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The Stamford Apple-Breeders

As explored in Stamford's Lost Apples, the second half of the nineteenth century serendipitously brought together three men who were each to have a significant influence on apple-breeding and on horticulture more generally. Thomas Laxton, Richard Brown and Richard Gilbert were very different personalities, from different social backgrounds, but the three formed strong bonds and continued collaborating through thick and thin, even after Thomas Laxton was forced to leave the town. 

Thomas Laxton





Thomas Laxton was also one of our earliest Waterfurlong gardeners and you can read his full biography on our Gardeners' pages


Thomas was born at Tinwell in 1831 and became an influential plant breeder, responsible for many new varieties of fruit and vegetable. He studied law in London before moving back to Stamford and setting up a solicitor’s practice in St Mary’s Hill. Thomas’s great passion was horticulture; he corresponded regularly with Charles Darwin and they shared a keen interest in breeding new peas and strawberries.


In 1877 Thomas was imprisoned for fraud and forced to give up his legal practice. He moved to Bedford where he set up a nursery business and carried out extensive plant trials. The business was taken forward by his sons and grandson under the name Laxton Brothers and for many years supplied keen gardeners across the country, including Sir Winston Churchill.


Before and after moving to Bedford, Thomas collaborated with his friend Richard Brown and Brown's sons William and James to develop new apples. Most famous was the Allington Pippin, exhibited originally under the name Brown’s South Lincoln Beauty. In 1883 it was declared best apple at the Great Fruit Exhibition and in 1894 it received a first class certificate from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Thomas introduced Peasgood’s Nonsuch to market in 1872. It was originally grown from a pip by a Mrs Peasgood when she was a child in Grantham, and brought with her when she married and moved to Stamford. It became a very popular orchard and garden variety in its hey-day, but is now rare.

Thomas presented Schoolmaster to the Royal Horticultural Society in 1872. It arose around 1855 from a pip planted at Stamford Grammar School.


The Laxton family went on to introduce other great English apples, including Laxton’s Fortune, Laxton’s Superb and Lord Lambourne.



Allington Pippin apple
Allington Pippin © Alan Buckingham
Thomas Laxton
Thomas Laxton - carte de visite (1) 

Richard Brown and Sons

Richard Brown was a generation older than Thomas Laxton and had more humble beginnings. Born in 1799 in Brampton near Huntingdon he worked his way up from pot boy, moving to the Stamford area to take up a head gardener position with Sir John Trollope at Casewick Hall. It was at Casewick that Richard met his wife Ann, who lived in nearby Uffington.


Richard and Ann wanted the freedom of their own business and in 1830 took over the tenancy of the Wothorpe Tea Gardens and Nursery from a Mrs Algate, advertising in the Stamford Mercury to reassure customers that the premises would be open as usual on Easter Monday for tea and card assemblies. Ann ran the hospitality side of the enterprise (and cared for the couple’s growing family of three boys and four girls) while Richard developed the three acres of nursery, reclaiming further land for cultivation by felling a neighbouring copse. 

Initially, Richard focused on supplying pea and turnip seed to farmers but by the mid 1830s he was able to diversify into ornamental plants and fruit trees. An early exhibitor at the Stamford Horticultural Society shows, Richard started gaining a reputation for excellence with his green and grey-edged auriculas and superb grapes. It was probably there that he got to know the Laxton family, as Thomas Laxton senior was a keen and knowledgeable amateur competitor.


In June 1844 Richard and Ann decided to close the tea gardens on Sundays so that the day could be devoted to religious observance, but in the face of public disappointment agreed to leave open ‘that part immediately adjacent to the house … for the accommodation of those who may be desirous of eating fruit there.'(2) 

Casewick Hall

Casewick Hall, near Uffington, Lincs. 1836 drawing by B G Topham; engraving by W Watkins.


Wothorpe Tea Gardens had been in existence since at least the mid 18th century as we learn from this obituary in the Stamford Mercury of 25 December 1818:


‘Yesterday, aged 85 years, Mrs Andrews, who for half a century was mistress of the tea-gardens at Wothorpe near this place; and whose mild and obliging manners, and excellent cookery of cheese-cakes, made her during that long period a favourite of all the young people educated at the different schools in the town.’(2) 


In April 1827 recently-widowed Mrs S Algate informed patrons that tea and card assemblies would continue to be held that season and confirmed that ‘genuine turnip seed of every kind’ would be for sale as usual. It seems she found the venture too hard to manage on her own, hence the property being re-let three years later.

Being a mile out of town, Wothorpe received little passing nursery trade and in 1845 Richard seized an opportunity when established Stamford seedsman William Spencer decided to retire. Richard took over Spencer's Ironmonger Street shop and also decided to rent a seed warehouse in St Peter's Street. This gave him a firmer commercial base for establishing his reputation as a nurseryman in Stamford and beyond. In 1848 market-goers were so impressed by Richard's blackcurrants the Mercury went into print about them: 'Some of the largest garden currants ever exhibited in this neighbourhood were on Friday last shown in Stamford market, by Mr R Brown of Wothorpe. The length of the stalks, which were covered with fruit nearly as large as small cherries, averaged more than six inches: one bunch measured more than eight and a half inches in length. The trees were propagated in rich mould from a slip taken a few years ago from the London Zoological Gardens.' Stamford Mercury 11 August 1848.(2) Two years later the paper reported that ‘Brown’s rhubarb has become proverbial'.(2)

By 1851 Richard's fourteen-year-old son William was old enough to join him in the business and the decision was taken to move the shop from Ironmonger Street to larger premises at 39 Broad Street, opposite the Corn Exchange. Three years later the firm supplied shrubs and trees for the new town cemetery and helped with its landscaping. 

By the late 1850s Thomas Laxton junior had developed a fascination with horticulture and, despite their 30 year age-gap, he and Richard struck up what was to be an enduring friendship. Richard probably supplied Thomas not only with practical advice based on decades of experience, but also with supplementary land on which to conduct plant trials. In November 1858 Richard became the sole local supplier of Thomas's newly-introduced Stamford Pippin apple and the two men began appearing together as judges on the horticultural show circuit.

