Thomas Laxton 1830 - 1893

Our most eminent Waterfurlong gardener by a mile was local solicitor turned plant breeder Thomas Laxton, of Laxton's Fortune and Laxton's Superb fame, correspondent of Charles Darwin and eventual founder of the renowned Bedford nursery.

 

The received wisdom is that the Law Society disliked Thomas's commercial activities and forced him to choose between practising as a solicitor and running his horticultural business. Our research reveals a different story. In Thomas's case necessity truly did turn out to be the mother of invention.

Stamford to Hoxton and Back Again 

Thomas is born in 1830 to Thomas senior, a tailor and draper from Stamford, and Anne née Goodyer from Castor near Peterborough. Thomas senior is 48 at the time of his only surviving son's birth. He already has a married daughter, Sarah Clapton, from a previous marriage, as well as two little girls with Anne. Young Thomas is born at Tinwell Old Rectory, a substantial property rented by his father from Lord Exeter. The following year the family moves back into town to the newly-built and fashionable 14 Rutland Terrace. This is where Thomas and his sisters, Anne and Mary, are to spend most of their childhood.

Thomas senior inherited the business from his own father, Robert, who as far back as 1787 was advertising his services in the Stamford Mercury as a 'taylor and habit maker'(1). Robert seems to have made an advantageous match to Kezia Lowe in 1776, the Lowe family being wealthy Stamford maltsters and spirit merchants. When they married educated Kezia signed, whereas Robert was only able to make his mark. 

 

Thomas has his own gift for making money and ventures into the world of property development long before the phrase is coined. Stamford's 1836 Borough Rate Book shows him owning not only his own business premises in St George's and St John's, but a total of 29 further properties in High Street, Dolphin Court, Burleigh Lane and St Leonard's Street, including the Three Tuns public house. 

Presumably Thomas junior is educated in Stamford. What we know for certain is that in his late teens he is articled to a solicitor in London's Hoxton. Thomas later says it was the orchards and market gardens of Shoreditch that kindled his passion for horticulture but in this he probably waxes lyrical -

the fields and gardens that once encircled the City of London have all but disappeared by Thomas's day. In truth, 19th century Hoxton is one of the most overpopulated, disease-ridden and impoverished places in the country.

Until the 20th century it was rare for solicitors (more commonly known as attorneys) to attend university, their training being solely by means of a five year apprenticeship. This was no cheap career option though, a typical indenture fee being 300 guineas.

 

Thomas may well have shared lodgings with one his half-nephews, Thomas and Edward Clapton, who were his own age and studying medicine in the East End of London. 

 

Read more about the history of the legal profession in England.

Perhaps access difficulties at Rutland Terrace influence Thomas senior's decision to move his family to 15 St Paul's Street and rent out the former. Just after moving into Rutland Terrace Thomas and his deaf and dumb brother, Hudson, who works alongside Thomas and lives with the family, get into a dispute when they remove stakes erected on waste ground in North Street by a John Wade. The brothers take Wade and his wife to court for assault and in Thomas's testimony he states he (Thomas) is a freeman of Stamford and claims the spot where Wade put down his stakes as a right of way to his garden.


 

 

Thomas senior retires in 1846 when he sells the family firm of Messrs Laxton & Clapton to their former head tailor, Samuel Hawes. Meanwhile, Thomas junior is back with the family in St Paul's Street working locally as a solicitor's clerk.

Five years later on 24 September 1856 Thomas marries schoolteacher Annie Ashby, whose father, Thomas Woodhouse Ashby, is a currier and agricultural implement maker living in St John's Street. The couple set up home in St Mary's Hill and the following July welcome the arrival of their son, Thomas Lowe Laxton.

 

This is the time Thomas really seems to develop his interest in horticulture, a passion shared by his father, who was an early member of the Stamford Floral & Horticultural Society. In 1857 Thomas junior is elected a Fellow of the Horticultural Society of London. He begins experimenting with pea hybridisation and enters into correspondence with Charles Darwin, with whom he swaps seeds and shares the results of plant trials. It seems probable at least some of these experiments were carried out at Waterfurlong, for in 1859 we learn Thomas has a garden there when thieves break into his summerhouse.  

 

Sadly, the first of Thomas's three marriages (not two as is generally reported) comes to its short end when Annie dies giving birth to daughter Annie Ashby Laxton in October 1858. At the age of 28 Thomas is left with a one-year-old and a newborn. Perhaps working in his garden offers some solace. 

Darwin, Mendel and a Fascination with Peas

A month after Annie's death the following advertisement appears in the Stamford Mercury: 

STAMFORD PIPPIN APPLE. WOOD & INGRAM beg to announce that they are now sending out this splendid variety, raised by Mr T Laxton, jun, of Stamford. It has twice received the highest commendations of the Pomological Society, and can be confidently recommended as a fine variety —"Flesh with an orange tinge, fine grained, crisp and juicy, with fine and peculiar aroma." Strong Maiden Trees, one year cut down; and Dwarf Trained, 7s. May be had of Mr R Brown Wothorp; or from Wood and Ingram, Nurseries, Huntingdon.(1)

This is Thomas's first known commercial 

introduction and the advent of a long 

collaboration with Wothorpe nurseryman Richard Brown. 

