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Nursery Stock

Caldwell's was a general nursery, which means that they stocked the full range of plants. At the end of the 18th century there were many different ways of describing these, but usually it was Forest and Ornamental Trees, Fruit Trees, American Plants, Flower seeds and roots, kitchen garden seeds, agricultural seeds and greenhouse/hothouse plants.

We don't have a complete picture of the plants that the nurseries sold as we don't have all their accounts books, but there are entries under all of the following headings. Click on the nursery stock type that you wish to find more about.

Forest and ornamental trees

In the first two ledgers to be transcribed (dating from 1789-1795), the majority of sales were of vegetable seeds and fruit trees. But the Knutsford Order Book DDX 363/6 includes references to more than 120 orders for trees where the details were in the Day Book (which we don't have for that same period). These 120 orders accounted for around £700 worth of sales, but there were also individually itemised orders for broad-leaved trees such as ash, beech, birch, elm, hornbeam, horse chestnut, lime, mountain ash, oak, plane, poplar, Spanish chestnut, sycamore, willow and whitebeam (then known as Area Theophrasti).

Among the evergreen trees were holly, yew and various types of fir, juniper, pine and spruce. There were also several ornamental trees – Arbor Vitae (Thuja), Bladdernut, Cedar, Celtis, Halesia, Judas Tree (Cercis), Laburnum, Liquidamber, Magnolia, Robinia, Strawberry tree (Arbutus), Tamarisk, Tupelo – and these were useful in the Shrubbery.

Trees were planted for two main reasons – economic and artistic – although the two could be combined in the style of planting on large estates. Creating a plantation was, for the landowner, a way of ensuring income in the future – often several decades in the future – when the trees would be fully grown and felled for timber. Plantations could also be used in creating the look of an estate, although often single trees – such as the Cedar of Lebanon – or clumps of trees would be placed artistically on grassland.

By the 1790s there was an increasing suburban population as merchants and manufacturers moved out of the town into the surrounding countryside. There they were able to have more land for a garden – not large enough for a plantation, but sufficiently spacious for a few ornamental trees.


Hawthorns were a popular tree for creating hedges and so they were sometimes bought in very large numbers. Mr. Holbrook purchased 16,500 in November 1794 – they cost him only £2 17s 9d, so they were probably only about 6 inches high.

Evergreen, ornamental and flowering shrubs

The ornamental shrubbery was an important feature in gardens of the period. It was described by Henry Phillips, who wrote a book about it in 1823, as having 'originated in England, and is as peculiar to the British nation as landscape-planting'. Most of the plants he wrote about were sold by Caldwells. Shrubberies could be very large and include small trees as well as larger ones to form a backdrop.

Shrubs were planted to provide interesting walks around the house and could provide interest in every season by mixing evergreen and deciduous shrubs and having a range of flowering shrubs from February through to the autumn. Where trees produced a lot of shade, ivy could be grown as ground-cover and walls of outbuildings could be disguised by judicious use of climbers like Traveller's Joy, Jasmine and even passionflowers.

American plants

During the 18th century, America was being explored, and plant-hunters were sending back the seeds of plants previously unknown in this country. By the end of the century many of these had provided nursery stock throughout the country. The Knutsford and Knowsley nurseries sold many American plants, including Azalea, Catesbaea, Chelone, Chionanthus, Dodecatheon, various Dogwoods, Halesia, Kalmia, Swamp Magnolia, Rhododendron, Robinia, Rudbeckia and Tupelo. Some of these do need an acid soil, which may be why they were often referred to as bog plants.

But this annoyed the brother of a well-known Manchester businessman and gardener. George Walker lived at Longford near Philadelphia (his brother Charles lived at Longford, Manchester). George wrote to John Loudon's Gardener's Magazine in 1830:

'I see in your publications American plants and bog earth always coupled together. This country is not a bog, nor any thing like one. Rhododendrons, azaleas, &c. grow in this neighbourhood on the dry steep declivities of gneiss and hornblende rocks; and thousands of rhododendrons grow in the state of New Jersey upon sands as dry and barren as those of Brandon in Suffolk.'

Greenhouse and hothouse plants

Many of the new plants that were being brought into Britain were kept in the greenhouse or the hothouse (sometimes called the stove). Often it was not known how hardy a new plant was and so it was kept inside, rather than outside, as a precaution. Many plants that were treated as needing protection turned out to be hardy.

Fruit and vegetables were sometimes grown under glass so that they would be ready for eating earlier.

Hothouse – or Stove – Plants were sometimes referred to as Exotics. Exotics were really only available to the wealthier gardeners. Greenhouses were not too expensive to maintain, but hothouses – where a fire had to be kept burning at all times – required round the clock attention.

Greenhouses and hothouses were easily damaged by hailstorms. The newspapers reported this sort of damage after several storms in the 1830s. In July 1845 a new type of glass tile, supposedly strong enough to survive hailstorms was imported from Antwerp. But in June 1852 another hailstorm struck. Charles Noyes, a nurseryman at Pendleton, lost 2,000 panes of glass.

