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A Brief Survey Of East End Garden History

March 29, 2014
by Margaret Willes

Celebrating the publication of her new book The Gardens of the British Working Class by Yale University Press, Margaret Willes offers this brief horticultural history of the East End.

Early twentieth century garden at the rear of WF Arber & C0 Ltd, Printing Works

Today Spitalfields and Shoreditch are intensely urban areas but, four centuries ago, the scene was very different. Maps of this era show that behind the main roads flanked by houses and cottages, there were fields of cattle and, close by the city walls, laundrywomen laying out their washing to dry.

Many craftsmen who needed to be near to the City of London, yet who did not wish to be liable to its trading restrictions, found a home here. At the end of the sixteenth century, Huguenot silk weavers fleeing from religious persecution in the Spanish Netherlands and France, and landing at ports such as Yarmouth, Colchester and Sandwich, made their way to the capital. Records of this first wave of Huguenots and their arrival in Spitalfields are sparse, but there are references to them in the rural village of Hackney for instance.

Just as these ‘strangers’ took up residence east of London, so too did actors and their theatres. William Shakespeare lodged just within the City walls in Silver St, in the fifteen-nineties, in the home of an immigrant family from Picardie, the Mountjoys, who were involved in silk and wire-twisting.

Tradition tells us that these refugees brought with them their love of flowers. Bulbs and seeds may easily be transported, so they could have brought their floral treasures in their pockets. The term ‘florist’ first appears in English in 1623 when Sir Henry Wotton, scholar, diplomat and observer of gardens wrote about them to an acquaintance. He was not using ‘florist’ in its modern sense as a retailer of cut flowers, but rather as a description of an enthusiast who nurtured and exhibited pot-grown flowers such as tulips and carnations. One flower that has been traditionally associated with the Spitalfields silk weavers is the auricula, with its clear-cut colours. Auricalas do not like rain, so those who worked at home were in an ideal position to be able to bring them under cover when inclement weather threatened.

Another ‘outsider’ living in Spitalfields in the mid-seventeenth century was the radical apothecary, Nicholas Culpeper. He set up home in the precincts of the former Priory of St Mary Spital with his wife Alice Ford in 1640, probably choosing to be outside the City in order to able to practise without a licence. A Nonconformist in every sense, he disliked the elitism of the medical profession and in his writings threw down a challenge by offering help to all, however poor they were. He develop his knowledge by gathering wild flowers and herbs, but it is likely he also cultivated them in his own garden. His English Physitian, later known as the Complete Herbal, is one of the most successful books published in the English language and is still available today.

Culpeper’s books are a reminder that the garden has been for centuries the vital source of all medicines and poultices in this country. As London expanded, and private gardens within the City walls were built over, so the supply of medicinal herbs for apothecaries and housewives became of vital importance. Some of the market herbwomen are mentioned by name in the records of 1739-40 of the Fleet Market along with their places of residence. Hannah Smith, for example, came from Grub Sin in Finsbury, but others from further afield, such as Bethnal Green and Stepney Green. The remedies of the period required large quantities of certain herbs, such as wormwood and pennyroyal, and these women cultivated these as market gardeners.

With the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 by Louis XIV, a fresh wave of Huguenot refugees arrived, this time from France rather than the Lowlands. We know much more about these people, including their love of flowers, along with singing birds and linnets, which until quite recently could still be bought from Club Row Market. The French king made a mistake in divesting his realm of some of the most talented craftsmen: gunsmiths and silversmiths as well as silk weavers. The skill of the weavers was matched by their love of flowers in the exquisite silks they produced for court mantuas, the ornate dresses made for aristocratic ladies attending the court of St James. In these designs, a genuine attempt was made to produce botanical naturalism rather than purely conventional floral motifs and although today the most famous designer was Anna-Maria Garthwaite, there were others working alongside her in these streets.

As Spitalfields grew more developed in the eighteenth century, so the pressure on land increased and many of the gardens were built over with new houses. Some residents appear to have taken to their rooftops, creating gardens and building aviaries for their birds up there. Thomas Fairchild, who cultivated a famous nursery in Hoxton, recommended the kind of plants that could survive at this height, including currant trees. Others created gardens upon grounds along the Hackney and Mile End roads. A commissioner reporting on the conditions of the handloom weavers in the early nineteenth century described one such area, Saunderson’s Gardens in Bethnal Green.

