The 18th-Century “Garden City”

auricula_in_wooden_pot

‘Bear’s Ears’ (Auricula) in a wooden pot.

One of the joys of browsing in second-hand bookstores and sales is discovering odd or quirky facts, especially about times or places you thought you knew quite a lot about. Recently, sorting through a box of various ephemera, I chanced on several pamphlets which contained a good deal of items of precisely this kind.

I knew that Norwich had a reputation as a city of gardens as long ago as the 17th century. John Evelyn commented on “the flower gardens which all the Inhabitants excell in of this City.” While in 1682, Thomas Fuller described Norwich as “…(as you please) either a city in an orchard or an orchard in a city, so equally are houses and trees blended in it, so that the pleasure and the populousness of the city meet here together.”

What I didn’t know was that, by the 18th century, Norwich was a centre of what we would now call plant nurseries – commercial operations devoted to the breeding and growing of plants for pleasure gardens. I don’t mean medicinal plants or, save in special cases, plants grown for food. What the Georgians called “Florist’s Flowers” were non-native species like tulips, anemones, roses and auriculas (called “Bear’s Ears” at the time). All were bred and sold for planting in pots or borders, solely for the enjoyment of their flowers.

“Gardeners”

It seems likely that this unusual interest in flowers, perhaps especially tulips, came to Norwich by a combination of close trading links with the Dutch in the Low Countries, plus the 16th and 17th-century immigrants called ‘The Strangers’ – Huguenots from what is now Belgium and Northern France[1].

However the interest came about, Norwich had a number of tradesmen in the 17th and 18th centuries who called themselves ‘gardeners’ or ‘florists’. These were not people who weeded flowerbeds, tended people‘s vegetable patches or prepared bouquets. These were the skilled nurserymen and plant-breeders who produced new specimens of ‘Florist‘s Flowers’ for sale. Proof that these items had real value comes from inventories and, perhaps even more compelling, from accounts of thefts of plants.

Norwich Chronicle, 28th July 1781

For Sale

A very curious Collection of Flowers, consisting of Thirty Pots of very fine Carnations, a great Variety of curious Pinks, upwards of an Hundred Pots of very curious Auriculas, Tulips, etc, likewise some very fine Seedling Pinks. The above Flowers will be sold in single Pots, or in small Parcels, by applying to John JARMIN, near QUANTRELL’s Gardens. — Ranunculas, superfine dark and stripe Flowers, 2 pounds per Hundred.

Norwich Freemen Gardeners

It seems the Register of Norwich Freemen recorded tradesmen calling themselves gardeners beginning as early as 1659[2]. Most had premises within the city boundaries – further proof of the unusual mix of buildings and green spaces that characterised 17th and 18th-century Norwich.

In probate inventories, plants were usually valued by the bed, as “5 beds of Tulips at £3”. Flowers mentioned ranged from the tulips mentioned through bear‘s ears, gilly-flowers (carnations or July-flowers), myrtles, mysarians (Daphnes) to emmonies (anemones). That the represented valuable stock-in-trade is shown by an advertisement in 1707 offering a reward of three guineas (perhaps £400 in today’s purchasing power) for information leading to the recovery of “Tulips, Auriculas … and Emmonies … different from any sorts in these Parts of England.”

By the 18th century, advertisements mentioned several gardeners offering plants from city premises, including shops in the Cathedral Close, Oak Church Yard and Colegate. Individual collectors might also seek to dispose of prized plants. In 1709, a Mr Harnest, offered “a fine Collection of Bear’s Ears in London Pots … not having the Conveniency of a garden where he is going …” There was even an annual flower show, the “Florists’ Feast”, which became an important social event as well as a chance to earn renown by winning the various competitions.

Norfolk Chronicle, 28th July 1781.

To the Curious, and Florists, in Norwich.

At the Florists’ Feast, to be held at William HORTH’s, at the Shoulders of Mutton, near Black Friar’s Bridge, St Andrew’s, on Tuesday, July 31, will be a Show of Free-blowing Carnations, and a Prize given for the six best blown Flowers; each Gentleman to produce twelve Blooms at least, and the Flowers to be shewn [sic] by Two o’Clock.

Work for the Poor

Norwich Gardeners even show up in the records linked to the administration of the Poor Law in Holt, just over 20 miles from Norwich.

In 1785, Thomas Bridges aged 23 came before the magistrates, trying to establish settlement in Holt. In reciting his life history, he said he was an apprentice to John Dungar of Great Fransham, gardener, when aged 12. However, he didn’t take to the work and soon ran away to join The 65th Regiment of Foot. Two years earlier, James Dunnet had deposed that he had worked for both “William Black of Flixton in the County of Suffolk, nurseryman” and “Mr Macky[3] at the Norwich Nursery”, where he was still employed.

Summary

It’s fair to say that Norwich still deserved its reputation as an unusually ‘green’ city in the 18th century. Growing prosperity had encouraged an interest in gardening beyond the practical. Norwich seems also to have had more public Pleasure Gardens for its size than any other city outside London. Though lacking many of the garden plants we now take for granted, 18th-century garden owners showed a willingness to choose plants for their aesthetic value and novelty over considerations of utility. This may have been linked to the growth of the importance of ‘sensibility’ and a more romantic view of nature in general.

Thus, as gardens became more elaborate, the production of fresh cultivars turned into a significant business, and one in which Norfolk nurserymen were able to excel, thanks to light soils and a generally drier climate than other parts of the kingdom. Even today you will find many of the leading rose growers and bulb producers have addresses in Norfolk or Lincolnshire, while Bressingham Gardens are famous amongst devotees of herbaceous plants.

Just imagine. It may all be due to those far-off Huguenot refugees.


  1. They definitely introduced Norwich to the fashion for keeping song-birds in cages. As a result, Norwich City Football Club’s colours to this day are yellow and green and they are always known locally as ‘The Canaries’.  ↩
  2. I am indebted for much of the detail here to Ursula Priestley and Alayne Fenner‘s pamphlet, “Shops and Shopkeepers in Norwich, 1660–1730”, published in 1985 by The Centre for East Anglian Studies at the University of East Anglia.  ↩
  3. Macky (or Mackie or Mackey) was quite a substantial gardener or nurseryman in Norwich. Parson Woodforde did business with him, as did Mr Upcher when he was laying put Sheringham Park to the design of Humphrey Repton. He even did business on a grand, landscape scale for customers as far away as West Wales. Those charged with laying out the landscape for Ffynone, a country house in Pembrokeshire, sent Macky’s a huge order in 1796, amounting to 60,000 trees! The business survived well into the 19th century, under the leadership of his wife, then his descendants.  ↩

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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2 Responses to The 18th-Century “Garden City”

  1. Bridget.gardner1@btinternet.com says:

    Dear Mr Savage I am enjoying all your articles but found this one particularly fascinating. As Norfolk was so closely connected to Holland I wondered if short-lived ‘tulipmania’ of the 16th century affect Norwich? Regards Bridget Gardner

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    • Hi Bridget,
      I’m not aware of any specific involvement in “Tulipmania”, but Norfolk was definitely affected by the general Dutch love of flowers and flowering plants – tulips in particular, if the advertisements of the later 1700s are any indication.

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