by Val Bott, Journal 17, 2008
This article considers three 18th century gardening families with strong Brentford connections, the Greenings, the Swindens and the Ronalds. The surviving evidence is particularly informative for this group: wills reveal family connections and trusted friends, deeds, invoices and letters record their activities, two of them wrote books and a Greening lawsuit survives.
Rocque’s 1746 Map of London and Environs shows many garden plots, smaller than the neighbouring fields, along the road from Hammersmith to Hounslow. Most histories of this area emphasise market gardening and the supply of fruit and vegetables to the London market; for example, Daniel Lysons wrote in the 1790s that Brentford, Isleworth and Twickenham were famous for raspberries and Chiswick, Battersea and Mortlake for asparagus. However, the families discussed here were nurserymen and seedsmen supplying plants and seeds for gardens and orchards rather than produce for the table.
Thomas Greening (1684-1757), three of his four sons and a grandson were all royal gardeners. At the heart of their business was a Brentford End nursery. Thomas the elder was living in Isleworth by the early 1700s and several Greenings are buried there, including his first wife, Ann, who died in 1733. Their sons were Thomas the younger (d 1757), Robert (d 1758), John (d 1770) and Richard (d 1760).
John Rocque identified the nursery on a small map of the Environs of Syon House with which he decorated the prospectus for his Map of London and Environs; three Greenings subscribed to this larger map. Their substantial house stood on the north side of London Road opposite the footpath into Syon Park. Much enlarged, it was later a boys’ boarding school known as Syon Park House, and survived until the 1960s.
Thomas Greening the elder was employed by noblemen and gentlemen, fulfilling substantial contracts for plants or landscaping at Corsham Court, Holkham Hall, Windsor Great Park and The Gnoll in South Wales. From 1722 he managed – and probably designed – Queen Caroline’s lavish gardens at Richmond (now part of Kew Gardens) bringing Thomas the younger into the royal contract in 1730. The Brentford Ferry books record the Greenings crossing the Thames frequently with laden carts and returning with empty ones during the 1730s.
When Thomas the younger wished to marry Sarah, daughter of Henry Marsh, a gentleman gardener of Hammersmith, a financial settlement was required. Thomas and his father made a ten-year agreement in 1730 creating a co-partnership which gave Thomas the younger a half share in the business; the Brentford End property was transferred to Thomas the younger after his marriage.
Meanwhile Thomas the elder was working on Lord Bateman’s gardens at Shobdon Court in Herefordshire and had acquired a farm nearby at Amestrey. In about 1730 another son, Robert, was sent to live there with his sister and manage this farm, but he spent the profits and contracted substantial debts. By 1738 Thomas the elder was in great financial difficulty. The co-partnership had to be dissolved and Thomas the younger took on the Brentford End nursery alone, paying £300 for his father’s half of the nursery stock, equipment and household effects. His father would receive £200 10s per year while the royal contract continued, with provision for sharing the general profits of the business should that contract come to an end.
Thomas the elder moved to a smaller property in 1739 and in 1746 Lucretia Abbott (1711-1781) became his second wife. Writing his will two years later, he said that he was about to extend his lease from Lord Burlington on the house, a garden and a close in Turnham Green. This close is almost certainly the small field then called The Corner Pin at the junction of today’s Wellesley Road and Sutton Lane, later owned by the Fromows. In his will he described Thomas the younger as being ‘in a very thriving and prosperous way and stands in no want of anything I can give him’, but does not mention Robert. Thomas the younger died in February 1757, only a few months before his father.
Thomas the elder discharged Robert for ‘great mismanagement and ill conduct’, warning Thomas the younger to take care in future dealings with his brother. But Robert was left destitute, so Thomas the younger took him on at the nursery ‘out of brotherly regard and affection’ at £100 a year. This was not a formal partnership though he did offer his brother a share of the profits and produce. In 1751 Thomas the younger won the contract for the care of the royal gardens at Kensington and St James’s and decided to bring his own son into the business. Robert was dismissed. His reaction was to take out a lawsuit, claiming that their father had always intended him, Robert, to have half the business and that he was also owed a half share in the Kensington contract.
