A reputation for reliability and quality was the key to success in business for 17th and 18th century nursery gardeners. This could be influenced by many factors, from a gardener’s training, through early employment, to the respect of patrons and colleagues. Personal testimonials passed on by satisfied customers were invaluable, while the emerging genre of gardening books saw individual gardeners appearing in lists of subscribers and as beneficiaries of writers’ comments.
Some nursery gardens were owned and managed very successfully over a long period by a single family. A number of those described on this website ran through several generations, some making the transition from 18th century nursery garden to 19th century market garden with great success.
The Greening, Kennedy, Masters, Ronalds and Woodman families sustained their good reputations through several generations. Those who prospered (or inherited well from their parents) became gentlemen and moved into another world, another class.
Training and apprenticeships
While many nursery gardeners trained their own offspring to support the family business, local gardeners also took on apprentices. In August 1716 Powell Pearson, the son of the schoolmaster at Mortlake, Surrey, was apprenticed to Thomas Greening snr of Brentford, further upstream on the Middlesex bank (1). Hugh Ronalds took on William Hugill, a poor boy funded by a local parish charity, as apprentice in 1798. Some nursery businesses came to an end in the absence of a son or nephew to train up as heir, while other sons were prudently placed as apprentices in different trades and crafts.
Two parish officials in Kew had a difficult situation to deal with in 1749. Chapelwarden John Dillman, one of the royal gardeners, and nurseryman Richard Butt placed Cornelius, the son of gardener John Edwards, as apprentice to a glazier in St James’s. Cornelius’ behaviour was so bad that the glazier petitioned for him to be removed. Young Cornelius Edwards had destroyed his reputation at an early age and one wonders whether placing him at some distance from his family might have been “for his own good” (2).
In a world where communication was a much slower process than today’s, referrals from satisfied customers, previous employers and admiring colleagues were crucially important.
John Rocque acknowledged members of the Greening family by dedicating to them his plan of the gardens at Kew which they managed.
Thomas Knowlton frequently mentioned other gardeners in his correspondence. Aware of this, his proteges, the Scott brothers made sure he knew what they were doing. For example, in a letter of November 1754 to William Stonehouse, gardener to R Richardson, he described a print of Sarracenia Purpurea grown by James Scott in Turnham Green and the new trade card issued by Henry Scott, his brother, stating that the latter was “the neatest thing of the Kind I have seen, he sent me one down”(3).
But personal comment could also cause difficulties. Henry Woodman was from 1729 supplying plants and seeds to Henry Ellison for Gateshead Park. The contracts came to an end in 1733, because another gardener, Stephen Switzer, had convinced Ellison that Woodman was fixing his prices in league with Ellison’s agent, Woolley. Though Woodman’s prices were comparable to those of his contemporaries Woolley lost his post and, after receiving indignant letters from Woodman denying that he would ever do such a thing, Ellison placed the matter in the hands of a lawyer. No further letters survive to show how this was resolved. Switzer, however, succeeded in supplanting Woodman at Gateshead Park (4).
Though they were commercial competitors, most nursery gardeners were part of a community bound by friendship and marriage; they shared information, admired achievements and purchased from each other. The inventory prepared on the death of gardener John Asslett of Old Brentford in 1748 revealed a considerable list of creditors (5), amongst whom were numerous significant gardeners from the surrounding area. If they were purchasing from Asslett they must have trusted the quality of plants he supplied. As the preparation of a nursery inventory required hortcultural expertise, Asslett’s widow brought in two respected gardeners to assist her, Thomas Ash of Twickenham and Richard Butt of Kew.
During the 18th century gardeners’ societies and clubs provided opportunities for presenting plants or fruits at meetings and for cementing friendships. A feast for about 130 florists, specialists in flower-cultivation, was reported in The Craftsman of 16 April 1729. It took place at The Dog on Richmond Hill. After the dinner several florists presented their flowers, mainly auriculas, for the judgement of “five ancient and judicious Gardiners”. Silver spoons and ladles were awarded as prizes; two spoons and one ladle going to a single Barnes gardener who excelled (6).
After the Horticultural Society of London (now the RHS) was established in 1804 high quality examples of fruit and flowers, some newly introduced, were regularly presented to members’ meetings and given awards. Displays and awards of this kind were of value to individual gardeners and were also a source of pride to the employers of estate gardeners. William Cock jnr of Chiswick won the Silver Knightian medal for his pelargoniums in 1839; he had won a Large Silver Medal for plants of the same variety in 1810 and continued to win awards each year. The family’s garden ground lay between Chiswick House and Hogarth’s House; William Cock jnr described himself as market gardener in his will (7) so pelargoniums must have been his hobby.
