Book review – The Gardens of the British Working Class

Clare Hickman on a look at the often contentious role of gardens and gardening in the lives of Britain's working classes

Book review – The Gardens of the British Working Class
Author: Margaret Willes
Publisher: Yale University Press
Reviewed by: Clare Hickman
Price (RRP): £25

There has been a welcome recent trend of historians exploring the story of gardens from a wide range of perspectives. This means that, happily, the focus is no longer simply on the visual merits and political backgrounds of elite landscape gardens such as Stourhead, Stowe and Blenheim, but also on other places including allotments, hospital gardens and factory gardens. Margaret Willes’s overview of working-class gardens adds to this growing body of literature, and provides a great introduction to an often overlooked history.

Willes has taken an ambitious approach to the subject. Her book covers a lengthy time period – 400 years – and a variety of types of gardening, from home backyards and domestic window boxes to market gardens and allotments. She also explores the lives of people who were employed as gardeners. Her narrative is developed through a rich tapestry of archive records and literary sources, as she attempts to uncover how lower classes experienced these different spaces.

The book’s scope necessarily means that it covers some areas in more detail than others. Its chronological structure also proves problematic given the range of material, and a thematic approach may have given Willes the opportunity to explore recurring ideas in some depth. The switch between commercial and domestic gardening, in particular, sometimes feels a bit abrupt, as these are quite different activities with distinct, if related, cultural and social histories.

One of the most striking themes – which could perhaps have been drawn out even further – is the apparently constant tension between social classes in relation to the role of gardens. For example, Willes mentions the initial concerns expressed by Chartist reformers about the necessity of allotments, which it was thought might distract the lower classes from the central aim of securing political reform.

This was in contrast to the upper and middle classes, who felt that allotments were necessary to keep workers away from the alehouse and other disreputable activities. This seems to be part of an ongoing divide between, on the one hand, how the upper and middle classes viewed the moral role of gardens for the poor and, on the other, how the lower classes used them. This was played out at Port Sunlight on Merseyside, where the front gardens were managed by the Village Estate Department rather than the residents, and in the 1930s when tenants of London council housing could be faced with eviction if their gardens were not kept up to standard.

From the mass of material that Willes has scrupulously collected, fascinating stories emerge: that of the northern lad, for example, who requested gardening help in a newspaper and was sent a rock garden by the influential and prolific Edwardian horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll. Or the fact that, in the 17th century, certain areas of London became known for particular types of vegetables: Barnes for peas, for instance, Battersea for cabbage and Deptford for onions. Thanks to books such as this, historians can no longer ignore the stories of these other gardens, created outside of the estate boundary.

Clare Hickman is a research fellow at King’s College London

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