Florists' flowers

There were a handful of plants which were raised by enthusiasts known as florists. These were the tulip, auricula, polyanthus, carnation, pink, hyacinth and ranunculus. During the 18th century, many new varieties of these were grown.

Lancashire and Cheshire were particularly noted for the raising of auriculas: in 1817 Patrick Neill, from the Caledonian Horticultural Society visited Holland. He later wrote: 'In the cultivation of Auriculas and Polyanthuses, the Dutch bloemists are certainly left far in the background by the zealous florists of Lancashire and Cheshire, especially near the great manufacturing towns of Manchester and Macclesfield'.

New varieties could be very expensive. In 1767 Thomas Gorton advertised five of his prize-winning auriculas for sale – three of them cost one guinea each and two cost half a guinea (a guinea was 21 shillings, or £1.05 in today's money.). For enthusiasts who wanted named plants, it was necessary to go to a specialist nursery like James Maddock of Walworth, near London. He wrote a book called The Florists' Directory, and sold large numbers of plants, some of which he had raised himself.

Although auriculas were popular in Cheshire, Caldwell's customers seem to have preferred hyacinths, pinks and tulips. John Arden bought '32 different sorts of best Pinks', which cost him the equivalent of 7.5p each – at straight inflation, that would be £7.82 each at 2014 prices, although there are lots of ways to calculate this (see page Prunings – Comparative Prices) and it could be as much as £561!

At the end of the eighteenth century new plants started arriving in Britain which would become florists' flowers. One such was the Dahlia. By 1834, Caldwells was able to supply Davies Davenport of Capesthorne with '20 Choice New Dahlia' at a cost of £1 10s 0d. Other new plants that became popular were calceolarias and geraniums (pelargoniums).

Flower seeds

There are several flowers named in the earliest surviving ledgers – such as asters, foxgloves, hollyhocks and the ever popular mignonette, usually, but not always, sold as seed. A popular way of buying flower seeds was in collections – both Mr. Statham (from the Knowsley nursery) and Mr. Higginson (at Knutsford), purchased 12 kinds of flower seeds, but the price for Mr. Statham was twice that for Mr. Higginson. It may have been that they were of different quantities, but it could also be that they were different collections perhaps one was hardy and the other tender or a mix of each.

In 1796, in Manchester, James Middlewood advertised 'upwards of two hundred Sorts of Flower Seeds, all new and true in their Names' and the following year John Bridgford advertised four different collections of annual flower seeds. It was possible to buy either 200 or 500 sorts, half tender and half hardy or – for the gardener without a greenhouse – there were smaller collections of up to 50 hardy varieties. Middlewood also made up his flowers into packages – the number of varieties is not specified, but the packages came at various prices – half a crown, five shillings, half a guinea and one guinea. The quantities sold to Caldwell customers varied considerably, sometimes the numbers were given – as with John Arden's 88 varieties, but often the entries just refer to 'a collection'. They could be annuals (tender and hardy), biennials or perennials.

Vegetable seeds

The sheer quantity of sales of vegetable seeds shows how important the kitchen garden was to people in the 1790s. This was a time before transport became easy. Those close to towns could purchase vegetables from market gardeners – and Caldwell supplied several of these, such as William Hamilton in Knutsford and Charles and William Langtry in Macclesfield. But for those living some distance from the nearest town, their own gardeners produced the vegetables needed in the kitchen garden.

Beans and peas were very popular, as were broccoli, borecole (kale), cabbage, cauliflower and spinach. Root vegetables included beetroot, carrot, onion, parsnip and turnip – although this last may have been used to feed pigs rather than family.

Fruit trees

Like vegetables, growing your own fruit was also important. Often fruit trees – especially nectarine, peach and apricot – would be trained to grow against the walls of the kitchen garden, although there might be an orchard for the hardier varieties of fruit such as apples, cherries, pears and plums. These would be grown as standards for the orchard, but were often grown on dwarfing stock (which stopped them from growing too large) and these were probably grown in the kitchen garden.

Some fruit required special treatment. Pineapples would only fruit with plenty of heat and melons too, required a hotbed.


The nurseries also sold soft fruit like currants, raspberries and strawberries, but gooseberries need a special mention because Lancashire and Cheshire were famous for the many varieties of gooseberry that were raised, which were then sold all around the country. Enthusiasts competed to grow the heaviest gooseberry of all, and the heaviest of each of the different colours – red, white, green and yellow.

Manchester was the hub for gooseberry growing and the show held each year at the Sir John Falstaff inn in Market Place was particularly important. All new varieties of gooseberry had to be submitted to this Manchester Show, and it was only once its approval had been given that customers could be assured that the new variety they were wishing to purchase really was new.

In November 1790 John Arden bought from the Knutsford nursery '18 best newest kind of Gooseberrys'. They cost him 9 shillings in total.

Today only a handful of gooseberry shows survive, and most of those are in Cheshire. For more information see

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