The 1861 census shows the Laxtons in St Mary's Hill with a live-in cook and a domestic servant. In 1864 their first child, Richard Lowe Laxton, is born. He is followed over the next eleven years by five siblings: William Hudson Lowe Laxton, Edward Augustine Lowe Laxton, Emily Diana Lowe Laxton, Louisa Jane Laxton and Mary Sophia Laxton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas's solicitor's and attorney's business (which he conducts from offices adjacent to his house in St Mary's Hill) is flourishing and in March 1861 he represents a pauper who has been treated disgracefully by the All Saints parish overseers. During the court hearing Thomas makes direct reference to his own garden in Waterfurlong. 

 

One of Darwin's letters to Thomas survives from November 1866 (4):
 

Whilst it was not uncommon to use female forebears' surnames as middle names, this recurring use of the same one is unusual in its frequency - 'Lowe' was also adopted by Thomas's sister Mary and half-sister Sarah for some of their children. Perhaps it was Kezia Lowe's dowry that gave the Laxtons status and financial stability.

We know almost nothing of Kezia other than that she and Robert Laxton married by licence at Collyweston church on 2 August 1776, Robert then being a Collyweston resident, Kezia living in Tinwell. 

                                                                                 Down, Bromley, Kent. S.E.

Nov 3rd

Dear Sir

I have spent some hours during the last few days in examining with the greatest possible interest your Peas. After all, I could not resist your very kind offer, & have kept one pea out of the packets marked 7. 10. 11. 12. 13. & the purple pea No. 14. I never saw anything more curious than the lots 12 & 13. Will you have the kindness to look at the pod of No. 13, & you will see that the rim close to the suture is red; pray tell me whether you think this has been caused by the pollen of the purple pod. These two cases & that of the purple pea are truly wonderful; the others are less striking   But I observe in lot 1 (except one pea) & in a lesser degree in 2, & in 3. 5. 6. & 8 that the crossed peas are smooth like the paternal stock, & not wrinkled & cubical like the mother pea— Can this loss of wrinkling be due to mere variation, or to the effect of some peculiar culture, or is it the direct result of the pollen of the father? I should be grateful for an answer on this head— I know I am rather unreasonable, but I should be very much obliged if you would write a single word in answer to 3 queries on the enclosed paper.

You ask me to return some peas next season; but I had intended planting them at once as I want now to observe some points in their growth; I should keep them in the greenhouse, but whether they would seed there I do not know. Hence if you are anxious about the product I must delay my observations & I will not sow till I hear again from you, I will take care that no one gets any seed if my plants seed. I shall send a servant to London on Wed mg. & he shall that day book & pay carriage for the box to Stamford. I will enclose your list in it— Pray accept my cordial thanks for your very great kindness—Dear Sir

 

Yours faithfully & obliged

Charles Darwin

P.S. Many thanks for your answer about the Gooseberry.

We find two further references to their correspondence in Charles Darwin's collected letters (5):

"So, again, Mr. Laxton, who has had such great experience in crossing peas, writes to me that "whenever a cross has been effected between a white-blossomed and a purple- blossomed pea, or between a white-seeded and a purple-spotted, brown or maple-seeded pea, the offspring seems to lose nearly all the characteristics of the white-flowered and white-seeded varieties; and this result follows whether these varieties have been used as the pollen-bearing or seed-producing parents." -- Charles Darwin. The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. Volume II. Chapter 2. XIV.

"Recently Mr. Laxton has made numerous crosses, and everyone had been astonished at the vigour and luxuriance of the new varieties which he has thus raised and afterwards fixed by selection. He gave me seed-peas produced from crosses between four distinct kinds; and the plants thus raised were extraordinarily vigorous, being in each case from 1 to 2 or even 3 feet taller than the parent-forms, which were raised at the same time close alongside." -- Charles Darwin. The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom. Chapter V.

Until the agricultural revolution methods of raising apples and pears were relatively haphazard. Towards the end of the 18th century Thomas Andrew Knight undertook a series of careful experiments in pollination which lead to the development of improved varieties. His work greatly influenced many later horticulturalists, including Thomas Laxton.

 

Thomas is one of the first people to use scientific methods in plant breeding, selecting parent plants from close observation of their most desirable characteristics rather than simply from well-known varieties. Thomas's trials and observations aid Darwin's experiments and are referred to in Darwin's published works. Thomas maintains his primary aim is to improve the quality of plants, rather than make money and he argues seed from all commercially produced plants should be saved. He recognises the susceptibility of plants to disease and explores the resistance of many of their American counterparts. In some respects his work is ahead of Gregor Mendel's, but Thomas is more interested in practical results than in submitting academic papers and it is therefore Mendel who achieves international recognition. 

 

Thomas continues to be one of the busiest Stamford solicitors and is appointed to various remunerated civic roles, including that of Clerk to the Stamford Union (the governing body of the

Workhouse). His comfortable income is supplemented by a steady stream of rent from various properties made over to him by his father, who had died in 1859. Thomas remains involved with the Stamford Rifle Volunteers, which he had joined in the 1850s, and continues his horticultural endeavours, regularly winning prizes in the Stamford Floral and Horticultural Society shows and in 1872 introducing Emma Peasgood's celebrated apple, Peasgood's Nonsuch, to the Royal Horticultural Society. He is invited to join the RHS's Fruit Committee and is made a fellow of the prestigious Linnean Society.

All appears to be going well for the Laxtons in the 1870s. The family has moved to 12 Austin Street, a comfortable stone house with a large south-facing garden and sufficient accommodation not only for the children, but for three domestic servants and a live-in errand boy. In September 1871 we find Jane advertising for a daily governess 'to instruct three children in English, Music, Drawing, French and the rudiments of Latin'(1) and in 1875 looking for a nursemaid for five children - 'an under-nurse is kept.'(1)

It is during the 1860s and 70s that Thomas does most of his pea hybridising and he also introduces a handful of excellent rose varieties. Among the latter is Mrs Laxton, named for Jane.  