Robert did not succeed in acquiring a share of the Brentford End business. Around this time he was preparing garden designs; those for Kirtlington survive along with those for the northern gardens at Wimpole Hall of 1752, with correspondence about the works, survive, but both were superseded by designs by Capability Brown. In 1753, however, Robert became head gardener of the Kew pleasure grounds though not the botanic garden. His annual fee was 300 guineas plus the use of 54 acres of farmland on the royal estate. At last he had a substantial contract and was describing himself as ‘Robert Greening and Company’, which probably included his younger brother, Richard.
Robert’s wife, Ann, was the daughter of Priscilla Price of Lucton, Herefordshire. When he wrote his will in 1750 he had recently purchased properties in Isleworth and in Lucton; after Ann’s death these were to pass to his brothers John and Richard. In December 1757, when his ‘dear, dear wife’ was dying, Robert amended his bequests to provide an annuity for his stepmother, Lucretia, but he lived only a few months more. The loss of father, two sons and a daughter-in-law within a year must have been a severe blow to the family.
Another son, John Greening, was the Duke of Newcastle’s head gardener at Claremont near Esher from 1731 and later became his steward. His horticultural responsibilities included six acres of walled garden and greenhouses growing melons, nectarines and pineapples. When Rocque made his 1738 plan of Claremont he included ‘Mr Greening’s House’. Following the death of his father and brothers, John took on the royal gardens at St James’s, Kensington and Richmond in 1758 and soon after became the King’s gardener at Hampton Court as well.
Richard, the youngest son, seems not to have had a significant role as a gardener. He is mentioned in a letter from Robert to his father: ‘it is a very great Concern to me that he has so Small a Share of Education … you may depend that neither my Br nor me will be wanting in our Brotherly help to him’. Thomas the elder trusted Richard enough to make him his executor and bequeath him the Turnham Green property after the death of his stepmother. In fact Richard lived only until 1760, while Lucretia outlived them all, surviving until 1781 when she died aged 70.
The son of Thomas the younger and Sarah Marsh, Henry Thomas Greening (1730-1809), was the only royal gardener in the next generation, becoming George Ill’s gardener at Windsor. He married Ann Hooper, the daughter of a prosperous Herefordshire lawyer, in 1755. He inherited property in Kensington from Marsh and a substantial fortune and the Newlands estate in Buckinghamshire from a distant relative provided he adopted the name of Gott, which he did in 1769. He was knighted in 1774.
Hugh Ronalds senior (1726-1788) was a Scot from Moidart, Invernessshire. He was one of the many Scottish gardeners who came to work in the area after the Duke of Lauderdale became established at Ham, James Johnson at Orleans House and the Duke of Argyll at Whitton Park. All these influential Scotsmen invested heavily in their gardens.
Hugh Ronalds senior was working in New Brentford in the mid 1750s and living in The Butts by 1760. He and his wife Mary had seven children; she died at the age of 77 in 1799. Hugh was the first of several generations of Ronalds who were nurserymen and seedsmen here over more than 150 years. Many Ronalds were buried at St Lawrence’s Church but they were actively involved in the management of Brentford’s Congregational Chapel where their children were baptised.
In the 1770s Hugh senior was living in a timber-framed house called Lamberts next to St Lawrence’s with his primary nursery of two acres next door, between the church and the Brent. He used an old building in nursery grounds in Brentford End, on the south side of the London Road, as a seed store (see back cover). Hugh senior’s will mentions land in New Brentford and in Isleworth, which he and his sons Henry Clarke Ronalds (1757-1804) and Hugh junior (1759-1833) had worked in partnership for many years. Their stock included trees, plants, shrubs, flowers and seeds. Hugh senior provided for his widow and all four of his surviving sons in such a way that the partnership could continue. After his death, however, Henry and his mother moved away to Coventry.
Hugh Ronalds junior became the most famous member of this gardening family. He was given considerable responsibility for the business from the age of 14 and later managed it with his sons John (1792-1850) and Robert (1799-1880). His wife, Elizabeth Clarke, was from another local family and they had ten children. Active in local affairs, he had shares in the Grand Junction Canal Company, was on the committee of the Brentford Volunteers 1803-6, and became a council member of the Royal Horticultural Society. A 1798 indenture records his taking apprentice a poor boy funded by local charities.
