Unruly Sweet Peas

Alison Light

  • The Gardens of the British Working Class by Margaret Willes
    Yale, 413 pp, £25.00, March 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 18784 7

Lampy, just a couple of inches tall, is the last of his tribe, and is now immured in a glass cabinet a long way from his German homeland. He was one of the porcelain Gnomen-Figuren brought to Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire in the 1840s to populate the huge rockery, fissured with crevices and ravines, which Sir Charles Isham created in front of his bedroom window. The rockery reflected Isham’s love of the Alpine but he was also widely read in folklore, a believer in spiritualism and convinced of the existence of ‘mine fairies’. Vegetarian, against blood sports, and a supporter of workers’ rights, Isham was generally thought to be potty – and after his death his daughter destroyed all Lampy’s fellows.

The craze for collecting gnomes grew among the upper classes until the First World War put the kibosh on anything German. In the 1930s they staged a comeback lower down the social scale, appearing in suburban and municipal gardens, bent over their spades and forks in regulation red hats and green waistcoats (John Major’s father was a gnome-fancier, founding Major’s Garden Ornaments in 1930). The arrival of concrete and then plastic saw their once fine features blunted for the mass market and today’s gnome population, Twigs Way tells us in Garden Gnomes: A History (2009), is migratory. Usually made in China, they arrive in our garden centres via factory outlets in Eastern Europe, and in a shift familiar to postmodern theorists, they have become images not of healthy toil but of leisure, reclining on deckchairs, strumming guitars or baring their bottoms with knowing vulgarity. Once stand-ins for the invisible tribes of gardeners who made the estate garden possible, they no longer know their place.

Like gnomes, garden historians used to be captives of the country house, content to write admiringly of the design and management of the grounds, their landed owners and specialist plantsmen. In the last twenty or thirty years, this has changed. ‘Garden history has been overly aristocratic,’ declared Jane Brown, whose Pursuit of Paradise (1999) proposed a social history of gardening that could be both ‘popular and nostalgic’. She took her inspiration from G.M. Trevelyan’s English Social History, referring to the delights of his medley of topics: ‘the state of the roads, the game laws, women’s labour, sanitation, cheap gin, building fashions’. Garden historians should be as much at home in Edwardian villadom or in the borders of an interwar semi as at Stowe or Stourhead; they should understand the garden as a text as well as a territory, as a site of activity in our culture and as a symbol in art and literature – ‘digging and daydreaming’, Brown called it. Her sentiments were echoed in the universities. Scientists, archaeologists and botanists joined art and architectural historians to look beyond conservation and restoration to the archives of popular groups such as gardening and horticultural societies, the history of the kitchen garden or the allotment and the contents of the garden shed. The myth of the native English garden was undermined as the provenance of its plants – tulips, carnations and anemones were brought here from the Middle East in the 16th century – made clear the international nature of collecting; natural history branched into imperial history. Gnomography is just one recent species of garden history’s shift into cultural studies. The biographies of plants in the gorgeous botanical series published by Reaktion are another. Kasia Boddy’s Geranium (2013) follows the scarlet zonal pelargonium from the South African Cape to the hothouses of wealthy collectors, its arrival in the windowboxes of the poor and in local parks, its starring role in painting, literature and cinema, and its place in the manufacture of food and perfume. (Lily, Pine and Bamboo are among the other titles; Apple is out this month.)

Less has been written about the history of working-class gardeners. As Margaret Willes acknowledges, the majority of the working classes didn’t have the time or money to cultivate a garden until the 20th century; the worst off, those in cramped tenements or industrial back-to-backs built in the 19th century, had little if any space, while the rural poor, who were unlikely to own what land they had, worked it primarily for food. Willes’s title seems counterintuitive but she makes short shrift of the distinction between a garden for leisure and an allotment for work. In early photographs, cottage gardens display cabbages and potatoes out front but hollyhocks line the path and a rose rambles around the door; the grimmest slum has its musk in the shadowy courtyard or a pot draped with creeping jenny. The 19th-century press is full of notices of local flower shows, which attracted competitors from the roughest boroughs and the poorest villages; while in the 1840s official reports on the condition of handloom weavers in East London crowed at the dahlias grown on windowsills, the ‘glory of Spitalfields’. Willes’s gardens come in every shape and size: a detached bit of ground; a corner of a potato field; a plot attached to the dwelling; an urban strip, backyard or front garden; plants on the roof or squeezed into a windowbox full of cinders or on the corrugated iron roof of an Anderson shelter, ideal for sun-loving, shallow-rooted plants.

