Thomas Greening (c1684-1757) and his three sons were all associated with gardens owned by the royal family. At the heart of their business was their nursery at Brentford End, whose management was a shared family undertaking. Thomas and his wife, Ann, were in Isleworth Parish by the early 1700s. There were four sons: John, Thomas, Robert and Richard, and Betsey, whose poor health is mentioned in family letters in the 1730s, was one of several daughters. Most members of the family are buried at Isleworth Parish Church.
John Rocque identified the Greenings’ house and garden on a small map of the Environs of Syon House which he used to decorate the 1743 prospectus for his ambitious map of London and Environs. Indeed, three Greenings were subscribers to this map. Their house and land were at Brentford End, west of the Brent and actually in Isleworth Parish; they lay on the north side of the road from Brentford to Hounslow, roughly opposite the old footpath from that road into Syon Park. The house was later to become a boys’ boarding school, known as Syon Park House, and survived until the early 1960s.
The Rev George Harbin visited Thomas Greening the elder’s garden on 20 August 1719. Harbin’s notes show that Greening was expert in growing dwarf apples and pears in tubs and pots, some of which he had kept this way for 14 years. He also grew peaches, nectarines and espalier apricots which he protected from frost by covering them with a “reed hedge”. Harbin also recorded a large grape vine growing against the house, called the Burlake or White Raisin grape. “The Bunches are extremely large & some of them have weighd above 7 pound”.
Greening and Harbin discussed hyacinths – large white ones with red eyes were 5s or 7s (25p or 35p) a root, the Province Rose, ranunculus (of which Greening grew a sweet-scented striped variety from Turkey), tulips, anemones (the finest included the Battersea Red), cherries, plums, almonds and sorbus. Richard Bradley reported seeing a passion flower in Greening’s garden in Brentford with more than 300 fruits.
Queen Caroline invested considerable sums in landscaping the gardens of Richmond Lodge, now part of Kew Gardens. After she died responsibility for their upkeep was given to the head gardener, Thomas Greening the elder, assisted by his son, Robert, from 1738. Under their care, new features were created – the small wilderness and the sunken feature at the north of the garden, together with the Little Wilderness and the New Mount. During the 1730s the name Greening appears repeatedly in the records of Brentford Ferry, crossing the Thames with laden carts and returning with empty ones.
A set of letters from the two oldest Greening sons – Thomas jnr and Robert – to their father Thomas snr – survive in the National Archives. Robert was sent to manage his father’s farm in Aymstrey, Herefordshire, close to where they had been working on the Shobdon estate of Lord Bateman. The letters include commentary about the management of this farm, with details of the weather, the harvest and wheat prices. Plants and seeds were sent from Brentford to Aymstrey, including turnip seed, some bought in and some supplied from their own Brentford crop. They were also growing elm trees; Thomas Greening snr had been granted a royal patent in the 1720s for the grafting of English elm onto Dutch elm stock to encourage fast growth.
Richard, the youngest son, is mentioned in a letter from Robert to his father dated 26 July 1742: “it is a very great Concern to me that he has so Small a Share of Education . . . for had he been capable I could have recommended him to the Duke of Bolton for a Steward. . . . you may depend that neither my Br nor me will be wanting in our Brotherly help to him.” Robert’s letters show him caring for his sister Betsey in Herefordshire but yearning to be allowed to return to work in the Brentford End nursery.
The letters show the family were continually troubled by money problems. They coped to some extent by delaying payments themselves. The letters mention requests for payment: for example, in 1742 Mr Tunstall of Brentford ferry brought a bill which covered the Greenings’ river crossings from 1725 to 1737! At one stage their father has taken the “nurserybook” with him when he is away from home for some time. Thomas the younger writes of the embarrassment he suffers when he goes to seek payment of outstanding invoices only to be shown his father’s receipts for payments that he has failed to record, and the sums he is having to borrow in order to pay for supplies and services to keep the business going. For example, Thomas borrows from Mr Bever, probably Samuel Bever a “kinsman” of his father-in-law, Henry Marsh. The situation seems to have been made worse by the purchase of a farm in Herefordshire on which they appeared to be losing money.
Their major contracts with the royal family and with aristocratic clients were almost guaranteed to cause difficulty as such people rarely paid quickly, though being known to have a royal contract would have enabled them to obtain credit. Thomas Greening the younger wrote to his father on 9 February 1740 “The book debts are nothing at all except Ld Weymouth’s and the Duke of Marlborough which God knows when I shall receive”. He submitted a petition for payment of invoices for works at Kensington Gardens and St James’s Palace in 1752. A year passed before approval was given for payment of these though the sums involved on these contracts were substantial – £799.13s (£799.65) for Kensington and £354.5s (£354.25) for St James’s Palace.
