- The Loudons and the Gardening Press: A Victorian Cultural Industry by Sarah Dewis, and: The Working Man’s Green Space: Allotment Gardens in England, France, and Germany, 1870–1919 by Micheline Nilsen, and: The Gardens of the British Working Class by Margaret Willes
Gardens of all sorts—large estate parklands, botanical gardens, miniature plantings in Wardian cases, the backyard gardens of suburban villas—were culturally and ideologically freighted places in the nineteenth century. What these three books persuasively show, however, is that no garden sites were more contested than the small, often penurious plots of the working classes. On the one hand, gardening was believed to promote industry, morality, thriftiness, temperance, and conservative politics, even providing “a fine antidote to Bolshevism” (qtd. in Willes 276). On the other, the responsibility of tending a garden plot, it was thought, could prompt “collectivist subversion” and even dismantle property rights and longstanding traditions of land use (Nilsen 111). If it strains credulity to attribute such outcomes to some of the barest and smallest garden sites in history, then we haven’t yet properly appreciated the cultural and ideological significance of popular horticulture. While all three authors approach these issues in different ways, and with different bodies of evidence, they share a laudable and challenging goal: to illuminate the materials, aesthetics, and commonsense practices of the least privileged gardeners on earth. [End Page 139]
In Gardens of the British Working Class, Margaret Willes surveys the history of British working-class gardens in a broad, comprehensive sweep. Beginning with churchwardens’ books that recorded customs of gardening and husbandry in the early seventeenth century, Willes explores a wide range of sources and sites to document horticultural practices of working-class gardeners through several hundred years. She covers, for example, the traditions of physic gardening and market gardening; the effects of the enclosure movement on working-class horticulture; cottage gardens and allotment gardens; horticultural education for working-class gardeners, including the jobs that were open to them and the periodicals that catered to them; the British government’s cooptation of middle-and working-class gardens during both World Wars; and the democratization of gardening in post-war popular culture. While many of these issues originated well before the nineteenth century and persisted beyond it, a good portion of this book focuses on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—in the era, naturally enough, when printed gardening sources and the horticultural press were expanding rapidly. Willes enlivens her broad take on working-class gardening by spotlighting the fortunes of individual gardeners, sites, and plants. In the chapter on horticultural education, for example, she follows the career of John Donaldson, who became an apprentice to the head gardener at Duff House, in Scotland, in 1873 and documented his activities—from planting forty-one varieties of potatoes to managing the exotic annuals for summer garden beds—in a horticultural diary. In a comparable moment, Willes zeros in on the potato, touching on the horticultural practices that enabled its rise in Ireland; accounting for its very different fortunes in England, Scotland, and Wales; and briefly documenting the tragically “virulent speed” with which the blight struck Irish potato fields in 1845 (56).
The strength of this book lies not in its detailed analysis or closely scripted argument, but instead in the breadth of its primary research and its vivid exposition. Willes’s alternation of survey and anecdote makes for a very good read—even riveting, if you love gardens. But she also takes on the methodologically difficult task of explaining what working-class people actually did in their gardens: where and how they purchased plants and seeds or propagated them from cuttings; how they laid out and cultivated their...