But whilst everything seems rosy on the surface, Thomas has been getting into crippling debt. How and why we do not know. Thomas's work ethic and support for the Sunday temperance movement make drink an unlikely reason. Perhaps he becomes entangled in risky property speculations, perhaps he is a gambler - Stamford Racecourse is just down the road - or perhaps his gardening projects are running away with him. Thomas is certainly spending heavily on his horticultural passions, so much so that in 1870 he engages professional gardener Walter Easlea, who had been working for a landed Colchester family. 

Fall From Grace

Walter Easlea (seated) in old age with his family. His son (middle, standing), Walter junior, became a famous rose-grower. It was watching Thomas crossing peas as a boy that first fired young Walter with a passion for hybridising and Thomas encouraged him to start experimenting with strawberries and potatoes. 

Fall From Grace

 

Somehow Thomas manages to keep the lid on things until 1876. On 1 December we read in the Mercury about an extraordinary (in both senses of the word) meeting called by the Stamford Union.

 

'There was a large attendance at the Board meeting on Monday to meet Mr Beaumont, one of H M Inspectors, who came to confer with the Guardians on the subject of the continued absence of the clerk, Mr Laxton, from his duties. Mr Beaumont stated that on receiving the minute of the Guardians from the 16th October, to the effect that Mr Laxton had absented himself from his duties without explanation, and that circumstances had occurred which deprived the Guardians of any further confidence in their clerk, the Local

Government Board addressed a letter to Mr Laxton calling upon him to account for his absence, and on the third day from that letter being addressed to him, the Local Government Board received a reply bearing the address "Stamford Union," giving ill-health as a reason for his absence. Thereupon the Local Government Board, believing Mr Laxton was in Stamford, asked the Guardians for a further explanation, but the Guardians simply referred to their minute of October, adding that Mr Laxton's address was still unknown to them.

The Chairman (Mr Paradise) said all through this unfortunate business the Guardians had desired to act with the greatest delicacy towards their clerk. They were in possession of unofficial information that rendered it highly improbable that Mr Laxton could return, but they did not feel it incumbent upon them to state in specific terms what that information was.

The Inspector then suggested that the Chairman should read to the Guardians a certified copy of a warrant which been issued early in October for the arrest of Mr Laxton, in which he was charged with obtaining by fraud the sum of £250 from Mr J Duncomb, of St Martin's. The warrant having been read, the question was put to the meeting whether the clerk still retained the confidence of the Guardians; upon which it was unanimously resolved "That the want of confidence in Mr Laxton expressed in their resolution of the 16th October still exists in the minds of the Guardians." The conference closed with a statement from Mr Beaumont that in all probability the Guardians would in a few days hear from the Local Government Board on the subject.'(1) H M Inspectorate is little more impressed by the Guardians' behaviour than by their clerk's.

Four days later the Edinburgh Gazette reports Thomas has been declared bankrupt. Within a month the Austin Street house and all its contents are auctioned, along with 14 Rutland Terrace, 28 and 29 High Street and nine properties in St Leonard's Street, all with sitting tenants. The following year Thomas's enormous collection of 'several thousand rose trees' is auctioned at the Castle Garden in Stamford by Charles Turner of Her Majesty's Royal Nurseries in Slough. 

 

How much or how little the Guardians (and for that matter the Stamford police) know about Thomas's exact whereabouts is debatable and it is an astounding ten months until he is arrested at his father-in-law's home in Woodwalton, a mere 22 miles away and an obvious hiding place. Later correspondence suggests Thomas spends some of his time on the run in Paris, heading back to the local area in June 1877. 

 

As the Northampton Mercury reports on 25 August 1877, the deed is eventually done by fellow Waterfurlong gardener, Sergeant John Harrison:

 

'Thomas Laxton, who absconded from Stamford in October last, and for whose apprehension two separate warrants were held by the police, was arrested on Thursday evening last. Information having been given to the police that the fugitive was in the neighbourhood of Huntingdon, Sergeant Harrison proceeded there, and found him at the house of his wife's father, who resides at Wood Walton, where he had, it is supposed, been staying for some time. The officer having, as a matter of form, acquainted Laxton with his errand, the latter at once intimated his willingness to accompany the Sergeant. They proceeded by train to Peterborough, and thence by horse conveyance to Stamford, where they arrived about two o'clock in the morning. The prisoner was then placed in the lock-up until about half-past six o'clock, when he was taken in a fly to the gaol.

 

At about half-past nine he was taken before Mr Baker and charged by Mr Duncomb, butcher, with obtaining from him £250 by false pretences, on the 2nd August, 1876, and was remanded until the next morning. The accused was brought into the room by Mr Hewerdine, the gaoler but, instead of taking his place at the bar of the court, he walked to the solicitor's table with paper in his hand, and stood at the corner where he was in the habit of taking his place when engaged on behalf of a client. He looked exceedingly well in health — much better than when he absconded — and appeared calm and confident, encouraging the impression that he felt no anxiety as to the result of any charge that might be brought against him. No application was made for bail, and he was taken back to gaol.'(2)

 

Thomas is tried on 12 October 1877 and represented by Mr Owston of the Leicester chambers. Bail had been refused at the preliminary hearing and the Mercury reports he 'looked careworn and nervous after his week's incarceration.'(1) This might, at least in part, have resulted from a second charge being brought - one dating back to 1872 that is to prove Thomas's undoing.