In the manner of a ‘history from below’, The Gardens of the British Working Class wants to celebrate gardening’s ‘unsung heroes’. John Hufton, a stocking-maker of the 1850s, was one of many dedicated ‘florists’, who by collecting decaying leaves and the dust from old pollarded willows to use as compost, grew a prized variety of red and white striped carnation, known as a ‘flake’, or ‘Hufton’s Magnificent’. Hufton walked the ten miles from his cottage in Shipley in Derbyshire to Nottingham and back to show his flowers, carrying a dozen pots from his shoulders like a milkmaid’s yoke. But Willes is interested in every kind of ‘gardening practice’: how to grow asparagus by supporting the stems in bottles, or the recipe for salves for rheumatism, bruises and sprains made from sheep’s suet, minced, clarified and strained. Her volume is as much an omnium gatherum as a people’s history, a compendium of materials touching on ‘popular gardening’ in its broadest sense, including the newspaper columns, books and magazines that only a small percentage of the working classes could afford to buy. Her chapters are thematic and roughly chronological. She charts the rise of the small or smallish garden, beginning with the dissolution of the monasteries, the land grab which afforded growing space to many merchants as well as noblemen, making her way through five centuries and two world wars, to finish with celebrity gardeners on radio and TV and the new boom in allotment gardening among the middle classes. Where evidence for the labourer’s plot is scarce, she turns to re-created gardens like those at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex, where visitors can see the marigolds among the yellow peas, beets and edible weeds that a 16th-century peasant might have planted. She passes on gardening lore preserved by the unlettered in ballads and sayings, and rootles through the husbandry manuals kept for generations: in one of his poems, John Clare adds to the contents of a cottage’s library (the Bible, Prayer Book and The Pilgrim’s Progress) ‘Prime old Tusser’ – Thomas Tusser’s A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie, first published in 1557.

As towns grew, so did the need for market gardens to feed their inhabitants. Willes emphasises how much the commercialisation of food, the expansion of markets and the nursery trade depended on migrant and seasonal labour, frequently female. Girls were paid a pittance to pick the vivid orange stamens from crocus sativus, whose cultivation in East Anglia in the 16th and 17th centuries centred on Saffron Walden. Saffron was used medicinally and as a flavouring but also for dyeing lace gold, which was much in vogue in the court of James I. Among the figures tramping the roads were the ‘simplers’, sellers of herbs for cooking and strewing. Mary Leech and Judith Vardey, mentioned in the records of the Fleet Market in the 1730s, sold ‘Phisick Herbs’ such as mugwort for ‘women’s irregularities’. Every summer, well into the 19th century, hundreds of women came from Wales and Shropshire to carry baskets of strawberries from Hammersmith, where they were grown, to Covent Garden, where they would be sold. As nurseries expanded they took on the sons of labourers as apprentices; a few, like Joseph Paxton, the son of a farm worker who became head gardener at Chatsworth, made a career for themselves. The most successful were frequently Scottish – Scotland chiefly appears in Willes’s book as a source of gardeners for the English – and their excellence is generally attributed to the existence of a national system of parochial education. Most gardeners went jobbing from place to place. The ‘bothy’ boys, who stoked the boilers in greenhouses for exotic plants, were by no means the lowest of the low. Willes pores over estate accounts looking for casual labourers, usually women, brought in to cut rot out of apples, straighten nails for use in the kitchen garden, grub up weeds from gravel paths or sweep the lawns.

