By Val Bott, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 18, 2009
There were a number of nursery gardens in the Thames-side villages west of London. Three gardening families are considered, looking at details of their social status and the links of kinship and friendship between them. We know something of what they grew, but identifying individual gardeners’ ground needs further research.
Many garden plots lay on the rising ground between Strand on the Green, the High Road to the north and what became Sutton Lane / Fauconberg Road and Grove Park Terrace to the south east. On his 1746 map of London & Environs Rocque shows the gardens with parallel rows of planting, sometimes in squares, and enclosed within walls to shelter them from the winds which whip across the land near the river. They had easy access to road and river transport and Brentford Ferry was close by.
Early nursery gardeners
Some nurserymen were established here by the 1660s. The light soils of the area would have been attractive to those engaged in this labour-intensive work. Until the mid 18th century they supplied trees and shrubs to wealthy landowners landscaping their parks or laying out formal gardens. In the second half of the 18th century a greater interest in flowers led the nurserymen and seedsmen to supply these to a wider social mix of customers. The transition from trees and hedging plants to flowering plants can be seen in the mixed stock held by the nurseries described below.
After 1800 many local nurseries went over to market gardening to provide food for London’s growing population. Where the nursery gardeners did not seek especially rich soil, believing that young plants benefitted from working hard to establish them-selves, the market gardeners enriched their fields with huge quantities of dung. This maximised their profits by producing substantial crops, some-times more than one a year.
The Masters family
George Masters helped prepare an inventory on the death of William Cox of Kew in 1722. And in 1728 Batty Langley, son of a Twickenham gardener, wrote in New Principles of Gardening that Cox was an improver of early peas, a variety ‘known by the name of Master’s Hots, first raised and improved by an ingenious Gardener and Nursery Man of that name now living in Strand on the Green near Old Brentford’.
A George Masters of Strand on the Green died in March 1734; a notary assisted his sister, Rebecca Clements, to prepare an inventory and valuation of his property. They listed the contents of seven rooms in a sparsely furnished house, and gardens well planted with stock. In the ‘seed rooms and other lofts’ were old clothing, linen and lumber but no seeds, though bushells of peas and beans were listed elsewhere. The inventory shows the range of plants Masters grew, mixing trees, shrubs and hedging plants with orchard trees and plants for the flower garden.
However, Masters’ inventory includes only six bushells of Hotspur Peas, and a further bushell of dwarf peas, all at five shillings a bushell. Nor were his gardens planted with peas for seed when he died. In comparison his neighbour, John Brooks, bequeathed to his son by his July 1723 will ‘7 cows & 2 heifers, 7 hoggs, my seed peases worth forty pounds and his mothers books’ – at 1734 prices this represents between 135 and 160 bushells. Perhaps this Mr Masters was not the improver of Hotspur peas.
The inventory describes ten Chiswick plots and one in Acton. Rate book entries show that most were near London Stile, between Kew Bridge and today’s High Road junction with Wellesley Road. Garden grounds were often arranged in quarters and the inventory mentions a ‘Garden next the Road Walled Round with Bricks’, and the ‘Upper Quarter next the road’. The Acton plot, leased from William Goodwin, held hundreds of elm and beech trees and thousands of hornbeams. Two acres at Strand on the Green were leased from John Pennar, a local carpenter; after Masters’ death William Compton, another gardener, took on this land.
As well as tens of thousands of hedging plants and hundreds of standard trees and orchard trees, the list includes Masters’ garden equipment. He had extensive cucumber frames and melon glasses. There were 236 sieves and 22 half sieves (market baskets which came in bushell and half-bushell sizes), and 16 maunds (baskets with handles) and hand-barrows, all for transporting his produce. He also had ladders, a harrow, a roller and two ploughs, a water-barrow and tub and four watering pots. There were 1,000 paving bricks and 100 small garden pots. Paving bricks and plant pots, together with other useful clay items like weights for fishermen’s nets, may have been made upstream by one of the Brentford brick-makers.
George Masters seems not to have left a will so there are no details of family bequests or friends who were witnesses. Despite needing considerable labour in his gardens, it is hard to find evidence about his workforce. However, other sources reveal details of the family. Parish records show that the George who died in 1734, was the son and grandson of men of the same name. And his mother Martha’s burial in 1702 appears in the register with a note that she was the wife of George Masters, gardener, confirming that at least two generations were engaged in the trade.
