BBC – The Secret History of the British Garden (2015) Part 3: 19th-century

I love pottering around in a greenhouse and there isn’t a gardener that doesn’t relish the opportunity to grow plants that wouldn’t thrive in our northern weather, particularly in winter. And so we have plants, like pelargoniums, that we’re all familiar with but the story of how we arrived at a plant like this is one of intrepid plant-hunters, of heavy industry, of plant breeding and empire. In this series, I’m exploring the secrets behind the history of British gardens over the last four centuries and looking at not just how they’ve changed, but why and who drove their transformation. These guys were incredibly intrepid. ‘I’ve already explored the gardens of the 17th century, ‘which were shaped by religious beliefs and superstition…’ Am I reading this right, that what we’re looking at is a labyrinth? ‘..and the 18th century, when formal planting was swept away ‘and the landscape movement transformed our great estates. ‘And in this episode, I’m investigating ‘the gardens of the 19th century, when a new breed of plant-hunters ‘scoured the earth to bring back exotic specimens…’ Look how beautiful it is! ‘..when developing industrial technology meant that British ‘gardens started to include innovations that were ‘magnificent, practical and occasionally eccentric…’ Not everybody had a camel. No, I can imagine that. ‘..and social changes meant that everyone from royalty…’ And this is where Albert would come to look at his tree planting. ‘ ordinary working people…’ So Paxton was flogging to the masses? ‘..could enjoy gardens for the first time ever.’ I believe that gardens are every bit as important as the buildings that we live and work in, and if we can unearth their secrets and listen to the stories that they can tell us, we get a unique insight into our history and what makes us the people that we are today. I’m beginning my exploration of the 19th-century gardens and the way that they reflect the huge changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of empire at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. This was the home of Queen Victoria and her husband, Albert – the two figures who dominated the era. When Victoria and Albert came here in 1845, they knocked down the existing building. They wanted to make an absolutely fresh start. Although Queen Victoria inherited at least ten official residences when she succeeded to the throne, she and Albert bought Osborne five years into their marriage specifically to make the first home of their own together. They took their inspiration from the villas of Renaissance Italy. Prince Albert was the driving force behind this and, apparently, this view out across the Solent reminded him of his visit to the Bay of Naples. This Italianate style was not just a question of personal preference but was also highly fashionable and made a clear political statement. Of course, one of the great virtues of the Italian influences – it wasn’t French. We’d just spent 20-odd years fighting the French. So to find this new, rather different culture was absorbed eagerly, and the whole difference between Italian gardens and, say, French, was the French were cool, formal, elegant and balanced. Italian gardens had more verve. Yes, you had the formality but also lots of statues, lots of water, pots with lemons in them, and the formality was filled with plants. And, of course, this exactly chimed with what the Victorians wanted. I’ve been to lots of Italian gardens and you see the paths, they tend to be rather smaller than this, the beds rather bigger. I was trying to work out why, here at Osborne, you have such wide paths. And then I realised it’s because you have this queen, diminutive in height but wearing enormous dresses, and her ladies-in-waiting, sweeping round these paths, and they needed to be wide or else they wouldn’t fit. By the mid-1840s, when Victoria and Albert began laying out the house and garden at Osborne, Italianate garden design had become widespread and was a reflection of Britain’s renewed confidence and wealth that followed the end of the Napoleonic wars. But despite being in high fashion and the very best contemporary taste, what’s really striking is just how personal every aspect of this royal garden was. We’ve got an extract from Victoria’s diary, her journals. “Breakfast out of doors.” – She loved having breakfast outside, in this very place, I think.
– Really? The garden was really important. Now, you’ve got this lovely little drawing, which has been pasted on to it, which is her, isn’t it? – Yes.
– This is her sketch of the large flower vase. – Rather good, isn’t it?
– I was going to say, she’s very good at it. – She’s very good.
– Yeah. And this is completely fascinating because if you look at these drawings here, these are pages from a catalogue of works in artificial stone, and we know that Albert and Victoria actually bought quite a lot of the urns and the vases in the garden from this catalogue, which is sort of not quite IKEA, let’s say Homebase. SHE LAUGHS And I suppose, if you’re used to living in the splendour that they lived in, it’s actually rather nice to come somewhere that’s much simpler. It wasn’t as thought they didn’t have a few bits and pieces – elsewhere, was it?
– No. There is something endearing about the image of Victoria and Albert poring over catalogues and choosing a mass-produced urn or statue, and indicates a restraint that earlier monarchs and grandees rarely displayed. And if it also displays a lack of flamboyance, it does show a monarchy that is in tune with the modern world around them. What makes this garden so Victorian… the combination of the energy that just runs through everything. And also this infatuation with process and industry. Everything is new, everything is changing – so the fact that the terrace took an enormous amount of earthwork, so needed a 25-foot retaining wall, so much the better. And that this – which in Renaissance Italy would have been lovely, soft, carved stone – is concrete. It’s as though the aesthetic is in thrall to the process. Victoria and Albert seemed to take real pleasure in the process of constructing their garden. Once the terraces were finished, and the various pots and ornaments duly purchased, they, and in particular Albert, took an active part in its planting, and if not actually wielding a spade, he was managing every detail from his control tower. And then look, isn’t it amazing? It feels like a ship’s mast or something like that. It feels like something built by a naval builder, doesn’t it? So you come out of this little door. – Ooh!
