A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 12, Chelsea. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2004.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
In this section
FARM-GARDENING AND MARKET GARDENING
Chelsea participated in the great expansion of market gardening around London between the 17th and 19th centuries, supplying the growing London market. By 1600 garden crops formerly imported into London from East Anglia were being grown closer to the city, particularly in the south-western parishes of Middlesex, where the easily-cultivated gravels together with use of dung from London made intensive commercial cultivation of vegetable crops possible. In 1607 the neighbouring parish of Fulham was mentioned as a carrot-growing area, (fn. 1) and as early as 1605 the Gardeners' Company of London had been founded to regulate market gardening. (fn. 2) Initially, the company was concerned with the activities of husbandmen in London itself, but by the reign of Charles I the company was also attempting to regulate those husbandmen in Kensington and Chelsea. From the mid 17th century intensive horticulture near London was also stimulated by a new fashion among the rich for a wide range of vegetables in their diet, which was then imitated by the middle classes. (fn. 3)
From at least the early 17th century many husbandmen in Chelsea included the intensive spade cultivation of roots and other garden crops in rotation with traditional arable crops such as wheat and barley, (fn. 4) which not only meant the survival of some corn-growing in Chelsea into the 19th century, but also ensured that Chelsea's open fields survived far longer than those in some other parishes around London, where land was used almost entirely for pasturing animals and for hay. Despite a penalty of £3 for ploughing it up, pasture in two of Blacklands closes next to the Westbourne was ploughed up each year between 1729 and 1734 by the tenant, Henry Linford, a gardener of Kensington, who leased 5 closes of Blacklands for 33 years from 1714; (fn. 5) the penalty was possibly because they were originally meadow and worth much more than ordinary pasture or arable, but it is likely that Linford was using them for market gardening.
Farmer-gardeners grew corn and vegetables without a fallow, a system made possible by heavily manuring the land with dung and night soil from London, and in Chelsea and Fulham they occupied much of the agricultural land from the early 17th century to the middle of the 19th. Their methods were so original that agricultural writers frequently drew attention to them and the lessons they could give to husbandmen elsewhere. Root vegetables were a particular speciality in Chelsea, with two or three crops taken each year, and often grown in rotation with corn or barley in Chelsea's open fields. (fn. 6)
The earliest indications of the practice in Chelsea concern the use of dung: William Arnold of Fulham, subtenant of part of the earl of Lincoln's estate in 1611, was manuring heavily a close near the Thames, buying dung brought by boat from London by the dung farmers or scavengers there. (fn. 7) Nicholas Holborne senior, lessee of the Farmhouse and land of Lincoln's estate, grew early peas on land by the Thames c. 1575 or later. (fn. 8) The house and a small close were later leased to Lodowick Briskett 1603-4, and although he was unlikely to have been seriously growing vegetables commercially, Briskett dug the ground at the back of his house and set part with cabbage plants and part with barley in order to experiment how yields might be increased. (fn. 9) William Wrennall, lessee of Hungerford's farm, was growing carrots and garden roots in addition to corn on the 32 a. called Sandhills in 1620. (fn. 10)
An increasing number of Chelsea residents were designated as gardeners in the 17th century, meaning in this period market gardeners, and included some of the leading inhabitants: James Leverett (d. 1662-3), gardener, was lessee of the Magpie inn and also had property in Lambeth. (fn. 11) Several gardeners in the late 17th century had only small acreages. Curtis Akers (d. 1686), who held land along the southern end of Chelsea creek in 1673 and was described as yeoman, (fn. 12) had 1½ a. of 'herbs and sparrow grass', 1 a. of carrots and parsnips, 1 a. of peas, 2 a. of beans, and 1½ a. of grass valued in April at his death. (fn. 13) Richard Samm (d. 1673) had ½ a. parsnips, 6 a. turnips and 2½ a. of wheat sown or planted by November. (fn. 14) The crops grown by Robert Hopperton (d. 1686), valued at £10, were not specified, but he also had 'glasses' valued at £2 10s. in his ground, which were bell glasses used for protecting early crops. (fn. 15) John Harvest in 1681 had 150 glasses valued at £4; a lease with about 14 years to come, of 6½ yards of land with a house and seeds sown, was valued at £50. (fn. 16) Not all the growers were small husbandmen however. Thomas Franklin, who leased a large acreage from the Greene family in the vicinity of the Royal Hospital, received compensation c. 1682 for his crop of turnips on ground taken for the Hospital. (fn. 17) Because of the large amount of turnips, carrots, beans, peas, and other similar crops 'with which the fields are for the most part sowed', the rector found it more convenient after 1670 to farm the tithes rather than collecting them in kind, and from 1694 individual farmers and gardeners compounded for their own tithes. (fn. 18)
