Gardening isn’t just a relaxing pastime—it’s a hugely profitable industry with a long English historyby Roderick Floud / November 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
Is gardening just a hobby? Well, it is certainly a pastime, a passion, sometimes a chore, for the 50 per cent of British people who describe themselves as gardeners. But even if its purpose is to create an oasis of calm, it is also an economic activity. Oxford Economics estimate that direct expenditure on gardening—or “Ornamental Horticulture,” as they called it—is about £12.6bn a year, a greater contribution to GDP than aerospace manufacturing; it supports more than 370,000 jobs, as many as the accountancy sector. The overall impact of the industry—factoring in the supply chain and garden tourism—is estimated to amount to 1.2 per cent of the UK’s GDP.
Furthermore, a very large garden industry has been a feature of our country for well over 350 years. During all this time, it has been neglected by economists, historians and government. An activity that takes up more of our time than any other leisure activity except for watching television or using a computer—far more time than any sport—is treated as a frippery. All the time and energy that we collectively put into gardening is ignored, because that £12.6bn only counts the money that we spend, not the effort that we expend. But even if we only look at the money, we can see it is important—and has been so for a very long time indeed.
At the time of the English Civil War, there were already at least 10 large plant nurseries in London, which was—as it remained for two centuries—the centre of the garden industry. After the Civil War, when Charles II took up the throne, he immediately had a large rectangular lake dug in St James’s Park—and his enthusiasm for gardens soon spread through the aristocracy. Gardens proliferated, many of them on an enormous scale, and the garden industry prospered. Nurseries took up far more land in and around the capital than any other kind of retail trade.
The great gardens of the time—Longleat, Badminton, Chatsworth and others, including several royal parks—were designed and constructed by two men, George London and Henry Wise, the joint proprietors of the Brompton Park Nursery. At its height around 1700, the nursery is said to have spread across 100 acres of the land now occupied by Imperial College and the museums of South Kensington. If that acreage sounds implausible, it was also said by garden writer Stephen Switzer, a contemporary, to contain 10m plants and be worth, in modern terms, between £50m and £75m. This may seem extraordinary, but it is consistent with the fact that Henry Wise bought a country estate in 1709 for £22m in our terms and left another £179m when he died there in 1739.
The Colossus of Eden
The huge formal gardens of the Restoration and its aftermath, with their avenues of trees stretching to the horizon and their elaborate box hedges, were swept away between about 1730 and the end of the 18th century by the new fashion for landscape gardening, exemplified by Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716-83). The new style—with its rolling lawns, groves of trees and huge lakes—presented an idealised view of nature, which has been described as England’s greatest contribution to European culture. Fans of Shakespeare would certainly dissent, but gardeners as far afield as Catherine the Great in Russia followed Brown’s lead.
Brown’s destruction of the work of London and Wise and the creation of landscapes of great beauty, which we still enjoy today, was extremely lucrative. He was a pioneer not just in artistic but in economic terms, a large-scale entrepreneur during the early Industrial Revolution, but unlike Richard Arkwright, James Watt or a little later Brunel, he was a man operating in the service of pleasure rather than utility.
Many of his gardens are nonetheless the result of great civil engineering projects, shifting millions of barrow loads of soil and employing tons of bricks and stone to create lakes, dams, bridges and temples. The lakes could not be allowed to leak, so successive layers of clay, lime and stones had to be laid on their beds and hammered down by hand, a technique called “puddling,” which was soon to be employed in Britain’s canals. Imagine doing that, as Brown did at Blenheim, on a lake bed of about 150 acres.
Water engineering, on a grand scale and particularly in the form of the creation of lakes, became an essential feature of 18th-century gardening. The formal gardens of the end of the previous century had often contained rectangular lakes—actually called “canals” at the time; the best-known survivor is the enormous Long Water at Hampton Court and there are other beautiful examples. But they were supplanted in the affections of wealthy clients by reflecting pools and sinuous lakes, together with rills and cascades; early examples that survive are the fabulous water gardens at Studley Royal, built from the 1720s onwards by the disgraced Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Aislabie, in his Yorkshire retreat after the scandal of the South Sea Bubble, and the gardens of the Cottrell-Dormer family at Rousham, Oxfordshire, where artificial streams meander between statues down to the River Cherwell.