– Ooh! Bang your head, that’s all right. And then this view. And this is where Albert would come to look at his tree planting. When he wanted to plant a tree, he would get a man to stand out there with a flag. And Albert would be on the tower and he would sort of, you know, tell them to move it a bit that way, you know, adjust the position. – So he would be standing up here and going, “Left, left”, like that.
– Yes! LAUGHTER And they would get it right. You look around and there are trees everywhere. Did he really control the planting of all of these trees or was it something that happened once or twice and has become part of the Albert myth? Well, I think he had a huge interest in trees and tree planting. He made his own nursery. Victoria complained vigorously that he spent far too much time in the woods, sort of, you know, clearing them up and planting. There is a wonderful letter that he writes in which he tells his daughter in Germany that gardening, and I think he meant landscape gardening, is a great art because it is like sculpture and you are modelling the land and then you are cutting it and editing it and it grows and it changes, then you sort of cut and polish. And he loved doing it. And this was something he could control, unlike politics or Queen Victoria, he could really control this land and I think you do get that from that view, which I am sure was created by Albert. In the light of this description of Albert’s involvement, I want to explore the grounds, because it’s still possible to identify individual trees planted under Albert’s watchful eye and each of them has a story to tell. This… is what we now call a Sequoiadendron giganteum. But it was known back then as the Wellingtonia, named after the Duke of Wellington. And it was planted in the 1850s – and like ALL the other trees planted here at Osborne, it’s been logged, and it goes, “Wellingtonia gigantea, “HRH the Prince Consort, 24th of May, 1855, garden lawn.” 24th of May was Victoria’s birthday, so this was planted as a present to commemorate Victoria’s birthday. And then it had a column saying – “Remarks – Native of California.” And the point about 1855 is the seed was only introduced into this country a couple of years earlier. So this would have been one of the very, very first seedlings of these incredible trees. So what was extraordinary was that Albert wasn’t just part of the new Italianate garden movement, that he was actively involved in the positioning of plants and the choice of them, but also he was planting here at Osbourne, trees that were COMPLETELY new to Europe. One of the very, very first specimens ever placed into the ground. Albert’s Wellingtonia was just one of a number of rare and unusual trees planted at Osborne, and it reflected the growing wealth and confidence of the nation and the rapidly expanding empire that they were reigning over. And as their dominions grew, so did the horticultural ambitions of the nation’s gardeners. Increasingly hungry for new, exotic plants, not least as a symbol of growing colonial power. The supplier of over 350 of Osborne’s specimens, and the dominant force behind the mania for plant hunting, was Kew Botanic Gardens in London. And in many ways, this was one of the most influential gardens of the whole of the 19th century. A visitor to Kew in 1800 would have seen what was fundamentally an 18th-century landscaped garden. It was dominated by Capability Brown’s designs and then there was the Royal Garden with its temples acting as eye-catchers, and the pagoda, and a few botanical plants. But by 1850, in the middle of the 19th century, it had changed utterly. Dominated by the Palm House but also this sense of becoming a fully-fledged public botanic garden. And this change was really down to the work of just one man – Joseph Banks. Born into a wealthy Lincolnshire family, and showing a keen botanical interest from an early age, Joseph Banks became Kew’s first official director in 1797, under the patronage of George III. At that time, Kew was also a royal retreat, with its 18th-century landscaped gardens adjoining the relatively modest Georgian palace. Now, transforming this into a 19th-century centre of botanical excellence was a huge undertaking, and I want to piece together his story. He was invited to go on the expedition with Captain Cook, the Endeavour expedition to Tahiti. Now, as well as being invited, it was a really expensive thing to do, wasn’t it? Well, it did cost a lot of money, but then, of course, he did have the money to support it and he was self-supported and all that. – So he was prepared to spend his considerable wealth…
– Yes
– ..on plant hunting. – Yes, absolutely.
– That’s, that’s… That’s unusual, isn’t it? – That’s quite something, yes.
– Yeah.
– Yes, yes. He brought back about 1,300 new species of plants, plants that would have never been seen before, were unknown to science before that. It’s worth just stopping there and taking that in. – 1,300 new specimens to science.
– Yes, Yes. If you and I went for a jaunt to Tahiti and parts thereabout and came back with that many plants, it would be earth-shattering, wouldn’t it? – Well, absolutely earth-shattering.
– Yeah. And well, I mean, the physical amount of space it’s going to take – to bring those specimens back, for a start.
– Yeah. But just seeing those, those new plants, just, just getting that, you know, the experience of seeing them, it would be absolutely awe-inspiring. And once he had been on the expedition to Tahiti, his personal plant collecting essentially came to an end at that point. But then he started to encourage and influence others to go out collecting. And we’ve got some lists here of some of the collections that came from different parts of the world. – So what have we got here?
– This is a list of plants from China. So – “A list of plants from China by Captain Wilson for favour “of Sir Joseph Banks, 1802.” And these are extraordinary plants, these are really, really exotic and unusual for them. – Yes.