When Pehr Kalm visited Chelsea in 1748, he observed that on all sides there was scarcely anything to be seen except orchards or vegetable market gardens. In the open fields were beans and cabbages, sometimes with the latter planted between the rows of beans, and asparagus, which grew up through the necks of broken bottles used for forcing. There were also numerous orchards with apples, pears, plums, and cherries. (fn. 19)
The value of market gardening both to owners and to occupiers was evident. By the 1690s the rector had let several small parcels of glebe near the rectory house to 'French gardeners', apparently Huguenots, who had thereby greatly improved his income from the rectory. (fn. 20) Owners of the manorial estate, William Cheyne, Lord Newhaven, and his successor Sir Hans Sloane, also leased land for garden use. Before 1713 Cheyne had leased 3 a. in Gospelshot by the highway to Westminster as garden ground to David Morgan, (fn. 21) who also leased 6 a. of glebe between King's Road and Burton's Court for the same purpose in 1717. (fn. 22) Cheyne had also leased a considerable acreage in Westfield to gardeners during the previous decade. Some of those leases were for land already in use for market gardening, such as the 3 a. held by George Burr or the 9 a. held by John Bartholomew, both in Westfield. Some leases, however, were for land in the process of conversion, such as the house and 5 a. converted to garden ground in Westfield, or the 4 a. 'latterly converted' held by John Wivell, again in Westfield. (fn. 23) A close called the Eighteen Acres near Little Chelsea belonging to William Mart and then Sir John Cope was converted to garden ground by 1733. (fn. 24) Landowners in Chelsea obtained much higher rents for garden ground. The 4 a. held by John Wivell, though only recently converted, still yielded over £3 an acre in rent, far higher than a similar area used for grain crops. Even higher rents could be charged for land which had been used for market gardening for some time and was therefore well manured: George Burr's 3 acres in Westfield were leased for £10 an acre, while the glebe land let to two other early market gardeners, Francis Duneau and John Narbonne, both fetched rents of about £15 an acre. (fn. 25) Similarly for the producer, though admittedly the labour of digging an acre by spade was far greater than ploughing, the return on the vegetable crops was even greater: in 1673 Richard Samm's 2½ a. of wheat was valued at £10, or £4 an acre, but ½ a. of parsnips at £4 (£8 an acre). (fn. 26) This may be on the high side, though, as Curtis Akers's vegetable crops in 1686 are all valued at £3 an acre. (fn. 27)
John Rubergall, who with his family occupied many parcels of land in Chelsea in the mid to late 18th century as well as in Brompton (Kens.), was a Frenchman said to have been the first person to grow lettuce successfully in England. (fn. 28) By the end of the 18th century, however, market gardening began to contract, as the value of land in Chelsea for building purposes started to outstrip its value as garden ground: between 1664 and 1795 the acreage of land cultivated as arable for the market was said to have fallen from 334 a. to 170 a., of which no more than 12 a. was used for corn. Pasture or meadow accounted for another 130 a., and about 12 a. was occupied by nurseries and florists. (fn. 29)
In 1800 most of the market garden ground lay in the west between the Ashburnham estate and Chelsea Creek, and between Little Chelsea and Stanley House. There were other smaller areas throughout the parish: Parsonage Close, the Eighteen Acres along the east side of Upper Church Lane, Dovehouse Close and part of Danvers House site, the unbuilt land behind the rectory and two fields across to Flood Street bordering King's Road, another small patch behind a house in King's Road half way between Flood and Smith streets, and the ground of the Royal Hospital south of the burial ground and north of Ranelagh rotunda. Land on the north side of King's Road east of Eighteen Acres was common garden field with the land in open parcels. (fn. 30) Some land was marked as nursery ground: Prince's field, Bull's small area, Cobvill's and the next plot on the west. The remaining undeveloped land was marked as paddocks or closes attached to large houses, or as meadow or pasture. The north part of the common was marked as meadow or pasture, the southern part as common land.
