was clearly fascinated by technology and I’ve written before about his interest in tree-moving machines which carefully analysed  the work of others and making suggestions for improvement.  But he also devised machines of his own. For example  he contributed to the first issue of Loudon’s Gardener’s Magazine, in 1828 with descriptions of three more horticultural innovations. 


His edging device  allowed him  he said “notwithstanding my infirmities [to] cut as much in one day…as I could in four for five days with the instrument in general use.”


Meanwhile his improved “orange tub” allowed the inspection and pruning of roots and  checks on the moisture of the soil. It also allowed easy transplantation.

The final invention mentioned was a way of preserving cauliflowers for long periods.  “The idea first struck me in Scotland, from considering that bog mould was antiseptic, and capable of resisting putrefaction, particularly if excluded from atmospheric air.” So he tested it and found cauliflowers cut in July were still usable in November, although “it is necessary to wash them well, as they are very black when taken out.”


He clearly knew Loudon by this point and must have been mightily pleased when Loudon decided to review the first volume of The Practical Gardener and even more pleased when that review was generally favourable analysing the contents in detail  over the course of  about  ten pages.

McIntosh was described as being “well-known amongst gardeners, a practical botanist, a skilful cultivator and of considerable taste in laying out grounds”.  The main criticism was about methods of constructing and heating hothouses – a subject which Loudon himself had written about at great length and where he disagreed with McIntosh and Atkinson. Apart from that his main complaint is that the publisher did not match McIntosh’s writing with suitable engravings – those few included were of  “no sort of use to the practical gardener.”  I wonder whether Loudon noticed the sketch of the  bird-scarer made from a potato and some feathers?

No sooner had the second volume been published than  McIntosh moved again,  this time accepting the post of gardener to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg who he had first met at Taymouth nearly 20 years earlier.  

Leopold had married Princess Charlotte, the daughter and heir of the Prince Regent, later George IV,  and they had been given the Claremont estate in Surrey as a wedding present in 1816 by the British government.  Sadly Charlotte died in childbirth the following year but Leopold continued to enjoy considerable status in Britain and was the future Queen Victoria’s favourite uncle. She often visited Claremont and when Leopold was offered the throne of Belgium in 1831 he lent her the house.  She was later to return the favour, lending the house to his second father-in-law, Louis Philippe of France, when he was exiled.

Very soon after McIntosh had taken over, the estate was visited by Jacob Rinz, a nurseryman from Frankfurt,  on his tour of English gardens which was written up in the Gardeners Magazine in August 1829.  It seems McIntosh had quickly made his mark: “I was very much delighted with all the arrangements. The culinary garden, and the forcing and other houses, were in such a good state as to equal any thing I ever saw. The pine-plants and hot-house plants looked pretty well, and the whole shows the superior taste of Mr. M’Intosh.”

Loudon himself visited in May 1830 on one of his regular trips around the country reviewing nurseries and gardens.  He thought “The kitchen-garden here is in admirable order, and the crops of every kind excellent. Our readers have seen  that Mr. M’Intosh can write well on gardening, and we can assure them he is equal to any man in the country in practice. He has cut pines all the winter, and has now some ripe, as well as a house of ripe grapes; and strawberries of course in abundance…and more than ordinarily luxuriant… The hot-house plants, of which there is a good collection and some rare species, are in excellent order; and a central group of azaleas, in a small Dutch garden, made a fine appearance.”

Later that year Loudon reviewed McIntosh’s next book  of  Flora & Pomona  which he  wanted to “strongly recommend  to all who can afford the expense.  To all those who are personally acquainted with Mr. M’Intosh, or have had an opportunity of seeing the high order and keeping of every thing under his care at Claremont, the excellent crops in the kitchen-garden, and the great improvements he is making in the shrubbery and pleasure-ground…”

Rinz and Loudon were just two of a long line of visitors to Claremont.  He is known to have shown the gardens  to Queen Adelaide, the future queen Victoria, Prince Albert and  his brother Duke of Saxe-Coburg,  the king of Portugal, and Louis Philippe of France. 

When Leopold became the first king of the Belgians in 1831 McIntosh went with him to Brussels, taking charge of the royal gardens at Laeken on the outskirts of Brussel while still retaining control of Claremont, and travelling between the two. Laeken soon joined the list of great gardens to be visited on a European tour.  Unfortunately there is little or no trace of his work since it was all swept away by Leopold II in the later 19thc, and as far as I can see there are no images of what it was like during his time. 