Hugh junior ran his father’s nursery beside St Lawrence’s (Robert Ronalds, the last of this generation, still occupied it when he died in 1880), another between The Butts and Boston Manor Road and also the Isleworth nursery. His book, Pyrus Mains Brentfordiensis or A Concise Description of Selected Apples appeared in 1831. In it he generously acknowledges other nurserymen who had introduced or improved apple varieties. Illustrated with exquisite lithographs of the apples by his daughter Elizabeth, only 100 copies were printed and a small number of these were hand-coloured. His obituary in London’s Gardener’s Magazine says that he was ‘well skilled in fruits’ and had ‘great skill in raising flower seed for which the nursery has long been celebrated’.
Nathaniel Swinden was the author of The Beauties of Flora Display’d, published in 1778. The book reveals his expertise in flower garden design and as a seedsman able to supply over 200 varieties of seeds. His address is given as ‘near the 8th mile stone at Brentford End’, further west into Isleworth than that of the Greenings.
In 1701 ‘a profligate and wicked youth’, the son of William Badger, was convicted of robbing a gardener called Nathaniel Swinden of a considerable quantity of fruit. Swinden took a whip and ‘did with great severity lash the boy’, whose father soon sent him across the Atlantic to find work in Maryland. William Badger remained fur-iously angry with Swinden and, frequently drinking too much, behaved ‘with rancour and malice towards him’. The Brentford Meeting House elders intervened and persuaded him to forgive Swinden and ‘carry himself towards him as a neighbour and a Christian’.
Nathaniel Swinden’s home in Old Brentford was registered for non-conformist meetings in 1710 and he was buried in Ealing in 1729. Nathaniel the author may have been the second of four children born to the earlier Nathaniel and his wife Ann. If so he married Jane Franklin in 1753 and had three children, of whom one was also called Nathaniel.
However, Francis Swinden, the first Nathaniel’s eldest son, married Mary Piguenit, the daughter of a Huguenot emigre, and had six children, the oldest of whom was another Nathaniel Swinden (1744—1804). The title page of the Beauties of Flora lists one of the bookshops where it could be purchased as the one in Berkeley Square run by Caesar Danby Piguenit, Mary’s brother, so this Nathaniel is the more likely author and seedsman. Huguenot gardeners in this country pioneered the trade in seeds so Nathaniel’s business may have benefited from this connection. The will of Mary’s father, Caesar Piguenit, says he lived in Boston Lane, near Brentford Butts, as did Mary and Francis, but they are not listed in the New Brentford rate books.
Ann Swinden’s will, made shortly before she died in 1756, describes her as a widow living in The Butts. She mentions four children, Nathaniel and Francis and their two married sisters, Ann Bell and the late Mary Bateman. She left property in Southwark and in Red Lion Square, London to Francis and Nathaniel but there is no mention of a garden or nursery. Nathaniel Swinden appears as a ratepayer in The Butts over many years – perhaps the whole family lived there together.
The marriages indicate the family’s status. Caesar Piguenit is ‘gentleman’ in his will while Thomas Bell of Castle Bar House in Haling, the husband of Ann Swinden’s daughter, Ann, was a substantial man of property. Because the family had property they were able to provide for Mr Bateman and two of his children who were all ‘lunatics’.
Science and creativity
The Rev George Harbin visited Thomas Greening the elder’s Brentford garden in 1719 and several times in the 1720s, recording that he cultivated imported plants and various flowers, and grew dwarf apples and pears in tubs and pots, some kept successfully this way for 14 years. Greening also grew peaches, nectarines and espalier apricots, protecting them from frost by covering them with a ‘reed hedge’. A large vine grew against the house, a Burlake or White Raisin grape: ‘the Bunches are extremely large & some of them have weighd above 7 pound’. Greening’s pioneering 1724 patent for grafting English elm onto Dutch elm stock survives in the British Library.
The Ronalds’ business was also based upon deep specialist knowledge; Hugh Ronalds junior made a herbarium with many plant samples from Kew Gardens. London’s Gardener’s Magazine mentions the apple trees, stating in 1829 that: ‘for several years he [Hugh junior] has studied them at all seasons and … his descriptions of the different varieties, of the hardiness or delicacy of the tree, its blossom, leaves, fruits, time of ripening, keeping, are copious and voluminous. We have strongly urged Mr Ronalds to publish a selection of engravings and descriptions.’