– And even now, Gardenia, Plumbago, Hibiscus, Passiflora… We’ve got gingers… – So he really was the instigator…
– Yes. – ..of that great 19th-century drive…
– Yes. –, to bring plants back.
– Yes, yes, yes. Joseph Banks’ personality dominated everything at Kew, even down to how they handled individual plants. There is a story I love of a plant coming in and Banks coming to inspect it and grabbing it and putting it on top of his head as he walked away, so that no-one else could physically get hold of it. Banks triggered a plant-hunting frenzy, and people now travelled to the extremities of the globe in the search for new specimens. Banks was determined that Kew should become the greatest botanical garden in Europe and he jealously laid first claim to any new plant that arrived on British shores. I have always been fascinated by these early plant hunters, not least because one of my forebears, George Don, was one of them. And he, like so many plant hunters, was Scottish, so my next stop is Edinburgh Botanic Garden. These guys were incredibly intrepid. If we take David Douglas as an example… This gentleman here, in his mid-20s, some time around… In the 1820s… Was sent out to North America… And he walked across North America from sort of near Hudson’s Bay right across to British Columbia – I think it’s about 3,000 miles, something like that. Collected a whole lot of plants, and then walked all the way back across again – 6,000 miles. – That’s in a straight line, let’s assume he probably did…
– Yeah. – ..10,000 miles of walking.
– Incredible.
– It’s amazing. I suppose most people know him for the Douglas fir that was named after him. But he also introduced lots of other plants, like flowering currants, skunk cabbage… – Right.
– ..things like that. – Plants that many of us are growing in our gardens now.
– Yeah. Few of us probably don’t have something that David Douglas introduced, in our gardens. It wasn’t, I suppose, just tough terrain that they were having to deal with it, was it? Well, no, in the case of poor Robert Fortune – This guy was sent out to China, on a sort of industrial-espionage trip to take, to find particular plants. But he was really walking into the Opium Wars. The British were, essentially, bombarding the Chinese ports into submission. And so he was sent off, behind enemy lines, if you like… He had a shopping list of plants. “We want you to find a yellow Camellia. “We’ve heard that there’s a peach that’s three pounds – “you’re going to find that, too.” Chrysanthemums, I think, they wanted. And there was various other things. And so he was sent off to China to get these in what really must have been a terrible political turmoil at the time. – A warzone.
– A warzone, essentially. And he had some sense that this was the case, because he wrote to people who were sponsoring him, and asked if they would supply some weapons for him. If you look at this letter here, basically, what they do is they suggest he that he take a stout stick… “I’m much disappointed at the resolution of the committee… “with regard to firearms. “I may have an opportunity, at some time, “to get a little way into the country, “and a stick will scarcely frighten an armed Chinaman.” You couldn’t make that up, could you? “I’m off, dear, I’m going to fight the Chinese, “and I’ve got my thick stick.” Well, you’ll be pleased to hear, he got his arms. Did he make good use of them? Well, turned out that on his way back from China with all his booty, he was on a boat… Sailing down the river, I think it was out into Shanghai… And was attacked by six lots of pirates. And he was the only armed man on the boat. So he waited till the pirates came almost alongside… And they were firing at him at the time, and he, basically, shot them. I don’t know how many pirates he actually shot dead. Although the plant hunters went to incredible lengths to collect their trophies, the hardest part was keeping the plants alive between collection and delivery. Indeed, there are contemporary accounts of up to 95% of specimens failing to survive the journey home. But this was the age of invention, and when a problem presented itself, it didn’t take long for someone to come up with a solution. That goes on like that. This is a replica, quite an old replica of an 1836 Wardian case. Now, the Wardian case was invented around about 1829 by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward. And although it does manage to look like a cross between a sort of weather station and a chicken shed – it changed everything. Because it meant that for the first time, plant collectors could bring live plants back home with them. And what happened was… The sides lifted up, this is quite fragile, so I’m actually just going to take that off… But in this area here you make a bed. You fill this bottom layer with soil or compost, and then you plant into it. And basically it becomes a travelling greenhouse. And so the specimens that you’ve forded rivers and climbed mountains and fought off bandits to collect can be brought back live, and if they are brought back live – A) you can impress and show people and B) you can take cuttings and collect seed and grow them on. And of course, for trade purposes that was really important. So if I take some plants here, all of which are from China… In fact, we’ve got here Robert Fortune’s, this is Trackycarpus fortunei. So he would have taken it out… Probably wouldn’t have got it in a pot with the roots nice and neat but there would have been a bit of… And he could just pop it in… And it’s in a growing medium. And it would take quite large plants, obviously the shape means that there’s rooms for plants to grow… And once they are in here, they can be watered, you can let air in by opening the sides. You’ve got light, you’ve got shade, you’ve got a little micro system. And of course, they can be kept warm if you’re moving around. My ancestor, George Don, collected plants in the 1820s in… West Africa and Brazil and the West Indies. Now, these are all plants that needed heat. And then he went up to New York where he intended to stop and collect more plants but it was below freezing, and the plants that he had from the warmer countries were dying. So he had to return home as