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Thomas Fairchild, Gardener of Hoxton

July 2, 2011
by the gentle author

Next time you visit Columbia Rd Flower Market, once you have admired the infinite variety of plants on display, walk West until you come to the Hackney Rd. Directly ahead,  you will discover a small neglected park and burial ground where, on the right hand side of the gate, is this stone which commemorates Thomas Fairchild (1667-1729) the Hoxton gardener.

Thomas Fairchild was the first to create a hybrid, making history in 1717 by the simple act of taking pollen from a Carnation and inserted it into a Sweet William in his Hoxton nursery, thereby producing a new variety that became known as “Fairchild’s Mule.” Everyone who loves Columbia Rd Market should lay flowers on this stone for Thomas Fairchild, because without his invention of the technique of hybridisation most of the plants on sale there would not exist. Yet when I went along with my Carnations in hand for Thomas Fairchild, I found the stone overgrown with moss that concealed most of the inscription.

Apprenticed at fifteen years old in 1682 to Jeremiah Seamer, a clothmaker in the City of London, Thomas Fairchild quickly decided that indoor work was not for him and decided to become a gardener. He had to wait until 1690 when he completed his apprenticeship to walk out of the City and up past Spitalfields to Shoreditch – where, in those days, the housing ended at St Leonards Church and beyond was only fields and market gardens. Thomas Fairchild found employment at a nursery in Hoxton, up beyond the market, but within a few years he took it over, expanding it and proceeding to garden there for the next thirty years.

In Hoxton, he kept a vineyard with more than fifty varieties of grapes, one of the last to be cultivated in England, and his nursery became a popular destination for people to wonder at all the exotic plants he grew, sent as specimens or seeds from overseas, including one of the first banana trees grown here. By 1704 he was made a freeman of the City of London as a member of the Worshipful Society of Gardeners and in 1722 he published, “The City Gardener. Containing the most experienced Method of Cultivating and Ordering such Ever-greens, Fruit-Trees, flowering Shrubs, Flowers, Exotic Plants, &c. as will be Ornamental and thrive best in the London Gardens.”

Drawing upon Thomas Fairchild’s thirty years of experience in Hoxton, it was the first book on town gardening, listing the plants that will grow in London, and how and where to plant them. He took into account the sequence of flowers through the seasons, and even included a section on window boxes and balconies. This slim volume, which has recently been reprinted, is a practical guide that could be used today, the only difference being that we do not have to contend with the smog caused by coal fires which Thomas Fairchild found challenging for many plants that he would like to grow.

When he died in 1729, it was his wish to be buried in the Poor’s Ground of St Leonard’s Church in the Hackney Rd and he bequeathed twenty-five pounds to the church for the endowment of an annual Whitsun sermon on either the wonderful works of God or the certainty of the creation. This annual event became known as the “Vegetable Sermon” and continued in Shoreditch until 1981 when, under the auspices of the Worshipful Society of Gardeners, it transferred to St Giles, Cripplegate.

Thomas Fairchild presented his hybrid to the Royal Society and, although its significance was recognised, the principle was not widely taken up by horticulturalists until a century later. In Thomas Fairchild’s day grafting and cuttings were the means of propagation and even “Fairchild’s Mule,” the extraordinary hybrid that flowered twice in a year, was bred through cuttings. Hybrids existed, accidentally, before Thomas Fairchild – Shakespeare makes reference to the debate as to their natural or unnatural qualities in “The Winters’ Tale” – yet Thomas Fairchild was the first to recognise the sexes of plants and cross-pollinate between species manually. Prefiguring the modern anxiety about genetic engineering, Thomas Fairchild’s bequest for the Vegetable Sermons was an expression of his own humility in the face of what he saw as the works of God’s creation.

I have no doubt Thomas Fairchild would be delighted by his position close to the flower market, but, as a passionate gardener and plantsman who made such an important and lasting contribution to horticulture, he would be disappointed at the sad, unkempt state of the patch of earth where he rests eternally. Given that his own work “The City Gardener”  describes precisely how to lay out and plant such a space, it would be ideal if someone could take care of this place according to Thomas Fairchild’s instructions and let the old man rest in peace in a garden worthy of his achievements.

My Pinks bought from Columbia Rd Market last week.

From “The City Gardener,” 1722.

Plaque by the altar in Shoreditch Church commemorating Thomas Fairchild’s endowment for the “Vegetable Sermon.”

A pear tree in Spitalfields.

You may also like to read about

My Pinks

Heather Stevens, Head Gardener at the Geffrye Museum

Andy Willoughby, Gardener at Arnold Circus

20 Responses leave one →
  1. AnKa permalink
    July 2, 2011

    I really like the new header of your blog. Will read this post more carefully tomorrow.

  2. Alice permalink
    July 2, 2011

    I live opposite Hackney Road Recreation Ground and I believe there has been a ‘Friends Of’ group set up to help rejuvenate the place – run mainly I believe by the artist who uses the shipping container on the plot.

  3. Zeph permalink
    July 2, 2011

    Mr Fairchild is also commemorated by David Austin Roses, who produce a nice pink rose named after him:

  4. Pete Edwards permalink
    July 2, 2011

    A worthy response to my comment on your pinks story – or just a coincidence?