They may cover about six acres of ground. There is one general enclosure round the whole, and each separate garden is divided from the rest by small palings. The number of gardens was stated to be about one hundred and seventy: some are much larger than the rest. In almost every garden is a neat summer-house, where the weaver and his family may enjoy themselves on Sundays and holidays …. There are walks through the ground by which access is easy to the gardens.

The commissioner found that vegetables such as cabbages, lettuces and peas were cultivated, but pride of place was given to flowers. “There had been a contest for a silver medal amongst the tulip proprietors. There were many other flowers of a high order, and it was expected that in due time the show of dahlias for that season would not fail to bring glory to Spitalfields. In this neighbourhood are several dealers in dahlias.”

The competitions held for the finest florists’ flowers were fiercely fought. The Old Bailey sessions records include cases where thieves had broken into gardens not only to steal from the summer houses, but to take prize bulbs too. The Lord Mayor’s Day, 9th November, was traditionally the time to plant the bulbs and, in the spring, judges visited the gardens to make their decisions.

But these gardens were doomed, for the eastern parts of London – Bethnal Green, Stepney Green and Hackney – were being overwhelmed by street after street of new terraced houses. The handloom weavers of the area were likewise doomed, as the silk industry was threatened by competition from overseas and by looms powered by machinery in this country. Their love of flowers, however, was not to be dimmed, and a picture of a Spitalfields weaver in 1860 working alongside his daughters in a garret shows plants on the windowsill, while a contemporary account describes a fuchsia in pride of place near a loom, with its crimson pedants swinging to the motion of the treadles.

Root plants could be bought from sellers, especially along the Mile End Rd, and cut flowers from Spitalfields Market. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a market specifically for flowers and plants was established in Columbia Rd in Shoreditch. This followed the failure of an elaborate food market built by the philanthropist, Angela Burdett-Coutts in the nineteenth century. Her project had been based on a prospective railway line to deliver fish, which never materialised, while the traders preferred to sell outdoors and their customers, many of whom were Jewish immigrants, wanted to buy on Sunday. Originally, Columbia Market traded on Saturday but a parliamentary act moved it to Sunday, enabling Covent Garden and Spitalfields traders to sell their leftover stock, and this market flourishes still, attesting to the persistent love of flowers in the East End of London.

London Herb Woman, late sixteenth century from Samuel Pepys collection of Cries of London

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), the Spitalfields Herbalist

An auricula theatre

The tomb of Thomas Fairchild (1667-1729) the Hoxton gardener

Rue, Sage & Mint – a penny a bunch! Kendrew’s Cries of London

Buy my watercress, 1803

Buy my Ground Ivy, 1803

Chickweed seller of 1817 by John Thomas Smith

This is John Honeysuckle, the industrious gardener, with a myrtle in his hand, the produce of his garden. He is justly celebrated for his beautiful bowpots and nosegays, 1819

Here’s all a Blowing, Alive and Growing – Choice Shrubs and Plants, Alive and Growing, eighteen-twenties

Selling flowers on Columbia Rd in the nineteen seventies Photo by George Gladwell

Mick & Sylvia Grover, Herb Sellers in Columbia Rd –  Portrait by Jeremy Freedman

Margaret Willes in her garden – Portrait by Sarah Ainslie

The Gardens of the British Working Class by Margaret Willes is published by Yale University Press

You may also like to read about

Nicholas Culpeper, Herbalist of Spitalfields

Thomas Fairchild, Gardener of Hoxton

The Secret Gardens of Spitalfields

The Auriculas of Spitalfields

Gardening in the Roundabout

Cable St Gardeners

Virginia Rd School Gardening Club

10 Responses leave one →
  1. March 29, 2014

    Very interesting post. My aunt lived in a small house in Harads Place, (destroyed in the 1960s) near Wellclose Square, and in a tiny back yard grew flowers and herbs in pots, and most neighbours did the same. Valerie

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    March 29, 2014

    Well, I can’t see what the cottager is picking from her front-patch on the cover of the book, but the rest of the plants appear to be curly Kale! Still grown, & excellent in soups or “colcannon” if chopped up finely.
    [ Mine did well this winter ]

  3. Ronald permalink
    March 29, 2014

    Thank you for your daily publications, I have been all the richer for them. I have lived my whole life on the open prairie of Nebraska in the USA. This whole area was a flat prairie of grass, higher than a walking man, until a little over 200 years ago. Though I have many ancestors from Scotland and England, I am far removed from their roots and live in a place where even the dirt is young.

