John Asslett died on 29 November 1748 and the inventory of his property was completed by 19 January 1749 (1). In Old Brentford, the southern half of Ealing Parish, most of the nursery gardens lay between the High Street (the road between London and the West) and the area to the north now crossed by the M4. Locating Asslett’s grounds has proved difficult, despite a search of Middlesex Deeds Registry indexes, since the Ealing manorial records for 1722 – 1791 do not survive.
The Ealing parish rate-books (2) list a Mr Asslett from 1707 which may be ‘our’ John. His father may well be the John Asslett, gardener of Isleworth, who married Anne Burt in 1693. The man who died in 1748 is almost certainly the John Asslett who married Elizabeth Swallow at Ealing on 5 February 1719 and probably also John Asslett the younger, Isleworth gardener, who paid duty on 2 May 1723 on taking John Robearts apprentice (3). The family were still in the area in 1760 when Thomas Asslett of Ealing, perhaps ‘our’ John’s grandson, married Sarah, daughter of gardener Nicholas Compton of Chiswick (4).
John Asslett’s Inventory
Asslett’s widow, Elizabeth, worked with 6 appraisers, 2 each for the household goods, the property and the garden. They struggled to make sense of John’s accounts and Elizabeth declared his books ‘very ill kept’. A writing desk is listed in the kitchen, where perhaps there were too many distractions for careful book-keeping. Though only able to make her mark (her initials) Elizabeth continued to manage the nursery and sell stock after her husband’s death, a wise decision for the time of year. She wished to keep it going ‘until her customers want new trees’ and stated that ‘if she was immediately to dispose of the same and Clear the Ground she should get little more for the said trees than for firewood which would be a great disadvantage to the Estate’.
The Assletts’ Home
There were 7 rooms plus garretts and a cellar where Edward Millward and James Walsh valued the contents at £34.4s. Glass and pottery in the back parlour included 15 pieces of Delft, but the 19 china cups and 8 saucers were ‘most broken’. The kitchen was well-equipped, with a clock, copper and pewter items and 24 pieces of delft and stoneware. In one of two garretts, besides bedding, were ‘baskets and basket cloths’ for transporting plants or produce.
A second kitchen held 6 ‘tubs or Coolers’, while the cellar had 7 ‘Drink Tubbs’. These and the cider press in the yard suggest that Asslett brewed cider – for the household or for sale – so he probably cultivated apple trees. Also in the yard were 2 water tubs, 3 wheel-barrows, 3 ladders (for picking fruit?), 2 spades, 2 rakes, a scythe, a reel, a grindstone and some firewood. Additional market containers included 6 barges and a dozen each of baskets, sieves and half-sieves, while the seed shop housed potatoes, onions and more seed sieves. The Assletts kept 2 pigs (hence a bacon rack in the kitchen), and the stable housed a cart and a horse. The watch-house in the yard was probably for defence against garden thefts.
Leases and land in the inventory
John Warrilow and John Cheney valued 3 leases of land, on one of which stood 3 houses. A John Warrilow was a Hammersmith publican at this date but no link to the Assletts has been traced. John Cheney was a gardener. He died in 1758, making a bequest (5) to his daughter, Elizabeth, who had married James Asslett – ‘nurseryman’ in his marriage bond (6) – at Ealing the previous year. So Cheney was helping a fellow gardener’s widow to administer her late husband’s probate, a decade before they became related by the marriage of his daughter to her son.
Three acres described as ‘Poors’ Ground’ had cost Asslett £3.10s per acre; though there were 17 years left on the lease this was deemed to have no value. Charitable bequests of land were thus described in the nearby parishes of Isleworth and Hanwell, but not in Brentford, making this difficult to locate. Asslett’s lease of 3 acres of land with 3 houses – the largest of which was his family’s home – cost him £30 a year. There were 14 years left to run on this lease but it was valued at only £4, even though he was sub-letting the other houses at £10 and £5 a year respectively. Asslett had been paying £14.10s a year for a further 4½a 34p of land – the 10 years left on this lease were valued at £1.14s.0d. The leases covered approximately 12¾ acres but whether these were copyhold or freehold land is unclear.
In the garden ground
Richard Butt and Thomas Ash (7) appraised the garden stock and tools. Richard Butt ran the Kew Nursery across the Thames and was known for his early Butt’s Hotspur Pea. Thomas Ash was a Twickenham nurseryman whose family’s holdings included garden ground in the Common Field adjoining Walpole’s Strawberry Hill estate. Trees were his speciality and perhaps the reason for his involvement as valuer (8). In the seed shop they listed tools and baskets along with ‘some potatoes’ and ‘some onions’, presumably seed stock for the business. Otherwise, the appraisers spent little time on this task, offering only a statement that Asslett’s ‘trees, greens and roots’ were worth £122.17s.0d.
There are 3 lists of debtors which offer some insight into his customers. The first has 9 payments ‘recently received’ to cover £15.7s.8d of book debts. Of these only John Cheney can be identified as a gardener, so most others were probably purchasing for their own gardens.
The second lists 29 debts worth £37.12s.10d and also relates to sales made since Asslett’s death. This may provide evidence of the turnover of a tree nursery during the winter months, or the pattern of sales may have been unusual as purchasers tried either to help Mrs Asslett out with a little extra income, or came looking for bargains after her husband’s death. Amongst the names in this list Cheney, Butt and Ash (‘Aysh’) re-appear. Others are recognisable as gardeners. Mr Gray is probably from the Fulham gardening family of that nane and ‘Brient’ is probably William Bryant, a Strand on the Green gardener. ‘Cornel (Colonel?) Ronals’ is probably Hugh Ronalds, a Scots gardener who had recently set up his nursery in Brentford.