Patrons and supporters
Nicholas Parker of Strand on the Green was a very successful Chiswick gardener. He supplied standard trees, yews and fruit trees for Lord Fauconberg’s new gardens at nearby Sutton Court in the 1680s and 1690. And Lord Ashburnham, who also owned an estate in Chiswick, contracted him to work on his Ampthill Park gardens in Bedfordshire between 1697 and 1707 (8). Though he married twice, Parker mentioned no surviving children in his will. Instead, he made thoughtful bequests of property to members of the Compton family, related to him by marriage, and to Henry Woodman, who was probably his foreman. This enabled Henry to marry one of the Compton heirs and establish his own nursery on part of Parker’s garden ground.
William Murfin was recommended for the post of head gardener at Chiswick House in 1789 by William Speechly, the Duke of Portland’s gardener at Welbeck. Murfin was trained at Castle Howard by Robert Teesdale who had recommended him 20 years earlier to Doncaster estate and now recommended him again (9). William Murfin’s nephew, Robert Clews, was trained by Wiliam’s brother, Robert Murfin; he succeeded William as head gardener at Chiswick and became a Fellow of the Horticultural Society. In 1823 he exhibited there varieties of grapes and in 1830 two varieties of apple named after him.
In the 17th and early 18th centuries, many Scots gardeners travelled south to find work on big estates. Some came to posts with aristocratic members of the Stuart court who had been awarded landed estates by the King. Others came for political reasons, or perhaps because there was more likelihood of prosperity in the gardens of the south of England. The Scotts were working in Chiswick in the late 1730s while the Ronalds’ nursery was established in New Brentford in the mid 1740s. Sir Joseph Banks, who had a house at Isleworth, knew and trusted Hugh Ronalds snr, whose nursery ground lay nearby in New Brentford. Banks placed substantial (and profitable) orders with Ronalds for plants to send to Australia.
Gardeners who worked as contractors, like Capability Brown, employed experienced and skillful managers to oversee their contracts. In 1765 Brown placed Michael Milliken, a Scot who had worked for him at Chatsworth for 10 years, to supervise work on the King’s Richmond Gardens at Kew. There Milliken stayed for 35 years – his touching letters to his wife and his will show that this was immensely profitable (10).
Catalogues and handbooks
John Lawrence, in the preface to his book of 1714, The Clergyman’s Recreation, mentions the famous owners of the great nursery at Brompton, South Kensington, London and Wise, but also singles out Nicholas Parker of Strand on the Green for praise. He describes him as “that honest person I have so long dealt with and so often recommended” and comments on the reliability of more than 500 fruit trees supplied by him.
Despite the dispute mentioned above, the quality of the plants Henry Woodman supplied was endorsed by Thomas Hitt, another distinguished gardener, in his book A Treatise of Fruit-Trees (1755): “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.”
Barnaby Millett, Lord Burlington’s head gardener at Chiswick, was described by Richard Bradley in various works between 1718 and 1724 as a “very ingenious gardener” skilled in the early ripening of strawberries and of cherries and apricots in frames (11). Nathaniel Swinden on the other hand, relied on a little elegant self-promotion. His book was not only full of useful advice on gardening but also acted as a catalogue of seeds which he could supply. And in a rather modern approach, Swinden offered boxes and baskets of selected seeds enabling purchasers to implement designs he had proposed in the book.
Unlike today’s published obituaries only occasionally did 18th and early 19th century death notices include more than a bare statement of a gardener’s death and the sadness of the surviving relatives. But by then it was too late to tell the deceased gardener of the esteem of the community of gardeners, which one hopes had been expressed in life!
References & Sources
(1) Apprenticeship Registers via ancestry.co.uk
(2) Westminster Session,Justices’ Working Documents April 1751 accessed through londonlives.org
(3) No Ordinary Gardener: Thomas Knowlton 1691-1781, Blanche Henrey, British Museum (Natural History) 1986 pp 230-1
(4) full transcripts of the correspondence in Early Nurserymen, John H Harvey, Phillimore, 1974
(5) TNA PROB 3/48/2
(6) quoted in English Florists’ Societies and Feasts in the 17th and First Half of the 18th Centuries, Ruth E Duthie, Garden History 10, No 1 (Spring, 1982), pp 17-35
(7) TNA PROB 11/2052
(8) Letter books of John 1st Baron Ashburnham Jan 1696 to Mar 1705, East Sussex Record Office ASH 840-845
(9) correspondence in Chatsworth Archives, quoted in Chiswick House Grounds Historical Survey, P6327, David Jacques (Travers Morgan for DoE), 1983
(10) Letters in private archive, quoted in Capability Brown, Dorothy Stroud, Country Life, 1950, and TNA PROB 11/1139
(11) from Garden History 11, No 1 p 33, quoted in Chiswick House Grounds Historical Survey, P6327, David Jacques (Travers Morgan for DoE), 1983
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