Most people do not realise that there are very few, if any, natural lakes in England south of the Lake District. Those that we now think of as natural features are in fact wholly artificial. They were first created, at immense expense, in the estates of the aristocracy; although shallow—Brown recommended 3½ to 4 feet in depth, which gave the desired reflections and also allowed for boating—they are often large in area. Blenheim was exceptional in its size, but there are many of 30 acres or more.
Most people do not realise that there are very few, if any, natural lakes in England south of the Lake District
To create his lakes, Brown built dams, sometimes hundreds of feet long, which are largely invisible to visitors, with curved banks intended to simulate natural rivers. Many lakes were built to be drained, both to make it easier to net prized freshwater fish, but also to remove the silt that clogged them. As a sign of how expensive such gardening can be, the Blenheim estate will be spending £12m in 2020 to remove silt from only a part of its lake.
The techniques that Brown, his predecessors and peers developed proved to be profoundly important beyond gardening to wider society and the economy. They were deployed, particularly in the 19th century, in the creation of reservoirs. These mainly supplied drinking water, but others—such as that at Whaley Bridge whose dam nearly collapsed recently—were needed to guarantee enough depth of water in canals. Then, in the 20th century, they were deployed again, in the filling of old gravel and similar pits.
Back in his time, Brown’s large projects brought large profits. Many of his financial affairs can be teased out from a record of his receipts, much of it in his own hand and now in the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society, and from the 161 double folio pages of his bank account with Drummonds Bank, preserved by the Royal Bank of Scotland. The receipts show, for example, that Brown’s work at Blenheim for the 4th Duke of Marlborough, mostly during the four years that it took to create the lake, cost the horrified Duke about £35m in modern values. Meanwhile the bank account lists, day by day, the payment of much smaller sums to the many contractors who carried out the work. The two sources can be combined to show that Brown was responsible, during his career, for projects costing in excess of £850m in modern terms, on which he personally made profits of at least £140m.
These profits were made despite an extremely rudimentary accounting system, modelled on that used by large landed estates. The bills or invoices, known as vouchers, from Brown’s contractors and workmen were all authorised for payment and their value entered into the bank ledgers as they were paid; once or twice a year, the total was calculated and balanced against the receipts from clients. It was only then that Brown could have known whether he was making a profit or loss. The system made it impossible to know whether an individual project was profitable; it must therefore have made it extremely difficult to estimate for a new one. Brown was probably fortunate in that his clients—said to include half the House of Lords, an exaggeration with a grain of truth—had so much money, and were so determined to have his fashionable services, that they do not seem to have demanded an exact forecast. Certainly few, if any, estimates exist.
Brown did not employ a very large workforce, even by the standards of the time. The largest number of men which he is recorded as using on a single job is only 100, while there were already firms, in several other trades, employing thousands. But he was in charge of several million-pound projects at the same time, scattered widely across England; no wonder that he was known to be incessantly in the saddle, braving highwaymen and the weather. He relied heavily on a small cadre of skilled operatives—recently named the “Capability Men”—to exercise day-to-day control over the contractors and labourers on each project.
Brown managed his money shrewdly. He was fortunate that, in 1764 and after assiduous lobbying by his friends and clients, he secured the post of royal gardener at Hampton Court; it was a secure income which, by the time of his death in 1783, had brought him about £54m in modern terms, together with £25m for work at Richmond and Kew. He had to pay for his workers out of this, but profits on these royal contracts were often as high as 30 per cent; more important, probably, was that the income from Hampton Court was regular, whereas payments from his other clients were highly variable.
