Benjamin the orchidologist

These days we think nothing of having orchids as pot plants around the house. They’re piled high and sold cheap in every supermarket,  having been  grown by micropropagation in plant factories and then air-freighted in from all round the world.   But this hasn’t always been the case, as I was reminded by a recent Gardens Trust on-line lecture by Toby Musgrave about the excesses of wealthy Victorian garden owners.

This obviously included a lot about orchidmania with the mention of a nurseryman who specialised in growing orchids on a large scale – Benjamin Samuel Williams – whose nursery was in Holloway in north London.

Since that’s where I live I had to know more… 

Benjamin Williams was born in 1822. His father James was head gardener to John Warner, a wealthy London brass-founder who had  a  country villa estate  at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire. James had worked there from the age of 18 and was to continue in post until he was 91!  Ben, as he was known by the family, worked with his father from the age of 14 and became the Warners’ “factotum gardener”.  The Warners were all keen gardeners and regularly exhibited at both Chiswick and Regents Park RHS flowers shows.

John Warner’s garden, Hoddesdon Hall,  was the subject of an article in Gardeners Chronicle in September 1842  which shows he was the first person to commission the later-to-be-famous James Pulham to construct a large rockery to go with an artificial  stream and lake fed by water brought in from a spring a mile or so away.   William Paul the nurseryman also wrote an account of the garden in 1849.

John’s  eldest son Charles who inherited ten years later, took over most of the estate when  it was known as Woodlands.

John’s  grandson, Metford Warner, wrote a memoir, cited by Claude Hitching  [of The Pulham Legacy] which described  30 acres of “field and trickling streams” which had been transformed  into “a garden of delight and surprises with its terraces, fountains, pools, fishponds and summer-houses in each favoured spot.” He goes on to describe the planting and layout in great detail so if you’re interested in knowing more about a late Victorian middle class villa garden its worth taking a look.

Ben quickly developed a passion for growing particular plant families and building up collections of them, although initially not the orchid. Instead it was the pansy and ranunculus  which grabbed his attention and which, when only 20, he began to exhibit,  “accomplishing wonders with the aid of a few frames.”   He then widened his range and began forcing rhododendrons and azaleas “with fermenting material in cucumber frames”. He also started showing fruit and vegetables at shows in both Hertfordshire and the suburbs of north London, “the slender means at his command proving but a slight impediment to one so bent on success”.

So where did the passion for orchids come from?  The short answer is – his employer.  After a short period working at a well-known local nursery,  Paul & Sons in Cheshunt, he  returned to work as his father’s foreman gardener, and then after John Warner died, for his son Charles who was a member of the Horticultural Society’s Council, and an early orchid fanatic. Ben was appointed his orchid grower.

While his father was alive Charles  had lived near the family’s brass foundry in London but kept his orchid collection  which was “his hobby and delight” at Hoddesdon.  Metford Warner remembered entering “by way of the cooler house devoted to the dendrobiums and odontoglossums, and then the larger East India house with its vandas and coelogines and others requiring greater heat – all arranged and classified on the pebbled floors of the brick stages and on which we notice the halves of potatoes turned over on the cut side to persuade the earwigs that an English vegetable is after all more succulent than the shoot of a Phalanopsis.”

“The end of the wall of this house is coated with seedlings of ferns, and forms a background to a pool enlivened with goldfish and blocked in right and left by massive rocks, made and set up by Messrs Pulham of Broxbourne overhung by ferns and date palms, and hid behind them on the left is the path leading to the furnace house and potting shed, where we find father’s factotum gardener known as ‘Ben’, more respectfully as Benjamin Samuel Williams F.R.H.S. in his later years”

[For more on Woodlands, the Warners, and Ben’s time there see 1842-43 – The Gardens at ‘Woodlands which is on the The Pulham Legacy. website]

The first exotic orchids had arrived in Britain in 1731, but by the end of the 18thc,  there were approximately fifty species in British cultivation of both overseas and native origin. These numbers grew quickly in the early 19thc and received a huge boost with the publication in 1837 by James Bateman of Biddulph Grange of the first part of his The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala. This was sometimes known as the Librarian’s Nightmare [see earlier post] as it was the largest, heaviest and  most expensive book on orchids ever produced.   It was the beginning of what Bateman himself called “Orchido-Mania”  which he said “now pervades all (and especially the upper)  classes to such a marvellous extent.”