quickly as possible, and, as it was, still quite a few of them died. Had he had a Wardian case, the chances are they would’ve survived. For all its simplicity, the Wardian case transformed the movement of plants around the world. As one of London’s leading nurserymen stated – “Whereas I “used to formerly lose 19 out 20 I imported during a voyage, “19 out of 20 is now the average of those that survive.” Once plants could be reliably brought back to this country, the next challenge lay in successfully growing them in our British climate. And the man who would gain greatest fame for addressing this problem was Joseph Paxton. He was a gardener, engineer, inventor and one of the 19th century’s towering figures. So I have now come to Chatsworth in Derbyshire, the home of the Dukes of Devonshire and where Joseph Paxton forged his career. Funded by the enormously wealthy 6th Duke, Paxton created some of the greatest engineering feats of the age here. The most famous surviving example is the Emperor Fountain, which he created in 1840 to commemorate an upcoming visit of the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II. To celebrate this royal visit, Paxton devised an outrageous piece of theatrical engineering. He had a reservoir, nine acres big, dug… ..and then over a mile of metal piping put in the ground and brought down to the canal. And all this was to create a gravity-fed fountain. Still as it is, operation turned on by this key exactly as it was back then. But the point about this fountain was that it was to be the biggest EVER created. And today…it’s still operating in the same manner. It is astonishingly impressive. As it turned out, the tsar cancelled his visit and never saw the fountain. The Chatsworth estate provided Paxton with the perfect arena to nurture and parade his genius, and the present, 12th, duke, is in no doubt about the impact Paxton had as a result of being employed by his ancestor. This is a painting of the Bachelor Duke, the 6th Duke of Devonshire and he did many wonderful things at Chatsworth, but perhaps the most important was employing Joseph Paxton and there is rather a charming account in here. This is the Bachelor Duke quoting Paxton’s own diary. Paxton’s account of his arrival – “I left London by the Comet coach to Chesterfield, “arrived at Chatsworth at half past four o’clock in the morning “of the 9th May, 1826. “As no person was to be seen at that early hour, “I got over the greenhouse gate by the old covered way. “I then went down to the kitchen gardens, scaled the outside wall “and saw the whole of the place. “Set the men to work at six o’clock and “afterwards went to breakfast with poor dear Mrs Gregory and her niece. “The latter fell in love with me and me with her “and thus completed my first morning at Chatsworth before nine o’clock.” – That’s extraordinary!
– Not a bad day, not a bad start. Do you think that was a caricature, he was making fun of himself? Or he really was this extraordinary man just bursting with energy? I think he was amazingly energetic. He was 23, it was a great opportunity. Chatsworth was already a well-known garden and the Duke was a well-known collector of plants and to go there as head man aged 23 was a great opportunity. So of course, he was very, very excited. Did it start straightaway with radical change or did that grow? I think it started straightaway, I think they sort of… They were absolutely suited to each other and the Duke had lots of money and lots of energy. Paxton had even more energy and brilliant ideas. Do you think that this would’ve happened if these two men hadn’t met here at Chatsworth? I think Paxton would’ve done it, I cannot believe that that genius, which is what he was, really, would have been suppressed. He would’ve found another opportunity somewhere else. Chatsworth would’ve lost. The 6th Duke and Paxton between them created one of the great gardens of the age. The Duke used his wealth to indulge his passion for plant collecting and Paxton employed his energy and genius to create 22 glasshouses to contain them. One of these was revolutionary and was to have a huge influence on glasshouse design and gardens for the rest of the century. This site where the modern maze stands is all that remains of Joseph Paxton’s incredible Great Conservatory. I’ve got a photograph of it here. This monumental glass structure – and the base of it is this wall and there they are, they are the walls. I’ve seen pictures but until you come here you don’t get the feeling of what an audacious project it was. The glass must have been as tall as those trees, and the path through it was wide enough for two carriages to go side by side, and Paxton, with no training, made this structure in four years, that transformed everything. It took glasshouses and conservatories, which did exist, but in a modest way, it took them completely to another level. Rare and precious plants coming in from around the world, could be put together like a garden. And what he did was to unlock the door through which a completely new style of gardening passed through. The creation of the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth was a result of the combination of Paxton’s genius and the Duke’s great wealth. But its construction was also entirely dependent on new developments in industrial technology. I’ve come to the English Antique Glass company at Alvechurch, near Birmingham, to discover how the transformation of glass manufacture made the Great Conservatory possible. In the 1830s, techniques were devised of blowing glass into huge cylinders and Paxton realised that these could be turned into panes of glass that were bigger than any that had been made before. Right, so this is the moth – and once it has cooled down…
– Right.
– What we’ve done is cut the top off and taken a strip out of the middle. And why did you do that? It’s so that when it heats up and goes through the tunnel, it doesn’t stick back together again. By taking the strip out of the middle, it will soften and fall inside the cylinder. So, it can cause all sorts of problems if they get stuck together. So, you’re loosening it, so obviously, you want it to open out and unfold. – Yes.
– Yes.
– That’s, that’s the idea, yes!