In May 1861 Richard offered the Stamford Horticultural Society use of one of his Wothorpe paddocks for its forthcoming show after there had been some disagreement with Lord Exeter. With business booming and son James also joining the firm, the 1860s provided new opportunities for expansion. Brown's acquired the three acre Wharflands Nursery in Oakham 'adjoining the residence of W T Keal Esq'(2)(the physician father-in-law of J C Philpot) and a seed shop on Oakham High Street opposite Jermyn Terrace. They diversified into floristry and daughter Emma was appointed manager of the Stamford seed shop, whilst her father and brothers ran the rest of the enterprise. In 1865 they nearly lost James when he fell through the ice playing hockey. The Mercury of 24 February reported he was saved only thanks to the quick-thinking of an Easton slater whom Richard rewarded generously.(2)

Brown's Seedling apple

Probably encouraged by Thomas Laxton's success, Richard honed his own interest in apple breeding and his retirement in October 1871 in his seventies coincided with the introduction of the eponymous Brown's Seedling and the marketing of Peasgood's Nonsuch. Despite advancing age, Richard continued his apple-breeding experiments in the gardens of his and Ann's new home at West Street, King's Cliffe, just along the road from their middle son, Richard, a butcher who married the daughter of a King's Cliffe farmer. (Richard shared his family's entrepreneurial streak and founded a chain of high-quality 'Butcher Brown' shops in Peterborough, King's Cliffe and Stilton that was to continue for 140 years.)

Richard senior handed on the family firm to sons William and James, who discontinued the Wothorpe

tea room in order to focus on the nursery side of the business. The Stamford Burial Board adopted their recommendation that the old hearse-house be converted into a greenhouse to raise plants for the cemetery, and Brown's oversaw the summer bedding plant display.


In 1875 William and James moved the flagship Stamford store to the more prominent 56 High Street (previously occupied by Mr and Mrs Peasgood of Peasgood's Nonsuch fame) and that same year were able to take advantage of the Stamford Enclosure Act to buy twelve acres of additional nursery land off Tinwell Road where Exeter Gardens now stands. It was there that they raised most of their tree stock. In 1877 the brothers received a pleasing endorsement from the Burghley head gardener, Richard Gilbert:


'New Apple — Barnack Beauty. — Apples in fruit and potatoes in vegetables may be said to be the fruit and vegetables for the million. The apple under notice I have known for nine years, and nine times in succession it has borne a heavy crop. It is the best user, the best keeper, and the best bearer of any apple of my acquaintance. It is certainly an apple that will please all. Its size and colour are all to wished, and just as perfect in April as in November. The enterprising nurserymen Messrs W and J Brown, of Stamford, have, I believe, bought the entire stock.— R. Gilbert.' Stamford Mercury 16 November 1877 (2)



The 1880s was to see great commercial success for the brothers but even greater personal tragedy, especially for James. A Methodist lay preacher, he must have needed every ounce of faith to cope with the loss of both his young wife and their third son, six month old Arnold, in November 1880. Only two months later he and William were involved in Stamford’s social highlight of the decade when they supplied the bouquet presented to the Princess of Wales on the occasion of her visit with the Prince to Normanton, Stamford and Burghley. 

The bouquet for the Princess comprised orchids, lily-of-the-valley, camellias, carnations, azaleas, 'Prince of Wales Feathers' (celosia plumosa), hyacinths and maidenhair fern - no mean feat at the end of January!

Every shop in the town was decorated to welcome the royal party: 'Mr Brown's shop was elaborately decked with pillarettes &c, composed of virgin cork, arbor vitae, ericas, camellias, tulips, poinsettias, geraniums and grevillea.' Stamford Mercury 21 January 1881.(2)

In December that same year the firm was visited by a correspondent for the eminent Gardeners’ Chronicle, who painted a detailed picture of the Tinwell Road and Wothorpe sites:

'Horticulture around Stamford — A writer for the Gardener's Chronicle has recently paid a visit to Burghley Gardens and the nurseries of Messrs W and J Brown. Of the latter he says :-At a high elevation

Prince and Princess of Wales 1881
The Prince and Princess of Wales 1881 (3)

above the quaint old town of Stamford, near to the road, Messrs W and J Brown have pitched a fresh camp, and established a branch nursery for growing all kinds of trees, conifers, ornamental shrubs, and fruit trees, in addition to their well-known nursery at Wothorpe, but one mile from Stamford, which has been in existence for over 50 years. Perhaps it would have been better to have paid the highest tribute of respect to the oldest nursery by paying it the first visit, but itinerant horticulturists do not always land at the right place first, and so I will first of all relate some of the most interesting sights that I saw at the new nursery before proceeding to the older and better known.


The situation of the nursery commands a wide view of scenery in the adjoining counties of Rutland and Northampton, and may be said to be divided from the Wothorpe nursery by the Midland railway and the valley of the Welland. The altitude of the situation, its full exposure to the air, and the favourable nature of the soil no doubt had something to do in the selection of so good a position for starting the branch nursery. Shelter is necessary, even in a nursery, but the less of it the better for all concerned. Tender plants crowded or over-sheltered seldom do well and unless exposed to the natural influences of sun and air in a young state they seldom thrive as satisfactorily as could be wished for after removal. At these nurseries soil, climate, and situation appear to be adapted to the raising and cultivating of all kinds conifers, roses, and fruit trees, and their vigorous, sturdy nature enables them to bear removal almost at any time with impunity. A regular system of transplanting is also carried out, by which the plants are kept stocky, and well furnished with fibrous roots, which after all is the great point in purchasing nursery-grown stock.




The front drive through the nursery is of the orthodox stamp — the long straight walk, flanked by two borders with duplicates of all the finest conifers and ornamental shrubs. There are Wellingtonias, Abies Pinsapo, A. nobilis glauca, Retinospora pisifera, Swedish junipers, red cedars, Abies pyramidalis, Cupressus Lawsoniana glauca pendula, fine plants of elecantissima, Leycesteria formoso, Thuya Vervaeneana, Osmanthus ilicifolius, Juniperus tripartita, J. drupacea (the plum-fruited juniper), golden yews, and rows of splendidly grown asters at the front. Proceeding through the brakes set apart for growing the different kinds of forest and other trees, I noticed thousands of young, healthy larch, purple beech, Scotch firs, spruce firs, birch, and large squares of ornamental conifers and shrubs, of which samples have been referred to. The plots of Cedrus atlantica I thought unusually vigorous, also two year old ash, thorns &c. Fruit trees are extensively grown — pears upon the quince, apples on the paradise and free stocks, standard cherries for large orchards, as also apples and pears. The better class of conifer I found represented in another part of the nursery, in the

following specimens of a suitable size for giving immediate effect after planting : —Thuya gigantea or Libocedrus decurrens, Juniperus hibernica, Retinospora plumosa aurea, Thuya semperaurescens, Cupressus Lawsoniana, Abies Menziesii, Thuya Lobbii, Pinus excelsa, Thuya chinensis, Abies Douglasii, and many other handsome specimens. Poplars only are used as "breaks" at this nursery, where they are found to give sufficient shelter as they are much better than the denser shade afforded by beech hedges, which have a tendency to coddle plants in warm close weather. Rose growing is also extensively and successfully carried on at these nurseries, the percentage of losses being something like 250 to 1000.


