Burghley's Beloved Head Gardener
This day in 1821 saw the birth of Richard Gilbert, head gardener for thirty years at Burghley House, breeder of new apple, melon and brassica varieties and one of the most influential and beloved Stamford residents of the Victorian era. Richard was a personal friend of Thomas Laxton and would have known many of the Waterfurlong gardeners. They undoubtedly grew some of his wonderfully-named apples - St Mary's Street, The Post Office, The Butcher and The Penny Post - as well as his prized Chou de Burghley.
In August 1875 The Gardeners' Chronicle published the following short biography of Richard. We can imagine him setting out to survey the Burghley gardens after choosing a top hat from his huge collection!
'This fine specimen of a British gardener, whose portrait we place before our readers to-day, was born at Worksop on August 6, 1821. His father was the proprietor of the Red Lion Hotel, but the son, not relishing either hotels or horses, was always to be found in his grandfather’s garden, and at the age of twelve years was allowed to dig the south border for early Potatoes – a great privilege in his estimation. “After staying at home until I reached the age of fourteen,” writes Mr Gilbert, “and having already filled the position of principal foreman for two years under my grandfather, I was apprenticed to Mr John Wilson, Worksop Manor Gardens, whom I served for seven years. Worksop Manor was then the property and occasional residence of The Earl of Surrey. The glass-houses were among the best in England, and gardening was well carried-out at the Manor. Pines [ed: pineapples] and vines were here done to perfection; the former I have seen 11 ¾ lb (Providence), grown in pots, and by-the-by, splendid houses of succession plants, and a fine canopy of Grapes overhead. Here I used to visit Welbeck, Clumber, Thoresby and Osberton, and being quite the white-headed boy with my excellent friends, Mr Tillery and Mr Moffatt – the former still at Welbeck, and the latter then at Clumber – they always showed me round themselves, and took the greatest interest in my welfare generally. I am happy to say that the friendships then formed last to this day.
“After my seven years’ stay at Worksop Manor, I was sent to Arundel Castle, under Mr R Wilson, where, I believe, I filled every place in the gardens except the master’s; first flower-garden foreman, then kitchen-garden foreman, and afterwards, when the lamented Mr McEwen took charge, general foreman. I cannot pretend here to relate the great ability and success with which Mr McEwen filled the position he held there, but I may say I never saw George McEwen’s master at growing Strawberries. Grapes and Pines he was not so successful with, but as a general horticulturalist his name stood high, and deservedly so.
“After spending about ten years at Arundel, which were among the happiest days of my life, my old master, Mr John Wilson, recommended me to Dr Lindley, and I shall never forget my first interview with “the Doctor.” He scanned me closely, asked me a great many queer questions, but at last said “I want you to wait upon Yarborough Yarborough Esq, at the Pall Mall Club, and you will come back and let me know how you get on." I kept the appointment and was engaged for my first place in a very short time. I then returned to the Doctor (an errand I did not much relish), but, however, we got on very well, he giving me a few instructions how to proceed. Mr Yarborough’s place was Sewerby House, Bridlington Quay, where we had a large orangery, and conservatory and several half-span and lean-to pits, and houses for Grapes, Peaches, Figs &c. Here I soon discovered that though head gardener, I had about half the power I had when foreman. However, I rubbed on till the August of the following year, when I had to exhibit my produce at the Bridlington Quay flower show – where I won eighteen first prizes, ten seconds and four thirds, and received £3 12s 6d for thirty-two pieces (a large amount was it not?) – and was then questioned as to “what I intended to do with the money”. This astonishing success encouraged me to stay a little longer, and the following year I repeated my successes. Not liking Yorkshire so well as a more southern clime, I went to my old master (McEwen) at the Royal Horticultural Gardens, Chiswick. From this time dates my friendship with the present worthy superintendent, with whom I have mown short grass in the arboretum from four in the morning until nine at night. I was after a time put under Ben Hyde (what Chiswick man has not kindly recollection of “Old Ben”?) in the distribution department, and I should like publicly to thank Ben for the disinterested kindness I received at his hands in those days and since.
“From the Society’s gardens I went to take charge of the gardens of Samuel Rickards Esq, Shalimar, Acton, where I found two little vineries and a conservatory. While in this situation, I believe I was the first to patronise Sir Joseph Paxton’s ‘hothouses for the million’, getting first two little lean-tos, subsequently, two Peach-houses, an Orchard-house, Strawberry-house and Pelargonium-house. I well remember the pleasure my master had in looking round his garden, and notably his pride when we cut our first Pine, a smooth Cayenne of 6lb, and his sending it to a friend in Paris. I served him for seven years, adding yearly to the dessert table and to the pleasure of my employer; and it is fair to add that he fully appreciated my endeavours.
“Alas! Mr Rickards died. I lost a kind, good master and the place was soon sold, and a great part is now built over. When this occurred I was sent to a place called Burntwood, Wandsworth Common, where eight months was a sufficiently long stay. After this I went back to Chiswick for a short time, then to Blackmore Priory, Essex, where two of the young members of the firm of Wheatley and Myatt, of Deptford, lived. Here I got on well, always receiving the greatest kindness from my employers, until I was recommended to the Marquis of Exeter (my present noble employer) as kitchen gardener. Here I am still and hope to remain. As was stated recently in the pages of the Gardeners’ Chronicle I have now charge of all matters horticultural at Burghley. It is needless for me to give particulars of the place, as it is well-known in the gardening world. My employer is a kind and good master, taking great interest in the state of the gardens.
“As regards exhibiting, I have never done much except with vegetables; but at the provincial shows of the Royal Horticultural Society I have never, except on one occasion, been left out entirely. My most fortunate hit, however, was winning the ‘Carter Challenge Cup’ a few weeks ago.“
Mr Gilbert’s native modesty has prevented him from more than casually alluding to his success as an exhibitor of vegetables, but it is due to him to say that no man has done more with his pen, and more substantially with his productions, to kindle enthusiasm in the culture of vegetables – the sheet anchor of every good gardener; and it would be difficult to estimate the value of the services so cheerfully and, shall we say, so originally rendered. We may add that Mr Gilbert not only enjoys the friendship of a great number of the members of the gardening fraternity, but also great popularity amongst the men employed under him. About two years ago, they presented him with a handsome timepiece; and on the occasion of a recent very successful competition with his favourite vegetables, and which was also the seventh anniversary of his directorship at Burghley, he again received a token of their esteem in the shape of a handsome arm-chair.
Mr Gilbert does all that a man can do to better the position of his men, and the good feeling that exists between them is alike creditable to all concerned. Since Mr Gilbert has been at Burghley the Fruit Committee of the Royal Horticultural Society have awarded him no less than twelve first-class and special certificates, five of which were for Melons alone – a fact which we believe is quite unprecedented. Since he became head gardener, Mr Gilbert has made it a practice to take no apprentices; but, as we have heard him remark, when he gets a boy with a head on his shoulders he always brings him out. Neither does he accept gratuities from young journeymen seeking employment at Burghley, but for obtaining them a situation after serving under him, his fee is a new hat, and long may he live to wear the stock already accumulated!'
You can read more about Richard on our page The Stamford Apple Breeders. He died on 22 November 1895 at the age of seventy four and is buried at Barnack.
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
With grateful thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library www.biodiversitylibrary.org for their scanned copies of The Gardeners' Chronicle.
Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018