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Hardy blooms: the British urge to garden, against all odds

Green fingerdom throughout the ages in the face of wars, poverty and social upheaval.

A Bradford town garden, late 19th century. (Photo: Garden Museum, London)
A Bradford town garden, late 19th century. (Photo: Garden Museum, London)

The Gardens of the British Working Class
Margaret Willes
Yale University Press, 413pp, £25

A Green and Pleasant Land: How England's Gardeners Fought the Second World War
Ursula Buchan
Windmill Books, 368pp, £9.99

Many books and articles written to feed the insatiable maw of gardening literature are worth not a single leaf of the rainforest. These two books, however, have something refreshingly new to say. “Refreshing” is perhaps a moot word, as both are essentially about deprivation, and the human compulsion to create gardens – however pitiful, insignificant or bizarre – that blaze defiantly in the face of poverty, war and all the odds. The other common currency is continuity: roses and root vegetables were planted as assiduously five centuries ago as they are today; the medieval “weeder woman” segues into the 1940s Land Girl; Thomas Tusser (1524-80), the author of A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie, prefigures the first celebrity gardeners of the 20th century, C H Middleton and Percy Thrower.

Margaret Willes used to be the publisher for the National Trust and, having burrowed into its archives in Cirencester and Swindon, I am tempted to guess that the weight of material contained both there and in its country-house libraries helped equip her to tackle, in The Gardens of the British Working Class, a vast and relatively unexplored subject. She has succeeded in letting the individual voices of the underdogs of the gardening fraternity shout or whisper tellingly through its pages.

She begins by describing the precepts and practices of the 16th to 18th centuries. Although this first quarter of the book is richly packed, the information and quotations here may well be familiar to readers with a taste for garden history, and a case might be made for taking as the starting point instead the birth pangs of the Industrial Revolution, with all the repercussions that rural despoliation and urban overcrowding, vastly increased pollution and a newfangled poverty were to have on working-class life.

In her epilogue, Willes refers to the “consistency of the threads” running through the book. The threads may be consistent but they also occasionally get tangled. Allotments quite rightly feature strongly, but they crop up (pun regrettably intended) in several chapters, which can be confusing. And does the work of gardening professionals – head gardeners, market gardeners and nurserymen – really belong in a book about working-class gardens?

Such carping aside, the material assembled is remarkable in its depth and range, and is packed with economic, social, horticultural and literary insights. (Hands up, whoever knows the difference between burgage plots and guinea gardens.) Above all, the gamut of green spaces – window boxes, rural back and urban front plots, allotments, public parks and model villages – is explored in meticulous detail.

The 19th century, the meat of this book, threw up remarkable differences in gardening fortunes around the country. In 1844 the social historian William Howitt discovered “upwards of 5,000 gardens in Nottingham, the bulk of which are occupied by the working class . . . These lie on various sides of the town, in expanses of many acres in a place . . . In the winter they have rather a desolate aspect, with their naked trees and hedges, and all their little summer-houses exposed, damp-looking and forlorn; but, in spring and summer, they look exceedingly well.”

Contrast this with a childhood memory of gardens near the Regent’s Canal in London:

The back yards were all alike . . . and contained a back-to-back water closet . . . Every year Father planted a few geraniums and blue lobelia plants, but with the soot, lack of sun and cinder ash in the soil they lingered to a premature death . . . If a tuft of grass appeared in the crevices of stone and clinker [Mother] would tend it as if it was a lily . . . It reminded her, she said, “of the country”.

I hadn’t realised that by the 19th century the florist societies – gatherings of horticultural “twitchers” avid to grow the stripiest tulip, the most fragrant hyacinth, the showiest dahlia – were by no means confined to the upper classes. Tradesmen and “mechanics” loved them, too. Willes relates the story of John Hufton, a Derbyshire stocking-maker in the 1850s whose carnations, mulched with decaying leaves and “willowdust”, were famed far and wide. When the time came to show them, he would walk to Nottingham, “carrying a dozen pots in wooden boxes hanging from a yoke, like a milkmaid with her pails”.

The Oxfordshire stonemason Charles Snow springs from the page as the prototype of the hard-grafting working-class gardener of the 1880s:

. . . he would get up at four on a summer morning, work in his garden for an hour, and then set off [to work] . . . Every day he noted the weather, usually followed by short notes, written in pencil, of his gardening activities . . . When in work, almost all his wages were given over to Mrs Snow, and the rest spent on things for the garden and occasionally on beer.

Hyacinths and tulip bulbs mark him out as a florist enthusiast, and he filled his plot with vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers, together with a few ducks.

What emerges most strongly is the no-nonsense resilience of the period. One story concerns a lady living near Nottingham who spent much of her time visiting “the poorer classes”. On a visit to one home, she found that the coverlet was missing from the bed.

Her immediate reaction was that it had been pawned, but the wife revealed it had gone to keep the frost out of the greenhouse. “And please ma’am, we don’t want it and we’re quite hot in bed.”

Photographs of prize-winning window boxes and luxuriance coaxed out of compacted urban rubble say it all, the working-class way. The Garden journal (first published in 1871) declared its intention to promote “pure horticulture of the natural, or English, school, free from rigid formalities, meretricious ornaments, gypsum, powdered bricks, cockle-shells and bottle-ends”. Twenty years on, the proud owners of a small London garden are photographed standing beside a rigidly formal wavy flowerbed, fringed by sempervivums that look remarkably like the despised cockleshells.

Gnomes and statues abounded, and as soon as seeds became cheaper and more widely available the gaudiest bedding plants testified to a yearning for colour. This was at a time when the cottage garden, launched when perennials and hardy annuals were the only plants available to working-class gardeners, was making a mannerly and nostalgic comeback higher up the pecking order.

As the story moves on through the First World War to the eve of the Second, Willes begins to overlap with Ursula Buchan. A Green and Pleasant Land, part chronological and part thematic, spans the two decades between the alarms and uncertainties of the phoney war and the dreary deprivations of the postwar period. Equally well-researched, it is a work to be read for pleasure as well as enlightenment – Buchan has 15 books and three literary prizes under her belt, and it shows. This one, now out in paperback, would make a fine offering for anyone who remembers the years of rationing and the at times wanton destruction of gardens and parks in the name of the war effort.

Topics range from the role of the Women’s Institute and research stations, government and media education and morale-boosting (the nanny state in full cry) to prisoners’ gardens, livestock and cooking recipes. How curious to reflect that between September 1940 and April 1945, during which weather forecasts were banned from the airwaves, about 12 million pounds of fruit was being preserved by busy rural women.

Heroes and heroines emerge – Lady Denman of the Women’s Land Army and the WI, Lord Woolton of the ministry of food. Despite the overlap between these books, there are interesting anomalies: Willes doesn’t mention either Denman or Woolton, while Buchan eschews one of Willes’s most arresting wartime photographs, of an Anderson shelter whose roof has been planted with vegetables. It just goes to show what a vast pool there was for the two authors to fish in.

Katherine Lambert is a gardening writer. Her latest book is “Gardens of Cornwall” (Frances Lincoln, £16.99)