A short drive by way of Stamford brings the visitor to the Wothorpe nursery, also advantageously situated, and which is approached from the Easton-road. This, as I have said, is the old-established nursery, and of course the stocks of plants are different; in other and simpler words, the new nursery is but an offshoot of the old one, which contains many fine samples of coniferous plants, florists' flowers, and decorative stove and green house plants in the glass structures. The finest of the conifers are Retinosporas, varieged hollies, Taxus elegantissima, Abies nobilis, glauca, with cones, Acacia inermis, Abies Nordmaniana, A. Pinsapo, Piceapyguea, Thuya T. elegantissima, Elwangeriana, and Thujopsis dolabrata variegata, Chamaecyparus variegata, Lawsoniana gracilis, Retinospora squamosa, Cephalotaxus drupacea, Juniperus excelsa stricta and chinensis, Cryptomeria elegans, and perhaps the finest plant in the kingdom of Wellingtonia gigantea pendula. There are nice plants of Catalpa syringaefolia aurea, mixed with the green coniferous plants, in order to show what a useful subject it is in autumn; the golden poplar is also pretty among the taller shrubs. In addition to these there are large square yews, oaks, privets (variety ovalifolia), junipers, Balm of Gilead firs, variegated sycamores, and quantities of standard roses and fruit trees. The summer-flowering chrysanthemums are very showy, and none but the best sorts are grown. The following are good kinds:-Sportsman, Mr Parker, Captain Nemo, Jardin des Plantes, and Madame de Sange. Among the florists' flowers gladiolus and violas appeared to be specially grown, and there is a fine stock of double fuchsias, bouvardias, primulas, pelargoniums, and clematis by the hundred. Of double pelargoniums Lucy Lemoine, Madame Thiers, and Jules Simon appeared the most distinct and striking. Solanums are more than well grown, and smothered with berries, in 5 and 6 inch pots; and tuberous begonias and auriculas are also largely grown of the very finest strains. Winter-flowering plants of all kinds receive much attention, and herbaceous plants are kept in abundant stock of the best varieties that are most ornamental and useful for cutting. Over forty dozen Henri Jacoby pelargoniums are rooting in small pots, which shows how soon anything really good takes with the public. Azaleas and camellias are largely grown for show purposes, and in this long-established, well-managed nursery the old proverb still holds good that whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.—W.H.' (2)

In 1884 tragedy struck again when James’s middle son, Charles, died at the age of eight, leaving only nine year old Richard, who was later to follow in the family’s horticultural footsteps. It was doubly cruel that James’s children died so young when older generations of the family were unusually long-lived. When Richard senior died in 1887 he was 88 and active to the last (the Mercury exaggerated and reported him as having been 94!). The year after their father’s death, William and James expanded the business into Peterborough, buying general nurseries in Star Road and Eastgate, a specialist rose nursery in Eastfield and a shop at 12 Narrow-bridge Street (the Cathedral Square end of what is now Bridge Street). They also extended northwards into Grantham, buying nursery grounds and a shop at 94 Westgate. Richard had left only £59 in personal effects so it seems likely most of his assets remained in the business and helped fund these new ventures. The 1880s also saw success with new apple introductions, including the Browns’ own Wharfland Beauty (now believed lost) and marketing of Laxton’s Schoolmaster and the Peasgood/Laxton introduction, Peasgood’s Nonsuch.

Stamford High Street
Stamford High Street - Browns was on the right next to Cheyne Lane

Given the increasing demands of the business, it seems strange that in 1889 William should decide to move his family 60 miles away to Royal Leamington Spa, a town with no direct railway link to Stamford, Peterborough or Grantham and with which he had no apparent connection. Perhaps health problems came into it. Leamington Spa had become fashionable back in 1830 when the then Princess Victoria took the waters, renowned for their ability to cure rheumatic conditions. Another possible factor was social 

embarrassment. In December 1888

William had lost a court case against Henry Spendlove, a Stamford baker. On 1 September Mary Ann and Louisa were being driven by William’s groom, Edward Gutteridge, when their trap and Spendlove’s were involved in a collision on Castle Hill – a notorious black-spot to this day. Mary Ann claimed Spendlove had caused the accident by ‘furious driving’ after Gutteridge had slowed down to let a blind boy cross the road, but several independent witnesses maintained Gutteridge had been driving on the wrong side of the road, that Mary Ann had fabricated the story about the blind boy and that she had declared the accident to be ‘no-one’s fault’ at the scene. This attempt to sue, with its post hoc version of events, did not cast Mary Ann in a favourable light with the Stamford public. Whatever the reason for the family’s departure, William seems to have remained on cordial terms with his brother and very active in the business.



The 1890s brought happier times for James. In 1893 he remarried; Maria Hatfield was a middle-aged kindergarten teacher with her own home at 17 Barn Hill, the spinster daughter of a deceased gentleman farmer from Yarwell. She and James involved themselves in charitable works, particularly for organisations 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 his January wedding he entertained all 43 of the company’s workmen to supper at Hensman’s Coffee House in Stamford’s Red Lion Square. 

Both James and William continued to win accolades for their show exhibits – many of them hothouse rarities - and the 1890s saw James deliver a series of horticultural lectures to lay audiences. In November 1892 he gave a talk at the Stamford Assembly Rooms entitled ‘The Cultivation of the Apple’ (Chaired by Charles Evans, one of our Waterfurlong gardeners).