Arable accounted for 267 a. in 1801, possibly indicating under-accounting in 1795, but equally there may have been an increase in acreage because of war with the French. (fn. 31) Farmer-gardeners were still growing 37 a. of wheat, 24 a. of barley, and 16 a. of oats in Chelsea, although overshadowed by 140 a. of vegetables. Potatoes were the largest crop, with 43 a.; turnips (possibly including rape) remained a staple of Chelsea market gardening with 39 a., peas covered 30 a., and beans 28 a. (fn. 32) In neighbouring Fulham it was commented that peas, beans, and turnips were all grown for Covent Garden market, and were intermixed with other crops obscuring the true acreage of vegetables grown; corn land was sown with cabbages after harvest. (fn. 33) The same was doubtless true for Chelsea as well.
By the early 19th century, agriculture, presumably including market gardening, accounted for a very small proportion of the population of Chelsea. Only 183 out of 11,604 inhabitants were employed in farming in 1801, and the number employed in agriculture continued to decline, despite a threefold increase in the population of the parish, to only 87 people, mostly cowkeepers, out of 32,371 in 1831. (fn. 34)
Profitable though market gardening was, from the middle of the 19th century onwards it could not keep pace with the escalating value of land for building, as suburban London continued to expand westwards. In some cases, gardeners themselves were actively involved in the shift from gardening to building, as was the case at Bull's Gardens. This four-acre holding on the north side of Green Lettuce Lane was converted to a market garden before 1817, when it was sublet to John Bull, gardener, who was granted a new head lease for 52 years from 1825. The lease passed to John Bull of Birmingham, inspector of mail coaches, who in 1839 granted a lease for the remainder of the term to to the then occupier, William Davis or Davies, market gardener, together with fruit and other trees, a recently-built house, packing house, stable and outbuildings, and also the 22 small houses or cottages called Bull's Gardens, recently built on the land and presumably by one of the Bull family. In 1845 Davis took a building lease from Lord Cadogan of part of the property for additional speculative building. (fn. 35)
Alongside commercial market gardening, Chelsea also became noted for its nursery gardens, which like market gardening was stimulated by a fashionable taste which developed for exotic plants and trees. The early growth in the industry is obscure: John Burton (d. c. 1680) of Little Chelsea, who leased 3 a. of garden ground and left a share in the flowers growing on half an acre to his younger daughter, (fn. 36) may be an early harbinger of the trade. In 1712 Narcissus Luttrell bought 25 varieties of pear from nurserymen near Little Chelsea, some of whom may have been in Chelsea parish, (fn. 37) and Kalm commented in 1748 that many gardeners had nurseries from which they sold plants to the gentry. (fn. 38) An observer in 1798 remarked on Chelsea as one of the select parishes east and west of London where much ground was occupied by nurserymen 'who spare no expense in collecting the choicest sort, and greatest variety of fruit trees, and ornamental shrubs and flowers, from every quarter of the globe', all cultivated to a high degree of perfection. Many of their plants were exported annually to Europe and Russia, but still more were sold in England. (fn. 39)
Although early details of the industry are unclear, several nurserymen became extremely well known, as did the businesses they founded; Bull's, Weeks's, Davey's, and Colvill's nurseries were household names in England, and Veitch's was internationally famous. (fn. 40) While market gardening quickly shrank before the expansion of building in Chelsea in the 19th century, nurseries were less affected. Partly this was because they needed much less open space in Chelsea itself, sometimes only keeping their retail outlet there while using cheaper land in the Home Counties to grow their stock for sale, but also because nurserymen could for a while afford ever-increasing rents, with the fashion for rare and unusual plants and trees. (fn. 41) From the 18th century the main premises of many of Chelsea's leading nurseries were situated in King's Road, which was very much the fashionable hub of nursery gardening in West London and south-west Middlesex, and nurserymen from neighbouring Kensington and Brompton also had showrooms there. Between the 1750s and 1916 25 nursery-gardening firms are known to have had premises in King's Road; nurserymen with their main grounds in Battersea, Hackney, Sunbury, and elsewhere also had show nurseries in King's Road. (fn. 42)
Eventually nurseries, too, began to be swallowed by the westward expansion of suburban London, and though the larger firms of Veitch, Wimsett, and Bull all survived into the 20th century, Veitch and Wimsett had closed by the First World War and Bull soon after it. (fn. 43) By the end of the 20th century the once-famous trade was represented by local garden centres at World's End and in Sydney Street.
