Magazine article The Spectator

'The Gardens of the British Working Class', by Margaret Willes - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Gardens of the British Working Class', by Margaret Willes - Review

Article excerpt

Credit: Ursula Buchan

The Gardens of the British Working Class Margaret Willes

Yale, pp.413, £25, ISBN: 9780300187847

The vast majority of books written about British gardens and their histories are concerned with large ones, made and maintained, sometimes over several centuries, by people with money. 'Twas ever thus. In this country, recognisable gardens began in monasteries, as well as the surroundings of palaces and noblemen's houses, and it is only in the last couple of centuries that the middle classes have got into the act. As for the poor and dispossessed, theirs has been a very different story, too rarely told.

Which is why Margaret Willes'sThe Gardens of the British Working Class is so welcome, since the author brings together much scattered and hard-to-find information on, for example, the history of allotments, the 17th-century 'florists' and 19th-century flower shows, and weaves it into a narrative with a compelling underlying theme: namely that being poor and disadvantaged has never meant that you could not recognise beauty when you saw it. Over and over again, as the author proves, if you had no garden, you made one in a pot or a window-box.

Willes piles up example after example of how the working classes, especially of industrialised towns, went to quite enormous lengths to cultivate flowers and vegetables, and to bring life and colour into their lives. Most touching is a passage from the autobiography of Walter Southgate, the East End socialist leader, born in 1890:

Every year Father planted a few geraniums and blue lobelia plants, but with the soot, lack of sun and cinder ash in the soil they lingered to a premature death. If a tuft of grass appeared in the crevices of stone and clinker Mother would tend it as if it were a lily, so divorced was she from the country scene.

This book requires one to face up to how very horrible the lives of the working classes were, both in country and town, before the last century. And yet, despite or because of that, how deep has always been the urge to create beauty and scent, mark the passing of the seasons, and show yourself better than your fellows -- whether you were a 17th-century Huguenot handloom weaver with a potted auricula to tend in a barren backyard or a 19th-century Durham coal miner measuring the diameters of your 'pot' leeks in an effort to win a copper kettle at a local flower show.

The author marshals an immense amount of research sometimes chronologically, starting from about 1560, and sometimes thematically. …

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