James followed this in March 1893 with an address on the cultivation and profitable management of allotments ‘Mr Brown said he considered that a rood of land* was sufficient for any working man to work properly. Allotments were intended for a man to grow sufficient vegetables and fruit for himself and his family. It was mistake to grow corn on so small a piece. As regards rent, the working man often paid too much, and it was rather unjust to make him pay the whole rent before he got anything off. Mr Brown then dealt with the rotation of crops, giving valuable hints.’ (2) *one quarter of an acre

‘Mr Brown, in the course of his paper, advocated judicious pruning and summer pinching, and recommended amateur gardeners to plant only Pyramids on crab stocks, pointing out that standard trees were only useful in orchards. If properly attended to, standard trees would really come into bearing from six to ten years after being planted. After giving some valuable information on the remedies for insect pests, he described the various kinds of cooking and dessert apples which would best grow in this locality. Mr Brown showed choice specimens of the various kinds of apples enumerated. Mr Hagger (Mr Brown’s foreman) then gave a practical demonstration of pruning.’(2)

As W & J Brown continued with its expansion plans, this time into Oundle, it became necessary to introduce a delegated management structure. T H Wade was given charge of the Grantham branch, the Wothorpe site was run by W Wynn ‘a practical gardener of many years’ experience', who also held a Friday market stall in Ironmonger Street, whilst James’s son, Richard Chapman Brown, took on increasing responsibility for the firm’s extensive Peterborough holdings, eventually moving to 15 Eastfield Road after his 1902 

marriage to Henrietta Andrews.


By 1897 Brown's were the leading nurserymen in Stamford, Peterborough, Grantham, and Oundle, with 30 greenhouses devoted to  

The Northamptonshire 1st Battalion on Oundle Market Square in 1910. W&J Brown's can be seen between the Flour, Offal and Corn Stall and Townsend's. (4)

grapes alone. They also held regular market stalls in Boston, Spalding, Bourne and Sleaford and had a flower stall on the London platform at Peterborough’s North Station. By this point the only site the firm seems to have divested itself of was Oakham.


Brown's apple introductions continued in the early years of the 20th century, with the now unobtainable Stamford Wonder being registered in 1903, but the firm’s days were numbered, not because of changing markets, a lack of vision or the impact of war, but simply because the family line petered out. James’s son, Richard, was the natural successor but he died in 1917 at the young age of 42 after several months’ painful illness, leaving no children. William’s only child, Louisa, did not marry until her fifties, so neither of the brothers had grandchildren and their nephews and great-nephews seemed to have inherited little, if any, interest in horticulture.


William finally retired from the business in 1917 at the age of 80 and died in Leamington Spa in 1925, but if William’s stamina was unusual, James’s was extraordinary. Despite the tragedy of losing all three of his children (and later his second wife in 1926 following several years as an invalid), he continued to manage the firm, win coveted awards and adapt to changing gardening fashions.

Chelsea Flower Show preparations

A month before the beginning of the Great War James won an RHS Gold medal for a sixty foot display of herbaceous flowers, hot on the heels of receiving the Chelsea Flower Show’s silver Banksian medal for his lilacs and heliotropes. In 1925 he was creating gardens displaying the new ‘crazy-paving’ trend and marketing the latest climbing roses. James never did retire, dying on 26 October 1931 at the age of 83 in the home he’d lived in his whole life. James’s death was reported in almost every paper in the East of England, many remembering him as ‘Stamford’s oldest tradesman’, as an apple and

rose-grower of renown throughout the UK and on the Continent and as a social reformer and man of great faith and charity.

With no family members left to pick up the reins, all the nursery stock and greenhouses were sold and the firm’s Stamford store was bought by the manager who, with the extended family’s blessing, continued to trade as ‘Brown’s’ for another half century through to 1985. Many Stamfordians still remember the High Street shop with affection and nostalgia and the recent commercial reintroduction of Brown’s Seedling is a well-deserved tribute to a remarkable local family.

'I used to like going into Brown's seed merchants in the High Street...  When you walked in the door it had a smell of seeds and plants.  It had a rack of drawers  behind the counter and they were all labelled with different seed names.  You could ask for a certain seed, say purple globe beetroot, and say quarter of an ounce and the assistant would use a scoop to get some of the seed from the drawer.  She would then weigh the seed and tip them from the scales into a small envelope and write on the envelope what seeds they were..'

courtesy of  Stamford Ancestor Gateway

The assistant may well have been Miss Rene Sumpter of Bainton, one of the Browns' long-standing employees, who worked in the High Street shop for many years and was renowned for her horticultural expertise. Rene died in 2011 at the age of 90. 

Richard Gilbert

Richard Gilbert was born on 6 August 1821, 60 miles north of Stamford in Worksop, Nottinghamshire. He grew up in the Red Lion Hotel on Market Place, where his father and grandfather before him were thriving innkeepers. The Red Lion traced its history back to the 16th century and offered extensive stabling for stage-coaches, being situated on an offshoot of the Great North Road.


In an autobiographical piece for the Gardeners' Chronicle Richard maintained he lived at home until the age of fourteen, learning to garden with his grandfather.(5) However, records show that by the time he was eleven Richard's father had either died or disappeared from his family's life and the inn, its horses and the family’s furniture had been auctioned off. Richard, his mother Mary and his three siblings seem to have moved in with his maternal grandmother, Sarah Beadall, who was also a publican. In 1835 Richard was apprenticed to John Wilson, head gardener at nearby Worksop Manor, living in the ‘bothy’ with the other junior staff.

Richard Gilbert

The word 'bothy' derives from the Gaelic for a cottage or hut, but by the time it had migrated to England it meant the place where unmarried gardeners were housed, which might be nothing more glamorous than the back shed of a hothouse. Employers often took advantage of young men’s hardiness by placing them in makeshift, woefully inadequate accommodation.

Worksop Manor 1779
Worksop Manor 1779. Artist T Malton; engraver W Watts.

Worksop Manor was owned by the 12th Duke of Norfolk and was the main residence of his son and heir, Henry Charles Howard, Earl of Surrey. Together with John Wilson, the Earl set about restoring the grounds following decades of neglect. John Wilson had a particular interest in fruit growing, winning a Horticultural Society Banksian medal for his grapes, peaches and nectarines. Richard commented "Pines (ie pineapples)and vines were done here to perfection; the former I have seen 11 3/4 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." (5)


Wanting to be closer to London, the Earl sold Worksop Manor for £370,000 and used the proceeds to enlarge his estate at Arundel in West Sussex. The purchaser, the 5th Duke of Newcastle, vehemently opposed the Norfolks’ Catholic faith and gave vent to his disapproval by promptly blowing up Worksop Manor House and stripping the park of its trees!


Twenty year old Richard and John Wilson’s son, Robert, together left their native county to join the Arundel Castle gardening team. Richard’s younger brother, John Sims Gilbert, was also to move south later, eventually becoming groom to the 13th Duke of Norfolk.


