There are great gardens about which much has been written. There are famous garden designers, such as Capability Brown or Paxton, and there are the more elaborate gardens that are tended by people who can afford to commit much time to them,but most gardens are small and tended by people who cannot afford much land, and anyway have to struggle against pressures of work to tend their land. This book deals with the gardens of the ordinary folk and their struggle to get and keep them.
The Gardens of the British Working Class: a review
This comprehensive tome is a work of thorough scholarship, which is well worth reading.
Margaret Willes has several gardening books to her credit, and this one must have taken much time and commitment. It is a comprehensive tome that investigates the allotments, potato plots and cottage gardens of the working class in Britain over several centuries. It is not merely a book about plants, but about the politics and economics of gardening and its role in the lives of working class people. As such it is a work of social history intended to complement works that emphasise the role of large gardens and the famous designers. Willes does deal with some famous gardeners, such as Joseph Paxton, who was a working class man who rose to eminence and riches through grasp of his trade, but mainly she speaks of the ordinary folk.
This book has changed my view of the agricultural revolution and alerted me to the often neglected leadership role played by working class gardeners in the process. At school I studied Social and Economic History, and I took from it the idea that farmers, such as Townsend, led the process of agricultural development that fed the burgeoning British population. Willes shows that gardeners were vital in the process of development. We are told that Townsend invented crop rotation, but gardeners had been doing it for years.
We are also informed of the negative role played by some landowners in the development of allotments, and how they tried to squash the opportunities for working class people to produce their own food. This was, of course, to ensure that they would ahve a monopoly on food production. Yet we are also shown the role of horticultural pioneers, enlightened landownerswho provided plots for the people. We learn of self-help movements in which working class people, inpsired by the memory of the Diggers, tried to develop co-operative plots.
The book is highly socially relevant. Its emphasis on the role of gardens in feeding the underpaid working class chimes in with modern social conditions. As wages are kept depressed, while executives feast on massive salaries, many working class people are turning to food banks, a national disgrace and a scandal. It demonstrates how allotments and gardens were a bulwark against starvation for many people and this fact shows the need for ordinary people to have access to land for growing their own food, and for schools to enable children to develop the arts and love of cultivation. The book demonstrates the vast appetite for gardening displayed by the British people, and this should support the demand for more allotment land to be provided.
Yet the book also casts new light on the Dig For Victory campaign of World War Two. We often get the idea that the government thought up this campaign, and this mistaken belief may due to the efforts of those who wish to promote a centralized state in which government always takes the lead.But while the campaign may have been initiated by the government, it grew out of working class culture and could not have thrived without it.
The struggle of ordinary people to cultivate land against the wish of farmers who wanted a monopoly on food production is echoed today by claims by certain big farmers that small producers should get off the land and leave it to the big ones, and these people have the ear of certain Conservative politicians. This is a timely reminder that the struggle for ordinary people's rights never ends.
Margaret Willes' Books
|The Making of the English Gardener: Plants, Books and Inspiration, 1560-1660|
In the century between the accession of Elizabeth I and the restoration of Charles II, a horticultural revolution took place in England. Ideas were exchanged across networks of ...
The book is well written and informative. Every chapter is dense with facts, and it would repay careful, steady reading. This is a book to be kept in one's library and read steadily over a period of time, for it is not light reading. It is an ideal reference book for anyone interested in gardening history, and social and economic historians will find it a useful source.