by Eleanor J Willson, James Wisdom and Valerie Bott
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 4 (1985)
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries much of Chiswick Parish was cultivated as market and nursery gardens. This article looks at the history of three of these. Those on the Dancer family and the Chiswick Nursery are based on a talk given to the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society by Miss E J Willson, whose book West London Nursery Gardens was published in 1982 by the Fulham and Hammersmith Historical Society. Her book covers Chelsea, Fulham, Hammersmith, Kensington and parts of Westminster, but since she was born and brought up in Chiswick she found it hard to resist noting down Chiswick references in the course of her research. The third piece is about the Fromow family and is based on a conversation between James Wisdom and Valerie Bott and Miss Lilian Fromow in 1981.
The 18th century fashion for replanting estates and the increasing number of new plants being brought into this country during that century created a new demand for the nurseryman’s skills. To enable exotic plants to survive with as little deterioration as possible they had to be brought swiftly from the port of arrival to the safety of the nursery. Thus sites close to the main roads were favoured, and London’s prominence as a port ensured that many nursery gardens were in or near the capital. While the early nurserymen were blessed with plentiful supplies of horse manure and cheap labour, they still had only rather basic equipment and limited scientific knowledge but they raised plants from every part of the known world with considerable success.
The Dancer Family
From 1790 William Dancer was paying rates on land with a frontage on Fulham Road from Munster Road to Parsons Green Lane, extending back to Rectory Road (now St Dionis Road) and on other plots of land in Lillie Road. The nursery covered roughly 28 acres but the family also had other land in Fulham which they used for market gardening and as a fruit nursery. They had a house, Vine Cottage, on the corner of Winchendon Road and a shop, warehouse and sheds on the other side of Fulham Road.
The nursery seems to have done a good trade in plants for the house and conservatory. It was not a nursery that bred new plants or traded in plants newly introduced from abroad. Alexander W Dancer succeeded his father, William, in 1826 and he was followed in turn by his son, another Alexander, who continued the nursery until it was sold for building development in 1880.
The Dancers’ connections with Chiswick go back to the 1770s; in 1771 a Mr Dancer was recorded at Little Sutton. Two Dancer marriages are also recorded between Sarah Elizabeth Dancer and William Barnes of Richmond in 1790s and between Thomas Dancer and Mary Clinch in 1792. The Chiswick Dancers were market gardeners rather than nurserymen, a fact that is reinforced by a note of a theft of purple broccoli from their gardens in 1799! They worked from two market gardens in Chiswick one at Little Sutton and one at Turnham Green, and were in the district for over a century. They can be traced in the Census returns: three Dancers appear at Little Sutton in 1861, all born in Fulham, and in 1871 this family is recorded as employing 26 men, 1 boy and 10 women, a measure of the considerable size of their enterprise. Their Little Sutton market gardens lay to the west of Sutton Lane and by the turn of the century they two had sprouted a new crop of buildings like their Fulham lands had done.
The Chiswick Nursery
In about 1740 James Scott established the Chiswick Nursery on 8 acres of land where Thornton Road now runs. It became famous for its pineapples, a great test of the nurseryman’s skill, and Scott supplied the first pineapples to be fruited in Scotland from here. His “stoves” (heated greenhouses) for raising pineapples were highly recommended as were his cauliflower seeds. His elegant trade card advertises his famous pineapples and also the stoves, fire walls and frames he could supply for forcing fruit.
By the 1770s his nursery had passed into other hands; between 1776 and 1785 Robson and Hodson were running it though nothing is known about them. In 1786 Richard Williams took on the nursery where he remained for forty years. He specialised in heathers and introduced many new plants from the Cape of Good Hope and from Australia. He propagated the Williams Pear which he obtained from a Berkshire schoolmaster and the nursery became predominantly a fruit-growing ground.
The history of the nursery is obscure between 1826 and 1836. A John Graham was there from 1836 until Robert Glendinning took it over in 1843. Glendinning was born in Lanark in 1805 and his Practical Hints on the Culture of Pineapples was published in 1839. He was therefore already an experienced gardener when he took on what was by now the rather neglected Chiswick Nursery. He soon reorganised it and installed new hothouses. He was sufficiently confident about its future to publish a long advertisement in The Gardeners Chronicle in December 1843 announcing the improvements and seeking business.