Henry Charles Howard succeeded his father as Duke of Norfolk in 1842 and commissioned renowned landscape architect William Nesfield to remodel the Arundel Castle grounds. Moving away from the 18th century fashion for sweeping views, Nesfield designed complex parterres and in 1845 constructed an elaborate, formal garden to mark a visit by Queen Victoria. Five years later head gardener John Luff installed a state-of-the-art peach house and extensive vineries. Luff was followed in the role by George McEwen, under whom Richard served as 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." Richard looked back on his ten years at Arundel as among the happiest of his life. (5)





The 1850s was a decade of change for Richard. He moved back north, taking a position at Heslington Hall near York, which is probably where he met Doncaster-born Sarah Ann Sanderson. Richard and Sarah were married at York’s St Olave’s church on 12 November 1853 and daughter Martha arrived the following year.


After an unhappy stint working for the curiously named Yarbrough Yarbrough Esq at Sewerby Hall in Bridlington - "Here I soon discovered that though head gardener, I had about half the power I had when foreman" (5) - in 1855 Richard placed an advertisement in the York Herald seeking work as a head gardener. This led first to a position at the Horticultural Society Gardens (from 1861, the Royal Horticultural Society), Chiswick under his former master, George McEwen, and subsequently to a head gardener role in Acton with distillery owner Samuel Rickards. Mr Rickards’s property,‘Shalimar', was a large villa with extensive grounds on the west side of Horn Lane. At that time Acton was still a village outside London and was much noted for its orchards and market gardens. "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."(5)


There followed an unsettled three years for Richard and his growing family. From Acton, Richard moved first to Burntwood Lodge on Wandsworth Common "Where eight months was a sufficiently long stay"(5), back to Chiswick and then out to Blackmore Priory, Essex.   

Finally, in 1868 the long years of training and upheaval paid off when Richard was appointed to the coveted role of head of the kitchen gardens at Burghley. This was a significant promotion to one of the grandest houses in England, with gardens and pleasure grounds covering more than 45 acres. Richard, Sarah and their five children, Martha, Elizabeth, Margaret, John and Sarah, settled down in their tied house and Richard began to take stock of his new domain and his team of 27 men, two women and three boys. Within a short time the Marquis of Exeter expanded Richard's role to include directorship of the park and ornamental gardens and there Richard was to remain for the rest of his life.(5)  




What were the gardens like when Richard arrived? They had been extensively landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the mid 1700s, who later recalled his work there as ’25 years of pleasure’. Brown’s approach was to create ‘nature as God intended it’ with wide, naturalistic, parkland vistas, one of his favourite sayings being ‘nature abhors a straight line’. He had swept away the formal Elizabethan gardens and built an impressive ha ha to ensure uninterrupted views from the west elevation of the House

Burghley House 1769

View of Burghley House, engraved and published by Robert Havell (1769-1832). The Stapleton Collection.

(and to keep the deer herd out). Capability Brown’s greatest achievement at Burghley had been ‘The New River’, an eleven acre, serpentine lake dividing the Middle and Lower Parks. A waterfall at the lake’s eastern end fed the Dell Gardens with their informal planting and woodland walks. Closer to the house was an extensive shrubbery, framed with cedars and leading down to the neo-Jacobean banqueting hall, whilst the spectacular Orangery housed a huge collecton of citrus trees. Richard would also have found magnificent deciduous trees, many of them with important historical connections. Queen Anne’s Avenue, a double row of limes planted by George London in 1702, was at full maturity. The West Lawn had a specimen lime reputed to have been planted by Queen Elizabeth, as well as a young oak and another lime planted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1844. Lower Park, the oldest part of the landscape, included many 300 year old limes, chestnuts and elms.


The enormous kitchen garden of more than 11 acres, known as High Park Gardens, was enclosed by a sunken fence and walled into four compartments. It was nearly a mile from the House, on the east side of Queen Anne’s Avenue, and included acres of glass-houses and hot-houses. The gardening staff’s accommodation was situated nearby, close to the village of Barnack, where Richard and Sarah’s younger children, Kate, Charlotte and Gilbert, were to be christened in future years. 

Blashfield boat house

The third Marquess of Exeter, William Alleyne Cecil, took a keen interest in the gardens and over time he and Richard doubled the size of the already significant lake, commissioning Blashfield’s of Stamford to build a new boat-house at its eastern end. Richard’s team also replanted some of the tree-lined avenues lost during Lancelot Brown’s remodelling and extended the old vinery, which by 1873 was producing Black Hamburg and muscat grapes ‘by the hundred-weight.’


Richard was later to be described as a ‘striking personality’, a man of ‘skill, geniality and transparent honesty.’ An extravert with a wide circle of friends and correspondents, Richard became an increasingly regular contributor to the gardening columns of the day, writing for The Garden, the Agricultural Gazette and later, for his home county’s Nottinghamshire Guardian.


Richard was open about his own failures and engagingly excited about his successes. In 1877 he reported candidly in a head gardeners’ round-up:  

‘Gooseberries and Currants are a first-class crop of good-sized clean fruit, not at present spoiled with honeydew. Apples and Pears, both bushes, standards, and on walls, must be called a failure almost entirely. Apricots and Plums, the former a very fair sprinkling, but the trees have been badly affected with grubs, and I never remember so much of the wood going dead. Plums are but few and far between. Peaches and Nectarines are a fairly good crop on south walls, but on the west where we generally have them fine there are none. The most perplexing to me is the failure of my orchard-house Peaches. The flowers set by thousands, but the fruit dropped when the size of Peas. I notice others have done likewise. This ought to form a subject for the Scientific Committee of the Royal Horticultural Society. If they could tell us the reason of this failure they would command our hearty thanks.’ Nottinghamshire Guardian 6 July 1877.(2)




Despite the fact much of Richard’s attention was focused on exotics, including orchids, gardenias and miniature orange and nectarine trees to decorate the Burghley dining tables, he retained a keen interest in helping gardeners of more humble plots, particularly when it came to improving the quality and quantity of his first love - the vegetable crops they and their families relied on. Not long after arriving at Burghley, Richard pioneered a successful scheme to provide enterprising amateur gardeners with more than notional awards:


‘A PLEA FOR VEGETABLES. Under this heading, Mr R Gilbert, the Marquis of Exeter's gardener, at Burleigh (sic) Park, Stamford, has made a proposition by which it is desired to raise a fund of £20 by 80 subscriptions of 5s each, among gardeners, to be divided into three prizes of £10, £6, and £4 to be called “The Gardener's Prize" and to be awarded for the best collections of vegetables exhibited at the meeting of the Royal Horticultural Society in this town in June next. We need scarcely observe that we most heartily support the proposition - so heartily that it will be seen by the adjoined note, addressed to the Gardener‘s Chronicle, that we have undertaken to provide £5 of the prize money...’ The Nottinghamshire Guardian 18 November 1870.(2)

Richard’s letter to the same paper’s editor six years later is typical of his gardening advice. A tone that might come across as patronising today was considered refreshingly down-to-earth at the time:


‘VARIETIES OF FRUIT FOR COTTAGERS AND AMATEURS. To the Editor of the Nottinghamshire Guardian. Sir,— l noticed some week or two past a short paragraph in your paper recommending some half-dozen varieties of apples for the above purpose. I may state long lists of fruit are not wanted. It is as perplexing as a bad catalogue. What is wanted, is, say, four varieties of apples, and two of pears, for cottagers, and with your permission I will name them, selecting only sure bearers and good users. Hawthornden yet stands unrivalled for an early kitchen apple, and Dutch Mignoine is without an equal for a late one. For seven successive years these two have borne heavy crops with me here. Cottagers, in our day, have some Pretensions for horticultural honours under the tent and for that purpose I add Golden Noble and Warner's King. If a dessert apple is required grow King of Pippins. Few really good pears in your county grow on standards. The old Hazle is, perhaps, the hardiest and best. Bergamot de Esperius, the best of late pears, will also do. But for wall pears, Touchant de Autumn and Maria Louise are both extra good. With the above selection you have all the needs of a cottager’s garden. Perhaps I may add an old friend for an early pear, which is Beurre de Anjou. Yours,  Burghley Gardens. R Gilbert.’ 13 Oct 1876.(2)


Northamptonshire Agricultural Society show at Burghley Park 1862. English School; artist unknown.

Golden Noble apple

The following month he was offering advice on soft fruit and greens: ‘Those who wish to take time by the forelock should now be stirring. Now of all other is the best to plant Raspberries in well trenched land. We are just engaged planting some. We never use dung, only as a mulching. Plant one foot apart in the rows; shorten the canes to 15 inches. They bear well the first year by planting early… All kinds of early Broccoli, Walcheren, Snows, &c, &c, should now be lifted and laid in thickly, which, if done early and protected with fern, lasts all through the winter. These things are always planted here after peas: clean away the peas, set your area, make holes with a crowbar, put in the plant, and finish the operation by washing the dry soil in the holes, which is all that is necessary. By lifting the crop you will make room for the first-sown Peas, which will form my next subject - R Gilbert, Burghley.Nottinghamshire Guardian 3 November 1876 (2)


When writing for the RHS’s journal, The Garden, Richard shared his expertise on more esoteric topics, such as growing wall-trained peaches:


‘The secret in growing peaches is to keep them thin of wood and clear of insects. Our plan of killing green fly is as follows: immediately we see the fly in spring we completely cover the young leaves with tobacco powder, blowing it from an india-rubber bottle well in amongst the young shoots. This we allow to stop on 24 hours, and then with soft water we syringe the tobacco powder entirely off, taking care that this is done before we disbud the trees. Disbudding too early starves the young fruit, while a covering of healthy green leaves greatly improves it. On one-half of the wall we fix glass lights 3ft wide, thus forming glass coping. To these lights we affix old fish net. The other half is simply covered with netting with no glass coping. We have seldom any blistered leaves through cold winds, and never any twisted shoots occasioned by green fly. We syringe the trees three times a week with soft water - a great preventive of insect pests. In fact, our peaches are the most satisfactory wall crop which we grow.’ The Garden 7 March 1884.(2)



Richard’s arrival at Burghley coincided with Thomas Laxton’s work on apples, peas and  strawberries and the pair became firm friends. In 1875 Richard and Thomas’s collaboration at the RHS’s South Kensington exhibition helped win Richard the prestigious Carter Cup.‘Mr Laxton's peas of various sorts (Fillbasket, G F Wilson and Commander in Chief) took the lead amongst a large collection of Mr R Gilbert’s superb vegetables.’(2) Richard's exhibit also contained outstanding specimens of peas Carters' Early Premium Gem and James's Prolific; beans Hedsor, Mammoth Longpod, Carters' White Advancer and Crimson Flageolet; cos lettuce Covent Garden White; onion White Tripoli; carrot James's Intermediate; potato Mona's Pride and melon Little Heath, together with white celery, mushrooms and fern-leafed parsley.(5)


Whatever Richard may or may not have thought about Thomas’s fall from grace the following year, he remained a staunch supporter of Thomas’s horticultural work, continuing to recommend new Laxton varieties in his newspaper articles.


Richard himself was a keen hybridiser and his own apple introductions (all now seemingly lost) had wonderful local names – The Post Office, St Mary’s Street, and The Butcher, for example. However, like Thomas Laxton, Richard did not confine himself to hybridising one species and his most fêted introduction was probably the hardy winter cabbage Chou de Burghley, which won a first class certificate from the RHS in 1882, was introduced to the American market, was still being recommended for its ‘fine flavour’ in The Spectator’s gardening column in 1940 and was to become a highly-prized crop in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

chou de burghley
Chou de Burghley

It is in an 1882 article from the Journal of Horticulture written by its sub-editor, Mr Wright, and syndicated in the Stamford Mercury, that we learn not only about Chou de Burghley but also about Richard’s considerable improvements to the layout and running of the estate’s kitchen garden.


‘GARDENING AT BURGHLEY. Come and have some chou de Burghley, was the most pointed sentence in a letter lately received from Mr Gilbert; as this was during the London fogs the invitation was irresistible, and I went. A great deal might be said historically about the grand old place, and much might be written about the picturesqueness of the park, the splendid lime avenues rivalling the royal elms at Windsor, and the pleasant

walks in the pleasure grounds half encircled by the lake. But all these must be passed, as the great kitchen gardens demand primary notice, and too little space is at disposal for recording the doings therein.


