3rd August 1803. Gardens, Peaches and Bananas.
Today in 1803 the entrepreneur and gardener Joseph Paxton was born; next year at Hatchard’s bookshop in Piccadilly a meeting was held which eventually became the Royal Horticultural Society. (1)
It was May 1826 when Paxton arrived at Chatsworth, the seat of the Duke of Devonshire at 4.30 am, when as he later said, ‘ I climbed over the wall, looked around the grounds and set the men to work at 6,00 am…’(2)
As the century progressed new features arrived in the big gardens with the greenhouse, conservatory, rock garden and ‘ferneries’. Landscape gardening experts were keen to promote their art in individualistic styles with Loudon first codifying a style known as ‘gardenesque’ as opposed to the large-scale ‘picturesque’ epitomised by Humphry Repton.
The 19th century was the age of the world-wide plant collectors with new species coming from the far-east including China and Japan, which saw Rhododendrons and Camellias being introduced, though then thought too tender to be planted outside.
The first recorded case of the single, red-flowered Camellia japonica, was brought back by Lord Petre in 1739 from China. Grown in a greenhouse at Thorndon Hall, Essex, all but one died, but fortunately painted for posterity in 1749. (3)
An early pioneer was Thomas Rivers born in 1798 in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, trading at a nursery growing a mixture of cabbage plants, flowers and fruit trees.
In 1835 was to write a catalogue of roses and later was to correspond with the great evolutionist, Charles Darwin on fruit in his work on botany.
However he decided to specialise in oranges, growing 3,000 plants and by 1876 when fruit growing in California proved unsatisfactory, he sent trees including a variety called Valencia Late. It proved so successful that the State became synonymous with citrus fruits.
Another success was peach growing where Rivers by extending the ripening season managed to get one matured by 4th July, named Early Beatrice in honour of Victoria’s youngest child.
Then came Early Louise on the 8th July for Princess Louise, and a later list of ‘earlies’ included Victoria and Albert, and late seedlings named after the Prime Minister, Palmerston and his wife in September and October.
Thomas’ son Thomas Francis taking over the business developed the famous Conference pear, still popular today, named from the time he was Chairman of The International Fruit Conference in 1888.
Post World War I the ‘big’ houses with their gardens, which had constituted the main customers of the Rivers Company, gradually disappeared, and in 1985 after 265 years of trading the nursery closed.
Meanwhile Paxton diversified into design which included the Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition, the inspiration coming from the veins of a water-lily. He bred the Cavendish banana in the hot-houses at Chatsworth in 1836, the variety now mainly consumed in the west.
Then he became a director of a railway company, and was knighted by Victoria, but all the time being Head Gardener at Chatsworth. He died at Sydenham in 1865, truly a man of his time.
(1) March 7th 1803 and attended by Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, John Wedgwood (son of Josiah the potter), William Forsyth, gardener to George III.
(2) 9th May 1826 Paxton arrived at Chatsworth.
(3) Greenhouse mentioned in Austen’s, Sense and Sensibility P 233, to be built on a knoll, though the walnut trees were to be sacrificed.
Ref: Gardeners’ Chronicle, May 9th 1914.