Both allegations involve Thomas defrauding John Duncomb by persuading him to act as lender for a non-existent mortgage. The question the jury faces is not whether Thomas facilitated these 'mortgages' and received the funds - that is not disputed - but whether he did so with the intent of defrauding Mr Duncomb. 

John Duncomb states that on 1 August 1876 he went to Thomas's garden to ask for some rosebuds and when he was leaving Thomas offered him the opportunity of lending £250 for a mortgage on a field in Ketton at 4% interest, the mortgagee being one Thomas Nutt. After giving the matter consideration John Duncomb decided to go ahead and advanced the funds to Thomas, expecting to receive the mortgage deed in exchange. This did not materialise, despite Mr Duncomb chasing.

 

At this point Charles Evans, another of our gardeners, becomes tangentially involved. John Duncomb states: 'About the 10th October in consequence of something Mr Evans told me I became suspicious but owing to what he (Mr Evans) said, I delayed taking action for two days. On the Friday (Oct 13th) I saw Laxton’s carriage go through the town and I sent my boy with a pony and cart after it [as it was clear he was absconding]. The next morning I obtained a warrant against the prisoner. Some time after that I offered a reward for his apprehension.'(1)

 

Thomas Nutt states he never asked Thomas Laxton to raise a mortgage on the field in question. However, his testimony is somewhat contradictory and this probably saves Thomas on the first charge. Mr Nutt goes on to explain he had initially engaged Thomas Laxton to represent him in a breach of promise case - a case that resulted in the court deciding Thomas Nutt must pay his former fiancée £100 for failing to go through with the marriage. He claims he paid over this £100 fine to Thomas 'I paid it into Laxton's office and Laxton bolted with it.'(1) This is not disputed by the defence who acknowledge Mr Nutt has unwittingly become another of Thomas's creditors.

John Duncomb states that when Thomas absconded it raised concerns in his mind about another transaction he had had with Thomas some four years previously. This involved £400 Mr Duncomb had lent to Thomas's cousin Henry Goodyer, a Nottingham estate agent, who wanted to raise a mortgage on a property he owned in Ironmonger Street. When John Duncomb asked if there were any charges on the property Thomas apparently reassured him: 'No; Mr Goodyer's father left it to him: I was his executor.'(1) The transaction went ahead on the basis that Mr Goodyer would pay 4% interest through Thomas's office. Mr Duncomb gave Thomas a cheque for £400 and received in return a bundle of papers in a wrapper entitled 'Title deeds of Mr H A Goodyer's Property in Ironmonger St, Stamford.' He didn't look through the papers at the time and duly received the anticipated interest payments from Thomas.

 

 

A few days before Thomas absconded Mr Duncomb discovered there was a pre-existing mortgage on the property. Thomas had raised £500 from a Mr Beadsworth in November 1859, to whose widow the title deeds now rightfully belonged. Henry Goodyer testifies that he borrowed against the property from Mr Beadsworth, but knows nothing of Mr Duncomb's loan and has never paid interest to anyone other than the Beadsworths. Mr Rodom, a gardener from Peterborough, then gives evidence that Thomas tried to raise a £500 mortgage from him against the same property. It is alleged Thomas also managed to raise £500 from a fourth party, a Mr Ringham, since deceased. As part of his evidence, John Duncomb presents two letters he received from Thomas - the first with no address, the second from Paris.(1)

At the time it was commonplace for wealthier private individuals to take on the role of mortgage lender and just as normal for solicitors to match borrowers with lenders. The lender received interest on the loan and the capital was repaid in a lump sum at the end of the term. The deeds were held by the lender (or more commonly, the lender's solicitor) as security until the mortgage was repaid.

7 June 1877

 

Dear Sir,

 

I am now doing what I hoped and intended doing, could I have seen you before I left, that is to ask you to be my friend and to help me, as I am quite sure you never expected, as I never expected, that anything like this fearful suffering and injury would overtake me. Now the least I can do is to express my sincere regret, and which I have always felt, at the loss you have sustained (and yet I hope it will not altogether prove a loss) through my failure, and I assure you that I did not intend to lose you one farthing, and I am prepared and anxious to do everything to lighten improvident injury to you and others. As I am satisfied there is only one respectable way of getting out of my difficulties, and that my creditors ought to be paid, but without their help and consideration I am at present unable to move, and the best I am likely to be able to do as matters are at present, would be to get bread and cheese for myself: and I know that my wife's friends are not in a position to support her and the six helpless children besides the two eldest who are even yet considerably dependent...

 

With a little assistance and my creditors' help and consideration I could, I make no doubt, soon bring matters around, as I know what to do and could give my attention to one thing. Now you have the power to help me, and I know you have a generous heart, and from what I gather from my wife you have a disposition to help me, but let me therefore entreat you to come to my rescue before either ruin or starvation overtakes us ... I could almost hope that you or Mrs D would see my poor wife and tell her you would help. Oh how it would ease her heart and gladden the children, who, bear in mind I have not seen for seven or eight months. I am certain in what you do others will follow...

