Gardening behind barbed wire

We celebrate the centenary of Ruhleben Horticultural Society, formed during the First World War by a large group of interned British and Commonwealth civilians

Ruhleben committee membersThe Lindley Library holds the archive of a very unusual horticultural society, whose papers are part of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) official archive, and tell the story of the Society’s affiliation with this extraordinary group of gardening men. It is a highly visual archive, full of images of the camp and the men, doing everything they could to improve their lives in adverse circumstances.

Wartime prisoners

The story began at the outbreak of the First World War, when around 5000 British and allied men who had been living, working or holidaying in Germany, were detained. The men were taken to Ruhleben, a civilian internment camp hastily established on a racecourse just outside Berlin. They were not expected to work and, with time on their hands, a whole society and economy developed in the camp over the years of its existence. This involved lectures and classes, sports, art and crafts, theatre, and interest societies, one of which was the Ruhleben Horticultural Society. At its height this Society had nearly 1000 members.

RHS support for the group

Ruhleben nursery pit

In 1916 the Ruhleben Horticultural Society requested affiliation to the RHS which was granted without question, and there followed two years of exchanges between the two societies. The RHS sent seeds, bulbs and horticultural literature, and other well-wishers and seed companies contributed to this effort. The Ruhleben Horticultural Society in turn sent reports of its activities, which included flower shows, and, more surprisingly, large-scale production of flowers and vegetables. In the first nine months of 1917, no fewer than 20,000 seedling annuals were raised in the nursery for use as bedding plants in the various gardens around the camp, as well as 23,000 vegetable seedlings for the market garden.

A Ruhleben thank youIn addition, the committee members sent to the RHS tokens of appreciation including photographs and postcards of scenes around the camp, pictures of the garden beds it created, its officers, staff and volunteers, its flower shows and market gardening activities. It contributed significantly to the brightening–up of the dismal camp environment, and made a healthy profit from selling its produce.

What's in the archive?

The archive comprises papers relating to the setting up of the affiliation between the two societies including correspondence, annual reports, a testimonial of appreciation, and 115 photographs and photographic postcards of Ruhleben Horticultural Society activities. The faces looking out at us from the photographs speak of an extraordinary period in history and in the lives of these men, some of whom went on after the war to make their living from horticulture.

See the exhibition

Upper Reading Room at the Lindley Library

The ‘Ruhleben: a Garden behind Barbed Wire’ exhibition, will be held at the RHS Lindley Library, 80 Vincent Square, London, between 7 and 29 July 2016. Opening times are Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm.

The catalogue of the Ruhleben archive is available online via the Archives Hub. If you would like to view the original archive, please make an appointment at the Lindley Library, London: [email protected]. If you have any questions about this or any other archive please contact the Library at the same email address.

Read more about this story

Even if you are not an RHS member, the RHS Lindley Libraries are open to everyone and provide access to modern collections of books and journals on gardening and related topics. Our heritage collections of rare books, photographs, art and archives are accessible by appointment.

RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries.

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.