London nurseries in the 1690s

Did you know there were cacti and bananas growing in London at the end of the 17thc?  Or that there were vineyards and commercial winemaking?  Or that the king rarely paid his bills?   Following on from last week’s post about the grander gardens of London that were visited by Sir John Gibson in 1691,  today I’m going to look at the commercial nurseries he visited – and a couple that he didn’t.

Although a few probate inventories detail the contents of a small number of nursery grounds, there are no plans, no accounts and very few letters or other documentary sources about them. Gibson’s descriptions provides some very useful information to form a fuller picture of what they were like, and even suggest that some were quite like modern garden centres, with lots of attractions other than plants.

Gibson describes five commercial nurseries, in addition to Brompton which I mentioned in last weeks post.  First was Captain Foster’s which was in Lambeth and had “many curiosities” and  “a good choice of flowers”. The greenhouse was full of “fresh and flourishing plants” and it stood behind “the finest striped Holly hedge that is perhaps in England.” Foster was clearly interested in topiary mainly formed out of myrtle which were “of the most fanciful shapes that are anywhere else.” There was a pergola or “framed walk of timber covered with vines” with other vines  “running on most of his walls”. Together “they yield him a great deal of wine.”



This was not as unusual as you might think. Just after the Restoration several books about viticulture had appeared.  William Hughes published The Compleat Vineyard in 1665 and the following year John Rose, the then royal gardener,  had written The English Vineyard Vindicated . It had a preface by John Evelyn which urged Charles II  who had “no great opinion of our English wines” to encourage a revival of winemaking. These were followed by John Beale’s Nurseries, orchards, profitable gardens, and vineyards encouraged in 1677. By the end of the century the revival was well underway and there were vineyards attached to many larger houses around the city, while vines were even being grown in  London churchyards.

Thomas Fairchild, the Hoxton nurserymen whose new grounds had only just opened and so was not visited by Gibson, had by the 1720s a large collection of “foreign grapes” for sale, while  in The City Gardener he also gives plenty of examples of ‘Vines now growing in good Perfection’ which ‘even bear good Fruit’.   This led to a commercial winemaking industry  with, for example,  the  inventory of Charles King of Brompton who died in 1739 showing  about 4,000 mature vine stools, “each stool being two sufficient plants” in four different vineyards and “in the park and against the park wall”,   a further 6,000 “1 year old Budded vines for transplanting elsewhere” while his cellars, vaults and outhouses were stuffed with the resultant production of “Brittish Burgundy”, “Brittish White Wine” and “Brittish Brandy” valued at £426.

Evelyn’s glass beehive at Sayes Court, from Elysium Britannicum

Perhaps, however, the most surprising thing about Foster’s nursery is that it must’ve resembled something approaching a modern garden centre. Gibson tells us there was an aviary with “Virginia and other birds in great variety,” and  more surprising a glass beehive. This presumably was one made by, or based on one made by,  Dr John Wilkins, warden of Wadham College in Oxford. It would have been similar to the one that John Evelyn describes and drew   in his own garden at Sayes Court in Deptford.  This must’ve been quite an extraordinary sight to someone like Gibson and explain why he thought  the birds and the bees “add much to the pleasure of his garden.”

Foster mainly dealt with elite clients. His name crops up, for example, in the correspondence of Charles Hatton, a great plant collector for his brother Viscount Hatton of Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire. In an earlier post  I’ve recounted the story of how Charles bought some unusual orange trees from Foster for Kirby. Hatton’s letters suggest that Foster was a very shrewd, perhaps even rather unscrupulous salesman. Having bought the trees Hatton told his brother:   “I find he is much troubled that he parted with them at so easy a rate. He thought, with great subtlety, to have persuaded me  that I mistook them, and they were only bastard trees, and therefore kindly offered to exchange them both or at least one of them.”

In response  Hatton  tried a ploy of his own: “I perceived his art and told him that to do him a kindness I would buy all his bastard trees of that kind (as he called them) have the same rate, which he confessed he was not willing to, but at £10 a tree I should have them, telling me in truth that he had refused seven guineas for a tree and very subtly he had hid all the rest of the trees of that kind but one… I, confident after the fruit is ripe on his bearing tree, he will raise his price then all our virtuosos in those kinds of plants will be very desirous of them, for yet they scarcely believe the fruit will be part orange and part lemon.”

