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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

Roses Our Gardeners Once Grew - Part I

Rosa Madame Alfred Carrière

Despite June's drenching rain, it's been a wonderful summer for roses here. Our gardeners grow many different types - wander along the Waterfurlong lanes and you might spot lovely old ramblers like Albertine and Madame Alfred Carrière scrambling over the walls, or catch the intoxicating scent of sweetbriar in a hedgerow. Even our dyed-in-the-wool vegetable growers usually nurture a couple of favourite hybrid teas for cutting. For as long as people have cultivated this land they have planted roses, and I've discovered a surprising amount about the varieties our past generations grew and the nurserymen who supplied them.

The first recorded Waterfurlong tenant was one William Stevenson, who for many years rented an enormous pleasure garden from Lord Exeter encompassing what are now all eleven plots on the east side of the road. In 1836 Mr Stevenson paid £13 10s a year for this - four times the rental of nearby cottages.

The whole of the east side of Waterfurlong (marked on this 1842 tithe map as plot 16) was rented as a garden by William Stevenson. At its south end were osier beds.

Before the days of railway freightage even Stamford's wealthiest residents bought most of their plants from local nurserymen and the town's main supplier between 1801 and 1845 was William Spencer of Ironmonger Street. Born in Claxby near Market Rasen, William moved to Stamford as a young man, setting up a business selling turnip seed to farmers. He was persuaded to branch out into domestic horticulture by wealthy Oundle grower Thomas Haynes, who had 30 acres of nursery stock at Elmington, retail outlets down the Nene at Wisbech and King's Lynn, and trading links with America. In early 1804 Thomas Haynes went bankrupt and withdrew from commerce to write horticultural guides, but his younger brother Nathaniel seems to have continued supplying William Spencer with ornamental trees, shrubs, perennials, seeds, bulbs and exotics. On 25 May 1804 William Spencer advertised in the Stamford Mercury:

'W S takes this opportunity of returning his sincere thanks to the public for the very liberal encouragement he has already experienced in the Garden Seed Trade, and begs leave to assure them it shall ever be his chief study to procure the best Seeds, Hyacinths, Tuberoses, and Bulbous Roots, of all prices and descriptions, in their proper seasons, of which Catalogues (with names and prices affixed) will be ready for delivery when the season commences. NB A beautiful collection of Green-house Plants, Rose De Meaux and ever-blooming Roses will be ready for sale on Friday the Ist June.'

Rosa De Meaux

Although we think of the rose as quintessentially English, most of our beloved old varieties were bred in France and De Meaux was no exception. This dainty shrub with its pink flowers tightly packed with petals was also marketed under the name Pompom des Dames and was introduced here on the eve of the French Revolution. The famous horticulturalist Thomas Rivers later described De Meaux as 'so early and so pretty.' We can imagine William Stevenson sending his bewigged head gardener into the Ironmonger Street shop to order a dozen of the delightful new arrival. Let us hope the order was correct - in 1811 Mr Spencer signed off one of his advertisements with the plea: 'It is particularly requested that those who send their servants, will send a written order!'

Mr Spencer's shop was on William Stevenson's doorstep but a few other rose-growers also delivered to the town - nurserymen such as William Richardson of Dunsby, who placed the following advertisement in the Stamford Mercury of 20 January 1817:

Choice kinds of RANUNCULUSES and ROSES To be SOLD, at 7s per Hundred, A Beautiful Collection of Ranunculus Roots, which have been selected and grown with great care for several years. Also the following choice variety of Roses, at Is each: Rose Unique or White Provence, Blush Provence, Burgundy, Moss Provence, Double Velvet, Rosamunde, Rose de Mieux, Great Royal, Royal Purple, Dutch Hundred leaved, &c

&c &c; a very nice collection of choice Shrubs, Evergreens, and Herbaceous Flowering Plants, at the very lowest prices; with Perennial, Biennial, and Annual Flower Seeds, in all their varieties, at 3d per paper. To be had of Mr William Richardson, of Dunsby, near Bourn.

Rosa Mundi (rosa gallica versicolour)

Striking Rosamunde or Rosa Mundi, with its semi-double blooms splashed cerise and white, dates back to the 12th century and would almost certainly have been grown for culinary and medicinal purposes by Stamford's medieval friaries. It is said to have been named after 'Fair Rosamund', Henry II's favourite mistress, Rosamund Clifford.

William Richardson's mention of the Dutch Hundred-leaved rose bemused me, but a little detective work revealed it to be what we now know as rosa centifolia (literally, hundred-petalled), a hybrid shrub rose developed in the Netherlands in the 17th century.