In 1685/6 a George Masters of Chiswick took an eight-year lease on the Great Garden and the Kitchen Garden of Holland House in Kensington. He was to cultivate and maintain these gardens, and could house a ‘servant’ in one of the lodges, but he must also allow the family of the aristocratic owners to continue to enjoy them. It is likely that this George Masters was ‘our’ George’s father, who died in 1707 and may have been the improver of peas. He was listed in the rate books at the south west end of Strand on the Green in the 1680s, with his father at London Stile from the 1670s.
The parish rate books show ‘our’ George was a vestry member in 1719. The oldest son, he took on his father’s property, with his garden ground at the Strand still valued at £24, while his brother, Richard, was listed further upstream on the Strand with a £3 house. Their cousin, Thomas, had property at Little Sutton worth £25. Given the huge difference in valuation, it is possible that Richard is rated only for a house but may have profited from working with George on the family gardens.
Rebecca Masters, born in 1681, married Richard Clements, from an Isleworth gardening family, in 1708. She was widowed by March 1734 when she prepared her brother’s inventory, but that August saw two weddings – George’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Philip Clements, while Rebecca married Rice Lewis, gardener to Lord Burlington at Chiswick and one of the prominent gardeners who subscribed to Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary of 1731. Rebecca described herself as a gardener in 1735 when she made her will, dealing with her own estate from her marriage settlement with Lewis.
When Luke Wetten acquired London Style House and six acres of orchard and gardens in 1772, and a further four acres of adjoining land in 1774, both properties were said to have been ‘heretofore occupied’ by George Masters. His relationship to ‘our’ George is not yet clear, perhaps a son or a nephew. The court rolls record that the same property had been let to Mr Zoffany, the artist, during 1764-1772.
The accounts kept by the Earl of Fauconberg’s steward, Arthur Palmer, record substantial expenditure on the Earl’s new gardens at Sutton Court between 1685 and 1700. They record payments to John Clements, bricklayer, the father of Rebecca’s husband, who did specialist work like constructing brick plinths for new statues. High quality bricks were purchased from Nicholas Goodwin of Hammersmith, at least one of whose brothers, Richard, lived at Sutton Court and owned the clay-pit, Coles Hole (now the Potomac Lake at Gunnersbury Park) until his death in 1719. Two of George Masters’ leases had also been from members of the Goodwin family.
Nicholas Parker’s name appears regularly in Palmer’s accounts. Almost all of the payments made to Nicholas Parker or Mr Parker are for ‘trees’; a few entries are more specific, listing ‘ew’, 300 hornbeams and 38 phillireas, and in 1685 alone he was paid the substantial sum of £17 for fruit trees. Separately, ‘Goodman Parker’ appears against payments of £19 2s and £50 for carpentry, with a further £17 for ‘digging and wharfing a new pond’. This is probably the father of the gardener, also Nicholas. He appears in the rate books at the downstream end of Strand on the Green from 1660; he was a member of the vestry in 1675, and died in 1714. Nicholas Parker Junior was not rated identifiably by that name until about 1690, perhaps living with his father. In 1699 he was a churchwarden and in 1709 gave £1 towards work on the church’s north aisle. By 1719 he was paying rates on property worth £38 and part of Sutton Field worth £16, almost certainly having taken over his father’s land.
The quantities of trees supplied to Fauconberg suggest Parker was a substantial nurseryman by the 1680s, though he does not appear in Harvey’s Early Nurserymen. Fortunately, his will of 1725 survives.
It describes him as ‘Gardiner’ of Strand on the Green and shows him to be a man of property. In it he requests that he should be buried near his late father at St Nicholas’ Church, Chiswick, but does not mention his wife; in fact he was married and widowed twice. His first wife, Elizabeth, was buried in 1688 at St Nicholas, and on 11 December 1693 he married Mrs Jane Goodwin, widow, by Canterbury licence. From the lists of Chiswick burials, she may have been the widow of Henry Goodwin, buried in linen in 1687/8, or of another Henry Goodwin buried in 1690.
Parker is described as a gentleman in the marriage register, a status confirmed by the ‘good friends’ he mentions in his will; he left a guinea each for mourning rings for Thomas and George Barker and appointed Thomas Mawson as executor. The Barkers had owned The Grove estate since 1537. It adjoined the gardens of one of Parker’s houses, later to be known as Vernon Cottage after a successive owner). Mawson owned a malt-house on the Strand and the predecessor of today’s Griffin Brewery.