Leading Nurseries and Nurserymen
James Colvill (King's Road Nursery). A nurseryman and florist (c. 1746-1822), he raised a number of new roses and was involved in the early development of the China roses. He had a remarkable collection of plants, many of which were the subjects of plates and descriptions by Robert Sweet, who was employed by Colvill and his son James from 1819 to 1831: the best-known of his publications was The British Flower Garden (1838), with 712 coloured plates. (fn. 44) In 1795 Colvill was singled out in Chelsea as carrying on a very extensive business in the sale of scarce exotic plants, the culture of which had 'been brought to very great perfection'. (fn. 45) It was also notable for the quality of its geraniums. (fn. 46) Colvill senior founded his King's Road nursery c. 1783 on 2½ a. of the Warton estate on the north side of the highway near the junction with Blacklands Lane. It was known as Colvill & Buchanan in 1790, and Colvill & Son by 1807; James junior (1777-1832) carried on after his father's death. The nursery was distinguished for the first real display of the garden chrysanthemum in Britain in 1795, and later for hybridization of pelargoniums, gladioli, and hippeastrums; by 1811 it specialized in rare exotics and forced flowers, having between 30,000 and 40,000 sq. ft under glass. Colvill's occupied a second nursery at Roehampton by 1827. From 1834 to 1840 the nursery was occupied by Adams & Durban. (fn. 47) William Salisbury (Cadogan Gardens). A gardener and botanist (d. 1823), in 1792 he became a pupil and partner of William Curtis of Pond Place, Chelsea, whose nursery was on the north side of Fulham Road at Queen's Elm, Brompton (Kens.). In 1807 Salisbury sold his ground at Queen's Elm and acquired 6 acres on the east side of Sloane Street forming the south end of the gardens in Cadogan Place and opened the London Botanic Garden, an example of the nursery garden as entertainment, since he intended to hold lectures and concerts there. He wrote books on botanic subjects but the garden was not a success and was taken over by James Charles Tate in 1822. Tate renamed it the Nursery and Botanic Garden and was more successful, possibly because he concentrated on the selling and nursery side rather than the botanic and educational. He imported plants from Mexico, South America, and China. In 1842 it was taken over by James Hunter Tuck, who had moved from Eaton Square (St George, Hanover Sq.) and it continued until 1876. (fn. 48)
Thomas Davey (Kings Road). A florist (1758-1833), he moved from Camberwell to a half-acre site on the west side of Colvill's by 1798, and was nationally famous for Florists' Flowers, especially carnations, pinks, and tulips, and for pelargoniums; he imported tulips from France and camellias from China. Part of his ground was given up to Downing's floorcloth factory prior to 1828, and his nursery closed with his death. (fn. 49)
Little's Botanic Nursery, Kings Road. Thomas Little established a nursery in Upper Gloucester Place in King's Road by 1821, and by 1832 the nursery was listed as that of Henry and Thomas Little, and called Little's Botanic Nursery in 1836. Some land was given up for building in 1844 and again in 1850, when the proprietor was Henry Little, Florist, Nursery and Seedsman to the Queen, who was selling off fruit trees and shrubs. By 1854 the proprietor was Henry Thomas Little, (fn. 50) whose premises were at nos 99 & 101 King's Road in 1878. (fn. 51) It was said to have closed c. 1892. (fn. 52)
