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A brief introduction to the story of plant sellers


Caldwell's Nurseries has left us an archive of several business ledgers dating back more than 200 years to 1789. They are crammed with information about plants sold, how much they cost, who they were sold to, and lots more. This archive has made this nursery hugely important because there are so few such records in existence.

But how important was Caldwell's 100, 200 years ago? That is impossible to know, because it was only one of many nurseries and plant-sellers. Have a look at the section on other nurserymen. There are a lot listed, but they are only from a small part of the country, mostly Manchester, Liverpool and Cheshire – and not everyone who sold plants at that time in those places is included there.

Here we look at some of those different businesses.

Nurserymen and gardeners

No-one knows the full story of nurseries in this country, but one thing is sure and that is that there were a lot more than anyone ever thought. When did they start? No-one is absolutely sure about that either, but by 1700 there were certainly commercial nurseries around London.

Plant nurseries are simply places where plants are grown from seeds or cuttings. If you grow your own seeds in the spring – you have your own plant nursery. Three hundred years ago it was a lot easier to grow your own trees than transport them over difficult terrain – after all, if you wanted to travel from Edinburgh to London, you went by sea. So anyone who had a lot of land would have a nursery gardener who specialised in this sort of work, growing plants for use elsewhere – in the flower garden, shrubbery or plantations. They would also have a kitchen gardener and a fruit gardener and a flower gardener, and so on, each one looking after their own particular area. There were lots of specialisms open to horticulturists.

So when we find a reference to a nursery, particularly in old newspapers, was it a commercial undertaking or a private space? And did private nurseries become commercial ones? Did they sometimes sell off excess stock?

In newspapers, advertisements were often for a 'nurseryman and gardener'. What did this mean? Was it someone who could be hired as a gardener in addition to growing plants? Or was it someone who grew plants for sale in the local market – i.e. a market gardener? And if someone called themselves 'Gardener' did that mean they were a nurseryman as well? Or, did it mean that they would design and create gardens?

In 1695, 150 years before Harrods made it famous, Knightsbridge was a tiny village several miles from London. That year the following advertisement appeared in the London Gazette:

'Thomas Marshfield, an ancient and eminent Nursery-man and Gardner, and 40 Years Practitioner, who undertaketh to make all sorts of Gardens after the newest and best Fashion, either in Embroidery work in Grass or Gravel; Planteth Orchards or Vineyards, sells all sorts of Fruit-Trees of the best kind, with all sorts of Greens, as Orange-trees, and all sorts of Flowers, Roots and Flowering Shrubs, or any sorts of hardy Greens or Plants, fit for Gardens or Wilderness, lives at Brompton near Knightsbridge, Middlesex.'

At least it is clear what he meant by the term 'nurseryman and gardener'.

But when did nurseries begin in the provinces? In 1700 nearly 1 in 10 of the UK's population lived in London, so it is not surprising that the first newspapers, where we can look for advertisements such as Thomas Marshfield's, were started in London. It took longer for other parts of the country to start their own newspapers, but both the Newcastle Courant and the Stamford Mercury began publishing in 1710. In these we can find that in 1724, Gervas Barker a nurseryman near Grantham in Lincolnshire had recently died and in 1727, Mr. Withers of York, also a nurseryman, had also died. In the Derby Mercury (1728) is a similar notice regarding Thomas Dudley. No clues as to how long they had been in business, but the implication is certainly that there were nurserymen in the provinces much earlier than previously realised.

Once the population began expanding around 1800, the demand for nurserymen's services mushroomed and there were plenty of people to meet the demand. Some were more skilled (or lucky) than others and traded successfully for many years, and even for several generations – like the Caldwells.

Seedsmen and florists

Nurserymen could also be seedsmen and florists, but seedsmen and florists weren't necessarily nurserymen – they didn't raise plants themselves but bought in seeds and flowers (usually bulbs) either from nurserymen in this country or from abroad. Although, just to confuse things, very often, when a nurseryman had a shop in the nearest town he would describe himself there simply as a seedsman.