Parker’s bequests include copyhold houses and land in Turnham Green, Little Sutton and Strand on the Green, and two freeholds in Catherine Wheel Yard, New Brentford. The freeholds secured the right to vote, and a Nicholas Parker is listed in the 1710 Middlesex Poll Book. At this date Nicholas Parker Senior was still alive so these properties may have come to our gardener as a bequest from his father. The will also includes two other properties at Strand on the Green, one with six acres and the other with half an acre of land which Parker occupied himself.
Nicholas Compton, Parker’s ‘kinsman’ and another gardener, inherited another house with five acres of garden at the southern end of Strand on the Green, then let to Joseph Miller, the comic actor, from 1686 to his death in 1738. This is clearly labelled on Leigh’s 1831 Panorama of the Thames as Vernon Cottage . It lies just downstream of the Strand, with a walled garden and at least one glasshouse. Nicholas died in 1760 and his brother William took on responsibility for Nicholas’ five daughters; William left garden ground to the oldest of them on his death in 1768.
Parker’s will made bequests to various relatives and ‘kinsmen’. The latter probably defines those connected by marriage rather blood relations. Amongst them were Katharine and Eleanor, the sisters of William and Nicholas Compton. Parker also left £5 for the poor of Strand on the Green.
Henry and Eleanor Woodman
Parker left his remaining lease on land in Sutton Field and the stock growing upon it, to ‘my servant Henry Woodman’; perhaps this was the manager of his nursery. Henry Woodman was born in 1698, one of four children of another Henry Woodman of Chiswick, described variously as ‘husbandman’ and as ‘gardiner’, who had married Esther Durham in 1694. When Henry senior died in July 1701, Esther had three young sons to care for and was to give birth to their daughter, Mary, in September.
Esther lived on until 1724. As her sons, Henry and John, were also gardeners it is likely that she kept the nursery going. From 1727 Woodman’s property was assessed at £45 in the rate books, a far higher value than Parker’s Sutton Field alone. Perhaps it also included the Woodman family nursery. By 1728 he was sufficiently established to marry Eleanor Compton at St Paul’s Cathedral, reuniting two Parker bequests.
Henry and Eleanor’s first two children died when only a few days old in 1730 and 1732, but their third, Henry (1732-1774), worked in partnership with his mother after his father’s death. Their daughters were Elizabeth, wife of John Kirk, Mary (1741-1770) and Eleanor, who married Thomas Allen in 1768. ‘Kirk and Allen’ were paying land tax on jointly owned properties on the Strand in the 1790s and the 1847 tithe apportionment lists small market gardens held by Kirk and Allen, so gardening continued in later generations of the family.
Henry Woodman subscribed to Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary in 1731, amongst a number of prominent gardeners of his day. Surviving papers show that between 1729 and 1733 he supplied large amounts of plants and seeds to Henry Ellison of Gateshead Park in County Durham. Woodman dealt with Ellison’s agent, Woolley; his chatty letters offer advice and include good wishes to those he had met when he visited Gateshead Park. He offered apologies for delays in finding reliable boats to take the plants up the coast to the north east and usually named each vessel and its master.
In October 1730 he mentioned being able to supply ‘a new sort of pea that beats all I ever saw’ and said that he had been ‘bussey’ building a green house ‘a conveniency I very much wanted’. He commented on the weather: in 1730 ‘We have had vast plenty of all sorts of fruit this year and Exceeding Cheap’ but in 1731 ‘the dryness of the summer has made Standard peaches and Nectarines very scarce’.
The invoices list a variety of plants. In October 1729 Woodman sent 26 plums, 30 peaches and nectarines, 34 pears, 20 cherries, 15 apricots, 48 apples on paradise stocks, 108 gooseberries and currants, six berberies without stones, 200 raspberries and 400 strawberries. There were also flowering plants – damask roses, honeysuckles, anemones, polyanthus, tulips, striped lilies, crown imperials, Persian iris, hepaticas, snowdrops, crocus and auriculas.