Rosa centifolia by the great Belgian rose artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute

In 1845 74 year-old William Spencer decided to sell his Ironmonger Street shop and retire. The purchaser was Richard Brown, former head gardener at Casewick Hall, who had established his own seed and nursery business at Wothorpe in 1830 and needed a retail outlet in central Stamford. Two of Richard's sons, William and James, followed him into the business and for more than a hundred years Brown's became the town's leading supplier, not only of roses, but of just about every type of plant and tree available in Victorian England. James Brown in particular was renowned for his roses, and we will see in Part II just how successful he became.

Casewick Hall, Uffington, circa 1836.

Drawn by B G Topham; engraved by W Watkins

Meanwhile, in 1835 a group of keen local gardeners founded The Stamford and District Horticultural Society under the patronage of the Marquis of Exeter. The Society held several shows a year, either in the Town Hall or in the Banqueting Hall of the Standwell Hotel in St Mary's Street (which some readers might remember as the Stamford Hotel). William Stevenson was a keen exhibitor

and regularly wiped the board with his roses and dahlias, which were described in reportage of the June 1839 show as 'of the first order, as always'.

In 1842 the Lincolnshire Chronicle commented 'July is the chief show for roses and we were particularly struck with the bloom of a rose called Madame Hardie, both for size and bloom.' I grow this beautiful shrub rose in my Waterfurlong plot. Bred in Paris in 1832 by Alexandre Hardy and named in honour of his wife Félicité, with its heady scent and distinctive green eye, Madame Hardy remains one of the loveliest of the damask roses.

Rosa Madame Hardy

The coming of the railways and the efforts of energetic Horticultural Society secretary Henry Johnson (St Mary's Hill book-seller and another Waterfurlong gardener) enabled the Stamford show to evolve into a much grander affair. In 1858 it was moved outdoors and local and national competitors were enticed with prizes totalling £150. The railway companies laid on special trains for visitors and carriage facilities for exhibitors and at its peak the show attracted crowds of 3,000. They flocked there not only to wonder at the elaborate horticultural displays and exciting new plants staged in 100 foot marquees, but also to enjoy the brass bands, fireworks and lavish catering. Exhibiters competed in three broad categories: nurserymen and professional gardeners (many from nearby stately homes), amateurs employing only part-time help, and 'cottagers' with modest plots, reliant entirely on their own efforts.

For the first time ordinary Stamford residents could see displays by the country's leading nurseries and place advance orders with them - the bare-rooted plants to be despatched by train during the dormant winter months. In 1858 Messrs Paul & Son of Cheshunt won the show's coveted £5 silver cup for their stunning exhibit of forty-eight varieties of cut rose. That same year a specimen of rosa Souvenir de le Reine d'Angleterre, introduced in France in honour of Queen Victoria's recent visit to Paris, was displayed by Messrs Wood & Ingram of Huntingdon to the public's delight. Adam Paul grew more than 1,500 rose varieties over 40 acres in his impressive Hertfordshire nursery, even importing plants from Philadelphia, whilst Wood & Ingram was set to become the UK's largest rose-grower in the early twentieth century.

Rosa Souvenir de la Reine d'Angleterre

The new transport network and popularity of horticultural shows also made it possible for smaller nurseries to extend their clientele. Richard Brown faced increasing competition from suppliers across the Midlands. John Sharpe of Sleaford stocked an unbelievable 700 rose varieties; William Algar of Market Deeping, Thomas Almey of Oakham, Thomas Dean of Uppingham and John House of Peterborough were regular exhibitors and judges at the Stamford shows, and Pennell & Sons of Lincoln and Merryweather's of Southwell began to advertise regularly in the Mercury.

Pennell & Sons' Lincoln shop in the late 19th century. The company is still trading and has remained in the same family since 1780. Its oldest catalogue - specialising in roses and fruit trees - dates back to the 1840s. Interestingly, a rose bush then cost as much as a fruit tree, 2s 6d.

Back in Waterfurlong, by the 1850s Mr Stevenson's enormous plot had been sub-divided and re-let and new tenant Thomas Laxton was busy not only sourcing rare rose cultivars but breeding some of his own Stamford varieties.

To be continued ...


You may have noticed that The Plot Thickens has been quiet for the past couple of weeks. In response to requests from readers for longer features on Waterfurlong's history and natural history, I have decided to focus on fewer but more in-depth blog posts.

Copyright © Karen Meadows 2019

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