 

 26 June 1877                                                                                                            29 Rue Jacob, Paris

 

Dear Sir, 

I hoped I could persuade you to avoid dragging your dirt before the public, knowing that I am your debtor and that I have been and am still determined to pay you as far as lies in my power, but you were wrong in attempting to make a criminal charge against me, and I am sure if I could have seen you for a few minutes you would not have done it. I am however, quite willing to consider your position, and to save you from further loss, and as I propose to leave here on Friday and be in Stamford on Saturday, and as I have never gone in another name and don't intend to do so, I suggest you make some arrangements with Mr Ward in order to prevent you paying the £40 reward [the reward offered by Mr Duncomb for Thomas's apprehension]...I have by this post written to the Mayor stating that I will undertake to appear before the Magistrates to answer any charge or charges when required. 

 

The Stamford Mercury concludes its reportage:

'The Recorder having summed up, the jury retired, and after short consultation returned with a verdict guilty.— No evidence was offered regarding the second indictment, and a verdict of not guilty was taken. — The prisoner, being asked whether he had anything to say why sentence should not passed upon him, replied, "Only that I deeply regret the circumstances," and burst into tears.

 

The Recorder in passing sentence, said: "It must be a source of deep regret not only to yourself but to a great many people who have known you in this town and the county to see you placed in this degraded position. You have been convicted upon evidence, which, to my mind, leaves no possible doubt that you did obtain the money by false pretences. I do not wish to add to your painful position by any remarks, for you must feel your prospects in life are ruined, and any punishment I can inflict will be a mere nothing compared to the loss of position and loss of character you will sustain in the eyes of all respectable people in this town. The sentence, however, must be severe. I have carefully considered the case, and if you had not been in position of trust possibly I might have given you three months less than I am about to do. I cannot, however, treat you different to other prisoners, and the sentence is that you be imprisoned for nine months' hard labour.' Stamford Mercury 12 Oct 1877.(1)

 

It is an understatement to say the case scandalises the town - the thought a popular man (and a freeman) from a respectable local family has been abusing his position of trust to defraud friends and neighbours causes shock and condemnation. Thomas is taken down to Stamford gaol, where he duly serves most of his sentence under the supervision of the town gaoler, John Hewardine, who has known Thomas man and boy. What the hard labour involves and how rigorously it is enforced we do not know. The gaol (then situated behind the town hall) is decommissioned in May 1878 and Thomas is moved to Oakham for the last ten weeks of his imprisonment.

 

Meanwhile, in February 1878 he is struck off the Solicitors' Roll by the Judges of the Common Pleas Division. 

Doubtless begged by Jane, Thomas's Goodliff in-laws had stood bail for him (on those occasions it was granted) between hearings and we can only assume they take in Jane and the younger children when Thomas's incarceration and bankruptcy leaves the family homeless and penniless.

Thomas's eldest son, Thomas Lowe Laxton, is following in his cousins' footsteps studying medicine at St Thomas's Hospital in London, whilst eldest daughter Annie is working as a governess at a girls' boarding school on the Finchley Road in Marylebone. It is hard to imagine how either of them copes. In October 1878, weeks after Thomas's release from prison, twenty year old Thomas Lowe marries heavily-pregnant Mary Louisa Baker in Islington and their son Edward Noel Laxton is born in January, two years before Thomas Lowe completes his degree. Does Thomas meet his first grandchild or are relationships too strained? 

What of the wider Laxton family? In a small, provincial town like Stamford their relative's fall from grace is shameful and humiliating and it is no surprise that over time almost all the Laxtons gravitate towards the anonymity of London. Thomas's mother had died in 1871 and thus been spared the agony of witnessing her only son's conviction. His unmarried sister Anne has returned to the family home at 15 St Paul's Street after living for a while in Bloomsbury with her half-nephew, Dr William Clapton. To make ends meet 

she is sub-letting part of the property to a machinist and his family. Their sister Mary is living out at Ramsey St Mary with her gentleman farmer husband, William Ullett, and her six children.

William dies in 1878 whereupon Mary moves the family to London's Fulham, Anne leaving Stamford to join her there at some point in the 1880s. Older half-sister Sarah has been left comfortably off by her late husband Jeremiah Clapton and is living at 20 St Mary's Street with four middle-aged, unmarried daughters, a cook and a housemaid and is probably bearing the brunt of the town's opprobrium.

New Beginnings

Whether or not Thomas spends his time in prison reflecting on his behaviour, he certainly spends it planning. Penniless, unable to return to the law and a social pariah in his home town, he needs a way of making a living and supporting his family and this is where his horticultural expertise comes to the rescue. Thomas may have lost his valuable stock (even his microscope, cold-frames and pruning knives have been auctioned off) but he still retains the most important asset of all - his knowledge. He also has two energetic teenage sons, William and Edward, who have inherited his interest in gardening. 

 

Accounts of Thomas's life refer to the horticultural business he ran in Stamford, but we can find no evidence of Thomas having owned any commercial enterprise before his imprisonment. It is true he introduced several new apple, pea and rose varieties and it is also true he had a huge plant collection, but Thomas's interest in horticulture was gentlemanly; it was a leisure pursuit, albeit a consuming and costly one. In 1866 Charles Darwin mentioned Thomas in a letter to the botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker 'As you did not read last Gardeners’ Chronicle, you will not have read an article by a Mr T Laxton (I wonder who he is, he is a gentleman, but not scientific) ...' (5)

Most of the spade-work probably fell to Thomas's friend and collaborator, the Wothorpe nurseryman Richard Brown, whose land Thomas may well have used to house many of his plant specimens.

 


 

On 2 August 1878 the Luton Times and Advertiser reports on prize-giving at Bedford Modern School.(1) It is evident Thomas's three younger boys have been enrolled there since at least the beginning of the summer term, with William (Laxton minor) winning his year's prize for Latin and Edward (Laxton tertius) winning the junior school prize for botany. Thomas and Jane must have decided on Bedford as a new base months before Thomas was released from prison.

