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Society, Politics & Law

The working-class garden

Updated Thursday 24th September 2015

Thinking Allowed ranges across the history of gardening amongst the lower classes - the role of women, and how programmes like Ground Force threw working class traditions out to make way for all that decking.

Laurie Taylor:
Sometime in the early ‘70s I found myself in the back room of a very large estate pub chairing a meeting of local council tenants. Well as I remember, the meeting had been organised by a couple of tenants who felt particularly aggrieved by a recent rent rise, and by a university lecturer who thought that this grievance might, might, if properly directed, turn into a rent strike which might, when even further amplified, play some small part in initiating a proletarian revolution….As I say, it was the early ‘70s.

All went reasonably well for the first half-hour. A tenant chronicled the persistent failure of the council to effect repairs and the man from the Politics Department linked the latest round of rent rises to the international crisis in capitalism. But when he then proceeded to talk of what might be achieved by a revolutionary rent strike, a man at the back interrupted. "You won't find this lot on the barricades", he said, sweeping his hand round the audience, "They're all too busy pricking out their marigolds."

Freshly dug vegetables Creative commons image Icon Sarah R under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license

I remembered that incident as I was reading a new book called The Gardens of the British Working Class which reveals the part that gardens have played in the lives (and indeed the politics) of working class people from the 1500s to the present day. And its author is Margaret Willes, previously publisher for the National Trust, and she now joins me in the studio together with Lisa Taylor, who's principal lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University and she is the author of A Taste for Gardening: Classed and Gendered Practices.

Margaret, it’s a fascinating book and I just want to take you back really to begin with, because we were just talking there about this working class interest – here we were in this meeting and someone saying you’ll never going to get them out the gardens on to the barricades at all. But if we go right back we can show, as you demonstrated in your book, a working class involvement, interest in gardening right back – many centuries ago, I mean you go right back to this man Thomas Tusser, tell me about him.

Margaret Willes:
Thomas Tusser was a writer on all kinds of subjects including gardening and husbandry but he was also a farmer in East Anglia.

Laurie Taylor:
What year was he around?

Margaret Willes:
Well he was around the – his books were sort of from the 1550s through to 1570s, his most famous book The Five Hundred Good Points of Husbandry was in the 1570s, actually it came out after his death.

Laurie Taylor:
And what was he writing about, what was in this book and who was it addressed to?

Margaret Willes:
Wel he was writing to his country cousins, about how they should run their farm, how they should farm, how they should till their fields - but also how they should look after their gardens. And husbandry and gardening are absolutely intertwined at this period.

Laurie Taylor:
And you say in your book that he was talking to women about this?

Margaret Willes:
Well this is really extraordinary – he refers to "wife to thy garden" and he makes it clear that the wife was the person who looked after the garden while her husband was probably working on the strips, common strips in the fields.

Laurie Taylor:
We can’t talk about the "working class", obviously at this particular stage in history, we’re talking about poor people. And it was written in rhyme which you interestingly say because it was written in rhyme perhaps this allowed people who couldn’t read to memorise it.

Margaret Willes:
Yes, Sir Walter Scott was the person who pointed this out. And if you think about how people also use proverbs and use rhymes to remind themselves of things it would seem that this is why he chose this.

Laurie Taylor:
Let’s hear this rhyming instruction anyway from Thomas Tusser:

In March and in April from morning to night
in sewing and setting good housewives delight,
to have in their garden or some other plot
to trim up their house and to furnish their pot.
Have melons at Michaelmas, parsnips in Lent,
in June buttered beans, save a fish to be spent.
With those and good potage enough having than
thou winnest the heart of thy labouring man.

Now let me turn to you Lisa. As Margaret was pointing out, here we’re talking about women being told how to do it and how to get on with the gardening. But your own work which is looking at gender practices in gardening, the divisions between men and women; Largely throughout history the – women are pretty silent as gardeners aren’t they?

Lisa Taylor:
Well that’s right, and one of the things that I really liked about Margaret’s book is that she takes a layered approach through the book and one of the things that she does is that she gives voice to ordinary gardeners by selecting particular individuals who show the kind of colour and form that gardening took as a lived practice. I mean most of the figures that she talks about through the book, people like John Duncan from the 1790s, Thomas Tryon, Briton Abbot, Thomas Fairchild, just some of the people she talks about, but she talks about Grace Mildmay, I think, who dies in 1620 and isn’t she responsible, Margaret, for sort of vital remedies at that period?

Margaret Willes:
Yes - but of course she was a Lady.

Laurie Taylor:
Not a working class gardener?

Margaret Willes:
No she was gentry; but I think she represents – she wasn’t the only person who dispensed medicines, although she did it on quite a large scale to her tenants but I’m sure that the housewives were doing the same.

Laurie Taylor:
I want to turn now – and this is something you talked about the way in which this word florist, which I’ve been using easily, I hadn’t realised the derivation. Earlier on when "florists" – that word initially came in – it wasn’t referring to people who grew and sold, it wasn’t a selling thing, it was the name of the people who spent their time with flowers, growing flowers.