Around 1700 there were seedsmen in London who sold their goods from public houses. In 1683 Edward Fuller was selling grass seed at the Three Crowns and Naked-Boy in the Strand. He was still there in 1702, selling bulbs as well as grass-seed, but in 1705 it was James Fuller (perhaps his son) who had taken over. In the same year Charles Blackwell was at the King's Head near the end of Fetter Lane in Holborn. When Blackwell died in 1717, Nathaniel Powell took his place. When nurserymen did not have a shop, pubs were a good alternative – Powell was still selling at the King's Head in 1759. In the 1780s Giles Boardman had his nursery in Pendleton (to the west of Manchester but was regularly at the Spread Eagle in Salford where he could supply customers with their orders.

One type of business was that which combined druggist with seedsman. This is not very surprising because plants were the basis of all medicines. But also, just as today you can buy seeds at your local supermarket, so 200 years ago you could buy seeds at the grocer's shop. Outside the main towns, the role of seedsman was combined with all sorts of different trades, like iron-monger, cooper, woollen draper, tallow chandler, brazier and tin-plate worker & blacksmith.

Selling seeds is a seasonal business, so it is not surprising that it was combined with more regular work. What we don't know is why it was that these businessmen also sold seeds – was it because they saw a gap in the market? Perhaps they were related to a nurseryman or perhaps they were keen gardeners themselves. But it wasn't only flower and vegetable seeds that were available. Agricultural seeds were very important and in a farming district, that might have been the most important item. People may well have kept the seeds from their own flowers and allowed a few of their vegetables to run to seed to provide for the following year.

In towns, shops which sold seeds often also sold flower bulbs and would describe themselves as 'seedsman and florist'. The word 'florist' meant someone who was keen on florists' flowers or who sold florists' flowers and in the 18th century that usually meant bulbs. Businessmen – and not just those in the plant trade – would import bulbs from Holland, France or Italy and the more amateur florists there were in an area the more this was worth their while. In Manchester there was an auctioneer named Samuel Willcock. As you would expect, he was called upon to auction all sorts of things and sometimes these were the collections of amateur florists who had died; there was the entire collection of 4,000 tulips which had belonged to Mr. William Leighton of Preston and the 8,000 belonging to Mr. William Crompton of Bolton-le-Moors. He must have seen that there was a good market for bulbs. In 1830 he imported a chest of 'named Tulips, Ranunculuses, Hyacinths, Polyanthus, Narcissus, Jonquils, Anemonies, Irises, Crocuses, Crown Imperials, &c.' from Holland and auctioned them off.

One favourite plant, but not a 'florists' flower', was very popular in the 18th century. The very attractive, scented tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa), appeared in lots of advertisements, though it was not often sold by Caldwell's, perhaps because it is tender, so has to be kept indoors during the winter, like Dahlias. Slugs and snails rather like it, too, so the gardener who wants to grow them has to do a lot of work.

By the time Caldwell's had their florist shop in Knutsford, the meaning of the word had changed completely. Today florists deal mainly in cut flowers.

Fruiterers and Confectioners

Some nurserymen had town outlets that were not seed shops. Fruiterers could be men with a specialist fruit nursery out of town and the town shop was where they sold the excess fruit. James Middlewood in Manchester was one of these: his shop – which he called a 'Fruit and Seed Warehouse' – included all sorts of food items. There were oranges and lemons imported from Portugal and oysters which came from Colchester. There was also bride cake, confectionery, sweets, jams, jellies and ice cream. He even sold hair powder and soap (which was made by his brother in London).

Fruit was an important ingredient in confectionery. Today we tend to mean sweets and chocolate when we use that term, but the word was used differently two hundred years ago. Middlewood's aunt was Elizabeth Raffald who wrote a best-selling cookery book, The Experienced English Housekeeper. Her section on confectionery included jams, jellies, blancmanges and some fascinating sounding desserts. The title page included this: 'All kinds of Confectionary, particularly the Gold and Silver Web for covering of Sweetmeats, and a Desert of Spun Sugar, with Directions to set out a Table in the most elegant Manner and in the modern Taste, Floating Islands, Fish Ponds, Transparent Puddings, Trifles, Whips, &c.'

(Elizabeth Raffald was married to a gardener, so Middlewood was carrying on both their trades.) Half a century later, another Manchester nurseryman, Richard Smalley Yates, used the produce from his nursery to run a restaurant in town.

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