By 1740 Thomas the elder was paying rates in Turnham Green for a house with a garden and field which he leased from Lord Burlington. This almost certainly lay near the junction of Sutton Lane South and today’s Wellesley Road and was later occupied by the Fromows. In 1746 he married again; his bride was Lucretia Abbott (c1711-1781) and he is described as “widower of Chiswick”. When he made his will two years later he was about to renew his lease and bequeathed the property, after his wife’s death, to his youngest son, Richard.
Thomas the younger (c1710-1757) married Sarah, daughter of Henry Marsh, a gentleman gardener of Hammersmith. Described in his father’s will as being “in a very thriving and prosperous way and stands in no want of anything I can give him”, he had one very large debt towards which his father left him £500. Either he or his father laid out gardens at Kirtlington in Oxfordshire, The Gnoll in Neath, Virginia Water near Windsor and Corsham Court, Wiltshire. In 1751 Thomas the Younger took on Kensington Gardens and St James’s Park, leaving Robert out of the contract and bringing his son into the business instead. He died in February 1757, only a few months before his father.
Thomas and Sarah’s son, Henry Thomas Greening (1730-1809) married Ann Hooper, the daughter of a prosperous Herefordshire lawyer. He appears to have been a gardener too until he inherited a substantial fortune on condition he changed his name to Gott, which he did in 1769. He purchased the Newlands estate in Buckinghamshire in 1770 and built himself a grand house there. Henry Thomas Gott was knighted in 1774.
John, the third son, became the Duke of Newcastle’s head gardener and steward at Claremont; he had worked there with his father as a boy on William Kent’s landscaping schemes. Later he oversaw a formal flower garden and 6 acres of walled garden and greenhouses for high quality fruits. Rocque’s 1738 plan of Claremont has small inset images of buildings on the estate including “Mr Greening’s House”, later known as White Cottage. (In 2012 this was in use as the sixth formers’ centre at the school at Claremont). Between 1758 and 1764 John was the King’s gardener at Hampton Court and was also paid for work at Windsor Great Park.
Robert not only assisted his father at Richmond Gardens but also worked with his brother Thomas there, and on some other contracts. After the brothers had fallen out and gone their separate ways, Robert became Princess Augusta’s head gardener for the pleasure grounds at Kew Gardens (and was also made responsible for her nine cows) from June 1753. He replaced John Dillman who nevertheless continued to be responsible for the 6a kitchen garden, melon ground and orangery there until 1755 when these too became Robert’s responsibility. For this contract Robert was to receive 300gns a year and have the use of 54 acres of farmland. In 1757 his contract was extended to include management of “a sufficient flock of sheep to feed the lawn” but he died in March 1758. His brother John then took on the royal contracts and spent several years sorting out Robert’s estate as executor; he did not receive payments until 1761/2 for some of Robert’s works executed in 1754 – gravelling the path to Goupy’s Chinese arch and overseeing the construction of two other Chinese garden buildings. Robert also produced designs for other estates. Those for the northern gardens at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire survive, with elaborately irregular areas interspersed with formal and symmetrical avenues and vistas.
His wife Ann is described in his will as the daughter of Priscilla Price of Lucton, providing another family connection to Herefordshire. He drafted his will in 1750 when he had recently purchased a property in Isleworth and in Lucton; after Ann’s death these were to pass to his brothers John and Richard. In December 1757 his “dear, dear wife” was dying so he amended his bequests to provide an annuity for his stepmother, Lucretia Greening. He lived only a few months more and died in March 1758.
Richard, the youngest son, seems not to have held significant posts as a gardener. Family letters indicate that he may not have been well educated and refer to sending him money. Thomas the elder made Richard his executor so he must have trusted him. However, bequests from Thomas the elder and from Robert were clearly designed to support Richard, who lived only until 1760. Lucretia, Thomas’ second wife outlived them all, surviving until 1781 when she died aged 70.
Michael McGarvie and John H Harvey, Revd George Harbin and his Memoirs of Gardening 1716-1723
Richard Bradley, New Improvements of Planting & Gardening 1731
Ray Desmond, Kew: The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Harvill Press, London 1995
Ferry records, Layton Collection; sample pages at www.thamespilot.org.uk
Wills, National Archives: Thomas Greening snr PROB/11/837, Robert Greening PROB/11/837
Family letters, National Archives, C 108/353
Elm tree patent, British Library Eg Ch 8108
Payments for Kensington Gardens and St James’s Park, National Archives T1.352/2, 3a, 3b, and T1.353/115
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