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Thomas Fairchild, Gardener of Hoxton

May 12, 2022
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

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

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy Strowman permalink
    May 12, 2022

    I like this as it is a heroic piece.
    Beautiful and invocative

    Thank you Gentle Author.

    Andy

  2. Patrice permalink
    May 12, 2022

    Thank you!

  3. May 12, 2022

    What a beautiful and moving article. Thank you so much.

  4. Nita Heaton-Harris permalink
    May 12, 2022

    What a wonderful article on a wonderful gardener I would have loved to go on one of your walks but living in Cornwall makes it a no go I miss London so uour site is a joy thankyou

  5. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 12, 2022

    Thank you for an inspiring piece about gardening in London which is of great interest to me as my great grandfather had a florist’s shop and a market garden contractors business in Upper Clapton. I often wonder what he grew but I am sure that dianthus would have been a favourite as my grandmother’s garden and my father’s, both featured paths lined with dianthus. My grandmother had a fig tree, a walnut tree and superb and delicious big pink gooseberries as well as beautifully scented roses, pink bells and other delights which I suspect came from her father. I did hear accounts of the business from my aunt and my father’s Greenwood cousins and I do have photos of the shop and (thanks to his granddaughter, photos of a man who worked in the market garden who always wore a carnation in his button hole.

    This account of Thomas Fairchild has brought back so many happy memories for me, I am sure he must have been a wonderful man to have known and I wonder if my great grandfather had a copy of The City Gardener, I would so much like to think that he did and that he followed its instructions !!

  6. Linda Granfield permalink
    May 12, 2022

    Dear GA–if you start a collection of funds to refurbish the gravesite of the worthy Thomas Fairchild I will gladly contribute. I’m sure there are others among your daily readers who would do the same.

    Imagine–a donation to pay for a gravestone to be cleaned properly and perhaps some plantings nearby? More appealing and beautiful than a huge campaign to engage lawyers, again.

  7. Mary permalink
    May 12, 2022

    What a lovely blog about a fascinating man. I wish I lived near the neglected park and burial ground as I would love to tidy it up and do some gardening. Hopefully some locals might read this article and be spurred into action.

  8. May 12, 2022

    I love the poignance and simplicity of your carnation tribute, and I suspect Thomas Fairchild would appreciate it, too. A pity that I live across the ocean and am lucky to get to London once a year, or I would be honoured to take on the maintaining of his burial place.

    I was also struck by the beauty and symmetry of that espaliered pear tree. It is a work of art and something you just don’t get to see, here in the wilds of Massachusetts!

  9. gkbowood permalink
    May 12, 2022

    Thank you for the picture of that wonderful espaliered pear tree! No doubt,
    Mr Fairchild would have appreciated the effort that goes into such creations.

  10. May 12, 2022

    What a lovely tribute GA .
    Love the pinks in your little bowl.

  11. Cherub permalink
    May 12, 2022

    Not had the best of days today, but the photo of the bowl of pinks has really cheered me up. It’s the gorgeous colour and the beauty of both the flowers and the bowl.

  12. May 13, 2022

    Well done for resurecting the memory of an amazing plantsman. I am fascinated by the history of the plants and flowers that we have today, where they came from and who found them and bred them. Thank you

  13. Barbara C permalink
    May 15, 2022

    There is a rose named after him, ‘The Ingenious Mr Fairchild’, bred by David Austin. A nice way to commemorate such an important gardener.
    https://www.davidaustinroses.co.uk/products/the-ingenious-mr-fairchild

  14. Richard permalink
    May 15, 2022

    This is the nicest tribute. It does my heart good.

  15. Esther Wilkinson Rank permalink
    May 16, 2022

    Sad to learn that Thomas Fairchild’s resting place is so neglected but he is remembered in Hackney and a primary school is named after him.

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