Regarding these kitchen gardens in all aspects – site, soil, arrangement, and cropping—they must certainly rank very high, perhaps even the best in the country. At Longleat Mr Taylor has some reason for thinking the worst possible site had been selected for vegetable and fruit growing; at Burghley, on the contrary, the best position appears to have been chosen for these purposes. As both these famous aristocratic seats were, as regards the parks and gardens, formed under the direction of the celebrated ‘Capability' Brown, it is a little singular there should such a marked difference in the departments in question. They are alike in one respect, both being a mile from the mansions, and there the similarity ends. At Longleat the 4 or 5 acres are about as unlevel as the back of a dromedary, and the soil naturally unfertile; at Burghley the 14 acres are almost as level as a lake, and the soil excellent.


This large space is enclosed with walls and intersected by other walls, forming six separate enclosures, and quite round the whole block is a sunk fence 10 feet deep, this affording ample facilities for drainage. Much land outside the walls is also devoted to fruit and vegetable culture, there being altogether about 24 acres now under cropping, and every yard is cultivated and every corner occupied; even the bank of stones, the result of excavating the sunk fence, on the south side at least, and which has land unutilised for more than hundred years, is now turned to account. A district in Kent is noted for its stones and its cherry trees; and Mr Gilbert, always wide awake, thought cherries grew so well among stones there, they would also grow among the stones at Burghley. Trees were accordingly planted, and for firm clean growth and fruitfulness they could not be well surpassed. This experience of growing cherry trees in stone heaps may possibly be of service to someone, and hence it is recorded.


There is no waste of walks in these gardens, but all the ground possible is turned to account. A wide gravel box-edged walk is formed quite round the general enclosure at about 25 feet from the walls, and a broad road for carts is formed through the centre from east to west. This road is not edged, so manure can be readily conveyed to the land. On the opposite side of the chief gravel walk are borders about 6 feet wide containing bush fruit trees, and at the back of these borders paths for workmen and wheelbarrows. There are no walks running parallel with the intersecting walls. Vegetables are not grown close to the walls, but a portion is left about 5 feet wide. This does not appear to be dug, but is firm, and mulched with manure over some at least of the roots of the wall trees. Across most of the principal quarters is a row of fruit trees, with a few rows of currant bushes, under which the ground is not dug either, but covered with manure. So much for the general character of this excellent and excellently-arranged garden; and now, briefly, to some of its contents.


FRUIT TREES AND BUSHES — Most of the wall trees are old, several peaches on the south walls being exceptions. An example of good old-fashioned training is seen here, the branches being straight as gun rods, and the lower branches stronger than those in the centre. This is the secret of furnishing a wall effectively. These trees are very fruitful, but the blossoms are this year too advanced. Pyramid and bush trees are not closely pruned. The branches are thinned out, not shortened, and when there is space, as there mostly is upwards, this is the plan that will yield the most fruit with the least expenditure of labour.


NEW ORCHARD — An orchard of several acres has been planted on a very sensible plan. Thousands of fruit trees have been planted during the last twenty five years in this country, yet there is room for ten times more American apples in our markets now than there was a generation ago.


VEGETABLE GROWING — Vegetable-growing at Burghley is conducted on the London market garden system, and there is no better method. If young gardeners were to endeavour to make themselves acquainted with a profitable system of vegetable and hardy fruit culture, they would find the knowledge of greater value than any amount of skill in striking pelargoniums and pricking out lobelias. “Value for money“ is becoming the order of the day, and Mr Gilbert is able to show that the value of the garden produce equals the expenditure.


LAND PREPARATION — Econony in this and sound judgment in cropping constitute the very root of success. When a piece of ground is trenched, twice or thrice the quantity of manure is applied that is usual in ordinary practice, and this supports three or four crops with scarcely any further expenditure than sowing, planting, and hoeing.


BROCCOLIS AND CABBAGES — Besides extensive squares of these, single rows are seen along the back edge of the wall borders. But for this “dodge" there would have been no heads during the past two years, all the plants in the open quarters having been killed.


CHOU DE BURGHLEY — This is the celebrated Cabbage Broccoli, and the pride of the garden. A very large quarter is now in full profit — that is, for culinary purposes, but seedgrowing is the main object. On the assumption that every grower of vegetables will want a packet of seed when the stock is placed in the market a large bulk is being raised. This vegetable will presumably be distributed next year, and will be submitted with testimonials which for weight and numbers have never been accorded to any other product of the kitchen garden. As one more or less can make no difference, and as some readers may like to know somewhat of the appearance and quality of the vegetable at home, here the record. In appearance the plantation now (February) resembles squares of cabbages in June — that is, of dwarf matured plants with well-developed hearts. But there is yet a marked difference - the plants are decidedly lighter in colour than cabbages, and the hearts, though well formed are not hard, while each contains its kernel, a diminutive broccoli head. I have seen, grown, and tasted what might be termed cabbage broccolis before … and I have seen some grown by Mr Iggulden. But the Burghley type is different and superior, also unquestionably “fixed." It possesses more the cabbage character than any others I have seen, the inner leaves of which have had the distinctive broccoli twist, which is almost or quite absent in the case of the Chou de Burghley. So much for appearance, and what of the quality? Three words will express it, according to each their full meaning — distinct, delicate, and delicious. It only remains to be said that by the severity of last winter all the vegetables in the open quarters were killed except this and Brussels sprouts; thus we arrive at a combination of good qualities which the raiser is warranted in condensing into one expressive word, and as if this were not strong enough he repeats it with emphasis in his verdict as follows:- “The cabbage broccoli is a Topper, sir, a Topper.”’ Stamford Mercury 17 March 1882 (2)

Richard’s pride in his introduction was nowhere more evident than a seed advertisement he placed in the Stamford Mercury that September:


GILBERT’S CHOU DE BURGHLEY is honoured with the patronage of Her Majesty, the Noble Dukes of Norfolk, Devonshire and Richmond &c. It is the great kitchen garden novelty of the year, and is spoken of as such in the garden press. Circulars sent to any part on receipt of stamped addressed envelope to R GILBERT, Burghley Gardens, STAMFORD.


