by Kathryn Bridge, Brentford & Chiswick Local HIstory Journal 14 (2005)
In February 1860 an exhausted, nervous, but elated mother and her three very young daughters stepped off the sailing vessel, Athelstan, after a five-month long voyage, to begin a new life in the colony of Vancouver Island on the Pacific coast of North America. Her name was Sarah Crease and she was the eldest daughter of world renowned botanist, Dr John Lindley and his wife, Sarah (née Freestone). She grew up in a large Georgian house just outside London, set in a large expanse of garden, where Bedford Park is today. By all accounts she had a privileged but modest upbringing. The story of how this woman came to leave England is one of misfortune, scandal, financial ruin, but also of redeeming love and loyalty.
My interest in the Lindley family began in British Columbia, where I live. While at university I worked for several summers at the Province’s Archives and it was there that I first read some of the many, many letters written by Sarah Crease (née Lindley) and saw the hundreds of sketches and watercolour drawings she created. The records of Sarah Crease (and those of her children, husband, parents, and grandparents) comprise the largest collection of family archival records in western Canada. The Creases were incredible packrats, saving everything. The sheer volume of letters, diaries, photographs, and sketchbooks document four generations, and reveal much about life in England before she emigrated. Sarah Crease was an evocative and passionate correspondent, and a skilled artist; before long, I was hooked, wanting to learn who she was and why she ended up so far away from her birthplace. I channelled my inquisitive impulses into a Masters thesis, and many years later, a book.
But it was only in March last year, after a decade’s worth of correspondence with local Bedford Park historians and Lindleyphiles, that I was fortunate to visit the Lindley neighbourhood and see for myself the childhood home of Sarah Lindley Crease. I was blessed with good weather and enthusiastic companions as I walked and absorbed, trying to recreate in my mind’s eye this area that the Lindleys referred to variously as Turnham Green or Acton Green in the age before the railway line which today splits the common.
The childhood home, as many readers will know, is still standing and largely intact – albeit obscured by shops and divided into flats – at the corner of The Avenue and South Parade. This large Georgian house (later known as Bedford House) sits next door to Melbourne House which was once also occupied by the Lindley family. The Lindleys moved to Acton in 1824, the year daughter Sarah was born. John Lindley had been appointed assistant secretary of the Horticultural Society with duties at the office at Regent Street but also in the Society’s Chiswick garden. The family first occupied Melbourne house, but as the family expanded (son Nathaniel and daughter Barbara, nicknamed Dunny), more space was required, and the larger house next door was purchased in 1836. This is the house that figures in Sarah’s childhood, and the house to which she returned with her three young children in 1857 when her husband ‘ran into difficulties’.
This was the house in which Lindley established his herbarium and library and where he wrote many of his articles and monographs. It was here also that he hosted colleagues and friends including botanical luminaries: Joseph Hooker, George Bentham and Joseph Paxton. In the gardens he planted botanical specimens and conducted growing experiments. Lindley laid out the gardens, and with the long suffering gardener Harrington, moved and replanted with some frequency to suit. The gardens comprised several acres including a semi-circular carriageway in the front of the house leading from Acton Green, curving through large trees and formal gardens. Kitchen and vegetable plots faced the rear of the house as did cold frames which nestled up against the sunny walls. A wide expanse of grass led away from the house towards a less structured wild garden and winding pathways of secluded benches and secret play areas. This was Dunnyland, a special place for all the Lindley children. Beyond its fences lay pasture. The Lindley grounds were a wonderful place for the children who ran wild among the trees and shrubs, practised archery, and played all manner of imaginary games.
When Sarah became engaged to Henry Crease the garden became a special and romantic place. The couple had sentimental spots; they lingered in secluded corners and sat on the benches amid rambling rose bowers, azaleas, and rhododendrons. Both Sarah and Henry were competent artists (Sarah provided ink illustrations for several of her father’s botanical publications) and they loved to draw, often carrying sketchbooks and pencils around with them. Many of these sketches survive in the British Columbia Archives.
Snippets of information about the house and gardens along with inside peeks into Lindley family life can be found in Sarah’s extensive correspondence, especially in the letters she wrote from 1849 through 1851 to her fiance, Henry Crease who was in North America with his family. During this eighteen-month separation, Sarah wrote several times a week, and sometimes several times a day. She kept Henry up-to-date with all the latest gossip and filled him in on her own adventures, some of which seem unbelievably tame today, but for young women of her time, obviously had some importance. Like most women in love she thought often of her beloved Henry and carried his ‘likeness’, (a daguerreotype in a folding case) about with her in her pocket. ‘How often!!’ she wrote to him, ‘do I think of our little walks in Dunnyland before breakfast and of the “Happievallie”….’
One Sunday, when others had gone to church, she planned a little private celebration. She took Henry’s ‘own dear likeness, some of your letters, my church prayer book, and another little book… I then hastened and taking a bonnet and shawl by the way, softly crept into the garden and made all possible speed for the little seat in Dunnyland. It was a glorious morning… I looked about for a nice comfortable place to hang up your picture dear for I was determined you should be looking upon me the whole time… I set you quite fast in a strong forked-branch, with your face turned towards me looking as dear and pleasing as anything short of reality can. I then crowned you with two roses I picked on the way… I passed four hours among the happiest of my life’.
