How many times have you walked around a garden and wondered about the people who created it? In many cases, the stories of the gardeners who got dirt under their fingernails and weeded until their backs ached in the 18th and 19th centuries are unknown, or recalled simply as a name on a list of wages payments.
As the Year of the English Garden continues and our own garden team at Audley End have won an award, Landscape Advisor Emily Parker has been trying to discover more about the stories of some of these gardeners of the past.
Hidden from history
The most detailed information we have on gardeners through history is usually about those who went on to become famous for something else, such as garden design or plant hunting. The most prominent example is ‘Capability’ Brown who, although he began his career as Head Gardener at Stowe, went on to become one of the most famous landscape designers in English history.
The great gardens and historic plantings we see today are testament to the skill, hard work and dedication of a large band of unsung gardeners. Where more is known about individuals (especially in the 18th century) it is usually because of something unexpected in their story, difficulties with their employer, or the garden not being up to scratch.
In the case of Audley End we can see an example of a famous gardener also having problems with his employer, as ‘Capability’ Brown fell out dramatically with the owner Sir John Griffin Griffin in the 1760s.
Information usually comes from the owner of the house, their land agent or another external observer – rarely from the gardeners themselves. While it is often biased or one-sided, this information can still help to piece together some of these lost voices.
Mr Moody and Daniel Crafts at Marble Hill House
Jonathan Swift, a close friend of the owner Henrietta Howard, wrote a poem about Marble Hill House and its gardens in 1727. The passage relating to the garden rather disparages the gardener, Mr Moody, who seems to have neglected the garden and spent too much time at the pub:
My groves, my echoes, and my birds,
Have taught him his poetic words.
We gardens, and you wildernesses,
Assist all poets in distresses.
Him twice a-week I here expect,
To rattle Moody for neglect;
An idle rogue, who spends his quartridge
In tippling at the Dog and Partridge;
And I can hardly get him down
Three times a-week to brush my gown.
Extract from Swift’s poem “A pastoral dialogue between Richmond Lodge and Marble Hill,” which imagines how the two houses with connections to the Prince Regent (the future George II) may have reacted to the death of his father, George I.
This is the only known reference to Moody so whether this was true or not, and whether it affected his position, is as yet unknown. There is, however, a contract signed by a gardener called Daniel Crafts. Although it’s undated, this probably relates to management of the garden after Moody.
In the contract Daniel Craft promises to ‘undertake to perform all ye work that is necessary to be done in ye gardens.’ It then lists the various tasks this will involve, including: mowing the lawns, keeping the garden free of weeds, rolling the gravel paths, taking care of the greenhouse plants, fruit trees and produce in the Kitchen Garden.
Mr Smith, Mr Thorpe, Mr Gostelow at Wrest Park
Wrest Park is renowned as one of the most intact survivals of an early 18th century garden. Perfection seems to have come at a price though – it would appear that in the late 18th century it was difficult to find gardeners that met the approval of Lord Hardwicke.
Hadley Cox was a school friend of Lord Hardwicke and they remained close throughout their lives. It is from his letters that we see the succession of gardeners at this time. In late 1769 Cox records the ‘discontents & absurd hesitation’ of the new gardener. He also described his behaviour as ‘very laborious & very whimsical’ and hopes that his work will improve so that Lord Hardwicke will not have to be put to the inconvenience of replacing him.
Just over a year later in early 1771 Cox writes again about the gardeners at Wrest Park, berating a Mr Smith for his ‘obstinacy & impertinence.’ He notes that Lord Hardwicke had dismissed Smith, and wished him luck with finding better gardeners in the future.It is not known whether this is the same gardener being written about in 1769 and 1771, or if the problem lay with the employer or employee, or indeed with Hadley Cox. However, by May 1771 Mr Thorpe is identified as the new gardener and Cox notes that he likes him better than any of the previous men in the role.
But after Mr Thorpe, Lord Hardwicke continued to run through gardeners. His next, Mr Gostelow, is described in 1784 as not having ‘Spirit enough to do himself Credit or keep the Gardens in the Complete manner they ought to be’. It is threatened that any future neglect by Mr Gostelow will result in the loss of his position.
While the reports of the gardeners are again one sided it still gives us some indication of the type of information which was being passed to Lord Hardwicke by his friend. We do not know whether Lord Hardwicke relied on this as his only appraisal of the gardeners or whether he was also personally able to judge their work and character closely.
A tale of three William’s at Audley End
For the late 19th century significantly more records about the lives of gardeners exist. For example we are able to trace the stories of three gardeners, all named William, who worked in the garden at Audley End in the 1870s. In the case of William Cresswell his story even survives in his own words.
In 1873 William Newman was working as 2nd man in the Audley End Kitchen Garden earning 2s 8d a day. However, a letter written by Lady Braybrooke, the owner, to her land agent a year later reveals that she thought ‘he was not equal to the situation, having had no experience except in our garden’. She goes on to specify exactly her reservations which seem to focus on his inability to grow plants to the size and standard she expects.
His replacement was William Cresswell, a 21 year old local boy from Grantchester, who had become an apprentice gardener straight after he left school. His diary, which was discovered in a London fleamarket in 1990, provides a detailed and fascinating record of his two years in the gardens at Audley End. The diary give us an insight into the daily tasks and concerns of a journeyman gardener at a great country house and a glimpse into contemporary events (such as the Oxford and Cambridge boat race in 1874) and Cresswell’s everyday life.
In 1879 a new Head Gardener was appointed at Audley End, William Harrison. In December the same year the land agent writes to Lady Braybrooke about Mr Harrison explaining that he ‘is inclined to think the man not up to his work so much as his testimonial led me to expect’ although he does concede that he has had a ‘very poor season to start upon’.
The role of gardeners and the Head Gardener has changed dramatically since the 18th century, especially in gardens which now welcome thousands of visitors each year. Some things continue though; our garden trainees (completing the Historic and Botanic Garden Training Programme) still keep diaries of the work they undertake each week, not unlike William Creswell over a hundred years earlier.
At English Heritage, our gardeners work in small teams with dedicated groups of enthusiastic volunteers to care for these historic gardens and keep them looking beautiful.
Hopefully we are also leaving a greater trail of information for future generations to know what we have done, how, and why. Maybe in comparison to the 18th and 19th centuries, some of the successes will also be remembered – such as the recent Horticulture Week Custodian Award for Audley End as the best garden team in 2016.
Join us this summer for the Year of the English Garden
Find out more about our historic gardens, and plan a day out near you.