Amongst the first English visitors to report back was  Joseph Knight, the Chelsea nurseryman who visited Laeken in 1831  and commented that the “king of the Belgians, is fond of gardening, and a promoter of it. To accomplish his objects, and establish some of the British principles of gardening at Laeken, he has had his gardener, Mr. M’Intosh, from Claremont, who is carrying on great improvements in the erection of hot-houses, green-houses, pits, &c, upon the most modern and best English construction; and it is reported to be the intention of His Majesty to erect conservatories, &c, and to have a good and general collection of rare and ornamental plants, to which he is very partial.”

William Garvey who worked for Clapton Nursery also wrote an account of his visit in 1834 reporting that everything was  “finished in a very superior manner, and reflect great credit on Mr. M’Intosh, as in them both beauty and utility are combined.” In particular he noted another of McIntosh’s inventions: a “very ingenious “way of opening all the greenhouse lights at once.  

There were plans too to create “one of the finest conservatories in Europe; the magnificent orange trees behind, and the handsome specimens of New Holland plants in front, would have a fine effect.” And while he acknowledged that “much is still wanted to render Laeken a place of much importance in the way of gardens or grounds. …Mr. M’Intosh has been endeavouring to remedy this defect.”

As well as managing these two large estates McIntosh travelled extensively round Belgium but also  Holland, Germany, and France at  Leopold’s  expense and continued to write extensively.  The Flower Garden  was published in 1837-8),  [not, as far as I can see, available digitally]  while The Greenhouse, Hothouse and Stove came out  in 1838, and was  reviewed at length by Loudon. They were followed in 1839 by The Orchard, and because the two-volume Practical Gardener had sold so well  a completely new one volume edition .  

Although Leopold was a generous employer McIntosh clearly wanted to return to Scotland and in 1838 he became head gardener to the immensely wealthy Duke of Buccleuch, at Dalkeith.

Dalkeith Palace was built in 1702 with no expense spared and remained unaltered until the  5th Duke considered rebuilding in the neo-Jacobean style to designs by William Burn in the late 1820s. Luckily, apart from some garden buildings,  the plans   never got beyond the stage of an elaborate model.

Most important of these was the 12-sided conservatory  with what looks like a central supporting column. It is in fact a cast iron chimney serving the subterranean furnaces which heated the building.  

It was part of McIntosh’s modernisation of the grounds which also included  planting new woodlands, moving and  replanting a 500m rose trellis, and laying out  twelve acres of new ornamental gardens to the north of the house which became famous for their scroll and ribbon bedding schemes.

Elsewhere he oversaw the construction of an enormous range of glasshouses which were  amongst the most extensive in the UK, – 10 for fruit and 9 for other plants –  including vineries, peach and nectarine houses, pineapple pits, fig and tomato houses.  They were described  in The Book of the Garden in 1853-5, his magnum opus, which remained in print long after his death. 

When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Scotland for the first time in 1842 they asked to meet McIntosh, who they had previously met at Claremont and he escorted them round the grounds.

He became a contributor to  Gardeners Chronicle from  its debut  in 1841  writing on subjects as diverse as the use of “spirit of tar as a manure for carrots”, and growing rhododendrons from seed.

A Geometric Garden from The Book of. the Garden

Ten years later in 1851 a public testimonial was raised with 600 contributors, thanking him for  “the eminent services he has rendered to science and the country as a Horticulturist and Landscape Gardener, and as the author of many valuable works on these subjects” and his “high moral worth” . He was presented with  a purse of £325 and a tea set!


McIntosh retired from Dalkeith in 1855 when he was just past 70 but did not stop work. Instead he went  freelance  as a “landscape gardener and garden architect”  often advising on  the gardens of middle class ‘villa residences’.   He died at his residence in Murrayfield near Edinburgh in January 1864. 

He received a laudatory  obituary in The Gardeners’ Chronicle  of 16 January 1864, which said  “he will be remembered not only as a gardener who during a long life had occupied a prominent position in the horticultural world…  but also as one who had contributed largely to the literature, and through his writings to the scientific advancement of the profession; and, further, as the genial, kindly, unselfish, and warm-hearted friend of a wide circle of professional associates and acquaintances.”  


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