In March 2010 Middlemist’s Red camellia bloomed in the newly-restored conservatory at Chiswick House. Probably introduced in 1808, it is such a rarity 200 years later that the flowers appeared in the national press and on TV; only one other plant is believed to exist, in Waitangi, New Zealand.
Of all the names in my list of gardeners in Chiswick and nearby parishes, there was no mention of a Middlemist. Eleanor J Willson’s book, Nurserymen of Hammersmith & Fulham (1982), came to the rescue. She states that John Middlemist of Bryanston Street, Kensington, and Alexander Wood of Roehampton, created the Cape Nursery on 13 acres of arable land on the south side of Shepherds Bush Green. They specialised in pelargoniums, camellias and dahlias and by 1802, had a good reputation for their flowering plants.
Middlemist had apparently spent time in South Africa – hence the name of the nursery – and at least some of his stock must have been raised from seed that he collected or which was supplied by contacts abroad. Middlemist was running the nursery alone in 1822 but by 1834 part of it had been taken over by William Plimley, a nurseryman and another part was being let for building.
Children of John and Elizabeth Middlemist were baptised in Hammersmith in 1814/5 but I have not yet traced a will for John Middlemist. The National Archives holds wills for Walter Middlemist and William Middlemist, however, revealing that both of them were gardeners in Twickenham. The relationship between these two is not yet clear – they may have been brothers – but they clearly come from a Scottish family. Walter’s will mentions his sister, Ann Scott, in Edinburgh; at her marriage in 1749 she is recorded as the daughter of Gilbert Middlemist, another gardener. William made a bequest to his brother’s children in Roxburghshire.
Many of those gardening in Middlesex during this period had come to London after the Act of Union of 1707 in search of work. Amongst them were Henry Scott, Lord Burlington’s gardener in the 1730s, his brother James, who ran a specialist nursery at Turnham Green and the Ronalds family who ran a substantial nursery business in Brentford from the 1740s.
Walter Middlemist was gardener to Mr Hindley, at Radnor House in Twickenham. When he died in 1780 Walter left his box of possessions, including books and a watch, to ‘William Middlemiss’, though he did not state his relationship to William in his will. Surprisingly since he had books, he made his mark, rather than signing his will – it is possible he was too ill to sign. Thoughtfully he left his clothes to his two staff at Radnor House, Sims Clarke and John Bridgewater.
William was gardener to John Briscoe, at Cross Deep House, a short distance upstream of Radnor House, close to Strawberry Hill; he nominated Briscoe as one of his executors. The other executor was John Middlemist, whom he described as his half-brother and to whom he left over £100 in 5% Bank of England stocks. As William was buried in Hammersmith Parish in 1804, where John’s children had been baptised and his family presumably lived and worked, this seems to confirm the connection between him and the Twickenham Middlemists.
References: Walter Middlemist’s will PROB 11/1066; William Middlemist’s will PROB 11/ 1416 (both National Archives); burials, baptisms from parish registers indexed on ancestry.co.uk.
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