Little more is known about Foster, even whether he was a naval, army or militia captain, but clearly the nursery provided a decent  living as the local rate book shows him paying 17s 4d, much much more than his neighbours, towards the repair of the parish church in 1700.  Foster probably died around 1703 when the local rate book has an entry for Captain Foster or Occupier.

Not far away in Lambeth was “Monsieur Anthony Versprit”, who again we know little about. His garden was small – it was only rated at 2s 6d in 1700 – but it was full of “very choice things.” If his greenhouse did not have a great deal of stock what he did have was “of the best sort and very well ordered.” He seems to have specialised in citrus and had orange and lemon trees which were “extraordinary fair” and he might even have sold the fruit. He also had a good choice of “lentiscus’s and Roman bayes.”

The other three nurseries that Gibson visited were on the eastern side of London. Prominent amongst them was that of Mr Ricketts who had large premises at the sign of The Hand in Hoxton.  The business was established by George Ricketts, perhaps as early as the Restoration, but by 1691 was probably being run by his son James.   The grounds were “abundantly stocked with all manner of flowers, fruit trees, and other garden plants”  and had “a sale garden” with a” very good greenhouse… well filled with fresh greens, besides which he has another room very full of greens in pots.”  Ricketts also had “a greater stock of Assyrian thyme than anybody else; for, besides many pots of it he has beds abroad, with plenty of roots, which they cover with mats and straw in the winter.”

Gibson also comments on their stock of “lime trees, which are now much planted.” Limes had become  fashionable  during the reign of Charles II particularly after the planting of the lime avenue along the Great Water at Hampton Court. This was designed as a wedding present  for Catherine of Braganza, but the trees had  to be imported from Holland as there was no nursery in England capable of supplying on the required scale. However this failure led to a resurgence of interest in commercial tree growing in and around London so that, within a couple of decades, all major estate landscaping and planting schemes could be supplied with English grown stock.

However, while Ricketts  “sells his things with the dearest,” Gibson thought he had not taken “care to have his plants prove well” and so “he is supposed to have lost much of his custom.”   Perhaps the family weren’t too worried by this because they had diversified away from gardening and into property. They took building leases on land they leased from St Bartholomew’s Hospital and ended up with at least 40 tenements and houses.

Almost next door to was Samuel Pearson’s nursery which was much smaller and obviously carried less stock but Gibson is enthusiastic. “Of flowers he has great choice and of anemones he avers he has the best about London and sells them only to gentlemen.”

Surprisingly “he has no greenhouse, yet has abundance of myrtles and stripe philareas with oranges and other greens.” Gibson thought it worth explaining how the  nursery could keep tender plants like citrus without a greenhouse and explained that Pearson keeps them “safe enough under sheds, sunk foot within ground, and covered with straw.” Unlike Ricketts, Samuel Pearson was “moderate in his prices, and accounted very honest in his dealing which gets him much chapmanry”

Also in Hoxton was the nursery of William Darby which is thought to have been established around 1677 with some stock bought from Anthony Versprit.  Like Pearson’s Darby’s was “but a little garden” but this didn’t matter because Darby  was “master of several curious greens that other sale gardeners want, and which he saves from cold and winter weather in greenhouses of his own making.” One of these “curious greens” was his “Fritillaria crassa” which “had a flower on it the breadth of a half crown, like an embroidered star, of several colours. ”

Gibson was impressed: “I saw not the like of anywhere, no, not at Dr Uvedales, tho he has the same plant.”  Like other nurseryman Darby grew and “raised many striped Hollies by inoculation.” In this he differs from Captain Foster who Gibson tells us “grafts them as we do apple trees.”

Darby was clearly a gifted propagator and this led him to charge high prices or as Gibson said he is “dear with them.” But he was also quite a shrewd marketeer and because many of the plants would not be in flower when visitors like Gibson came out of the flowering season he made himself the novel kind of catalogue: “a folio paper book in which he has pasted the leaves and flowers of almost all manner of plants, which make a pretty show, and are more instructive than any cuts in herbals.”