 

It seems likely Jane's family have helped her find accommodation in the town and are paying the boys' not

 

 

inconsiderable school fees. It is a testament to Jane that her sons are doing so well academically given the turbulence in their lives.

 

As soon as he is free Thomas joins the family and starts unveiling his ambitious new business plan, as the Cardiff Times of 31 August 1878 reports:

'A new idea has been started in horticulture. Mr Thomas Laxton, of Bedford, is getting up an experimental garden. He wants to hybridise, cross-breed, and select plants and vegetables, and thus to produce new varieties, and advance horticulture. The proceedings at Kew are too scientific, in Regent's Park too exalted, and at South Kensington too useless, for the attainment of the purpose which Mr Laxton has in hand. He wishes (as he explains) to advance practical horticulture, to improve cereals, forage, and other common products, to give us sweeter fruit and more succulent vegetables, and to do it all by constant experiments in variation. The public are to be invited to subscribe to this new venture, in order to give it a start, and then it is to support itself upon its own work. I have reason to believe that the projector intends to fix his vegetable breeding establishment in the South West of England.'(6)

The Reading Mercury reports the plan 'has received the approval of many scientific horticulturalists, agriculturists and botanists'(1) and refers to Thomas as Mr T Laxton FRHS, suggesting that the Royal Horticultural Society has not stripped him of fellowship.

 

Two weeks later we learn more from the Nottinghamshire Guardian:'Donations in 

furtherance of the objects in mind will be received by Mr Thomas Laxton, 53 Tavistock St, Bedford, who hopes also as soon as a suitable site can be procured, to receive contributions of plants, stock &c. The terms of subscription with regulations and full particulars will shortly be issued. The privileges to be accorded to subscribers will include a priority in the distribution of all novelties raised at or secured by the establishment ... and a share of the surplus plants, seeds &c.'(1)

In late October we find Thomas putting his plans into practice when he advertises (interestingly in the Stamford Mercury): 'Briers (sic) wanted for Rose Stocks - State particulars and price - delivered on rail - to Mr Laxton, Bedford.'(1)

 

 

The family first sets up home at 53 Tavistock Street, but moves frequently (which suggests they are renting), always within the town's commercial district. In 1881 their address is 103 Tavistock Street, by 1885 they have moved to 1 Harpur Place (now 41 Harpur Street), and finally they settle at 78 Tavistock Street. Living above shop premises with only one general servant is a far cry from the gentility of 12 Austin Street, but at least mostof the family is together. Presumably lacking the 

financial wherewithal to follow his older brother to university, in 1879 15 year old Richard joins the merchant navy, indentured to London mariner George Duncan.

 

In November 1878 Thomas publishes a brief article in the laboriously titled 'Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener & Country Gentleman' with the heading 'Garden Potatoes'. It cannot be a coincidence that the journal is published by eminent pomologist Robert Hogg, with whom Thomas is almost certainly personally acquainted. Two years later Thomas honours Dr Hogg by naming a rose after him. 

We think of Bedford as a much bigger place than Stamford, but that growth was to come in the 20th century. At the time Thomas and Jane move there it is a small market town, 

comparable with Stamford in terms of population and with fewer amenities. Bedford has no hospital, no park and a patchy piped water supply. What it does have is fertile soil, a plentiful supply of horticultural labourers, good railway links and apparently gargantuan heaps of virtually free horse-manure from London. It is also within reasonable distance of Jane's elderly parents and brothers, who have proved so stalwart and who are probably the source of the generous start-up funds Thomas seems to have obtained.

 

In December 1878 the Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser provides an update on Thomas's new venture. He has evidently decided against relocation to the south-west and has moved fast to purchase land in Bedford.

'USEFUL ENTERPRISE.— Mr Thomas Laxton, of Bedford, announces that he has acquired about three acres of land at Girtford, Beds, for use as a public experimental garden... The expenditure on the purchase of the land, the erection of buildings and fences, and planting amounts to about £8OO, and it is estimated that £400 more will be required to provide glass structures and put the garden into condition for the work to done in it.'(1) 

Unsurprisingly given the question-mark over his trustworthiness, Thomas's entrepreneurial subscription model struggles to get off the ground, but whatever his past misdemeanours he cannot be faulted for the zeal with which he approaches his new business. It takes time to establish and in September 1879 we find Thomas winning prizes at the Bedford Floral & Horticultural Society show in the 'cottagers' rather than the 'nurserymen' category, with the Bedfordshire Mercury reporting: 'We noticed an extensive collection of vegetables from the Experimental Garden, near Girtford, which is conducted by Mr Thomas Laxton of Bedford.'(1) Thomas is clearly working hard on building a local presence, also writing a periodic gardening column in the paper entitled 'Hardy Fruit & Vegetable Garden'. 

 

The townspeople of Stamford might have turned their backs on Thomas, but the wider gardening fraternity has not. In 1880 he is invited to judge exhibits at the Hertfordshire County Flower Show and his continued 

collaboration with Richard Brown results in joint marketing of the new Stamford apple variety Schoolmaster. The following year sees Thomas judging both the Sandy Flower Show and the Oxford Rose Show and introducing to market the peas Earliest of All (later renamed Alaska), Fillbasket, and John Bull - the last highly recommended by Thomas's old Burghley gardening friend, Richard Gilbert. Ever one to spot a marketing opportunity, Thomas quickly starts selling Alaska into America through J J H Marblehead of Massachusetts. Things are finally looking up.

