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The Revival Of The Vegetable Sermon

May 23, 2015
by the gentle author

In 1729 Thomas Fairchild, celebrated Gardener of Hoxton, left money for an annual Vegetable Sermon to be preached at St Leonard’s Shoreditch in celebration of Horticulture and next Wednesday 27th May at 7pm, after a lapse of more than forty years, this is to be revived with a lecture ‘On Flowers‘ by distinguished Ecologist & Writer Dr Rupert Sheldrake. Admission is free.


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, but the first of a new series of a Vegetable Sermons commences at St Leonard’s next Wednesday 27th May at 7pm with a lecture by Dr Rupert Sheldrake, ‘On Flowers.’

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 from Columbia Rd Market

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

Thomas Fairchild (1667–1729)

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A Garden for Thomas Fairchild

An Auricula for Thomas Fairchild

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    May 23, 2015

    One or two points …
    In Hoxton, he kept a vineyard with more than fifty varieties of grapes, one of the last to be cultivated in England, … before viticulture temprarily dies out here – I assume you mean, given that there are now well over a hundred vinyards in England?

    I don’t know if you have deliberatelyomitted the reason for the “Vegetable Sermon”?
    It was a posthumous defence against the religious bigots of the day, who vigorously attacked Fairchild for “Interfering in god’s creation” & who claimed that hybridisation was blasphemous & the work of the devil (etc ad nauseam, as “Private Eye” would say).
    Incidentally, does this sound familiar, regarding, say, genetic modification of plants?
    As you say: Prefiguring the modern anxiety about genetic engineering
    Except that there is a typical confusion, that often arises in these sort of cases – just because certain agrochemical manufacturers (whom I’m not going to name) should not be trusted, does not mean that “GM” is bad or evil or wrong.
    The issues are separate.
    People with strong, but ignorant convictions, opposing the advance of knowledge out of blind prejudice, & not stopping to think, for at least a minute or two.

    Thank you very much for highlighting this …..

    P.S. He was correct about Pears – my tree has a good crop coming, but this year looks good for all fruit already – I’m wondering if my Apricot’s branches will bear the full load, once the fruit ripens (!)

  2. Gabrielle Dempsey permalink
    May 23, 2015

    This is a wonderful history!…of a wonderful gentleman… And Mr. Tingey’s response is very interesting also.
    Amazing that Fairchild’s investigation into cross-pollination was so provocative! But not entirely surprising, as you have both suggested… We have so many contemporary issues argued along the same lines.
    I have the strongest feeling he would have been delightful to know…
    I wonder who did the portrait…?

  3. May 23, 2015

    Since reading about the remarkable Mr Fairchild in your previous blogs and having visited his grave and read the book I wish I could attend the sermon…unfortunately that isn’t possible but I can admire my new rose called The Ingenious Mr Fairchild bred and grown by David Austin Roses which I bought this winter. Today I noticed its first bud showing!

  4. May 27, 2015

    Fascinating. Thank you, Gentle Author.

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