– That’s the theory. THEY CHUCKLE OK. Right, this is 900 degrees in there, so the glass starts to soften. And if I just pick it up and then draw it into the heat – and I’m just giving it a bit more heat to soften it up. And then when the table comes in… I will just drop it on. So that’s just simply flattening it? Yes, just push down on it and flatten it as best as you can. When the process has finished, this is what you end up with. A sheet of slightly wobbly, very beautiful glass, not particularly big by our standards, quite heavy… But… this process meant that glass could be made that was much bigger than anything previous, was lighter, let in more light – and it revolutionised the way that glasshouses could be used and the plants that could be grown in them. Paxton’s experimental use of technology to create his Great Conservatory spurred on others to push the boundaries of glasshouse design, and his greatest influence was at Kew, which by then was in dire need of outside inspiration. In 1820, Joseph Banks died. And this was a blow because he was absolutely the guiding light of Kew. Nevertheless, the garden was still functioning. It was receiving plants, pouring in from all over the world, and this in itself was proving to be a problem, because the glasshouses weren’t up to the job. These plants were growing. Some of them were bursting through the glass at the top and Kew was literally running out of space. Something had to be done. William Hooker was appointed as new director and his first priority was to create a new Palm House. In 1844, Hooker employed Decimus Burton, who had worked on Paxton’s Great Conservatory, to design the greatest glasshouse the world had ever seen, and it was to be 25% bigger than the one at Chatsworth. Burton based his design on the upturned hull of a ship, and used the latest wrought-iron technology to span its enormous widths, that were clad with 18,000 panes of glass. Now, for the first time, Kew had the perfect home for its collection of exotic plants. It feels like the rainforest which presumably very, very few people would have known what that was like. I agree, you know, nowadays we take it for granted, we can jump on a plane and end up half the other side of the world. I like the fact that I am being dripped on. That’s part of the rainforest experience. – That’s the rainforest experience.
– It was very experimental. They had to try different things out at some points and increase the ventilation from the roof, to draw the heat up. What do you use for the ventilation, how does it work? I can show you. We’ve got box vents that run around the lower part of the house. – Yeah.
– And then we’ve got vents on the vertical parts that are above, and they’re all manually controlled here in the Palm House. So essentially, in all of these little boxes here, you’ve got a few buttons… – and if I press…
– Well, that’s not manual, that’s electronic. It’s electronic. As you say, back in those days you would have had a winding system and it would have been a lot more intensive to work on – but here I just press this little button and you’ll see the vents opening above you. Now, it’s really important to maintain this humid, – tropical climate.
– Yeah.
– So we do control it. I tend to try to keep it at about 25 degrees before opening up these vents. In 1848, how was this heated? It was heated by having boilers underneath the ground, beneath where we are standing. – Yes.
– And then having cast iron pipes that ran under these grates. So it came up through the vents? They came up through the base of the house. There’s still something beneath the ground. Let’s have a look. Now, what’s this? So this is where the original boilers would have been. There were six in this wing of the house and six in the northern wing of the house, so they were split across the basement. And how were they fired? Well, they were fired by coal, which was brought in from a tunnel. – Yeah.
– Which is just through here. So that’s… that’s the end of the tunnel. This is the end of the tunnel. It goes about 150 metres, pretty much to Kew Road. – Yes.
– And there was a miniature train track running down here and then they would have had the carts being pushed along this little train track, up and down this all day to fill these boilers full of coal. So a little… A railway system. A mini railway system underneath the lawns of Kew gardens. See, I love the way that it’s just such a fearless energy about this, isn’t there? “Let’s build the biggest glasshouse ever been done. “Let’s use the new material, “let’s build a railway system underneath, to fuel it.” I tell you, the Victorians, they were really forward-thinking – and ambitious.
– And presumably quite a lot of coal at that, because it’s warm, it must have always been quite a big thing. It would have been a huge amount. If you think, on a winter’s day when it could be minus five outside. – Yes.