Joseph Knight (Kings Road). A nurseryman (c. 1781- 1855), he had been gardener to a wealthy plant collector in Clapham and eventually acquired the collection and brought it to Chelsea, where in 1808 he opened his Exotic Nursery at Stanley Place, between King's and Fulham roads, just east of Stanley House. (fn. 53) By 1829 he had erected a large Conservatory and several other buildings, housing camellias, orange trees, evergreen exotic shrubs, acacias, rhododendrons, and many plants from southern Africa and elsewhere. The collection was said to have become 'so much increased, that it is now one of the most respectable in the vicinity of London'. It included alpine plants, hardy herbaceous plants in open borders, many rare shrubs, and fruit trees, and there was heating for tropical plants. (fn. 54) Pineapples and fuchsias were also among early specialities; conifers later became prominent in his collection, of which he published a catalogue in 1840 with 140 species and varieties. By 1850 he had been joined in the business by Thomas Perry; the catalogue they published showed the King's Road premises with an awning over the footpath to protect their patrons when they alighted from their carriages. Their stock included hardy ornamental trees and shrubs, many personally acquired abroad; beautiful and fashionable American plants, rhododendrons and azaleas; fruit trees supplied from their nursery at Battersea; hot-house plants, including Indian azaleas and camellias; seeds and bulbs; standard bay trees in tubs. The firm could also supply trained gardeners. (fn. 55) The business was bought in 1853 by James Veitch & Sons.
James Veitch & Sons (Kings Road). In 1853 the Exeter firm of James Veitch & Sons bought Knight's nursery business and leased the site, developing the nursery so that within a few years it had become internationally famous and the most important in England. In 1863 the London business, known by 1878 as the Royal Exotic Nursery, (fn. 56) under James Veitch the younger was separated from the Exeter firm, and three additional nurseries were developed in the Home Counties where trees, shrubs, and plants were grown.
James's eldest son, John Gould Veitch, was a well-known plant collector in Japan, and his second son, Harry James (1840-1924), took over running the business on his father's death in 1869. Harry was a powerful personality with commercial acumen and imagination which brought a new standard to the nursery trade, and he was one of the few horticulturalists to be knighted, in 1912. From the 1880s to 1914 Veitch's dominated the nurserymen's world. The firm's scientific outlook ensured that their collectors contributed much information to scientific institutions: they were instructed to collect information and specimens wherever possible of all kinds of natural objects likely to be of value to learned institutions. The company's outstanding achievement was probably to promote the first journey into western China, which eventually resulted in some of the best-known garden plants reaching England. In addition to bringing in new plants, the firm also produced many hybrids, employing some of the greatest plant hybridizers of the day, including John Dominy (1816-91), successful with orchids and fuchsias, and John Seden, who worked for Veitch's from 1861 and during his career produced 490 hybrid plants thought worthy of sale to the public. Harry Veitch retired in 1912, but the nephew who succeeded him did not have his ability, and Sir Harry closed the nursery in 1914, selling off the stock but not the name. Kew Gardens acquired some of Veitch's rare trees and shrubs. The 2½ a. site at Chelsea was sold. (fn. 57)
John Weeks (King's Road). By 1816 Edward Weeks had established a nursery in King's Road, but sometime before 1836 he had turned to developing the design and heating of horticultural buildings. His son John Weeks, described as Horticultural Builder and Hotwater Apparatus Manufacturer, carried on his business as J. Weeks & Company on the north side of King's Road between nos 124 and 126, midway between Keppel and Bywater streets, (fn. 58) held under a lease of 76 years from 1842 from George Downing and formerly the site of John More's nursery, 1822-7. (fn. 59) In 1857 the national press covered the opening of the 'magnificent winter garden' of Weeks & Company, described as horticultural architects, in their King's Road premises. The large conservatory included bays, orange trees, myrtles, fancy geraniums, azaleas, and many varieties of camellias, and mentioned one of the partners, Charles Gruneberg, son of a German nurseryman, who had been in England for 25 years. (fn. 60)
