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The Plot Thickens

Hi, I’m Karen Meadows. Thank you for visiting The Plot Thickens.

I’m lucky enough to be the tenant of one of fifty large allotment gardens in the middle of the small and beautiful stone town of Stamford in England’s East Midlands. The gardens were first created by Brownlow Cecil, 4th Marquess of Exeter in the mid 1800s and their layout has remained virtually unchanged. Between the plots we have some 200 old apple trees, many of them rare varieties, and in 2017 Natural England awarded the gardens heritage orchard status.

Over the centuries at least 500 people have worked these plots. Follow our quest to discover who they were, what they grew, and what shenanigans they got up to. Be prepared for numerous diversions and musings along the way about gardening life here in our quiet (and occasionally not so quiet) little corner of Stamford.

If you haven’t discovered our website yet, do head over to Waterfurlong Orchard Gardens, where you will find a wealth of information about our gardens and gardeners, past and present.

And now for the small print...

The Plot Thickens is a non-commercial blog. All recommendations are based on personal preference and my own or our other gardeners’ own experience. Payments or free goods are not accepted in return for reviews of products and services. If an exception is made this will be clearly stated.

All words and images, unless otherwise credited, are my own. If you would like to copy text or images, I’d kindly ask that The Plot Thickens gets a positive mention and a link back to this blog.

Recent Posts

This Day In ... 1931


Stamford High Street - Brown's was on the right next to Cheyne Lane

Many older Stamfordians remember Brown's High Street seed-merchant's shop with affection and nostalgia and the firm supplied some of the fruit trees still growing in Waterfurlong. Today, on the anniversary of his death we look at the remarkable life of James Brown, who earned himself the proud title of 'Stamford's Oldest Tradesman'.

James was born in Wothorpe in 1848, the second son of nursery owners Richard and Ann Brown. James and his siblings were involved in their parents' business enterprise as soon as they could lift a plant pot. There was the extensive nursery itself, the adjacent tea room run by Ann, the family's seed shop in Broad Street and seed warehouse in St Peter's Street and stalls to be manned in all the local markets.

James and his elder brother William helped their father expand the thriving business, acquiring outlets in Oakham and diversifying into floristry. Sister Emma managed the seed shop, whilst middle brother Richard went in a different direction, serving his apprenticeship as a butcher and eventually establishing the 'Butcher Brown - Best In Town' shops still remembered in Peterborough, King's Cliffe and Stilton.

Young James had a close shave in February 1865 when he fell through the ice playing hockey, being saved only by the quick thinking of a slater from nearby Easton who was generously rewarded by a grateful Richard Brown.

When James was 23 his parents retired to King's Cliffe, where his father continued to experiment with breeding apples. William and James decided to close the Wothorpe tea rooms in order to focus on the nursery side of the business. They moved the Stamford seed shop to a more prominent position at 56 High Street (where it would remain for another century), bought twelve acres of additional nursery land near Tinwell Road (where Exeter Gardens now stands) and supplied the bouquet presented to the Princess of Wales when she and the Prince visited Stamford in 1881.

But whilst the 1880s brought James commercial success and

recognition, the decade also brought him great personal tragedy. In November 1880 he lost both his young wife, Mary Jane, and their third son, six-month old Arnold, and four years later their middle son, eight year-old Charles, also died. James and nine year-old Richard were left living alone in Wothorpe and in 1889 William Brown moved away to Leamington Spa (possibly for health reasons) leaving James to handle the day-to-day running of the firm. James seems to have thrown himself even deeper into work as an antidote to grief, expanding the business into Peterborough and Grantham and collaborating with local apple breeders to bring varieties such as Peasgood's Nonsuch and Laxton's Schoolmaster to market.

In 1893 James remarried; Maria Hatfield was a middle-aged kindergarten teacher with her own comfortable home at 17 Barn Hill, who shared James's staunch Methodist faith and philanthropic outlook. James and Maria worked tirelessly for many charitable causes, particularly those supporting 'the deaf and dumb'. James became Chairman of the Wothorpe Parish Council and a Stamford Union guardian and founded the Stamford Total Abstinence Society – his obituary claimed he never drank or smoked in his life. He and Maria hosted many fund-raising events and the week after their wedding James entertained all 43 of the company’s workmen to supper at Hensman’s Coffee House in Stamford’s Red Lion Square - a generous and unusual gesture for the time.

None of this diverted James's passion from horticulture. He further expanded the business into Oundle, won awards at national shows for his hothouse exhibits and delivered instructive talks to local gardening groups. James evidently held strong views about allotment rents, arguing 'The working man often paid too much, and it was rather unjust to make him pay the whole rent before he got anything off the land.'(1). James's surviving son, Richard Chapman Brown, joined him in the business and took over management of the firm's extensive Peterborough holdings. By 1897 Messrs W & J Brown was the leading nursery in Stamford, Peterborough, Oundle and Grantham, with 30 greenhouses devoted to grapes alone. They even had a permanent flower stall on the London platform of Peterborough North station.

At the age of 63 indefatigable James went plant-hunting in America - one of several such trips. Three years later and with war looming he triumphed on the show circuit, winning both the Chelsea silver Banksian medal for his lilacs and heliotropes and an RHS Gold for a sixty foot display of herbaceous flowers.

Porters at the 1914 Chelsea Flower Show

The future of Messrs W & J Brown looked bright until 1917 when Richard Chapman Brown became unwell with 'internal troubles' and died at only 42, leaving no children. That same year William Brown retired from his directorship at the age of 80, with no son or grandson to succeed him. The firm's days seemed numbered, not because of changing markets, lack of vision or the impact of war, but simply because the family line was petering out.

James must have been the most resilient of characters; despite advanced age, the early death of all three of his children, the lack of a business successor and the responsibility of caring for Maria (who was by this point an invalid) he continued. In 1925 we find reports of 77 year-old James creating gardens featuring the latest 'crazy-paving' trend and sourcing new varieties of climbing rose for his many loyal customers. In fact, James never did retire. His eventual death on 26 October 1931 was reported in almost every paper in the East of England, many lauding James as ‘Stamford’s oldest tradesman’, as an apple and rose-grower of renown throughout the UK and Continental Europe and as a social reformer and man of great faith and charity.

As it happened, James's death turned out not to be the end of Messrs W & J Brown in Stamford - read our feature on The Stamford Apple Breeders to learn more!


(1) The British Newspaper Archive © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018

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