'One morning lately, a small tin box was brought for me by the postman, and, on opening it I found sight of the finest, fattest, fullest Peas these eyes ever saw. I opened the accompanying note from the sender, who was none other than friend Gilbert, of Burghley, and found that they were a sample of the John Bull Pea and my Correspondent commented in his note, which was written in his usual hearty way, by asking " What do you think of these Peas??" I confess I thought a good deal. I thought they were, as I have said, splendid Specimens Of Peas, and that I should like to grow some like them. I found that this Pea was one of the best sent out by that Indefatigable aud successful hybridiser and raiser of Peas, Mr Laxton, late of Stamford, and now of Bedford. Mr Gilbert says of it, that it is a good grower, from three to four and a half feet high, a heavy cropper and a good eater, and so good generally that he shall go in largely for it in the future.' Nottinghamshire Guardian 26 August 1881(1)

Thomas manages to acquire more and more nursery land in what are now the Goldington Road and Polhill Avenue areas of Bedford and in the 1881 census describes himself as a 'seedsman and grower'. In 1883 he introduces Invincible Carmine, the first sweet pea variety to arise as a result of deliberate hand pollination and the long-pod bean John Harrison, apparently named in remembrance of the Stamford police officer and gardening neighbour who had shown such 'wilful laxity' in Thomas's arrest. 

 

By the following year Thomas is really in

his stride, achieving his first major strawberry success with Noble, a chance seedling of Excelsior and American Sharpless, and the apple South Lincolnshire Pippin (later renamed Allington Pippin), still considered by some to be the Laxton firm's best.

 

The next few years sees a wealth of soft fruit, top fruit, pea, bean and flower introductions, doubtless made possible in part by William and then Edward leaving school and joining Thomas in the enterprise.

In February 1888 the business acquires temporary retail premises at 4 Bromham Road and has come on in leaps and bounds, as can be seen from an advertisement in the Bedfordshire Times & Independent of 18 February:

 

 'LAXTON’S SEEDS, FRUITS, AND FLOWERS. SEVENTY FIRST-CLASS CERTIFICATES FROM THE ROYAL HORTICULTURAL AND OTHER LEADING SOCIETIES. Patronised by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, a large number of the Nobility, Clergy, and Gentry, and the principal Gardeners and Amateurs of the United Kingdom. T LAXTON having had many years' experience in practical Seed Growing and Horticulture, and the raising of new Vegetables, Flowers, and Fruits, has arranged, in conjunction with his son W H LAXTON, who has gained much valuable knowledge in some of the best houses in this country and abroad, to OPEN ON THE 4th FEBRUARY NEXT, THE SHOP, NO 4, BROMHAM ROAD, BEDFORD, Opposite the Harpur School for Girls, temporary Premises for the Sale of First-Class SEEDS, FLOWERS, BULBS, FRUIT TREES, AND NURSERY STOCK GENERALLY, UNDER THE STYLE OF LAXTON & SON, Who hope, by supplying the best seeds at the Lowest possible Cash Prices, consistent with quality, and giving their utmost attention to the prompt and punctual execution of Orders, and the careful and accurate naming of fruits and other trees and plants, to secure a share of the Patronage of the Public in Bedford and the County. Orders for Wreaths, Crosses, Bouquets, &c promptly executed in the best style. Cut Flowers, the Finest Strawberries, and other Fruits as in season fresh daily from the Girtford and Kimbolton Road Grounds. A fine collection of the most showy and hardy Herbaceous Plants, also Seed Potatoes of the best sorts. Seakale and Asparagus Plants. HORTICULTURAL SUNDRIES OF EVERY DESCRIPTION KEPT IN STOCK. All T Laxton's Novelties and Specialties in Seeds, Fruits, Flowers, and Potatoes supplied — see Illustrated Catalogue now ready, which will be forwarded on application.'(2)

 

In stark contrast to Thomas's fulsome business advertising, it seems extraordinary there is not a single public announcement of Jane's sad death in October 1888 at the age of 55. The years of strain must have taken a toll on her health and possibly also on her marriage. Perhaps less surprising given apparent family tensions, is Thomas's reticence about announcing his remarriage fourteen months later in London to governess Harriett Elizabeth Ferguson, nearly twenty years his junior. 

It is at this point Thomas seems to retire from the business, although there is no announcement to that 

effect. Three months after their father's wedding William and Edward launch their own business under the name Laxton Brothers. They open a shop at 63a High Street and their new advertisements contain no reference to their father or his horticultural introductions. The three Laxton siblings still in Bedford move out of the family home and into accommodation at 18 - 20 Bromham Road, where in the 1891 census we find William and Edward with their school-age youngest sister, Mary Sophia, and their maternal aunt, Eliza Goodliff. Eliza runs a boarding house with 28 lodgers for them, which must provide a useful source of income whilst the boys establish themselves. Sisters 

Emily and Louisa are both away working as governesses, Emily in Peterborough, Louisa in Lancashire.  

In 1892 Thomas retires from the committee of the Bedford Horticultural Society and, other than the very occasional appearance as a show judge, from the time of his third marriage seems to withdraw from all his horticultural activities, practical and literary.

July 1893 brings more sadness with the death of Thomas's eldest daughter, 34 year old Annie Ashby Armitage, who leaves a seven year old daughter, Kate. Although Annie left home to work as a governess when Thomas was imprisoned, father and daughter appeared to remain close as she had married widowed clothes manufacturer Jackson Armitage from Thomas's Bedford home in 1884.