  4. March 29, 2014

    This looks to be a really interesting book I shall be buying it – I went to a talk on fashion and gardens by Nicola Shulman at the Garden History Museum and I think Margaret should contact them to do something similar – it’s really interesting as it’s always about ‘posh’ gardens not the gardens of the ordinary man – my great grandfather was head gardener at a large estate in Hampshire and grandfather from the other side had an allotment so did my Dad and now I have one – thank you so much – Lynne Casey

  5. March 29, 2014

    Thank you very much for this. This is exactly what I think history should be about the lives love and struggles of normal people.Please keep up the great work .I will get your book
    All the best
    Phil Bailey

  6. March 29, 2014

    Very nice — and the cradle of the English garden tradition!

    Springtime, you are welcome!

    Love & Peace

  7. Roger Carr permalink
    March 29, 2014

    Spitalfields Life continues to spread good cheer . . . what a lovely article, it makes me want to collect prints. Also, can I give a plug to the Community Gardens of the East Village, my neighborhood in New York . . . . that’s for anyone visiting the Manhattan in the Spring. I would recommend the 6 B-C as the most beautiful, but they all have a wonderful history, in terms of “gorilla” gardening and use of abandoned public land. Best, Rgr.

  8. Martin Beaver permalink
    March 30, 2014

    In respect of working class gardins I thought it might be worthwhile referring readers to the lyrics of Gus Elen’s classic music hall song ‘If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between’ from 1899:

    If you saw my little backyard
    “Wot a pretty spot”, you’d cry
    It’s a picture on a sunny summer day
    Wiv the turnip tops and cabbages
    Wot people doesn’t buy
    I makes it on a Sunday look all gay

    The neighbours finks I grow ’em,
    And you’d fancy you’re in Kent
    Or at Epsom if you gaze into the mews
    It’s a wonder as the landlord
    Doesn’t want to raise the rent
    Because we have such nobby distant views

    Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
    And Chingford to the Eastward could be seen
    Wiv a ladder and some glasses
    You could see to ‘Ackney Marshes
    If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between

    We’re as countrified as can be
    Wiv a clothes prop for a tree
    The tub-stool makes a rustic little stile
    Ev’ry time the blooming clock strikes
    There’s a cuckoo sings to me
    And I’ve painted up “To Leather Lane A Mile”

    Wiv tomatoes and wiv radishes
    Wot ‘adn’t any sale
    The backyard looks a purfick mass o’ bloom
    And I’ve made a little beehive
    Wiv some beetles in a pail
    And a pitchfork wiv the ‘andle of a broom

    Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
    And Rye ‘Ouse from the cock-loft could be seen
    Where the chickweed man undresses
    To bathe ‘mong the water cresses
    If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between

    There’s the bunny shares his egg box
    Wiv the cross-eyed cock and hen
    Though they ‘as got the pip and him the ‘morf
    In a dog’s ‘ouse on the line-post
    There was pigeons, nine or ten
    Till someone took a brick and knocked it off

    The dust cart though it seldom comes
    Is just like ‘Arvest ‘Ome
    And we made to rig a dairy up some’ow
    Put the donkey in the wash’ouse
    Wiv some imitation ‘orns,
    For we’re teaching im to moo just like a kah

    Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
    And ‘Endon to the westward could be seen
    And by clinging to the chimbley
    You could see across to Wembley
    If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between

    Though the gasworks is at Woolwich
    They improve the rural scene
    For mountains they would very nicely pass
    There’s the mushrooms in the dust-hole
    With the cowumbers so green
    It only wants a bit ‘o ‘ot ‘ouse glass

    I wears this milkman’s nightshirt
    And I sits outside all day
    Like the ploughboy cove what’s mizzled o’er the Lea
    And when I goes indoors at night
    They dunno what I say
    ‘Cause my language gets as yokel as can be

    Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
    And soapworks from the ‘ousetops could be seen
    If I got a rope and pulley
    I’d enjoy the breeze more fully
    If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between

  9. April 4, 2014

    Dear Martin,

    Thankyou for sharing this wonderful music hall song! Margaret actually quotes from some of the verses in her book, so do look out for a copy if you’re interested to read more about the song and East End history.

    All best wishes,

    (Margaret’s publicist)

  10. April 15, 2014

    What a delight to read this!

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