The Victorian Era turned away from the elegance of the Georgian Era and brought houses jam-packed full of clutter. From simplicity and elegance we moved to richness and opulence. At no other time had flowers and foliage been used in such abundance.
The Victorian’s love of order and control influenced a more formal style of gardening. Bedding schemes with plants laid out in rows and colour patterns were seen as the height of style in the mid 19th century. Mid Victorians liked brilliant-hued flowers and strong colour contrasts rather than harmonious colour schemes. Garden design was brash and bold. With the rise of the middle classes and their neat suburban villas, this ‘bedding boom’ reached even the small suburban garden with brash displays in island beds placed right in the middle of lawns.
The removal of tax on glass in 1845 meant that there was an increase in the building of glasshouses and conservatories which coincided with growing and collecting of exotic, tender plants.
Plant hunters and the Wardian Case
The entire 19th century was a period of great enthusiasm for flowers, plants and gardening. People became avid collectors of certain plants, specializing in popular plants such as geraniums, fuchsias and camellias. A whole range of plants which had never been seen before were introduced. These included South African Gladiolus, Mexican dahlias, nasturtiums, azaleas, camellias, tree peonies, roses from China, chrysanthemums and fuchsia. It was the Era of ferns and houseplants.
The Wardian case was an early type of sealed protective container for plants invented by botanist, Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward. It found great use in the 19th century in protecting foreign plants imported to Europe from overseas. Wardian cases soon became features of stylish drawing rooms. In the polluted air of Victorian cities the craze for growing ferns and orchids owed much to the new Wardian cases.
1858 Greenock Advertiser
In grand houses the Head Gardener had the important task of arranging large quantities of flowers for the house with flowers from the cutting garden. The Head Gardener often had a Flower Room amongst a group of buildings in the walled garden attached to the glasshouses. The room contained a table close to a window, a sink with a water tap and large cupboards with broad shelves for vases. Sounds like my ideal room for all my flower arranging paraphernalia! This is the first time we saw specific cutting gardens where flowers were grown for pleasure and not just medicinal purposes. In smaller houses the mistress and daughter would arrange the flowers.
Eloise Harriet Stannard, A Still Life of Flowers in a Glass Epergne on a Marble Ledge with Gloves, Wicker Basket and Scissors, oil on canvas, 1889.
My great, grandfather George Spice was a gardener. When he married in 1878 George was a gardener living in Sittingbourne, Kent.
In 1881 George had a young family and was gardener at Hempstead House in Bapchild village, near Sittingbourne, Kent. In 1891 he was still a domestic gardener at Hempstead, living in one of the cottages attached to the house.
During the 19th century rural cottage gardens didn’t really change. I imagine that George would have had a cottage garden at Hempstead where he grew a mixture of flowers and vegetables.
At the latter end of the Victorian Era George moved with his family to Lower Clapton, Hackney in London. It is likely that George started work at the Pond Lane Nursery on Millfields Road.
Lower Clapton 1868
The Pond Lane Nursery was sold in 1898.
The First Florists
Until the second half of the 19th century the majority of land close to cities was in use by market gardeners. Nurserymen grew outdoor flowers for market or specialised in growing and selling exotic, greenhouse plants.
London Evening Standard 19 May 1898
The Early Florists were working men like my Great, Grandfather George Spice.
The newspaper article lists greenhouses in Springfields, Clapton which were growing vines, orchids, palms, acacias, gardenias and ferns. Looking at the photo George may have even worked at Springfield Park.
Canterbury Journal, Kentish Times and Farmers’ Gazette 14 Dec 1895
At the latter end of the 19th century large areas of land which had been market gardens for fruit and vegetables became housing. It was the newly well off middle classes who bought villa type houses in these suburbs. A lot of the growers moved further out. However some nurserymen who didn’t need large amounts of land on which to grow remained. Pond Lane Nursery is an example of a business that was sold to make room for new housing. Interestingly George Spice moved to the area and is at Rushmore Road in the 1911 census. My Grandma was brought up nearby in Elmcroft Street by George’s daughter Ethel and went to school in Millfields Road. The house she grew up in was built on the Pond Lane Nursery land.
George found new work with the florist and garden contractor Owen Charles Greenwood of 27 Upper Clapton Road, Hackney, London. The householders of the new suburban villas would have been good customers purchasing bedding plants, pot plants and flowers. These suburban nurseries often sold from a bench in an outbuilding, but some nurseries had a shop. Owen C. Greenwood had a shop from which he sold flowers to theatres in London. Florist Shops would sell seed, plants and a few cut flowers. There would have been more pot plants than cut flowers on display as evidenced by this advertisement. Pot plants were hired out.
My Grandma remembered the Greenwood’s florist shop where she used to visit her Grandad George at work. She described `a large shop with an enormous fountain in the middle’ which she thought was amazing.
Owen’s son Stanley Fielder Greenwood took over the business and was still listed as a Nurseryman and Florist in 1939. George Spice always took pride in his appearance and even when retired wore a flower in his buttonhole.
It’s likely that George exhibited some of his employer’s prize blooms at various Flower Shows. Messrs Low from Clapton Nursery had exhibited at the Crystal Palace Flower Show in 1860 showing their recently introduced, exotic plants.
George may even have entered the Borough of Hackney’s Chrysanthemum Society Competition himself.
Shoreditch Observer – Saturday 12 April 1879
Apart from nurserymen florists the Victorian Era is famous for the Covent Garden Flower girls, epitomised by Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.
By 1851 there were 400 basket women or flower girls on the London streets. Before they set out to sell their flowers, the flower girls sat on the steps of St Paul’s church at Covent Garden and divided the bunches of flowers from the flower market in to small posies. They also made up buttonholes.
Pall Mall Gazette – 5th June 1885
Western Daily Press – Tuesday 30 June 1891
Flower sellers worked outside Hackney Railway Station
I like to think that George passed a love of roses onto his daughter Ethel whilst arranging flowers for the lady of the house at Hempstead.