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The Horticultural History Of The East End

April 25, 2024
by the gentle author

Writer & horticultural historian, Margaret Willes, introduces her lecture on the horticultural history of the East End which takes place in the Hanbury Hall on Tuesday 7th May at 7pm. CLICK HERE TO BOOK A TICKET

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

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Mark Gorman permalink
    April 25, 2024

    Fascinating article, and the story of east Londoners’ love of gardens continued despite the Victorian building boom. As housing spread they moved to “garden grounds” across the river Lea, east of Stratford, where land became available as large estates were sold from the 1860s. In the area east of Stratford along the line of the Great Eastern Railway “Londoners, such as Curtain Road cabinet makers and inhabitants of Whitechapel, often bought plots for gardens. They used to put up huts and spend the weekend in them, and many built homes at a later time”.

    A number of the summer-houses erected in the gardens were later converted into permanent dwellings as London grew eastwards. By the early 1870s the Birkbeck Freehold Land Society was offering plots of land in the Stratford area ‘either for building or gardening purposes’, for 5/- a month.

    And into the 20th century the movement continued out into Essex with the development of the Plotlands near Basildon in the interwar years. In fact east Londoners’ search for small plots of land only really ended on the Essex coast, where Jaywick began life in the 1920s as affordable holiday homes with gardens.

  2. April 25, 2024

    Ah — the chickweed seller! Just look into those eyes. The engraver has seemingly concocted a man totally made of soft mossy flora and tightly-textured ground cover. As he strides, I trust he gives off an aroma of crushed herbs underfoot, and I imagine little bits of greenery trailing from his coat tails. A magical garden god.

    May I say that I am a modest container-on-the-deck “gardener”, still waiting for the right moment to place my plantings? Here in the Hudson River Valley, our temps were in the high 20s
    last night. Brrrrrrrrr! I typically wait until mid-May to even attempt to put out the tender young flowers, but the glory of those colorful blooms are always worth the wait.

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