As seedsmen Swinden and the Ronalds must have had considerable understanding of pollination, soils and climate. The scale of their businesses is shown by Swinden’s list of over 200 varieties of seeds, while the Ronalds supplied more than 14,000 shrubs for the new Kensal Green Cemetery. Some Ronalds papers record seeds and plants supplied to Sir Joseph Banks for despatch to Australia in the 1790s and early 1800s. Hugh Ronalds junior wrote of the difficulties involved in getting plants safely to port in England, and the Banks Archive in Australia includes a diagram of how the plants were laid out on board ship with notes of what survived. The Ronalds also supplied Kew Gardens with barrows, brooms, implements, mats and stationery. The Duke of Devonshire was so struck by the quality of a bed of late tulips at the nursery that he paid £500 for it!
These were literate and numerate men who wrote well, whether letters or books. They knew how to manage their businesses and made arrangements for their children to sustain them. Surviving invoices have printed headings and engraved logos, a strawberry for Swinden and an acorn for Ronalds. They are neatly written with details of the plants or seeds supplied. Surviving letters from Thomas and Robert Greening to their father between 1733 and 1742 discuss the management of the farm in Herefordshire as well as the Brentford nursery. They wrote about the weather, the quality of the harvest and crop prices.
Swinden’s thoughtful and imaginative book demonstrates how to arrange planting for theatrical effect. In an early example of astute marketing, he simplified the implementation of his designs by selling ready-made boxes of seeds for each of them. An invoice shows him exporting to Jamaica and there is evidence that London town gardeners were buying his boxes. The Ronalds were later to try out another modern promotional technique, giving away free packets of seeds at a horticultural show.
Business and finance
Despite the success of their businesses, nurserymen could encounter real financial difficulties. In 1752 Thomas Greening the younger petitioned for payment for completed works at Kensington Gardens and St James’s Palace and a year passed before approval was given for this to be made. The sums involved were substantial, at £799 13s for Kensing¬ton and £354 5s for St James’s, totalling over £1,150.
The Greening family letters show them continually troubled by money problems; contracts with aristocratic and royal clients were almost guaranteed to cause difficulty as such people rarely paid promptly. Thomas the younger wrote of his embarrassment when he went to seek payment of outstanding invoices only to be shown his father’s receipts for payments already made but not recorded. At the worst times he had to borrow in order to pay for supplies and services to keep the business going; for example, he took a loan from Samuel Bever, a relative of his father-in-law, Henry Marsh.
The Greenings evidently coped to some extent by delaying payments themselves; in 1742 Mr Tunstall of the Brentford Ferry brought an unpaid bill covering their river crossings from 1725 to 1737! And they were buying from fellow gardeners as well. Thomas Greening Esq appears in the lists of debts of other local nurserymen: on the death of Peter Mason of Isleworth in 1730 Greening owed him £9 11s 8d and in 1746 on the death of an Old Brentford gardener, John Aslett, he owed £47 16s 9d.
The women of these families were also involved in the business. Thomas Greening senior left his lease and his equipment to his second wife Lucretia so may have intended her to maintain the garden, while Elizabeth Ronalds produced elegant and accurate drawings of apple varieties for her father’s book.
Social standing and reputations
The Greenings and Swindens made links through marriage to the families of other gentlemen. The Ronalds’ children married into families with substantial business interests in Brentford, including the Montgomreys, who were also of Scots origin.
Thomas Greening the elder moved comfortably in upper class circles and Thomas the younger reported on his conversations with the King. However, the ambitious marriage between Thomas the younger and Henry Marsh’s daughter put considerable financial pressure upon the family. The family’s social standing is confirmed by Rocque’s dedication to them of his 1748 plan of Richmond Gardens, while their letters mention business opportunities and appointments to be obtained through important contacts.
The Ronalds also supplied upper class clients like the Clitherows of Boston Manor (over more than 50 years), the Childs of Osterley Park and the Dukes of Devonshire at Chiswick House. They maintained a circle of significant gardening contacts which included William Aiton, another Scot, who ran Kew Gardens and acted as one of Hugh Ronalds senior’s executors.