In 1855 Weeks also leased one acre further west along the north side of King's Road, between Gunter Grove and Maud Grove, from James Gunter, and purchased the freehold from Robert Gunter in 1857. (fn. 61) On the northern part adjoining Edith Road stood a groom's cottage, stables, coachhouse, workshops, and a covered yard used by Weeks's business; the larger part to the south was leased to William Bull for 28 years in 1863 with a house, outbuildings and forcing houses, conservatories, greenhouses, and seed houses, at £300 a year. When he retired in 1869 John Weeks vested his business in Alfred G.W. Weeks, George Deal, George Lillywhite, and Alexander Saunders, all horticultural builders. The groom's cottage, coachhouse, and stables were reserved to Weeks and his wife Lucy for life, and Alfred Weeks and the others were to pay annuities to John and his wife. Articles of partnership between Alfred Weeks and the others were drawn up in 1869. In 1874 Weeks contracted to sell to Bull the freehold of the latter's leasehold, then known as Bull's Establishment for New and Rare Plants, for which Bull would pay to Weeks (d. c. 1879) and his wife £500 annually during their lives. The company continued to be called J. Weeks & Company, Horticultural Builders, becoming a registered company limited by shares in 1897, to which the two surviving partners, Alfred Weeks and Alexander Saunders, assigned and conveyed the leasehold and freehold premises. The firm seems to have ceased business c. 1908. The remaining freehold adjoining Bull's nursery, then fronting Fernshaw Road, was sold to Messrs Derry & Toms in 1910, and in 1925 was sold by their successor, John Barker & Company, to Watney, Combe, Reid & Company.
William Bull (King's Road). A market gardener called John Bull had premises at Green lettuce Lane near the top of Blacklands Lane by 1817, giving his name to Bull's Gardens, but had apparently left the area by 1839; (fn. 62) any relationship to William Bull, who was born in Winchester in 1818, is unknown. William Bull apparently acquired the nursery of John Weeks in 1861, (fn. 63) and in 1863 took a 28-year lease from Weeks of part of the nursery at no. 536 King's Road, at the corner of Gunter Grove (above). Bull purchased the nursery outright in 1874, changing the name to Bull's Establishment for New and Rare Plants. (fn. 64) In 1878 he was called a new plant merchant. (fn. 65) He specialized in greenhouse plants and in pelargoniums, fuchsias, and verbenas; Chelsea Gem, a pelargonium he introduced in 1880, is still grown. He later specialized in orchids and became one of the three great orchid growers of the period: his annual orchid exhibition, which started in 1883, became one of the sights of the London season. (fn. 66) Bull also acquired nursery ground on the south side of Wimsett's nursery in Ashburnham Road, and when he died c. 1902 he had just over 3 acres with glasshouses. (fn. 67) He left his business to his sons William and Edward: William junior died in 1913 but Edward continued to develop the orchid business, producing large numbers of hybrid plants and opening up new markets by bringing down the price. In 1916 he retired as a nurseryman and devoted his time to the nursery's two specialities, Bull's Plant Food and Bull's Fumigating Compound, at no. 536. (fn. 68) By 1920 the business had ceased and Edward sold the site for £19,500. (fn. 69)
James William Wimsett (Ashburnham Park Nursery, King's Road). Wimsett's nursery was founded in 1859, and by 1861 employed six men; it was enlarged after Cremorne Gardens were closed in 1877. Its proximity to the more famous nurseries of Veitch and Bull may have helped its business. After James Wimsett retired in 1904 the site of over 2 acres was offered for sale for building; the nursery continued under Wimsett's son Henry until 1907 when the site was used for a school. (fn. 70)