– They’re still having to heat this building to at least 20 degrees Celsius. It would have been a huge amount of materials. It’s fascinating to think that beneath the lakes and the lawns of Kew… this Victorian, industrialised complex servicing it. And this astonishing building, which could not have been made 25 year earlier. It was right at the cutting edge of all technology, with its use of wrought iron and its new use of glass, and the heating system, with the coal wheeled in by railway underneath. And also the smoke taken away underneath the ground, too. The smoke came out underground, and right over there, that tower is the chimney stack for those 12 boilers. And I love this idea of the subterranean energy creating this rather settled, triumphant domestic domain. Kew’s Palm House was bold and experimental and, in true Victorian spirit, practical. The garden now had space for new introductions, and its existing collections had a permanent home. And you can still see one of them growing here today. Encephalartos altensteinii is hardly a household name… ..but this is probably the most extraordinary plant here at Kew. It’s certainly the oldest. Claims to be the oldest container plant in the world. Here it is still growing in its box. These are plants that were exactly the same when dinosaurs roamed the planet. It grows incredibly slowly, just one inch a year. But it’s growing steadily and will go on growing long after you and I and probably all the other plants at Kew have faded away. By 1849, Kew’s tropical plants were housed in the greatest glasshouse the world had ever seen, but during its four-year construction, another factor meant that even bigger and better glasshouses were now possible. For over 20 years until 1815, Britain was desperate to raise money to fight the Napoleonic Wars and amongst many other things, glass had been taxed and was therefore very expensive. But in 1845, the glass tax was removed. So William Hooker commissioned Decimus Burton to create a glasshouse that was even bigger. These are some of Decimus Burton’s fabulous drawings that he did for the Temperate House, which was built about ten years after his Palm House. And whereas the Palm House was an extraordinary, adventurous building, experimental, trying out techniques that no-one was quite sure would work, Burton’s design for the Temperate House – it’s a celebration. 100,000 panes of glass, looking itself like a palace, as well as a working machine. It does seem to me as almost the perfect example of the Victorian combination of materials, technique and design expressed in a garden. As a result of the technology used in these buildings, the Victorian gardener was spurred on to grow more and more exotic plants, although some attempts were more successful than others. In 1837, seeds from the biggest waterlily ever seen were brought back from South America to Kew, and they spent ten years trying to induce it to flower, but without success. So they grudgingly agreed to let Joseph Paxton grow it at Chatsworth. Not only did Paxton manage to grow this amazing plant with its enormous leaves, but also he persuaded it to come into flower. So it was Chatsworth and Paxton that had the honour of presenting this flower to Queen Victoria, and not Kew, that had shared the precious plant with them. Behind Paxton’s success lay the combination of botanical curiosity and practical horticulture – the two coming together to grow this wonderfully exotic plant. I have come to Edinburgh Botanical Gardens, where they continue to nurture this extraordinary waterlily with the same passion as our 19th-century forebears. – You know how deep it is. This is uncharted…
– Uncharted territory. ..water for me. So what we will do is we will collect the flower. – Now, obviously…
– I like the way you’re reaching into your drawers to… LAUGHTER So these have a very prickly stem. – Yes.
– I bet when he presented it to Queen Victoria he didn’t hand it to her – it’s too spiky for anyone to hold. LAUGHTER They had problems getting it to flower, didn’t they, originally? – How did Paxton do it, what was…
– I think the secret was, obviously he realised where the plant came from, he realised the water temperature – and I think that was – the secret, you know, by keeping the…
– It’s warm, isn’t it? Keeping it warm, yes, and I think, he, from the records I’ve seen, I think he tried to get the water up in the high 20s, low 30s, so obviously at that time, that was quite an undertaking. And obviously – he had a mission to get this plant to flower and he achieved that.
– Yeah. He thought it through. Good gardener. OK, we’ve got this, that’s cut free. Yes, and then what I will also do is cut this larger one here, just so you can see the sizes. Well, I would be quite happy not to be too ripped to shreds, and without gloves how are we going to flip that out? With great difficulty and maybe a bit of perseverance. – All right, that’s the… Hang on…
– OK… – it’s doubled back on itself, hasn’t it?
– Yeah. That is really spiny… DAVID LAUGHS It’s like cactus rather than bramble, isn’t it? Look how beautiful it is, the colour, the structure, the shape. It’s more beautiful on the underside than on the top. But you can see how… Someone like Paxton would have looked at that… And as well as his horticultural eye, his engineer’s eye would have seen how structured it is to take this big span. Nature’s very own engineering. It’s a kind of cliche but we’ve got so blase about the wonderful, the extraordinary, the amazing things… We see it on television, we see it on the internet, we’re flooded with images. You forget the wonder that they must have had when this first came back and they saw this enormous leaf or heard about it. Yes, and then obviously for Paxton then to have this, this urge, this need and also the skill to grow it successfully to this size, and to flower it for the first time, it must have been a phenomenal achievement. And then we close it up, fold it like that. Really… Just, wow… We’ve preserved it for posterity. As the new technology meant that exotic plants weren’t just being collected, but successfully grown, so more people had the opportunity to see and enjoy them. And when Paxton succeeded in inducing the giant waterlily to flower, what rankled Kew was that he advertised his triumph by standing his daughter on one of the giant leaves. By the 1840s, horticultural news of this kind was spreading beyond a botanical inner circle. Improved print technology, an end to the tax on paper, and increased literacy, meant that a growing middle class could read about it. Right, tell me what we’ve got. This is the first popular gardening magazine. – And this is 1826.
– This is 1826.
– “Conducted by JC Loudon.” Tell me about Loudon. This is John Claudius Loudon – and he’s this incredible, workaholic, writer, journalist, campaigner… And he sets upon himself to, I think the quote is, “Raise the intellect and character of all who conduct horticulture.” And who is this for? Well, this started off quarterly and cost five shillings, which is about £20-equivalent, so this is not your working-man gardener, this is somebody who employs a gardener. So what you find in here is a mixture of the latest news about new procedures, it’s about keeping up to date. – Right.
– But it also… He goes around the world. The gardens of Denmark, for example. It’s not the sort of thing that’s going to leap out of the newsstand, is it? – Well, it did.
– Did it? – Actually.
– How many, what sort of sales are we talking about? The first issue sold 4,000 copies, which in those days… that’s pretty, pretty impressive. Was this the only garden magazine around? No, not by a long shot. This was such a success, there was such an appetite. The really successful, arguably most successful garden magazine of the 19th century, is this one. Gardener’s Chronicle. This is a weekly magazine. – Yes.