Price 2s 6d a packet. Trade supplied.’(2)

We learn of Richard’s other recent introductions that same month:


‘Burghley Gardens. — The famous Chou de Burghley is not the only recent novelty which Mr Gilbert has produced in the extensive glass-houses and grounds under his superintendence. At this late period of the summer his strawberry Viscountess de Heriet, grown in the open air, is a perfect marvel, the specimens being fine and the aroma and taste excelling that of the fruit grown in the ordinary season. He has also shown remarkable red currants, the racemes of which are not only large and well preserved but distinguished for flavour.’ Stamford Mercury 29 September 1882


In fact, during his many years in Stamford, Richard introduced numerous fruits, vegetables and flowers, including Burghley Green Flesh Melon, Gilbert’s Universal Savoy Cabbage and the double Chinese primula Marchioness of Exeter – spotted and flaked deep red on a white ground. The Burghley garden coffers were helped both by Richard’s selling of plants and seeds to local gardeners and by post and by his patented inventions of ‘portable protective plant frames and improved hand-lights.’ During his first initial decade at Burghley alone Richard was awarded twelve first-class certificates by the RHS Fruit Committee, five for melons, an unprecedented achievement.(5)



1881 saw the death of a retired member of Richard’s team, who had continued working in the Gardens until the age of 77.‘On Wednesday the 16th inst John Avery, who has for nearly 40 years prepared the last resting place of the people of Barnack, was himself "gathered " to his final home. After a short illness he died on the 12th at the patriarchal age of nearly 80. He was a good specimen of the faithful servant, having been employed in the Burghley gardens for years, retiring three years ago on his pension for long service. By the wish of Lord Exeter he was borne to his grave by fellow workmen. For 35 years he held the office of sexton, which he filled so worthily that the punctuality and attention to the minutest detail by "Old John," as he was affectionately called, had become as proverbs.’ Stamford Mercury 18 Feb 1881.


About the same time there was a departure of a different kind when Richard’s principal foreman, John Veot, was appointed to the position of head gardener to Lord Braybrooke at Audley End near Saffron Walden. 

Meanwhile, Richard and Sarah’s children were marrying and starting families of their own. On 20 May 1885 their third daughter, Margaret, married Richard’s protégé William Divers, who had recently been appointed head gardener to the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle. Three years later in August 1888 Margaret’s older sisters, Martha and Elizabeth, married Benjamin and Ernest Bray, two schoolmaster brothers from King’s Lynn, in a double wedding ceremony at St John the Baptist church in Barnack. We don’t know what flowers the brides carried, but Richard had a superb reputation in the locality for the blooms he supplied for the aristocracy. When Lord Burghley married Miss Isabella Whichcote at Aswarby, ‘Mr Gilbert forwarded bridesmaids’ bouquets comprising stephanotis floribunda, Lapageria roses, eucharis amazonica, white carnations, tea roses, vallota purpurea, geraniums pink and white and rondeletia spurosa, edged with panicum variegatum, adiantum cuneatum and salaginella Wildenovii. The bouquet holders and lace were of the most beautiful pattern and reflected credit on Mr Gilbert’s taste.’ Stamford Mercury 19 September 1875 (2)

Richard's second daughter, Elizabeth (6)

Meanwhile, Richard’s elder son John was also keeping horticulture in the family, working as under-gardener for Lord and Lady Willoughby de Eresby at nearby Normanton Hall. Younger daughters Sarah, Kate and Charlotte were respectively in training as a nurse, a schoolteacher and a dressmaker, whilst younger son, Herbert, had begun a career with the Stamford Post Office at a time when the innovative new telegram service was being established. It was probably Herbert’s job that gave Richard inspiration for the names of his 1883 apple introductions, The Post Office and The Parcel Post.



Even in his seventies Richard barely seemed to slow down, although his ‘regularly sought and generously given’ advice caused something of a fracas in April 1895 when his suggestion that St Leonard Street implement makers, Pick and Fountain, name their new hoe ‘The Excelsior’ rather than ‘The Burghley’ led to an acrimonious trade-mark dispute with another manufacturer.

Church of St John the Baptist, Barnack

On 22 November, Richard died at home in Burghley Park, four months after the third Marquess, his employer for 27 years. Richard’s funeral was held three days later at Barnack church, his coffin being borne by eight of his men and the service conducted by the rector, Rev Canon Syers, whose wife and daughter bordered the grave with flowers. It was attended by the new Marquess and there was ‘an enormous number’ of floral tributes from the great and good, including the Earl and Countess of Rosslyn, Lord Henry Grosvenor, Lady Mary Hozier, Dean Reynolds Hole, the Dean of Peterborough and, as the Mercury reported ‘many others of high rank, with whom he was great favourite. By his subordinates he was esteemed kind master, and his circle of friends may be said to include all who knew him. Many young men,

now holding responsible posts, owe their positions to his training and kindly interest

for their welfare.’(2)

Twenty years beforehand the Gardeners' Chronicle had referred at length to Richard's excellent relationships with his staff: "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 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 them, his fee is a new hat." The Gardeners' Chronicle 14 August 1875 (5)


Richard Gilbert had outlived Thomas Laxton by two years, but his good friends William and James Brown were among the mourners, as was local fruiterer Charles Evans's wife, Eliza.  Richard’s financial legacy was modest and, unlike the Laxtons, most of his horticultural introductions were quickly superseded, but memories of his skill, enthusiasm, passion for vegetable growing and larger-than-life personality lived on for decades.


After Richard's death Sarah went to live with their daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law Ernest in King's Lynn. It would have been especially gratifying for Richard to know that daughter Margaret's husband, William H Divers, gained national acclaim at Belvoir, where he managed a team of 40 gardeners and developed the concept of mass spring bedding, which was designed to bring enjoyment to the family and their many visitors, who traditionally stayed at the Castle in spring before going to Cheveley in Newmarket for the racing season. The Duke of Rutland was so impressed by the annual display that in 1909 he commissioned the book Spring Flowers at Belvoir, which is available to read online. William also bred apple varieties, including Belvoir Seedling and Barnack Orange. The latter was introduced in 1904 and a cross between Barnack Beauty and Cox's Orange Pippin - a reminder of William's happy years working for his father-in-law at Burghley. 

W H Divers is seen here on the right in 1934 at the age of 80 at the RHS show in Westminster.(7) He became a leading authority on orchids and, after his eventual retirement, a lecturer in horticulture for Surrey County Council.



(1) Kind courtesy of the Laxton family.

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

(3) Kind courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

(4) Kind courtesy of the Northamptonshire Museums Service.

(5) Kind courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library

(6) Kind courtesy of the Gilbert family.

(7) Kind courtesy of Mel and Ann Gibbs

With thanks to:

Historic England: Burghley House


Bunny Guinness and the Telegraph for the article 'Burghley House: Restoring the Vision of Capability Brown.' The Telegraph 31 March 2014.

Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018

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