In the Royal Horticultural Society’s Wisley library is a hand-coloured copy of Hugh Ronalds’ handsome book on apples, Pyrus Malus Brentfordiensis,  published in 1831. The illustrations were lovingly prepared by his daughter, Elizabeth, a talented artist who may personally have coloured a number of copies of the book. I was delighted to go to see it in the company of two visitors from Canada, one of whom is a Ronalds descendant; we had been sharing our research discoveries by email for some time! Their visit also took in a gentle exploration of Brentford, Isleworth and Little Ealing to locate the Ronalds’ garden grounds.

Hugh Ronalds senior
Hugh Ronalds senior (1726-1788) was a Scot from Moidart, Inverness-shire. He was one of the many Scottish gardeners who came to work in our area after the Duke of Lauderdale became established at Ham, James Johnson at Orleans House and the Duke of Argyll at Whitton Park. All these influential Scotsmen invested heavily in their gardens.

Ronalds house is at the extreme left of this print of St Lawrence’s

Hugh Ronalds senior was certainly working in New Brentford by the late 1740s and living in The Butts by 1760. He and his wife Mary had seven children; she died aged 77 in 1799. Several generations of the family worked as nurserymen and seedsmen here for well over a century. A number of them were buried at St Lawrence’s Church but they were non-Conformists, actively involved in the management of Brentford’s congrgational chapel where their children were baptised.  In the 1770s Hugh senior was living in a timber-framed house called Lamberts (and sometimes referred to as Noy’s House after a later owner) next to St Lawrence’s, with his primary nursery of 2 acres next door between the church and the Brent (later the canal).

He used an old building in garden ground at Brentford End, on the south side of the London Road in Isleworth as a seed store. A sketch in the London Metropolitan Archives shows this early brick structure which had been the separate kitchen of a grander house. In front of this delapidated working building a gardener brings stalks and sprays in a barrow while another beats stalks on a cloth, winnowing out the seeds.

detail from the sketch of Ronalds’ seedhouse

Hugh senior’s will mentions the properties in New Brentford and in Isleworth, which he and his sons Henry Clarke Ronalds (1757-1804) and Hugh junior (1759-1833) had worked in partnership for many years. Their stock included trees, plants, shrubs, flowers and seeds. Hugh senior provided for his widow and all four of his surviving sons in such a way that the partnership could continue but Henry and his widowed mother soon moved to Coventry.

Hugh Ronalds junior
The most famous member of this gardening family was Hugh Ronalds junior (1753-1834). He was given considerable responsibility for work in the business from the age of 14 and later managed it with his sons John (1792-1850) and Robert (1799-1880). His wife, Elizabeth Clarke, was from another local family and they had ten children. Active in local affairs, he had shares in the Grand Junction Canal Company, was on the committee of the Brentford Volunteers 1803-6, and became a council member of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Garden ground at Little Ealing leased from Col Clitherow of Boston Manor by Hugh Ronalds jnr.

Hugh junior ran his father’s nursery beside St Lawrence’s (Robert Ronalds, the last of this generation, still occupied it when he died in 1880), another between The Butts and Boston Manor Road, land at Little Ealing which is now a recreation ground and also the Isleworth nursery where the cemetery now stands. At one stage he offered part of his land-holdings as trial grounds for the use of the Horticultural Society but they chose instead to lease land from the Duke of Devonshire at Chiswick.

The apple book
His book, Pyrus Malus Brentfordiensis or A Concise Description of Selected Apples appeared in 1831. By this time High Ronalds junior  was 78 years old and had been encouraged by fellow members of the Royal Horticultural Society to write the book. In it he described each variety, gave information about its seasonality, storage capability and uses, and acknowledged other nurserymen who had introduced or improved apple varieties, revealing his wide network of contacts. He was recording a lifetime’s work, and perhaps marking the transition from gardening skills to the academic study of horticulture. His desire to share his expertise is underlined by his statement in the book that he would welcome visitors who wanted to discover more at his nursery . His obituary in Loudon’s Gardener’s Magazine says that he was “well skilled in fruits” and had “great skill in raising flower seed for which the nursery has long been celebrated”.

Specialist knowledge and reputation
The Ronalds’ business was based upon deep specialist knowledge. Hugh Ronalds junior assembled a herbarium of plant samples from Kew Gardens but its whereabouts are not now known. Loudon’s Gardener’s Magazine mentions the apple trees, stating in 1829 that “for several years he [Hugh junior] has studied them at all seasons and . . . his descriptions of the different varieties, of the hardiness or delicacy of the tree, its blossom, leaves, fruits, time of ripening, keeping, are copious and voluminous. We have strongly urged Mr Ronalds to publish a selection of engravings and descriptions”.

As seedsmen the Ronalds must have had considerable understanding of pollination and fertilisation, as nurserymen they needed skill in growing and protecting their plants as well as understanding soil and climate. On the evidence of their letters, invoices, wills and the book, these were literate and numerate men who wrote well. They knew how to manage their business and made arrangements for their children to sustain it. They sold garden equipment, for example, supplying to Kew Gardens barrows, brooms, implements, mats and stationery. The sheer scale of their nursery business at its peak is shown by their ablity to supply more than 14,000 shrubs for the new Kensal Green Cemetery.

Some surviving invoices have printed headings and an engraved logo of an acorn. They are neatly written with details of the plants or seeds supplied. Hugh Ronalds junior wrote of the difficulties involved in getting plants safely to port in England, and the Banks Archive in the State Library of New South Wales includes invoices for plants which he had supplied to Banks for the voyage of the Porpoise to Australia. Sir Joseph Banks lived only on short distance away at Spring Grove, Isleworth, and would have trusted Ronalds whom he knew personally.

apple from Sir Joseph Banks estate by Elizabeth Ronalds

Social standing
The Ronalds’ children married into families with substantial business interests in Brentford, including the Montgomreys who were also of Scots origin.The Ronalds also supplied upper class clients like the Clitherows of Boston Manor (for more than 50 years), the Childs of Osterley Park and the Dukes of Devonshire at Chiswick House. Indeed the Duke of Devonshire was so struck by the quality of a bed of late tulips at the nursery that he paid £500 for it. They maintained a circle of significant gardening contacts which included William Aiton, another Scot, who ran Kew Gardens and was one of Hugh Ronalds senior’s executors.

Both Griffiths and Hugh Ronalds were parties to a chapel lease in 1792, along with William Aiton and other men from the locality. In fact, Hugh Ronalds senior and his family contributed funds for building the new chapel in Boston Manor Road at the end of The Butts. Hugh junior was a chapel trustee from 1781 until 1825 and his brother John became treasurer in 1837.

William Hugall’s apprenticeship indenture, 1798, with Hugh Ronalds jnr (Thomas Layton Collection)

These were also generous people. A 1798 indenture records Hugh Ronalds junior passing on his skills by taking as apprentice a poor boy funded by local charities.The Ronalds’ home and nursery beside St Lawrence’s suffered serious damage in the 1841 Brentford Flood but several family members made donations to support those made homeless by the disaster. John Ronalds left bequests to his skilled foreman and his son, both named William Wareing, and one of the witnesses to his will was his servant, Eliza Humphreys.

Long-established gardening families like the Ronalds contributed to the high reputation of this area for horticulture, but they also played  a significant part in the life of the town.