Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

The Gardens of the British Working Class

Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

The Gardens of the British Working Class

Article excerpt

The Gardens of the British Working Class, By MARGARET WILLES. Yale University Press. 2014. pp. 413. £25.

In her introduction, Margaret Willes writes that 'studies have concentrated on the magnificent... and on the owners, the rich and the famous'. This is true of Monty Don's recent television series 'The Secret History of the British Garden'. It is much more difficult to find information on gardens of humbler origin, as Willes found when researching her book. What did people grow, and how did they view their plot in the sixteenth or nineteenth century? For answers, she had to scour the writing of travellers and poets, and other branches of literature. Many 'working-class' gardeners were not literate, or if they were, they did not have time to write between working long hours and cultivating. So many of her quotations are from people of more affluent backgrounds. First-hand accounts are few and far between, so it is particularly poignant to read of John Clare's account of how 'his family had a single russet tree in their tiny Northamptonshire garden, and would sell some of the apples.' When the apple harvest failed one year, his family was in danger of having to enter the workhouse.

Books of advice to gardeners proved a vital source. These were often written in verse, so that recommendations could be easily remembered. Thomas Tlisser's A Hundredth Points of Good Husbandrie, first published in 1557, was highly valued. As late as the early nineteenth century, John Clare mentions a copy of 'prime Tusser' as being part of a cottager's tiny library. As Willes writes, 'women gardeners were often passed over in silence by writers', thus it is even more difficult to discover the part women played. …

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