The following December he supplied seeds for nearly 40 different kinds of vegetables and herbs, 100 asparagus roots, carnation layers, double white rocket and another 100 strawberries. Woodman wrote in 1730 ‘The Cowcumber & Mellon seed you may depend on to be as good (as) any in England haveing saved it all myself. Late in 1731 he sent trees and hedging plants (200 six-foot-tall elms and 1,500 two-foot hornbeams) with flowering shrubs and more fruit trees. In early 1732 he wrote to advise on the growing heights of the 1,000 flowering shrubs he was supplying, to help with the design of the planting. He continued to send plants and seeds until the end of 1733.
By then another gardener, Stephen Switzer, had convinced Ellison that Woodman was fixing his prices in league with Woolley. The latter lost his post and after indignant letters from Woodman, denying that he would ever do such a thing, Ellison placed the matter in the hands of a lawyer. Woodman’s prices compared well with those of other nurserymen but no further papers survive to show how this was resolved. Switzer, however, succeeded in supplanting Woodman at Gateshead Park.
In 1755 the quality of plants supplied by Woodman was endorsed by Thomas Hitt, a distinguished gardener, in his book, A Treatise of Fruit-Trees:
I must own I have received peach-trees and nectarines from Mr Henry Woodman of Strand on the Green in the county of Middlesex which I planted for the Reverend Mr Ewer of Bottisford near Belvoir Castle; all of them lived and some bore fruit the first year after planting, tho’ they were brought above a hundred miles, and only packed up with straw and matts; they have been planted nine years and are now strong healthy trees.
Henry Woodman served as a Chiswick church-warden in 1739/40. When he died in 1758 he was buried at St Nicholas where the register records that he was buried 12 feet deep, presumably a personal request. Of Henry and Eleanor’s five surviving children, four had been under 21 when he made his will in June 1755. He added a codicil a year later, changing his bequests after his daughter, Elizabeth, had married and his son William, ‘who is now lame’, had died. He left over £1,000 in bank annuities to be managed in trust by his widow, Eleanor, with the help of William Martin, a maltster and Strand on the Green neighbour.
Eleanor Woodman was a resourceful and reliable woman who was deeply involved in the nursery garden for many years more. She was executor to her brother William and witness to her brother Nicholas’ will. William Compton left a New Brentford freehold and his own house ‘fronting the Thames’ on Strand on the Green, as well as nearby garden ground, to his nephew Henry Woodman Junior, on condition that he worked in co-partnership with his mother. In the event she outlived him.
Eleanor’s own will, proved in 1784, shows her astute financial management. She left £2,000 in three per cent bank stock, twice the sum she had taken over in 1758 as executrix to her husband. There are bequests to sons in law, grandsons, nieces and nephews, and she left her Strand on the Green house to her only surviving child, Elizabeth Allen, revealing in passing that she herself had already moved out ‘to Chiswick’, with her servant Mary Hoskins.
In the early 1970s Kathleen Judges identified the six-acre plot which descended from Parker via the Comptons to the Woodmans as lying on the north east side of today’s Thames Road, and the further half acre on the riverside as being a plot which was a small market garden on the Tithe Map of 1847. Later owned by the Port of London Authority, which sold it for a housing development in 1971, it lies just downstream of Picton House. Mrs Judges identified this as Henry and Eleanor’s likely home.
The paths of these families must have crossed daily. They were in the same business over several generations, they were neighbours and would have had similar concerns about the weather and the prices they obtained for their plants and seeds. The role of the women as gardeners and managers of nurseries suggests that these were truly family businesses, with marriages between the families helping consolidate them. The scale of their operations, however, indicates that this community of gardeners had considerable power to provide employment for local people, probably on a seasonal basis. Further research is needed to understand more clearly the place of nursery gardens in the local economy during this period.
John H Harvey (1974) Early Nurserymen, Phillimore; Kathleen Judges (1969) Strand on the Green, B&CLHS & Hounslow Council; correspondence with J H Harvey in Kathleen Judges archive; Gateshead Public Library, (Ellison Papers): Woodman letters transcribed by J H Harvey in Early Nurserymen; National Archives: inventories and wills: PROB 3/33/73, PROB 11/569, PROB 20/323, PROB 11/837, PROB 11/1122, PROB 11/858, PROB 11/940, lease on Holland House E214/178; North Yorkshire County Council Record Office: Fauconberg accounts ZDV V 10. Special thanks to Sharron Clarke for her help with genealogical research.
Val Bott is a museum and heritage consultant. She is the author of Flood! The Brentford Flood of 1841, and chairs the organising committee for the West London Local History Conference.