– And this is sixpence, so this is really affordable – now for…
– And full of adverts, I see. Absolutely chock-a-block with adverts, and here we’ve got an advert for… Sir J Paxton’s Patent Hothouses For The Million. It’s a really catchy little… title. So, not costing a million but just for the hoi polloi. – Very different to Chatsworth.
– Mm. So, Paxton was flogging to the masses. He was, and got very rich in the process. The middle classes could now keep abreast of all the latest horticultural advances and as well as reading about them, they could now see them, too. Until the mid-19th century, gardens full of new and unusual plants were largely the preserve of the wealthy and botanical elite. Even at Kew, where there had been limited access, the masses were hardly made welcome. If they wanted to come in and see things, they really had to struggle and there is a report from the time, saying what it was like. “You rang at a bell by the side of a wooden gate, which of itself “was perfectly emblematic of the secrecy working within. “You were let in as if by stealth. And when you were there, “you were dogged by an official, you entered unwelcome, “you rambled about suspected “and you were let out with manifest gladness shown at your departure.” But in 1840, Queen Victoria gave Kew to the nation, and it quickly became a favourite place for the horticulturally empowered middle classes to visit. At the same time, there was a growing feeling that gardens should be available to everyone, regardless of wealth and class. So I have come to Derby, where Britain’s first public park was created. In 1800, Derby had a population of just over 10,000… but by 1850 that had quadrupled to over 40,000, and it was a big, busy industrial town. And most of that population was made up of workers who had come in to serve the factories that were growing up. And they were poor and living in pretty grim conditions. However, there was at the same time a sense of social responsibility, a sense that these people needed recreation, they needed some kind of urban facility. And so in Derby they set about providing just that. After all, it was the urban working class that enabled the transformation of the gardens of the elite, so it was fitting that they should now have a garden of their own. It was the brainchild of a local mill owner, Joseph Strutt, who spent £10,000, about a quarter of a million at today’s values, in creating it. And he turned to John Claudius Loudon, the editor of the Gardener’s Magazine, to design the arboretum on the 11-acre site on the edge of the city. Loudon’s design was carefully contrived to maximise the available space with serpentine paths running through the trees, which in turn were planted on landscaped mounds to contour the view. To find out more about the story of the park, I spoke to its manager, Mick McNaught. So all the, the earthworks were done by Loudon? – Yes.
– Why was that, do you think? There’s two real forms for the sculpted landscape in here. One is it’s a very small site. It is only 11 acres. So everyone was aware that if it was left flat, if it was left entirely flat, you would be able to see from one side to the other. – Yes.
– And you would really get a sense of how small it was. So the mounds were there to give a sense of space and seclusion, so that people walking down this path wouldn’t see the people walking down that path. – Did Loudon do a plan?
– He did.
– Can I see that? – He did a fantastic plan. I will have to get my glasses out.
– Yeah, me too. We’re all going blind. We’ll go with that. LAUGHTER Two old boys having a look at this. – There are several plans in here.
– So, where are we standing now? We are now standing – it’s upside down from where we are, so you are actually best looking from up here and we are along this path here. Round about this point there. And these numbers relate to trees that were planted by Loudon? Yes. There’s a whole… – So are there any original ones that we can see?
– There are. There are. I mean, there’s a fantastic example of a pseudoacacia here. Specifically demonstrates Loudon’s desire to show a tree to its full advantage. He very much wanted to see the root structure being displayed, so as such, left instructions that all the major planting should be on top of mounds to encourage the show of the roots. He goes into the minutest detail of the tree through a season, from the fresh verdant growth and how it changes. All the different colour changes to trees and leaves. Most of us just don’t notice, and he very much wanted to show trees off to their absolute best and that was a passion that he held. Now, it might seem that an arboretum is an odd choice, but actually it exactly fits the time. For a start – they are beautiful. Arboreta are lovely places to visit. Secondly – it was an open space. Consider that most of these industrial workers had come in from the countryside and they were living in what we would regard as slums. So just a space like this was a lung, it was a green piece of freedom. And the third consideration, and probably the most important, was the education that was involved. Arboretums aren’t just trees, they are collection of rare and unusual trees gathered from all over the world. Plants, remember, coming in from the world as plant hunters were bringing them back home. And then they’re grouped in collections, so you can see different types of a certain species. And for example, I came in today and this tree behind, I couldn’t recognise her, I couldn’t identify it. Looked it up – and it’s Magnolia acuminata, surrounded by other magnolias in this area – so I’ve just had the most perfect Victorian experience. I’ve wandered around… Wonderful trees, light filtering through the leaves, it’s an open space, free from the hurly-burly of Derby and the town outside – and I’ve learnt something. The park was an instant success and 8,000 people attended the opening in 1840. It also began a trend, and by 1880 nearly every town and city in the country had its own municipal park, complete with lakes, fountains, lawns and promenades. Like Derby, many were sponsored by philanthropists, from local industrialists to the wealthy landowners, like the Dukes of Devonshire. Some were designed by the greatest gardeners of the day, like Loudon and Paxton, who created Buxton and Birkenhead parks. And all, like here at Cannon Hill Park in Birmingham, were established with the same Victorian belief in technological, social and moral improvement. It’s extraordinary that this land, which was marshland… ..was converted into a park in just a few months. It was commissioned in March 1873, and opened on the 1st September of the same year. We couldn’t do that now, and it’s a tribute above all to the incredible Victorian energy. But once it was opened, it then had to be maintained, and energy alone wouldn’t do that. To keep this in the manner to which the people of Birmingham needed it, and wanted it, you needed technology. This led to a machine that is very familiar to our modern eye, although with an unusually literal take on horsepower. – Right, what date’s this?