The Greenings had a long-established nursery at Brentford End, where Brentford town extended west of the Brent into Isleworth parish. Thomas Greening the Elder (1684-1757) would merit ‘Esquire’ as a royal contractor, though he had retired in the mid-1740s to a house and small garden ground at Turnham Green, leased from Lord Burlington. His sons, the eldest of whom, also Thomas, is probably ‘Mr Greening’ in the list, then ran the nursery and oversaw the family’s royal and other contracts.
The third list itemises 49 debts totalling £102.3s.7d, some deemed ‘irrecoverable’. Most were for less than £5, but 4 gardeners owed significantly larger sums, the £47.16s.9d owed by Greening Esq, representing almost half the total. Letters from the Greening sons to their father in the 1730s (9) show the financial difficulties facing their business while they waited for years for payment of large sums due from royal and aristocratic contracts. Mr Gray, the Fulham gardener in the second list, is the next largest debtor here, owing £23.19s.9d. Mr Teems, owing the third largest sum of £23.1s.10d, was Henry Teem, who left the 4-acre Home Nursery in Isleworth to his widow in 1762 (10) while Henry Woodman, who owed £16.4s.7d, was a Strand on the Green nurseryman (11). Mr Thompson, owing £4.15s. may be Joseph Thompson, a New Brentford gardener (12).
A few others in the third list can also be identified as gardeners. The Clements family (‘Clemmons’) appears. John Clements, a specialist bricklayer, worked on Lord Fauconberg’s gardens at Sutton Court in Chiswick in the 1690s (13) and one of his sons, Richard, was an Isleworth gardener. Another son, Benjamin Clements, witnessed the will of Asslett’s appraiser, Thomas Ash. Thomas Spyers, owing £3.8s.0d, is one of few debtors whose forename is given, distinguishing him from other gardeners in his family; he had garden grounds in Isleworth, Twickenham and Brentford. His brother was a debtor to nurseryman Peter Mason (14), while Joshua Spyers, probably his nephew, became Surveyor to Hampton Court. ‘Hearne Esquire’, who owed 12s.10d, may be Thomas Hearne (d 1782), a Strand on the Green gardener. The remaining debtors include local residents purchasing for themselves. One was a Scots surgeon, James Bethune (‘Bethuen’ in the list), living in New Brentford. His will reveals him to have been a friend of James Scott, a fellow Scotsman who ran the Chiswick Nursery .
The debts relate specifically to Asslett’s nursery trade; unlike other local men’s inventories with lists of debts, there are no bills or promissory notes. However, despite recording debts, he was probably not chasing them actively enough for his wife’s satisfaction.
This inventory reveals something of the mid-18th century social and business community in which gardeners operated in this part of Middlesex. They bought and sold each other’s stock, and ties of marriage and friendship strengthened their business connections. Asslett’s property, including his debts, totalled £321.13.6d and he had about 12½ acres of land. The detail about his household goods, compared with the light description of the garden stock, suggests a comfortable but not lavish home which his widow still occupied and described herself.
His debts, worth much more than his household goods, demonstrate the difficulties suffered by many 18th century businesses due to the practice of buying on credit with debts unpaid for years at a time. While his books were not well managed, he was literate and had kept sufficient accounts for debts to be listed and payment claimed. The debtors’ lists shows Asslett working as both a retail and a wholesale nurseryman; his nursery stock must have been of a reliable quality for other significant gardeners to be purchasers.
Elizabeth Asslett’s good sense and garden expertise is clear from her judgement that her husband managed his accounts poorly and from her decision to continue trading, perhaps providing a future for her son. Many gardeners’ wills record bequests of garden grounds, tools and stock-in-trade to widows and relatives, confirming that these were truly family businesses, relying on the involvement of entire households.
1 TNA, PROB 3/48/2, and J H Harvey, Early Nurserymen, p 82
2 Index at Local History Centre, L B Ealing
3 TNA, Board of Stamps: Apprenticeship Books, Series IR , piece 9 (via Ancestry.com)
4 TNA, PROB 11/858 will of Nicholas Compton
5 TNA PROB 11/837 will of John Cheney
6 London Metropolitan Archives DL/A/24/MS10091E/70 via Ancestry.com
7 see Early Nurserymen, which states that Butt was working the Kew nursery in 1731-1751
8 TNA PROB 11/5683. Rocque’s 1745 map shows this plot as a dense thicket of trees. However, the Ash family grew a wider variety of plants in other garden grounds; for example TNA PROB 11/1458, the will of William Ash mentions his “nursery of Trees Shrubs Flowers and other kind of Plants now planted . . . upon . . . three Acres of Copyhold Land”
9 TNA, C108/353, Greening letters
10 TNA, PROB 11/881 will of Henry Teem
11 J H Harvey, Early Nurserymen, Appendix vii has transcripts of Woodman’s letters. See also Val Bott, ‘Some Strand on the Green Gardeners’ in Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 18 (2009)
12 TNA PROB 11/869 will of Joseph Thompson
13 North Yorkshire Record Office, Fauconberg’s Steward’s accounts 1685-1708, ZDV v 10
14 J H Harvey, Early Nurserymen, p. 81
15 TNA PROB 11/932 will of James Bethune
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