Bateman was a bit of a snob and thought that orchids as the aristocrats of the plant world should only be grown by their  human equivalent.  But he was not to have his way for long because in 1843  John Lyons, an Irish orchid grower, published Remarks on the Management of Orchidaceous  Plants  the first proper manual on orchid growing which helped break the wealthier class’s  hold on the plant and began the democratisation of orchid growing in Britain. [Unfortuantely this is not available on-line so we’ll just have to take Jim Endersby’s word for its significance. See Orchid, p.74-75. See also  Charles Nelson’s John Lyons and His Orchid Manual, 1983]

It was now that Benjamin Williams really began to earn his reputation as an orchid specialist.   Medford recalled finding  “father at work with Benjamin, … tying up with wadding the orchid spikes prior to the plants being sent by grandfather’s wagon to the Chiswick or Regents Park flower shows.” The gardening press carry show reports detailing Charles Warner and Ben’s many successes.

In one year they carried off every first prize for orchids at the Horticultural Society’s shows, in the face of strong competition from other leading growers including Louisa Lawrence.

At this point Warner’s neighbour Henry Bellenden Ker who was a leading light in the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge asked for Ben’s help with his own orchid growing.  Ker then wrote a series of articles under the pseudonym “Dodman” for the Gardeners’ Chronicle trying to popularise orchid growing.  John Lindley, the editor, had himself  been instrumental in spreading the word about  newly introduced orchid species publishing an illustrated account  Sertum Orchidaceum  or A Wreath of the Most Beautiful Orchiaceous Plants in 1838.  Now Lindley asked  Benjamin Williams  to contribute a series of short articles called “Orchids for the Million” as well.

These short pieces  were soon greatly expanded and in 1852 published in the first and unillustrated edition of The Orchid Growers Manual  which featured 260 plants and suggested Charles Warner’s rock work and water features as the model for an orchid house.

Although sales were initially very slow it must have encouraged Williams to consider his own future and in 1854 he  left Warner and went  into partnership with Robert Parker who had worked at the well-known Pineapple Nursery in St John’s Wood.

The site of Williams & Parker’s nursery in rapidly developing Holloway,                                                    from the OS 6″ map surveyed 1863-69

Together they set up and ran a nursery at 21 Bellevue Terrace, Seven Sisters Road in Holloway, just a few hundred yards from my house.  Amongst their stock were plenty of orchids and amongst their customers for them was none other than Charles Darwin who had been recommended  to them by Joseph Hooker, the future director of Kew.

At the same time Williams was first writing about orchids he also published a book on another Victorian fashion –  Hints on the Cultivation of British and exotic ferns and lycopodiums.  The first edition of 1852 was dedicated to Charles Warner, and although it was unillustrated it was later enlarged and republished as  Select Ferns and Lycopods in 1868 and again in 1873 with many small engravings and several fold-out plates.

In 1861 after 7 years the partnership was dissolved amicably and the two nurserymen  went their separate ways.  Parker went to the other side of London, setting up the Exotic Nursery in Tooting.   Meanwhile Williams moved up the Holloway Road towards Highgate  and set up the Victoria Nursery on a corner site in Upper Holloway, now occupied by Archway tube station and the famous [or rather infamous] Archway Tower which sits on top of it.

Even then the area was no longer even remotely open, but as you can see being rapidly built up, with his nursery ground tucked into a backland plot.

Not long afterwards he expanded, acquiring  a second site just down the road near Upper Holloway  station which he named Paradise Nursery, and after that his adverts  always carried the two names together. His son Henry joined him in running the business which “demanded their united energies.”

It must have been a successful move because ten years later  the 1871 census reveals Ben was employing 70 men and 7 boys. Although the grounds only extended to about 3 acres there were many glasshouses and  they grew a very wide  range of stock but soon specialised in ferns and other foliage plants as well, of course, in orchids.


Around the time  he moved to Upper Holloway he must also have begun working with Robert Warner, Charles’s brother,  on a series of descriptions of orchids, with 40 hand-coloured lithographed plates mainly by  W.H. Fitch the leading botanical artist of the day who was the resident artist at Kew for Joseph Hooker.