Margaret Willes:
They were like the bird fanciers.

Laurie Taylor:
Yeah that’s right. Now the floristry movement – when did this floristry movement start, what was it?

Margaret Willes:
Well I think it started in the 16th Century and it probably started in Europe in the Low Countries where the Dutch and the Flemish are very good – always have been good at horticulture. And they were fascinated by the bulbs that were being brought over from Turkey in particular – tulips, narcissi, hyacinths, carnations, not the carnations of bulbs and they wanted to sort of experiment with them and to see what they could make of them. And the Turks were brilliant at breeding tulips so they were taking this on and then it is believed, although it is very difficult to find the evidence for it, that they brought them over as refugees to England, religious refugees, from the Low Countries when the Spanish were persecuting them as Protestants.

Laurie Taylor:
Suddenly the word efflorescence occurs to me. A working class interest in gardening and in flowers. You talk about the way in which the handloom weavers were particularly interested in developing flowers and their position at home enabling them to get on with. Here’s an East End physician – this is from the 1840s – an East End Physician describing the gardens of Bethnal Green hand loom weavers:

The weary artisan and the toil worn weaver here dedicate their spare hours in the proper seasons to what has always been considered a refined, as well as an innocent, recreation – the cultivation of beautiful flowers. The love of the beautiful and the sense of order which are readily accorded to the artisan or weaver in his neat garden surrounded by the choicest delilahs or tulips carefully cultivated are denied to him when visited in his filthy dirty street. When seen in his damp and dirty home he is generally accused of personal uncleanliness and a disregard for the commonest appearances of decency and regularity, yet in his garden he displays evidences of a refined and a natural order.

Refined natural order, beauty – all this being credited to these weavers whose otherwise existence is described as mean. Now you’ve done some research, haven’t you, in recent years in Yorkshire talking to people there. Do you find an equivalent of this floristry movement now, that fascination?

Lisa Taylor:
I did interviews in the 1990s with about 25 gardeners in a semi-industrial town and most of them were married people but a couple of the men that I’d spoken to actually had floristry businesses, which is rather different from the kind of amateur floristry that Margaret sets up in her book. But what I found was that the men that I spoke to denied practices of beautification but actually that’s precisely what they were concerned with, and they were quite keen to talk about the ways in which they’d got the touch and feel for putting together things like funeral wreaths or wedding bouquets. And in a sense it wasn’t what one had expected in terms of beautification going with masculinity.

Laurie Taylor:
Now I want to keep on this class angle for a moment with you. If we talk about differences between gardening styles now, which can be called working class or middle class, are there those differentials now?

Lisa Taylor:
Oh well I would say so certainly. The people that I spoke to, the kinds of aesthetics that the working class people were doing very much concerned with tidiness, very much concerned with bedding plants, which Margaret talks about at length, the blaze of colour – which Margaret you refer to again and again in your book at different historical junctions. Bedding out was something that working class gardeners were really concerned with. Whereas the middle class people I spoke to absolutely drew a distance from that. Much more in the kind of William Robinson natural forms, textures, colours, gardening wasn’t a labour for the middle class people I spoke to, they made sure there were no – clean earth so that no weeds could settle. Whereas the working class people I spoke to were much more interested in making gardening a hard work practice.

Laurie Taylor:
And that class element is there of course also in the other movement which you pay attention to which is the allotment movement, I mean the introduction of allotments in the 18 Century, the idea that the working class could perhaps work harder on their own land to produce vegetables for themselves. And quite explicitly we come across reference to the fact, don’t we, that the possession of allotments means to say that some working class men don’t get involved in politics.

Margaret Willes:
Yes absolutely, keeps them out of the pub and it stops them arguing. I mean the Chartists at first were not happy about people gardening [or] having allotments because they thought it was distracting them.

Laurie Taylor:
Not on the barricades while they’re pricking out their marigolds.

I want to talk about just bringing it up to date, Lisa, you’ve had a look at the ways in which gardening programmes themselves have had an impact, if you like, upon class and gardening.

Lisa Taylor:
Well I mean in the late 1990s the garden was the most fashionable lifestyle thing to be doing. I mean it was no accident that Vogue called gardening the new sex in 1998. And there were a number of – I mean lots and lots of programmes, the BBC flagship programme Ground Force, for example. So my work looked at that key moment in British broadcasting history where the garden – there was a veritable explosion of gardening programmes at that time and I wanted to look at the relationship between what those programmes were urging people to do and what people were actually doing. But my real beef with those programmes, what really made me cross, was that I argue that the aesthetics of those programmes were middle class and that in the process of the makeover working class aesthetics were just bulldozed. So the bedding out literally got lifted up and in its place you’d get Italianate, topiary and Terry and Joan.

Laurie Taylor:
There we are, class war in the garden. Fascinating, thank you very much Lisa Taylor and Margaret Willes.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on 16th April, 2014

 

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