The Gardens of the British Working Class

The Gardens of the British Working Class
Margaret Willes
Yale University Press  414pp  £12.99

Running from the 16th century right up to the postwar period, The Gardens of the British Working Class traces the diverse ways in which gardens and gardening have enriched the lives of the ordinary people of Britain through the centuries. The book loosely follows a chronological structure, tracing the slow transition from gardening for subsistence purposes – primarily to obtain food but also to cultivate herbs for medicinal purposes – to the growing of flowers and the reinvention of gardening as a leisure, rather than useful, pursuit. Accessibly written, beautifully illustrated, and packed with fascinating evidence, this book will be sure to delight gardeners and social historians alike.

While there is much here to interest and entertain, there is nevertheless a consistent difficulty in getting to material that really tells us about the gardens of the working class. In the introduction, Willes promises to turn to first-hand accounts which 'express the thoughts and opinions of people who are rarely named, let alone heard'. But in reality the book makes rather little use of autobiographical testimony; a missed opportunity, particularly for the period after about 1850 when such sources become both more abundant and more informative. Indeed, it might be questioned how much of the earlier part of the book is about the working class, or ordinary, gardener at all. Early chapters include fascinating discussions of medicinal herbs, the introduction of the potato and the development of flower-growing and floral societies. It is hugely engrossing, but only in part a story about the significance of gardening to ordinary Britons.

As Willes moves into the 19th century, she moves into surer territory. From a raft of different sources, Willes pieces together the uses to which labouring people put their cottage gardens, usefully reminding us that gardens were not simply the preserve of the rural poor, but an important element of city life as well. Even in London, many working families enjoyed the use of a garden, at least outside the crowded central districts. Although vegetables formed the mainstay of many such gardeners, fruit and flowers were often present, too; sometimes for resale, sometimes for personal use and enjoyment. As the general population became ever more literate in Victorian Britain, so a new form of how-to literature aimed at the humble gardener began to emerge. Mass-produced, cheap newspapers such as Gardening Illustrated could be bought for a penny and contained tips and advice for those with limited space and limited means. It marked the emergence of gardening as a leisure pursuit, a trend that continued apace in the 20th century.

Above all, this is a book of stories, pictures and vignettes. Serious historians might want to know more about the number, size, spread and use of allotments, but I imagine busy gardeners will simply revel in the detail Willes has amassed. The Gardens of the British Working Class leaves unanswered some large questions about the role of gardens in filling the plates and tummies of the labouring poor during the long period under review, but it is sure to delight anyone who likes to garden.

Emma Griffin is Professor of History at the University of East Anglia and is the author of A Short History of the British Industrial Revolution (Palgrave, 2010).

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