Robert Warner had one of the greatest collections of orchids in existence with over 12,000 plants, at his home, Scravells at Broomfield in Essex housed in a series of greenhouses stretching over 140 ft in length.  He even had sent his own collectors to Colombia “to select and bring home the best varieties” and in 1869 had taken part of his collection to St Petersburg to show  at the International Horticultural Exhibition.

The first series of their  Select Orchidaceous Plants was published between 1862 and 1865, and according to Warner,  sales “far exceeded our expectations.” A second set appeared between 1865 and 1875, and then a third  between 1877 and 1891.


By the time the second series was completed Williams had published 3 more editions of the Orchid Growers Manual, with the 1871 update now covering over 800 species and varieties, although there were still only a few black and white line illustrations.

He had also published  a book on Choice Stove and Greenhouse Plants which in the 1876 edition described over 900 different plants, and included a section on the fashionable Sub-Tropical gardening style.  Some of the engraving blocks were reused from ferns. It was to run through 3 editions.

That book contained an advert for Victoria and Paradise Nurseries,  where Williams    “respectfully invites the Nobility and Gentry about to furnish their Conservatories, Greenhouses, Stoves,  and Orchid Houses, to an inspection of his stock of Magnificent Specimens that are unequalled in this country, consisting of the CHOICEST and RAREST EXOTICS.”    It also made clear that the nursery was always open to visitors and that “Besides the LARGE CONSERVATORY which is at all times of the year worth a visit, there are numerous Houses consisting of ORCHID HOUSES, PALM STOVES (to which many new and interesting Plants have of late been added), NEW HOLLAND HOUSES, FERN HOUSES, AZALEA HOUSES, &c., replete with Plants, which by the interest and instruction they will afford.”   The global nature of the nursery was not just reflected in its plants. Staff also travelled internationally exhibiting at horticultural shows in Europe and North America.

In 1881 Ben Williams, again working with Robert Warner, and also Thomas Moore  Director of Chelsea Physick Garden, began his magnum opus The Orchid Album which planned to do for orchids what other botanical magazines had done f0r a wider range of plants: illustrate them, supply cultivation notes and botanical descriptions, and of course also act subtly as a catalogue for his nursery.  It was dedicated to the future Queen Alexandra and Williams oversaw the first 8 volumes himself, with his son  publishing three more after his death.

There were also two further editions of the Orchid Grower’s Manual,  including a final posthumous one  in  1894.  By then his work  was not merely  highly critically acclaimed, but generally accepted to be the most authoritative work then available  on orchids and their  classification and cultivation .

At some point the Williams acquired, what the Gardener’s Magazine was describe in 1898 as  “a  nice little estate of some 14 acres on the breezy slopes of Finchley”  to give them more room for cultivating plants  “to meet the increasing demand that comes from through the florists shop on Piccadilly.”  [I have been unable to trace their shop so if anyone knows more about it please let me know]

As Upper Holloway was by now intensively built up and increasingly polluted with a railway running right past the site  the new Finchley grounds meant that “orchids and such plants that do better under a stronger light than that of Upper Holloway will find a place.”

The article went on reveal quite how extensive their range continued to be. There were a wide range of Palms which could be purchased in every conceivable size from “a tiny seedling or a fine towering specimen of 15-20 feet.”  There were  bamboos and other “beautiful Japanese plants” while general stock plants occupied a large number of houses and “show that the Holloway firm is perfectly well acquainted with the variations of the wind of fashion… Altogether there is much to interest and instruct a visitor at the Victoria at Paradise nurseries…”

Benjamin Williams was clearly more than just a well-skilled and knowledgeable  nurseryman. After he died in 1890 his obituaries were fulsome about his philanthropy and good nature, “all characterised by soundness of teaching, a generous breadth of view of every subject treated, convenience of arrangement and all that is implied in the term ‘good book-king’ ” A memorial fund was set up, chaired by Shirley Hibberd and including many of the great and good of Victorian horticulture which led to the establishment of the Williams Medal which is still awarded annually by the RHS for “a group of plants and/ or cut blooms of one genus (fruit and vegetables excepted) which shows excellence in cultivation, staged at one of the Society’s Shows during the year”.   But there’s no doubt that it was orchids which were “the best monument of the skill, taste and business energy of an honoured veteran.”





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