Willes’s ‘working class’ is a shorthand for the lower orders in general rather than an analytical tool. She is on surer ground with the florists’ clubs that flourished in the late 18th century. The cutlers of Sheffield and the silk weavers of Lancashire and Cheshire specialised in auriculas, especially double-faced or striped pinks; the miners of Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire concentrated on ‘fancy pansies’. Wales wasn’t a florists’ nation, though Willes doesn’t tell us why. Some of the members of the Paisley Florist Society worked at Coats, the cotton mill that specialised in fabric based on intricate patterns brought back from Kashmir by soldiers serving in the East India Company. Local observers reckoned that their eye was fostered by their horticultural skills: the society bred and named three thousand varieties of laced pink (Dianthus Paisley Gem is still available). Most florists were craftsmen or well-heeled tradesmen; competition was fierce, though the aim of the Ancient Florists of York was ‘Happiness’. Their story has been told before, most recently by Jenny Uglow in A Little History of British Gardening (2004), which lays out much of the ground for Willes’s volume. The fondness for botanising among independent artisans was also discussed fifty years ago by E.P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1963); he saw the loss of this thriving culture as a prompt for the formation of class consciousness. The ‘golden age’ of the florists, he argued, together with artisans’ other educational pursuits, was destroyed by the factory system and pollution. Willes dates its zenith rather later and adds in the pernicious influences of football and the music hall.

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I found it hard to raise a glass to the impressive feats of these ingenious growers. So much of the history of the land, as far as the lower orders are concerned, has been about loss, dispossession and attempted social control. Willes reminds us that the history of the allotment movement is fraught with conflict and disappointment. The term ‘allotment’ first appears in enclosure acts in the 1790s. Radicals from the Chartists to Joseph Arch, the founder of the National Agricultural Labourers Union, saw them as a sop, fobbing workers off rather than addressing the causes of rural poverty. Allotments and cottage plots came ‘tied’ to the cottage, increasing the tenants’ dependency; in Lambley, Nottinghamshire, it was reckoned that once the rector had ‘granted 17 and a half acres in allotments, the church became well filled spontaneously. The parishioners stopped talking about politics.’ Those who refused to doff the cap faced eviction or restricted entitlement to parish funds. When the allotment question was raised in Parliament in the 1880s, amid fears of rural depopulation, the campaigners asked for three acres, which was thought sufficient for a family to live on (‘Three Acres and a Cow’ was the slogan of Jesse Collings, Liberal MP for Ipswich, a friend of Arch, and an advocate of land reform). They got one acre. In the 1900s as in the 1800s the families of rural workers were living on bread soaked in hot water, vegetables and lard, Joseph Rowntree found in his study of rural poverty.

Gardens were both stick and carrot for generations of industrial workers. The Hetton Coal Company was one of many industrial concerns that offered its workers – locals who had been agricultural labourers but also migrants from Ireland and Wales – rent-free houses with a garden in front; many had allotments too. The Living Museum of the North in Beamish in County Durham has preserved a terrace of coalminers’ cottages from Hetton and recreated the plots, relying on the memories of descendants. Mrs Storey, 89 years old in 1976, recalled her grandfather’s pansies, strawberries and vegetables – but gardens only lasted as long as the job. In towns gardening was seen as a way of domesticating, if not pacifying, the proletarians, removing them from the street and the beerhouse. Moral fables blossomed in evangelical magazines, where tending sickly roses was credited with miraculous transformations of sensibility, fostering family feeling or saving streetwalkers from ruin. Shows were organised for the poor by well-meaning clerics and ladies, and head gardeners argued that ‘the backyard, where a few flowers bloom, would soon prove an antidote to the gaudy gin-palace.’ Gardening bolstered the division between the respectable and the rough or ‘casual poor’, demonising the latter; it generated a language of class. Willes’s own feel for class distinctions is uncertain. She dubs Wemmick in Great Expectations, the lawyer’s clerk who lives in a miniature castle in Walworth, ‘middle class’, adding that ‘his fellow gardeners may well have been working class.’ Dickens places him nicely as an aspirant. His portable property and garden ‘estate’ separates his home and his Aged Parent from the sordid world of work but also from his fellow Londoners. Willes assumes that most women would prefer their men to be at the allotment rather than in the pub, but the garden fence, like the moat round Wemmick’s castle, eroded public culture and older communal values, as well as keeping ‘her indoors’ indoors (Wemmick’s fiancée, Miss Skiffins, is permitted to do the washing-up after their garden salad).