There were years when he made millions, others when he lost as much. He had to juggle his cash, buying and selling government stock—consols—which were a secure investment at a time when private banks such as Drummonds often went bankrupt; in 1774 he had £14m in modern terms invested in that way. As a longer-term investment in 1767, at a time of rising land prices, he bought the manor of Fenstanton, then in Huntingdonshire, for about £21m in modern values. He never took a formal business partner, which in an age before limited liability would have exposed him to the danger of the debtor’s prison if his partner had built up debts.
A growing industry
Despite Brown’s modern fame, he was only one of many garden designers of the late 18th century. Garden historians believe that he was responsible for only five per cent of the projects undertaken at the time. There were between 300 and 400 estates of 10,000 acres or more and the fashion of the time—which saw a large and immaculate garden as a sign of taste—dictated that all of them needed such a garden; many wanted repeated “makeovers” in the latest style. Thousands of smaller estate owners followed their lead.
All this building, rebuilding and annual maintenance gave a boost to the garden industry, particularly the plant nurseries which were being established not only in London, but also throughout the country. By the end of the 18th century, a complex network of trading between them had been established, while large consignments of bulbs and flowering plants came from similar nurseries in France and the Netherlands. One result was that in Regency London, many millions in modern terms could be spent on hiring plants for the night as decoration for lavish balls.
The growth of the garden industry has continued ever since. With the spreading out of towns, the customer base would eventually democratise somewhat, but those who figured out how best to service them often continued to succeed in making it into the business elite. Several large plant nurseries were established in London and elsewhere during the 19th century and their owners died as multi-millionaires in modern terms, as did a number of seedsmen such as the Sutton family of Reading. Some opened emporia in the King’s Road, in Chelsea, long a centre of the industry, while others, such as Loddiges of Hackney, built huge complexes of greenhouses which became tourist destinations in their own right. The construction of large Victorian villas, equipped with gardens of several acres and staffed by trained gardeners, meant that the occupation of gardening—and it was a highly skilled trade—became one of the top 20 occupations for men. Ancillary businesses, such as the makers of greenhouses and conservatories, of lawnmowers and fertilisers, grew up as well.
Finally, the growth of the suburbs, each house with its front and back gardens explicitly designed to give each household room to grow its own fruit and vegetables (although flowers and lawns proved more popular), transformed the landscape and townscape of our country.
The garden industry benefited at every turn. Since the 17th century, hundreds of plant-hunters have scoured the world and brought back tens of thousands of new species and varieties to satisfy gardeners’ demands. Imports of plants, many from the Netherlands but also from much further afield, have continued while the industry has increasingly turned to complex modern techniques of breeding and nurturing the plants that we desire.
Here, then, is a story of a successful British industry which has, oddly, never been told. Garden historians have ignored money and economic historians have ignored gardens. It is about time that historians, economists and the government, which has not in recent time had anything that could be called a policy in relation to this industry, began to take gardening seriously.
What’s it worth?
Few of us have any feel for what Capability Brown’s salary at Stowe in 1741 (£25 a year) or Mr Darcy’s £10,000 a year in Pride and Prejudice (1813) really mean. Historians often attempt to put amounts into “today’s money” by tracking the price of “a basket of goods.” Unfortunately, the range of goods that we buy, their quality and their relative importance to us has changed so much over the centuries that these calculations produce very misleading results. Converting Brown’s salary using the Retail Price Index puts his annual pay at £3,498 a year, far below today’s minimum wage—yet he was effectively the head gardener of the most important garden of his age. That doesn’t make sense.
For a good idea of where he’d fit into society, it’s far better to compare his salary with the average wage at the time and today. If we find that a sum of money was twice the average wage in 1750, then we say that the equivalent is twice the average wage today. (The website measuringworth.com makes this easy to do.) Looked at this way, the modern equivalent of Brown’s wage was £49,380; it’s not munificent, but he was provided with a house and gardeners have never been particularly well paid. Meanwhile Mr Darcy, in case you were wondering, is a £7m-a-year man.