Stories from the Barn

A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands

An Economic History of the English Garden

An Economic History of the English Garden by Roderick Floud_1499x1616

An Economic History of the English Garden by Roderick Floud.

I picked up ‘An Economic History of The English Garden’ as a result of discovering a whole branch of my family, who, in the C18th and C19th were estate gardeners. Dozens of them were occupied on estates from Hampshire to Ireland. I realized how little I knew about gardens of the period, let alone the lives of those working in them. A visit to the wonderful Museum of Garden History in Lambeth put me in touch with some really useful resources and so began my interest in gardens of the past.

Then I heard Sir Roderick Floud talk about his book on BBC Radio4. He is a professor of economic history and loves to visit historic gardens. On such visits his eye was turned to the economics of creating and maintaining such a garden and the result is this mind opening book.

I have to admit I was nearly put off by the cover and weight of the book. Shallow I know but once I started reading, the richness of the tale made it a sumptuous feast.


King Charles II – gardener.

The book begins with the restoration of Charles II. The king who loved gardening and art and science. He was addicted to garden and park planning. It was Charles were re-afforested Greenwich, planting thousands of trees in particular elm trees, Spanish chestnuts and great stands of ash, hawthorn and birch.  A work on gardening printed in 1670, Le Jardin de Plaisir, by André Mollet, which was dedicated to Charles.

Botany also caught his scientific fancy. A famous picture shows King Charles II, before the façade of Ham House, being shown the first pineapple cultivated in England.

An economic history of the English garden

John Rose the royal gardener presenting King Charles with a pineapple.

So it is here that Sir Roderick begins to unravel the economics of the garden and its force as a major industry, changing the face of England. Whilst King Charles II made major improvements to his parks and gardens, the state ultimately paid for it and so it continued for each sovereign.  Floud lays out a very convincing argument that gardening was the catalyst for economic development. Structures made from fine ironwork, heated glass houses, canals and lakes were all part of that creative vision.

Vast amounts of money were spent in pursuit of the garden.

The levels of expenditure as well as the earnings of some of the designers are astonishing. The detailed study of this gardening economy is a completely new subject and quite startling.

“Spending money on gardens has been one of the greatest, and certainly most conspicuous, forms of expenditure on luxury in England since the 17th century or earlier.”

This money and Floud estimates that at least £1bn has been spent each decade since the C17th, is State money. It wasn’t just royal parks that they spent money on. Public parks were increasingly important places where the new middle classes could socialize and have fun.  Indeed, by the 19th century Britain had:

“a garden industry unrivalled anywhere in the world”.

Hampton Court Palace Gardens

Favourite chapter in the book?

Without any doubt the chapter ‘The Working Gardener’. What a fascinating examination of how the garden was run from head gardener down to the youngest labourer. The days were long and arduous. Young gardeners could expect to work from 6am to 6pm, longer in the Summer months to make up for the shorter Winter days. There was a strict dress code and strict discipline to accompany it. They were also expected to live in a ‘bothy’, often little more than a hovel.

‘a wretched place, situated between and adjoining two stokeholes… the roof covered with the old fashioned pantiles, without any ceiling so that when there came drifting snow it found its way to us as we lay in bed’

In conclusion Roderick Floud questions why governments have failed to see gardening as other than a hobby when its economic force is so obvious? Millions have been employed in the gardening industry. Thousands of books written, thousands of nurseries. The cultural heritage of Britain revolves around gardens and parks. There is in this nation of ours a constant striving for garden perfection.

The Economic History of The English Garden is a wonderful book, a different book that turns the subject of our gardens on its head. It is filled with wonderful details. Floud discovered and unraveled Capability Brown’s accounts and calculated that he earned more than £20 million a year. He also gives us details of the extraordinary prices paid for rare plants. I am so glad I heard Roderick Floud on the radio and even more pleased that I overcame my initial reluctance to dive into it. One of the most informative books I have read in a long while.

One time Provost of Gresham College Sir Roderick Floud has lectured on this subject and even if you don’t get to read the book, listen to his lectures and enjoy.

An Economic History of the English Garden

Roderick Floud

Published by Allen Lane and imprint of Penguin Books

ISBN 978 0 241 23557 7