The Hidden Horticulturists

When historic account is populated with individual stories it becomes real, all the more interesting and more accessible to us. Should we read of a First World War battle, with deaths in the thousands, we are duly shocked but should we be told of a young Lancashire lad, who was under age when he enlisted, whose mother was a widow and read of his actions and death on that fateful day we find it more engaging and more personal. This personal content, this approach to recording an era in gardening history, is what makes this book such a great success.

Shortly taking up a position at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library in London in 2012, Fiona Davison came on “a rather unprepossessing cardboard box on a shelf in my new basement office, labelled in pencil ‘Handwriting Book’. Inside was a slim cardboard-backed exercise book with a marbled cover and a maroon leather spine.”  This book was labelled “The Handwriting of Under-Gardeners and Labourers” and contained the handwritten entries of 105 young gardeners, who had been “received into the Society’s Garden” at Chiswick, 1823 – 9, recounting their gardening background and experience and who had proposed them for acceptance there.

Almost all are unknown to us – Joseph Paxton, being a notable exception – but the author was intrigued, wondering what had become of them; how their careers had developed after leaving the garden; had they met with success and fame; years in high position in great gardens or whatever…?

The individual stories are interesting and hold the reader’s attention but, perhaps rather peculiarly, the fact that they continue to be obscure personalities in the story of British horticulture actually adds to the attraction of this book for, far more than a collection of individual biographies, it provides a fabulous insight into horticulture at that time. These gardeners may have been working-class men but their contribution was enormous and helped shape gardening as we know it today.

So, you will enjoy the stories of gardeners, nurserymen, plant hunters, the odd cheat, fraudster and madman but, most of all, you will enjoy a wonderfully researched and well-written book which tells as much of British society and horticulture as it does of the people portrayed here.

Highly, highly, highly recommended – an exceptionally enjoyable and informative read.

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[The Hidden Horticulturists – The Untold Story of the Men who shaped Britain’s Gardens, Fiona Davison, Atlantic Books, London, 2019, Hardback, 352 pages, ISBN: 978-1-78649-507-5, £25]