– This was from the 1880s. – It’s called a Green’s Silens Messor.
– Right. Which was a new super-duper model, which in Latin means silent cutter. Well, let’s see it cut silently. Let’s see how this works. There we go. It’s cutting nicely, isn’t it? Can I have a go? Stay, stay… – Whoa, whoa!
– No, she’s not going to stop, she’s going… Right. And anything I have to do? – So, walk on.
– OK, fine. Walk on, Star. Walk on. Oops, she’s off. Whoa. Good girl. How much would this have cost in 1885? – Around about £50. Quite a lot of money.
– Yes. The lady that asked us to have a look at this one… She said the coachman had some tricks that… Didn’t want the horse to sort of poo on the lawn, so he used to take the horse and the lawnmower over to the bushes where he would do a little whistle – the horse would relieve itself and then they could go back out and cut more grass. That is really clever, isn’t it? I mean, to poo on the whistle… BRIAN CHUCKLES extraordinary and a great trick. One of which, one could… HE CHUCKLES We’ll just leave that… There it is. Er… So… That’s actually not a stupid consideration. You don’t want horse muck all over a lawn. – What about hoof prints?
– They would have had leather boots. Why is she not wearing leather boots? We tried them on this morning but she didn’t like them. – I think they are the wrong colour for her.
– Really? – The wrong style?
– Yes, wrong heel on them. These are the leather boots. This would have been a donkey boot and you can see how much wear it has had. – It’s worn.
– Oh, yes… That’s worn out. It’s ready for resoling. These would have been pony boots. Sweet, isn’t it? Those are even bigger. Those are the horse boots. Up to the shire horse boot. That’s absolutely wonderful, isn’t it? They even went up to an elephant lawnmower and a camel lawnmower. – Really?
– Of course, elephant and camels ideal for walking on grass, because they’ve got such a big foot. I’ve got a picture here of a camel lawnmower in the 1800s. So you have. And that would have been a normal horse mower – from the same sort of period.
– But presumably that’s a gimmick.
– Not everybody had a camel! No, I can imagine that. Although these mowers required quite a lot of man, horse and occasionally camel power, it meant that it was possible to cut grass more quickly, more often and more easily than ever before. And for a public park, it meant it could all be done more cheaply. Manicured lawns and exotic trees became a mainstay of public parks, subtly reflecting the technological advances and inventiveness that had transformed gardens across the country. But it was the arrival of colour that provides probably the most enduring legacy of Victorian gardens. We take this for granted now but it wasn’t until about 1860 that flowerbeds were introduced at all into public parks. And these were the fruits of the plant hunters who had risked life and limb to collect them, and the botanical gardens like Kew and Edinburgh who had learnt to nurture them. To find out more about these famous Victorian planting schemes, I spoke to the horticultural historian, Brent Elliot. Here is a particularly famous carpet bed. This was carried out at the Crystal Palace in 1875, depicts a butterfly. And in the 1880s, this style of… ..emblematic patterns in carpet beddings spread around the world. You could say it was the first international style since the English landscape garden. But that creativity doesn’t come out of nowhere. What was it that provoked it or enabled it? You needed a range of plants that weren’t available as natives. So you needed the plant introduction and you needed the technology to keeps these plants going. Why couldn’t this be done with native plants? They all have a tendency to be basically green. And if you wanted different reds, blues and yellows, then you did have to rely on foreign plants. The one plant of European origin in this bed provides the green background here. So the combination of all these things means that until the second half of the 19th century, this sort of thing would just not have been very feasible. From flowers in a public park, concrete urns in royal gardens, popular magazines for a new middle class, Wardian cases to collect plants by the thousand, to Kew’s triumphant glasshouses – all were symbols of Victorian innovation, technology and supreme confidence. This century of UNPARALLELED energy and industry ended serenely with one of the richest and largest empires ever seen on earth – and the fruits of it were enjoyed by many, if not most, of its citizens, not least with gardens, packed with plants from all over the world. And they might have imagined this would continue indefinitely – but on the horizon, a few years away, was one of the greatest catastrophes the world has ever known.

11 thoughts on “BBC – The Secret History of the British Garden (2015) Part 3: 19th-century

  1. Such a wonderful way to garden and inform the public. The flowers are beautiful too. A very interesting video about the history of gardening. Thanks!!!💜💟😘🌹🍀🍥🌸💮😂🌲💐🤗🌹💚🎑

  2. all thanks to the explorers botanists kings engineers and innovators ……..You miserable satanic false counterfeit Christians forgot just on thing …….the greatest of all God Almighty who created everything that exists .
    Shame on you all.

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