A couple of months later she relates an almost unbelievable confidence to Henry. She told him: ‘I have for the first time in my life seen Papa perform that wonderful and mysterious operation of s-h-a-v-i-n-g!! I know all about it now! I happened to go into his room the other morning when he did not get up so early as usual, on account of his cold, and found him just in the very act of beginning – he bid me sit down, in that white arm chair in the corner on the right hand side – which I accordingly did – and to my great amusement saw the whole operation’.
In April 1853 Sarah and Henry married and moved to a small house in St James’s Square (now St James’s Gardens), Notting Hill. Henry invested in and managed tin mines in Cornwall, which led eventually to a move to Antron, near Helston. At this time the couple had two young daughters and a third baby on the way. But in 1857 troubles came and Henry was under a cloud of suspicion regarding his expenditure at the mines. He had to flee creditors, and Sarah (now with a newborn as well as two toddlers), accompanied by her sister Barbara, left under cover of darkness, boarding a train to London. She returned – for she had no other place to go – to her parents and to her childhood home. The next two years were spent in a state of suspension while Nathaniel and others worked to clear Henry’s name. Henry travelled alone to North America looking for a new beginning, for John Lindley would not allow Sarah and the grandchildren to leave home until Henry was well and truly settled, with a steady job and provision set aside for his family.
It was two years before they were reunited on Vancouver Island but during this time Sarah maintained a steady correspondence with her absent husband, keeping him informed of the children’s growth and activities, and also providing him with her own drawings of the house, the children and family members. This way she kept connected and focused. Henry no doubt appreciated the loyalty, and her letters alleviated some of the homesickness and loneliness he experienced.
‘I am just now come in from a stroll up the Common with the children. They enjoy a little change from the garden beautiful though that it is, and I think it does them good. Yesterday we went all round the field. Down the lane by Harrington’s Cottage into another field picking all the flowers we could find and having our hats blown off every few minutes, but we didn’t mind that and got home just in time for tea. Papa is very busy in his garden building a nice fence and cutting down trees and planting fresh ones, those two beautiful red thorns, I grieve to say are now no more. They have been cut down to allow more height and air and give more space…. So far it is a decided improvement… Last Saturday night and Sunday morning we had a heavy gale of wind in the morning I ran out in the field with Natty to get a good blow which I most enjoyed. Before we reached the house again, we heard a great swish and then found it was the large old Acacia tree which was completely uprooted….’
In 1858 John Lindley began what he thought would be an ease into retirement by giving up some of his many responsibilities in the City. But he and his wife were now saddled with three grandchildren, a daughter, extra expenses and a reduced income. The timing was not the best, and Lindley was naturally worried at the situation. Sarah was keenly aware of the inconvenience and the sacrifices he made on their behalf. As much as grandchildren could brighten up his day, it was an adjustment for him as he now spent more time at the house and less time in London. Sarah wrote: ‘My dear father is quickly settling into a country life. He has almost done with the Hort. Socy. Has removed all his things from 21 Rgt. St and only goes to London about once a week to see about his newspaper. He is so delighted to be free of some of the trammels of a life of incessant work, work, work, that it does one’s heart good to see his enjoyment of the change. He is making new beds for roses and rhododendrons in front of the hall steps which is a great pleasure and amusement to him….’
Lindley died in 1865, enjoying only a few years of retirement. Harrington the gardener, who many years earlier had been accidentally wounded in the leg with an arrow shot by Lindley during an archery game, lost his taskmaster. Sarah’s sister Barbara reported that without her father to monitor his work, Harrington ‘never works, but is always running about and gossiping. The garden is one overgrown mass of weeds, very disgraceful I think’. In 1866 Lindley’s widow put the house up for auction and it was purchased by Hamilton Fulton, an engineer whose daughter would later marry Jonathan Carr the developer of Bedford Park. Soon Lindley’s plantings and gardens were dug over and divided into suburban lots, and, in 1924, the house was surrounded by shops.
An English Heritage blue plaque is to be placed on the wall of Bedford House in May 2005, a fitting reminder of the earlier days and the renowned botanist and his family who lived in the house almost hidden from sight, but whose laughter and enjoyment in the gardens can still be heard by those with a little imagination and patience.
Letters from Sarah Lindley Crease to Henry Crease 1849 and 1858; letter from Barbara Thompson (nee Lindley) to Sarah Crease 1866, in British Columbia Archives.
The author would like to acknowledge the unstinting efforts, assistance and friendship of Lawrence Duttson who has been a ‘researcher extraordinaire’, ferreting out obscure references and devoting many hours to the quest for Lindley/Crease details.
Kathryn Bridge is an archivist and manager at the British Columbia Archives, Victoria BC, Canada. In her time off she is an author of several books featuring pioneering women of the Canadian west. Henry & Self: The Private Life of Sarah Crease, 1826-1922 was published in 1996.