Glendinning’s horticultural interests were wide-ranging. He specialised in heathers and had a high reputation for conifers and fruit trees. He wrote an article on the transplanting of large trees in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1849 and published The Pinetum, a list of conifers, ten years later. Robert Fortune’s third expedition to China supplied him with plants including some rhododendrons. By the time of his death in 1862 Glendinning had become so firmly established locally that he was one of the Chiswick Improvement Commissioners. His wife and sons continued the business for nine years after he died until it was taken over by Henry Ewing, “Nurseryman and Florist”.
The Fromow Family
The Fromows ran a nursery in Chiswick on the west side of Sutton Lane near its junction with Wellesley Road. Later they moved to Acton Lane where they ran the Sutton Court Nurseries. The firm closed down in 1970 though another branch of the family continued to run a nursery at Windlesham.
William Fromow established his business in Chiswick in 1829 when he purchased an existing nursery with stock already in the ground. He came from Norfolk and had worked in Epping and Dulwich before he came to Chiswick; his father was a gardener too. William Fromow was succeeded by his son, William Fromow II, who handed over the management of the firm to other members of the family in 1869. Ten years later a further nursery of 14 acres was acquired in London Road, Hounslow, and another nursery ground of similar size, also in London Road, was added in 1891. When William Fromow II died in 1886 his sons James, Joseph and Edwin became partners in the firm, but the eldest son, another William, was already established as a fruiterer in Richmond, When James Fromow died in 1903 William Fromow III joined his brothers in the family firm and remained a partner until his death in 1917. Edwin died in 1932 and Joseph lived until 1934.
Heavy death duties in the 1930s led to the sale of the premises in Sutton Lane and large blocks of flats were erected there. However, the firm could bear the loss of this nursery because of its other property elsewhere. Not only were there the Hounslow nurseries; in 1894 some 40 acres of land at Windlesham had been purchased from a Mr Mason which by 1911 had expanded to cover more than 25 acres! On the death of Joseph his sons took on these Windlesham nurseries.
A modest cottage on the Sutton Lane land had been the original family home in Chiswick. In the 1890s it was replaced by a grandiose conservatory and to the west, round the corner in Wellesley Road, stood the building which served as offices and stores. On the other side of the road, where Fromow’s Corner now is, there was a seed shop. As well as running the nursery and the seed shop, the Fromows supplied gardeners by the hour for some of the bigger houses in Chiswick especially those in Grove Park. The business prospered and the family acquired other property in Chiswick, including Arlington Cottages. The Acton Lane site, to which the business transferred in the 1930s after the sale of the Sutton Lane nursery, was already in use by them to provide stabling for the horses which brought the plants from Hounslow and Windlesham for sale in Chiswick.
Miss Lilian Fromow was 89 at the time of our interview in 1981. She described the Chiswick of her youth as a lively bustling town where all the shopkeepers knew one another. The Fromows were related by marriage to the Voyseys, one of whom worked at Buckle and Barker’s, a grocer’s which stood roughly where Marks and Spencer’s store is today. A campaign to prevent the building of a music hall on the south side of Turnham Green was led by Miss Fromow’s father. He succeeded and the Chiswick Empire was erected facing the green on the north side of the High Road instead.
Lilian Fromow was one of seven children. Their parents were married at the North Road Strict Baptists Church in Brentford and they lived at first at 7 Sutton Lane. As their family grew they moved to Walpole Gardens, living first at number 16 and later at number 13. They had six daughters and a son born seven years after the youngest of these girls. Lilian Fromow’s sister, Rosa, had lived next door to her in Alwyn Avenue, in a house bought for her by her father, while another sister, Emily, then aged 92, was living in Ealing. Their only brother had lived for many years at 1 Hartington Road, a large detached house with spectacular stained glass windows which still survives. He had been sent to St Paul’s School in Hammersmith while Lilian had been educated at a small private school known as Oxford Road College, near her home. When she left school she went into the family business and kept the firm’s books.
Another sister, Florence, married Harry Baldock and it was their son, John Baldock, who managed the Acton Lane nursery until its closure. This was the only 19th century nursery to survive the change of Chiswick from countryside to suburb. It handled its new market well, maintaining 24 greenhouses at Acton Lane, carrying on an extensive trade with Covent Garden and Spitalfields Markets and supplying 50,000 Christmas trees a year in the late 1940s! (The site is now occupied by Sainsbury’s Chiswick supermarket and its large car park, while in 2003 retirement homes have been built as Fromow Gardens on the Windlesham nursery grounds.)