  5. jeannette permalink
    July 3, 2011

    thank you for cleaning off the moss and laying the flowers. i can’t tell you how this touches me.

  6. Chris F permalink
    July 3, 2011

    Ditto to what Jeannette says. It always upsets me when I stumble across the grave of someone from our past who gave (or still gives) so much pleasure and to find the grave untended or broken and even more so when a local authority decides to place the remaining headstones against the periniter walls of the plot in order to clear the area for easy grass cutting. Thereby denying us the oportunity of even locating the last resting place of an individual. Sad…..

  7. July 4, 2011

    There is indeed a plan afoot to renovate the park. I run an art project in the shipping container in the park (re-opening september, We have formed a friends group for the park, and have raised some money from Hackney. Platform 5 Architects, who are neighbours to the park are doing a feasibility study, Columbia rd school are going to be involved as are local horticulturalists Templeman Harrison . If you want to get involved please email:
    Great summary of the Fairchild history, Thanks. Tom

  8. July 5, 2011

    hello there,
    kindly, tom wolseley put me on the trail of your thomas fairchild article. it’s a fantastic endeavour to cast one’s mind to 18th century london, the community context of fairchild’s passion and impact; many thanks for writing this up. unfortunately when i visited yesterday, i could see no wreath, though i’ll be cert to continue the homage gesture in short order!

  9. July 12, 2011

    Hi, we’ve set up a facebook group here, please join and get involved!!/pages/Fairchilds-Garden-Hackney/125188197559831?sk=wall

  10. charlie permalink
    January 15, 2013

    Hi i’m a child from tfc and i have to say its marvless but year 5 4 and 6 has been learning about Thomas Fairchild and on thursday is the ground opening for tfc because the mare and famous people and celebraties are coming to see the new brad new school so a parents who has a kid in 5 and 4 come watch on our little play for the mare and the rest thank you for listening from miss liwes dannie lang and gillian water thank you

  11. August 15, 2014

    Thanks for this fascinating article, which I came across while blogging on John Nichols’ ‘Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century’: you might like to look at:

  12. Sylvia Fairchild permalink
    November 21, 2015

    My husbands family name is Fairchild and Father in law Henry was born in Hertfordshire. Does anyone know anymore about the Thomas Fairchild family. Also when I was a child I lived in Mare Street Hackney. My father in law also used to love gardening. I would be pleased to hear from anyone who knew anything more about the family. Thankyou

  13. February 20, 2016

    20.2.2016 Many years ago, I came looking for Fairchild’s grave and found it heavily mossed and obscured by a large bush over the top. So I obtained a hacksaw and cut the bush back and scraped off the moss. To do this I had to get access through the pub next door and explain myself. It turned out to be a bar with a load of drinky men paying for viewing sex acts confined to an open ended cubicle not much bigger than a bench placed on the floor. I thought it sad that so historic a person should come to be buried in so neglected a spot and wondered if his grave might be transferred to the RHS garden at Wisley where he’s be well honoured and celebrated. It’s an idea. Armyn Hennessy

  14. Helen Smith permalink
    February 21, 2016

    Have just listened to a rather poor feature on Gardener’s Question Time mentioning Thomas Fairchild – but was fascinated by the information about Thomas Fairchild’s vineyard and nursery. No more information or link on the GQT website but looking further found this website and wondered if, 5 years after the restoration project of the tomb was suggested, anything has in fact happened ? It seemed from the programme it’s still overgrown and neglected and this does seem a shame. Surely it wouldn’t take more than a few hours of group work to clear it up ?

  15. Vicky permalink
    May 19, 2016

    I visited this garden today, five years on, hoping to find it transformed into a delightful tranquil garden reflecting something of Thomas Fairchild’s vision for a City garden. Oh, how disappointing! It is still neglected with rubbish in the corners and large Hackney Council refuse bins stored higgledy piggledy in front of the information boards. The grass was long and full of daisies which would normally enchant, but they didn’t. It’s a dogs toilet now, not a space for passers by to stroll in and I came away gloomy. Whatever happened to the grand plans and promised funding for this special place?

  16. Paul permalink
    March 20, 2017

    A fine article on Thomas Fairchild appears in last weekend’s (18-19 March 2017) Financial Times, among which this:
    “though the possession of an inquisitive mind and a knack for experimentation, Thomas Fairchild made a significant contribution to horticulture and to the progression of modern science. The work he carried out not only advanced our understanding of plant genetics, but gathered part of the evidence that paved the way for the theory of evolution.”

  17. Rick Hares permalink
    March 11, 2019

    We visited Fairchild’s Park on Saturday 9/10/20. My mother lived in Waterson Street and her house #31 backed on to this park. She knew little about it. Other than there was a shelter in the right hand corner during the war. And that they called it cats park. Due to all the cats, it was also the place her mother passed away in.

  18. Penelope Darby permalink
    July 10, 2023

    I have just received this article from The Gentle Author (lovely series) When my family move to a new council flat (in 1950), my brother and I went to Thomas Fairchild primary school in Napier Street, just off Wenlock Street. I had no idea of his history but will try to find the park. My father ended his days (after my mother died) in sheltered accommodation in Goldsmith’s Row, just off Hackney Road and almost opposite the road leading to Columbia Road flower market. What a lot of history Shoreditch holds for so many. Thank you.

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