Swinden’s book was favourably written up in the Monthly Review. Ralph Griffiths of Turnham Green, that journal’s proprietor, was a trustee of the Brentford chapel and may have known Swinden himself. Both Griffiths and Hugh Ronalds were parties to a chapel lease in 1792, along with William Aiton and other Brentford men. In fact Hugh Ronalds senior and his family contributed funds for the new chapel in Boston Manor Road at the end of The Butts. Hugh junior was a chapel trustee from 1781 until 1825 and his brother John became treasurer in 1837.
These generous people supported their families and neighbours. The Swindens had to manage the problems which arose when their son-in-law and two grandchildren turned out to be ‘lunatics’. Legal provision had to be made to manage their property and oversee their care. Thomas Greening the younger’s sister-in-law appears to have made an unwise marriage – Henry Marsh’s will refers to his daughter’s ‘unkind husband’ – so Greening and his wife would have kept an eye on her affairs after Marsh’s death. The Ronalds’ nursery beside St Lawrence’s suffered serious damage in the 1841 Brentford Flood but several family members made donations to support those made homeless by the disaster.
They made affectionate personal bequests. Thomas Greening the elder left his prized ‘bullet gun’ inlaid with silver, to his youngest son, Richard. Ann Swinden’s bequests reveal a comfortable home – her son Francis received a silver pint cup, his eldest son a half-pint silver mug, Ann Bell a silver teapot and the three motherless Bateman children a brass hearth and its furniture, a ‘walnut tree corner cupboard’ with the china inside it and ‘my chints bed quilt’ respectively. Ann Swinden provided mourning gowns for her servants, Mary Giles and Mary Dobbs. John Ronalds left bequests to his foreman and his son, both named William Wareing, and one of the witnesses to his will was his servant Eliza Humphreys.
Nursery gardening was a major part of the landscape and life of Brentford and Brentford End from the late 17th century until the end of the 19th. Long-established families like these ensured its high reputation and played their part in the life of the town. They were linked through shared expertise, business transactions and involvement in local affairs.
References and Sources
Ray Desmond The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Harvill 1995; John H Harvey, Hugh Ronalds Nurseryman and Seedsman of The Butts Brentford, and Horticultural History in Hounslow, typescripts in Chiswick Local Studies collection; David Jacques, Georgian Gardens: the Reign of Nature, Batsford 1983; Michael McGarvie & John H Harvey, ‘Revd George Harbin and his Memoirs of Gardening’, Garden History, Vol 11, No 1 Spring 1983; Claremont Guidebook, National Trust 2000; David Shailes’ research into the Ronalds family, Chiswick Local Studies; A F Ronalds, The Ronalds Family of Australia, privately printed, 1985; Hugh Ronalds junior: Loudon’s Gardeners Magazine, Vol V 1829 and Vol X 1834 and The Gentleman s Magazine 1834, p337; Victoria County History of Middlesex, Vol VII, University of London Institute of Historical Research 1982; Brentford Ferry books, Layton Collection, pages on Thames Pilot at www.thamespilot.org.uk; Chatsworth Archives LI 14/35 invoice from Ronalds & Sons to Duke of Devonshire, 1785; London Metropolitan Archives: Acc/0828/014 Swinden pedigree, and N/C/034/1/1 Brentford Congregational Church records 1693-1867; National Archives: Greening wills: PROB/11/837, 11/836, Greening letters: C108/353, Greening petition: Tl.352/2, 3a, 3b, and Tl.353/115, Greening lawsuit: C12/276/11; Swinden will: PROB 11/824; Piguenit will: PROB 11/749; Ronalds wills: PROB 11/1835, 11/2110; Sir Joseph Banks papers, New South Wales Archives at www.sl.nsw.gov.au/banks.
Special thanks to Sharron Clarke who assisted with detailed genealogical research and Paige Johnson for sharing her recent research on the Greenings.
Val Bott has lived in Chiswick since the 1970s, and works as a museum and heritage consultant. She chairs the William Hogarth Trust and is author of Flood! The Brentford Flood of 1841 (2002).