A Garden For Thomas Fairchild
In her fifth story, Linda Wilkinson tells of a plan to create a garden in honour of Thomas Fairchild
Nineteenth century plate bought in Spitalfields
We almost certainly have the Huguenot immigrants of the seventeenth century to thank for the presence of Columbia Rd Flower Market. Their love of floriculture is legendary but what is perhaps not so well known is that wealthy Huguenot families built summer houses and hot houses upon the land that is now Columbia Rd. In 1795, market gardeners occupied 28% of Bethnal Green agricultural land. By 1800, many of these had developed into large gardens divided up like allotments, each with its own summer house, “where weavers and citizens grew flowers and vegetables and dined on Sundays.”
Eye witness reports are sparse from the period but an article from October 11th, 1827 in the London Standard Newspaper stated that “About three o’clock [in the morning] the South of Hackney Road was visited by one of the most destructive tempests witnessed in the vicinity of the metropolis for many years.” The wind was so fierce that it laid waste to the entire range of garden and orchard grounds on Crabtree Row (Columbia Rd). Hot houses were blown into fragments, chimney and window pots rained down, pigeon traps on the roofs were blown into the adjacent brick field, “and an old stable attached to the Birdcage Public House was thrown down with a frightful crash.”
It is difficult to imagine hot houses and orchards anywhere near the Birdcage Pub these days or, indeed, the pub standing in splendid isolation. The Gentle Author has previously told the story of Thomas Fairchild who had gardens in nearby Hoxton where he made history in 1717 when he took pollen from a Carnation and inserted it into a Sweet William, thereby producing a new variety that became known as ‘Fairchild’s Mule.’ It was the first reported instance of manual plant hybridisation.
Resisted in Fairchild’s era, when it was seen as interfering with creation, it took another century for his technique to be widely adopted. Yet he is also remembered for writing The London Gardener, the first guide book for gardening in the capital.
Fairchild’s local church was St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, and on his death in 1729 he was buried in what is currently Hackney Rd Recreation Ground, originally laid out in 1625. During Fairchild’s time, this was part of the church graveyard and in the nineteenth century was occupied by almshouses. These were converted from an engine and watch house in 1825, and were eventually demolished in 1904. Although there is a sparse monument to Fairchild in the grounds, he is actually interred as he directed, “In some corner of the furthest church yard belonging to the parish of St Leonard’s Shoreditch, where poore people are usually buried.”
Today it is a melancholy place, situated next to the splendid Grade II listed Ye Olde Axe public house, which presents “exotic dancers.” In 1892, the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, laid it out as a public space and latterly it housed a tennis court, ping-pong table and, more recently, art installations.
There are now plans afoot to rejuvenate the Ground, spearheaded by a group comprising the MPGA, Friends of Hackney Rd Recreational Grounds and Worshipful Company of Gardeners whose representative and former Master, Rex Thornborough, lives locally. Supported by the London Borough of Hackney and St Leonard’s Church, one of the ideas is to turn the ground into an education-based garden about Thomas Fairchild and the history of horticulture in the local area.
As Rex explained to me when we visited the Ground recently , the funding is not yet fully secured but the role of the MPGA and the Gardeners’ Company in this endeavour is to sprinkle the magic dust to make it happen. So let us hope they succeed, because too much of our history is lost to the bulldozer at the moment and it would be a sad travesty if this important man and his bones were consigned to oblivion.
Thomas Fairchild’s memorial in the Hackney Rd Recreation Ground
Thomas Fairchild, Gardener of Hoxton
An East Ender prepares for a Floral Competition around 1900
Rex Thornborough in his full regalia as Master of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners
Rex finds the last strawberry of summer in Hackney Rd Recreation Ground
Thomas Fairchild’s memorial in Hackney Rd Recreation Ground
Contact Metropolitan Public Gardens Association for more information on their Thomas Fairchild project
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