Willes has fun tracing ‘revolutions in taste’, as what is at one time the province of the elite becomes déclassé (enter Lampy, briefly). ‘Bedding out’ in blocks of startling colour was an aristocratic fad of the 1830s and 1840s, when the new half-hardy perennials from South America – yellow calceolaria from Chile, scarlet salvias from Mexico, white petunias, verbenas and begonias from Brazil – were rare and needed costly glasshouses; such bedding plants became vulgar and garish once municipal parks began their massed displays. At Victoria Park in East London, two hundred thousand plants were bedded out annually; once exhausted, they were given to the local poor. Oyster-shell edging in suburbia, mimicking the formal layout of Tudor knot gardens, was sneered at: ‘Do not suffer your neighbours to laugh at any endless variety of parterres … filled up with plants that would disgrace a common,’ warned James Shirley Hibberd, author of The Town Garden (1855) and editor of the popular Gardener’s Magazine. When Joseph Ashby, the illegitimate son of a servant who had led the fight for allotments in his native Warwickshire, improved the planting of his aunt’s old cottage with a rowan, mock orange and deutzia, it was deemed ‘pretentious’, his daughter said in his biography, ‘as if the curate’s garden had slipped across the road’.

Modesty, thrift and restraint – the key bourgeois values – were to be encouraged, though recidivists would lapse into ‘a blaze of colour’. Philanthropic landlords with model estates, or paternalist industrialists like Cadbury at Bournville, where the gardens were generously supplied with shrubs and flowers, were relentless in their rules and regulations, as were the enlightened municipal authorities that were then building the first council houses. On the Wythenshawe estate in Manchester ‘slum habits’, such as putting up a trellis for unruly sweet peas too close to the path, could land you in trouble. The lower orders soon learned to police themselves. On London County Council estates in the interwar years, new migrants from the central wards of the city were reckoned ‘rag and bone people’ by their neighbours if their gardens didn’t shape up. The London Gardens Society, founded in the early 1930s, was equally severe: ‘Cut out all affectations, such as small bridges, which with luck may support the weight of a cat, dwarf, human figures, china animals, glass ornaments, model houses, windmills etc.’ Gardening, in other words, helped form the mentality and promote the idea of a lower middle class. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Chamberlain apparently thought that gardening could convert potential revolutionaries into citizens. You could always tell a communist by the state of the garden, Willes was told.

Understandably, there is little room in her account for the men who saw gardening as a mug’s game or the women who seized on convenience foods, glad to be liberated from the chore of cooking produce from the allotment. Willes finds one boy who took a dissident view of his family’s days at the allotment: ‘I hated it.’ He is a lonely voice in this volume, which more generally salutes industriousness. I sometimes wished Willes was more bolshie. In the style of those affectionate histories of ‘everyday things’ that were once so popular she swoops down on dozens of bright oddities – carrots that came in several colours, gardening gloves with steel tips for scraping weeds – and suggestive facts. Who knew that crazy paving could be a form of recycling, using broken plaster from demolished First World War hutments: what better image of the postwar recovery? But I sometimes got lost in the thickets of material and wanted to graft back arguments that were arbitrarily lopped off between chapters; to hear more of the voices extracted from her astonishing array of first-hand accounts; and to linger on the illustrations. This is a book to sample and return to. Willes doesn’t leave the politics out – the usual charge against social history – but the potted histories of, say, self-sufficiency, from the Diggers to the plotlands of Essex, are no more or less prominent than her discussions of Royal Horticultural Society exams or of the reason some tulips have stripes (a virus borne by aphids not discovered until the 1920s).

A house no longer needs rolling acres to employ a landscape designer or to enjoy a water feature; the aristocratic gazebo has morphed into an outside room replete with furniture, heating and sound system; orchids are on sale at my local Londis. None of this has banished class condescension or made the neighbours less touchy. Gardening experts tut-tut at what Robin Lane Fox calls ‘exterior decorating’, and Jane Brown ‘a horticultural hell of instant plants’, just as their predecessors disparaged the ‘pastrywork’ of bedding out or frowned at ‘purse-gardening’. Willes ends by championing community gardening projects and relegates to a lengthy endnote the sorry tale of the Manor Garden Allotments in Hackney Wick, close to her home turf. In 1900 four and a half acres were bequeathed by Arthur Villiers, a director of Barings Bank, ‘in perpetuity’ to East End families. The 81 plots by the River Lea were cultivated by Londoners and all sorts of incomers until 2007, when, despite a campaign, ‘they were bulldozed and buried under the Olympic Park’. ‘The garden,’ Joseph Ashby wrote in 1914, ‘is a starting point of the land question.’ It still is.