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A Brief Horticultural History Of The East End

April 30, 2023
by the gentle author




Plantswoman Margaret Willes sent me 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 pendants 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 thrived, 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

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy Strowman permalink
    April 30, 2023

    An industrious article Gentle Author.
    I owe my horticultural career which has followed me for many years to two people.
    Namely people called Rosie Bocher and my dear Auntie Rachel Cohen.

    Despite our garden being a tiny backyard in a very old terraced house of one hundred and fifty years they cultured plants.

    Thanks to a very kind and caring trainee Vet I entered college to formally study it futher.

  2. April 30, 2023

    A wonderful piece by the excellent Margaret Willes! You might be interested in my efforts on Fairchild and Garthwaite: and

  3. April 30, 2023

    A really absorbing piece. Plants and flowers mean so much to us.
    I especially enjoyed reading about the early allotments with there little ‘houses’.
    The Huguenots brought some wonderfulthings to this country and the impact on our culture is clear.
    I was also interested by the reference to Sandwich Port. Although a Northerner through and through, I love London (where I once lived and one of the reasons, I like to read Spitalfields Life ) and also Kent, where I have family. My step sister works in Sandwich, and I have visited it lots of times. The port is no more and the river is now so small and narrow, due to silting up over the centuries. Iis hard to imagine it as a bustling port with people arriving from the Continent on a regular basis. The town still takes pride in its Cinq Port history, however, and is wonderful place to visit for an afternoon – or longer. There is a lovely garden there known as the Secret Garden, in the grounds of a beautiful Lutchens’ house now, sadly, no longer open to the public, which had the most wonderful tulip displays. They also had a greenhouse with all kinds of dahlias. I love how dhalias have come back into fashion.
    Regretfully, I have never been to Colombia Road on a Sunday, though I have visited the area and eaten at lovely Catalonian restaurant there. Next time in London, perhaps?

  4. April 30, 2023

    I’ve always loved to see people growing in the City. I think sometimes being short on space makes you more creative with it. When I had a postage stamp-sized plot, I did much more with it. My grandparents grew chrysanthemums and I remember Dad telling me about how we were descended from Huguenots – and he was quite correct even though it took me a long time to prove.
    I also make space for native plants. I think it arrogant to decide which plants do, or do not, have a place in your garden. Dandelions are incredibly tough but also very good for you. Culpepper knew all of this although he did embellish the reputation of some plants where medicine has subsequently proved him wrong, but at least, he was promoting the value of medicinal plants for the general population. Thanks for an interesting botanical wander through time.

  5. April 30, 2023

    This posting was full of gems.

    “the radical apothecary”. Wait, let that sink in. Imagine having an engraved business/trade
    card made up for oneself, announcing your status as a radical apothecary? Something to
    aspire to.

    Also, the top photo. I felt like I was hovering above, peering down into the tiny greenhouse.
    Hoping to get a glimpse of what might be simmering in there. A beautiful evocative photo.

    It is still too early to plant anything here in the Hudson River Valley. But its been tempting, with our unusually warm weather. I have a yearly ritual of waiting until the weekend before Memorial Day, and then I pounce. But yesterday I bought a couple armloads of pussy willows, and those will get placed into my containers to provide a little texture and height.

  6. May 1, 2023

    some garden notes- When I moved into Norman Grove in 1979, I remember being told by Nora, a longstanding resident, that Queen Mary had awarded a prize to one of the gardens in Norman Grove. She arrived in a Daimler. Did you ever hear anything about that ?
    There is a Campanula ‘Norman Grove’ , I often wonder if that is named after our Norman Grove.
    The gardens in Norman Grove are particularly long and good for growing things, they face southwest and run to what had been a land boundary in the 1850’s. Lyal road that it backs onto, was built later to the same land boundary with much smaller gardens.

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