In 1726 Nicholas Parker left the remainder of his lease on land in Sutton Field, Chiswick, and the stock growing upon it, to “my servant Henry Woodman”, who must have been a high-ranking employee, perhaps the manager of the nursery. Henry Woodman was born in 1698, one of four children of another Henry Woodman, described variously as “husbandman” and as “gardiner”, who had married Esther Durham in 1694. When Henry senior died in July 1701, Esther had three young sons to care for; she gave birth to their daughter, Mary, in September.
Esther lived on until 1784. Two of her sons, Henry and John, were described as gardeners so it is likely that she kept the nursery going. Lady Susanna Lort, who took the Chiswick mansion house which was later known as Heathfield House, employed her to weed her gardens, bequeathing her twenty shillings in her will of 1710. John Harvey thought that Henry Woodman may have inherited his garden from George Masters but both men are listed in the rate-books at the same time, rather than one as successor to the other. From 1727 Woodman’s property was assessed at £45 in the rate books; this was a far higher value than Parker’s Sutton Field alone so must have included the Woodman family nursery too. He was now sufficiently well established to marry Eleanor Compton at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1728, reuniting two of Parker’s bequests.
Henry and Eleanor’s first two children died when only a few days old in 1730 and 1732, but their third child, Henry (1732-1774), worked in partnership with his mother after his father’s death. The daughters were Elizabeth, who married John Kirk, Mary (1741-1770) and Eleanor, who married Thomas Allen in 1768. “Kirk and Allen” were paying land tax on jointly owned properties on Strand on the Green in the 1790s and the 1847 tithe apportionment lists small market gardens then held by Kirk and Allen, so gardening continued with later generations of the family.
Henry Woodman was a subscriber to Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary of 1731, confirming that he was one of the prominent gardeners of his day. His surviving correspondence shows that between 1729 and 1733 he was supplying substantial quantities of plants and seeds to Henry Ellison of Gateshead Park in County Durham. The letters, mostly to Ellison’s agent, Woolley, are chatty and informative, and advise on planting and protection from frost. Woodman visited Gateshead and sends his best wishes to people he had met there. His letters apologise for delays in finding reliable boats to take the plants up the east coast to Gateshead but usually name each vessel and its master.
In October 1730 he mentions being able to supply “a new sort of pea that beats all I ever saw” and says that he has been “bussey” building a green house “a conveniency I very much wanted”. He also comments on the weather: in 1730 “We have had vast plenty of all sorts of fruit this year and Exceeding Cheap” but in 1731 “the dryness of the summer has made Standard peaches and Nectarines very scarce”.
The invoices list a variety of plants. In October 1729 Woodman sent 26 plums, 30 peaches and nectarines, 34 pears, 20 cherries, 15 apricots, 48 apples on paradise stocks, 108 gooseberries and currants, 6 berberies without stones, 200 raspberries and 400 strawberries. There were also flowering plants, damask roses, honeysuckles, anemones, polyanthus, mixed tulips, anemones, striped lilies, crown imperials, Persian iris, hepaticas, snowdrops and crocus and 50 auriculas.
The following December he fulfilled a substantial order of seeds for nearly forty different kinds of vegetables and herbs, plus 100 asparagus roots, plus carnation layers, double white rocket and another 100 strawberries. Woodman wrote in January 1730 “The Cowcumber & Mellon seed you may depend on to be as good (as) any in England haveing saved it all myselfe”, though later that year he advised Woolley to buy directly (and more cheaply) from Moses James of Lambeth, his usual seedsman.
Late in 1731 he sent trees and hedging plants (200 6 ft-tall elms and 1500 hornbeams at 2 feet) with flowering shrubs and more fruit trees. In early 1732 he wrote to advise on the growing heights of the 1000 flowering shrubs he was supplying to help with the design of the planting, an approach which Nathaniel Swinden of New Brentford was to develop in The Beauties of Flora Displayed in 1778. He continued to send plants and seeds to the end of 1733.
By then another gardener, Stephen Switzer, had convinced Ellison that Woodman was fixing his prices in league with Woolley. The latter lost his post and after indignant letters from Woodman denying that he would ever do such a thing, Ellison placed the matter in the hands of a lawyer. Harvey considered Woodman’s prices comparable to other contemporary nurserymen but no further letters survive to show how this was resolved. Switzer, however, succeeded in supplanting Woodman at Gateshead Park.
In 1755 the quality of the plants Woodman supplied was endorsed by Thomas Hitt, another distinguished gardener, in his book A Treatise of Fruit-Trees.
“I must own I have received peach-trees and nectarines from Mr Henry Woodman of Strand on the Green in the county of Middlesex which I planted for the Reverend Mr Ewer of Bottisford near Belvoir Castle; all of them lived and some bore fruit the first year after planting, tho’ they were brought above a hundred miles, and only packed up with straw and matts; they have been planted nine years and are now strong healthy trees.”
Henry Woodman was a respected member of his community and served as a churchwarden in 1739/40. When he died in 1758 he was buried at St Nicholas where the register records that they had fulfilled his request to be buried 12 feet deep. His will left over £1,000 in bank annuities to be managed in trust by his widow, Eleanor, and by William Martin, a maltster and Strand on the Green neighbour.
Of Henry and Eleanor’s five surviving children, four were under 21 when he made his will in June 1755. He added a codicil a year later, changing his bequests after his daughter, Elizabeth, had married and his son William, “who is now lame”, had died. Worried about this lame son, Henry had provided for the legacies left to his other children to go to William should they die before him.
Eleanor Woodman was a strong, resourceful and reliable woman who was deeply involved in the nursery garden for many years more. Eleanor was executor to her brother William and witness to the will of her brother Nicholas. William Compton left a New Brentford freehold and his own house “fronting the Thames” on Strand on the Green, as well as nearby garden ground, to his nephew Henry Woodman Junior, on condition that he continued to work in co-partnership with his mother, but in the event she outlived him.
Eleanor’s own will, proved in 1784, shows her astute financial management. She left £2,000 in 3½% bank stock, twice the £1,000 she had taken over in 1758 as executrix to her husband. She appointed two nephews-in- law as trustees, William Wake and Thomas Hearne, along with Charles Rubery of Sutton Court Farm. (Thomas Hearne senior, another local gardener, had married Eleanor’s sister). She left her Strand on the Green house to her daughter Elizabeth Allen, revealing in passing that she has already moved out “to Chiswick”, with her servant Mary Hoskins. There are bequests to sons in law, grandsons and nieces and nephews, but it appears that apart from Elizabeth all her other children had died.
In the early 1970s Kathleen Judges, the Strand on the Green historian, identified the 6-acre plot which descended from Parker via the Comptons to the Woodmans as lying on the north east side of today’s Thames Road, and a further half acre on the Thames as being a plot which was a market garden on the Tithe Map of 1847. Later owned by the Port of London Authority, it lies immediately downstream of Picton House (which she identified as Henry and Eleanor’s most likely home) and was sold by the PLA for a housing development in 1971.
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