Darby was succeeded in about 1718 by John Cowell author of  The Curious and Profitable Gardner 1730.  In it we discover that amongst Darby’s plants were a Glastonbury Thorn bought from Glastonbury itself in about 1680. This had grown very slowly and by 1729 when he was writing the book  Cowell says  it was still  “not much more than 9 feet high”.  Darby also nurtured the Great American Aloe “the first curious exotic plant he ever had” which he bought from Anthony Versprit when it was already 20 years old. And later in about 1710 he also bought “a Cereus or Torch Thistle” which didn’t flower until 1729. [Cereus was the generic name for all elongated columnar cacti so its difficult to know precisely which one Darby had. ]

The last nursery that Gibson visited was that of Mr Clements at Mile End on the main road from London eastwards into Essex.  It too was small probably no bigger than Darby’s, but it had “more greens yet not of such curious sorts” which he kept in a greenhouse. Like Foster, Clements had vines in many places”  but instead of  just training them on walls or in rows he grew them up old trees.  Gibson noted  that Clements “made wine this year of his white muscadine and white Frontignac, better I thought than any French white wine.”  Although all the nurseries were clearly geared up to sell from their sites Gibson also notes that Clements has a shop next to the road  where he sells seeds and potted plants.  Its thought that his nursery ground may later have formed part of the important Mile End Nursery established by James Gordon in the 1740s.

There were of course other  nurseries that Gibson missed. The most significant was that of Leonard Gurle who had taken on a lease on  12 acres next to Brick Lane in Whitechapel in 1643.

Leonard Meager in 1670 in his book The English Gardener  wrote of his  “very Loving friend Captain Garrle, dwelling at the great Nursery between Spittle-fields and White Chapel, a very eminent and Ingenious Nursery-man”,   making him one of the first to be called by that more specialist name rather than gardener. He could, Meager added, ” furnish any that desireth, with any of the sorts here after mentioned; as also with divers other rare and choice plants’.   Then follows a list of over 300 varieties of fruit trees, many of them from France. By 1661 Gurle had also raised the hardy nectarine ‘Elruge’ and given it his own name reversed, with an extra ‘e’. It is still commercially available.

He must have had plenty of elite clients. Archival records show that, for example, in 1672 Gurle sold  trees, climbers and a box of seeds, to Sir Roger Pratt, of Ryston Hall, near Downham, Norfolk, while in 1674 he supplied fruit trees to Sir Richard Temple at Stowe, and to William Russell, first duke of Bedford, at Woburn Abbey. The Woburn order included some  young trees ‘to make good those that died last year‘ because Gurle guaranteed to supply ‘the best of every sort in case any fail or die‘.

In the 1660s and 70s Gurle’s was probably London’s largest nursery  and would only have grown in reputation after  he  took charge of St James Park for  Charles II in 1677.  In taking the job of royal gardener he was paid a salary of £240 plus the  fixed sum of £320 for  running the garden, which had to cover all expenditure, including the provision of tools and equipment, plants and labour.  Such contracts could mean an expensive initial outlay and create financial headaches for the contractor.  When he died it caused problems because the bulk of his estate consisted of outstanding debts from “his late Majesty of blessed memory… for his salary board wages and otherwise the sum of £2500”, which would imply that he had not been paid for several years. His widow Joyce was still chasing it at her own death in 1688.  Even things  like flower pots and glass frames that belonged to Gurle were “detained by his Maj servants”

However, like many other professional gardeners and nurserymen, and indeed other tradesmen more generally,  Gurle got round the vicissitudes of seasonal uncertainly and contractual problems by  diversifying  his business. In particular, like Ricketts, he invested his spare capital in real estate, leasing and subletting  more land, and building houses for rent.

from the frontispiece of Fairchild’s The City Gardener 1722 which is assumed to show his own nursery.

Although Gurle himself had died in 1685 the nursery continued under his son and then grandson’s control well into the 18thc leading me to wonder why Gibson didn’t visit?  If anyone knows a plausible reason please let me know.

There is however a good reason he wouldn’t have visited another nursery, that of Thomas Fairchild,  which was to become extremely well known in the years that followed.  Fairchild had only set up in business earlier in 1691 on a tiny half-acre plot and had neither the stock nor reputation that he was soon to acquire which included bananas!


For more on Fairchild see my earlier posts and for more on Leonard Gurle, see the post on the wonderful Professor Hedgehogs Journal. On nurseries more generally a good starting point is John Harvey’s Early Nurserymen  although it was first published in 1974 and a lot more research has been done since. See also Richard Coulton’s   PhD thesis, Curiosity, commerce, and conversation in the writing of London horticulturists during the early-eighteenth century, and the article he wrote based on on it: ‘Curiosity, Commerce, and Conversation: Nursery-Gardens and Nurserymen in Eighteenth-Century London’, The London Journal, 43 (2018), 17-35

Finally click on this  link for a pdf of Gibson’s article in full



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