 

 

End of an Era

Thomas's widow, Harriett, is his sole executor and the main beneficiary of his very modest £254 estate. She later emigrates to Australia.  


What happens to the Laxton children, whose interest in horticulture might first have been kindled in the family's Waterfurlong garden? By the time of the next census in 1901 Thomas's two eldest sons are also dead. Thomas Lowe Laxton had joined the Army Medical Reserve after the breakdown of his first marriage and dies in Pretoria during the Boer War, leaving three children. Merchant seaman Richard dies in Calcutta in 1897. Daughter Emily Diana is married and living in South Africa. Mary is single and working in Greenwich as governess to a barrister's children; she is later to qualify in midwifery and practise in London until she retires to Wiltshire. Louisa is difficult to trace until her eventual death in Manchester. 

Perhaps Annie's death is more than Thomas can bear, for a month later he dies at 78 Tavistock Road whilst son Edward is on honeymoon in the Lake District. Thomas's obituary refers to his having endured a 'painful eight week illness'(1) so it is possible he was unable to attend the wedding. After a service at St Peter's church, Thomas is buried in Bedford cemetery.

In reporting his death the Bedfordshire Times and Independent refers to Thomas as 'the eminent horticulturalist'(1),yet despite this 

truthful accolade the only other obituary seems to be a single line in the Stamford Mercury.

Meanwhile, Thomas and Harriett are living alone in Tavistock Street with no servants.

Meanwhile, William and Edward remain in partnership and Laxton Brothers goes from strength to strength. Edward is the driving force behind the business, while William's interests are more diverse - he also co-owns a brickworks in nearby Kempston Hardwick. Building on Thomas's work, they introduce most of the 27 'Laxton' strains of apple, three strains of pear, nine strains of plum and six strains of strawberry, as well as currants, gooseberries, onions and potatoes. They supply plants across the globe and in 1937 Sir Winston Churchill orders raspberry plants from Laxton Brothers to cultivate on his Chartwell estate.

 

 

It is not until 1898, more than five years after his death, that the brothers memorialise their father with their superb pea 'Thomas Laxton', which is still grown today. Like his father before him, William dies comparatively young at 57 in 1923. Edward continues to run the business with his son Edward William Henry (known as Ted), who inherits the family passion for horticulture. Tragically Ted Laxton is killed when a German bomb hits his Bedford house in 1941. His father is made an MBE in the 1951 New Year Honours List, but dies two months later and the business is finally discontinued in 1957.

Three generations of the Laxton family and more than 100 years of horticultural endeavour resulted in at least 182 new and reliable varieties of plants, many of them ancestors of the strains we grow today. 

 

The short biographies we have of Thomas Laxton are stronger on his scientific achievements than on the path his life took. Most repeat the misconceptions that Thomas was struck off as a solicitor because the Law Society objected to his running a successful nursery business in Stamford, that forced to choose between law and horticulture Thomas opted for horticulture, and that Laxton Brothers emerged as part of a smooth and orderly transition when Thomas felt the time had come to retire from operational aspects of the family business. These claims are not supported by the facts and lead us astray when trying to build a picture of Thomas the man.  

 

Even revisiting the original records tells us only so much. The court wanted to know every detail of Thomas's journey back to Stamford under arrest, but never seemed to ask 'Why did you do it?'. 

 

   

What we can conclude is that Thomas was a personality of contrasts, even of extremes - in some situations measured, focused and analytical, in others an imprudent chancer. When it came to scientific explorations Thomas was logical and scrupulously honest in his reporting, when it came to money both probity and common-sense seemed to fly out of the window.

One of the most shocking aspects of his fraudulent dealings and bankruptcy (whatever actually triggered them) must have been townspeople's awareness that Thomas had tangible assets he could have liquidated to avert (or at least minimise) disaster - disaster for himself, disaster for his family and disaster for those who lost money at his hands. Bankruptcy was far from uncommon in the town, often the result of illness or injury, increasingly the result of Stamford's economic decline, occasionally (as in the case of Thomas's contemporary John Marriott Blashfield of the Stamford Terracotta Company) the result of over-ambitious business ventures, but it was rare indeed for someone who could have taken steps to get out of a financial mess to entangle themselves further and further, dragging friends and loved ones down with them. 

 

Thomas's self-belief gave him the boldness to initiate contact with Charles Darwin and the vision to reinvent his life after prison, yet he was crushed when others failed to dance to his tune. A kindly father who missed his family when apart, refused to follow the fashion of the day and send his children off to boarding school, and was remembered as a patient and encouraging teacher, yet seemingly cold in the end towards the wife who supported him through thick and thin, and twice the unwitting architect of the family's dispersal, first from Stamford and later from Bedford. An extravert with a huge network of friends, collaborators and correspondents, yet at his happiest when alone with his plants. Further research might help shed light on these contradictions; in the meantime Thomas's character remains something of a conundrum.

 

Sadly and surprisingly there is no blue plaque to Thomas either in Stamford or in Bedford. Thomas's misdemeanours, shocking though they were, occurred nearly 150 years ago, whereas his amazing plant-breeding legacy lives on.

SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

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

(2)With kind courtesy of Lincolnshire Museums

(3)With kind courtesy of the Laxton family

(4)Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5267,” accessed on

3 April 2018, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-5267

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 14

(5)Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5227,” accessed on 3 April 2018, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-5227

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 14

(6)The British Newspaper Archive with thanks to the National Library of Wales. All Rights Reserved.

 

Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018

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