The Gardens of the British Working Class – 50 Years in 50 Books

The Gardens of the British Working Classes is an illustrated people’s history of gardening in Britain. Margaret Willes’s book celebrates the extraordinary feats of cultivation by the working class in Britain, even if the land they toiled, planted, and loved was not their own. 

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Margaret Willes reconsiders The Gardens of the British Working Classes almost 10 years after it was first published.

The idea of writing a history of working-class gardeners in Britain was suggested to me by my editor, Robert Baldock. I believe that he had the thought as a result of a chapter that I had written in my first book for Yale, Reading Matters. In ‘The Common Reader: Books for Working Men and Women’, I explained how, over the centuries, against the odds in terms of education and economics, nevertheless fortitude, determination, and a disregard of entrenched prejudice, have prevailed for some.

I was intrigued by the challenge presented to me to write of ordinary gardeners for a number of reasons. First, I have been very interested in gardens and their history, having worked for the National Trust as their publisher. I had also particularly enjoyed researching the chapter on books mentioned above, and felt heartfelt sympathy and admiration for those who overcame the odds stacked up against them, not least because of the experience of some of my own ancestors. And thirdly, I like a good challenge. Here was an area not overloaded with information, but with lots of opportunities to explore. I had, for example, read a review of an anthology of biographies of lesser-known figures, in which John Duncan was named. He was a 19th-century Scottish linen weaver, illegitimate and impoverished, who taught himself to read and write in his thirties and became fascinated by botany and in particular that of medicinal plants.

Watercolour by Myles Birket Foster, public domain via The British Museum

Although the subject of horticultural history can be beset by a lack of information, there is one area where its study enjoys an advantage – living plants can be used in recreations avoiding what I term the ‘rubber chicken’ approach used in the interpretation of historic kitchens, for example. I was able to draw on sources such as the Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex, where houses and other buildings rescued from potential oblivion have been rebuilt in a rural landscape, and the gardens that would have accompanied them have been recreated after careful research. I was thus able to marry up some of their houses and gardens with written records, such as those for the village of Upton-by-Southwell in Nottinghamshire in the early 17th century. In 1609 plague struck the community and the churchwarden accounts provide a rare glimpse of the inhabitants and the kind of gardening and husbandry in which they were involved.

Titles of books are often a source of lively discussion: I don’t know where I sit on the spectrum in this regard, but certainly it is rare that a title emerges fully fledged at the outset of the project. In the case of Gardens of the British Working Class, one area of difficulty was the use of ‘working class’. This term only came into use in the 1790s with the development of industrialisation. A Tudor commentator who attempted to categorise gardeners fell back on the capacious phrase, ‘the lower orders’. I have, however not been questioned or brought to task since the publication of the book, so working class seems to have been self-explanatory. 

Watercolour by Myles Birket Foster, public domain via The British Museum

While I was writing, the reaction of many people was to ask whether I was in the midst of producing a history of allotments. I did indeed mean allotments, but much else besides. And I found that in so doing, I might surprise readers with the breadth of the subject and hopefully changed some perceptions. One of those perceptions maintained by some historians was that gardens of agricultural labourers were entirely given over to the practical cultivation of vegetables, herbs, and possibly fruit, but no flowers. First hand accounts of the period, both for agricultural and urban gardens show that this often does not pertain. Indeed, when considering the image for the cover, we chose, a watercolour by Myles Birket Foster. The artist is known for his representations of picturesque 19th-century cottage gardens, but in this case he shows an old woman cutting cabbages in front of a tumbledown dwelling, up which colourful roses are defiantly climbing.

The book was published in 2014, and although I have kept a weather eye out for new books on the theme, I have not seen any, apart from Caroline Rice’s Cottage Gardeners and Gardens, 1750-1914, that concentrates on Scotland and a limited time frame. I was, moreover, delighted to see in the correspondence page of a recent Times Literary Supplement a letter referring to my book in a discussion about the role of women gardeners and attitudes towards them through the centuries.

There is, of course, room for much more information.  Encouraged by Jeremy Burchardt, research is being carried out into the allotment movement at the local level. I was able to use diaries kept by apprentice gardeners as well as one amateur gardener, and I know that more are coming to light, stimulated by the interpretation of the ‘below stairs’ of the garden alongside that of the kitchens and other service areas of historic houses.

In my book, I used the analogy of an iceberg for garden history in Britain. Studies have concentrated on the magnificent, whether as landscapes or as resplendent plantings, and on the owners, the rich and the famous. The gardens of ‘ordinary gardeners’ are submerged below the water line, and this continues to be the case. The actual icebergs of our world are threatened by climate change, but in the particular area of garden history writing, they retain their glacial existence.

About the Author:

Margaret Willes is an enthusiastic gardener and the former publisher at the National Trust.

About the book:

The Gardens of the British Working Classes
Margaret Willes

This magnificently illustrated people’s history celebrates the extraordinary feats of cultivation by the working class in Britain, even if the land they toiled, planted, and loved was not their own. This book is a sumptuous record of the myriad ways in which the popular cultivation of plants, vegetables, and flowers has played—and continues to play—an integral role in everyday British life.

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Also by Margaret Willes:

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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