Memoirs of a Victorian gardener

An old, worn exercise book, in very poor condition, contained the rare memoirs of a Victorian horticultural career

James Child's memoirsIn 2014 the Library was delighted to add to its collections an old, worn exercise book, in very poor condition. What was so special about this insignificant looking volume? On closer inspection, the contents were found to comprise the memoirs of Victorian gardener James Child, and memoirs such as these are rare.

Child was born in 1838, and his career in horticulture began at Langhedge Nursery in Middlesex in the 1850s, after which he spent five years as under-gardener at the Royal Gardens, Claremont, Esher, working his way through each department. He was subsequently appointed head gardener at a series of private gardens: Thames Villa, Sunbury; Brackley Lodge, Oatlands Park, Weybridge; Lebanon House, Twickenham; Garbrand Hall, Ewell; and Houndswood, St Albans.

James ChildJames Child started writing the volume retrospectively in 1908, at the age of 70, looking back on his life from the 1840s onwards. He describes his childhood in Pyrford, Surrey, his walks to and from Cobham Tilt National School, his childhood pastimes, his parents’ occupations – his father was a boot maker, and his mother ran their farmstead and made hats and other items from straw – and his positions of employment after leaving school at the age of 11. He records family events that occurred during his career.

Of his time at Claremont he wrote: ‘This is where I first met Fanny Youatt who, after five years happy courtship, became my dear wife,’ and with his accounts of each of the different estates where he worked, he lists the names of their children born there – eight in all.

Child describes the gardens where he worked, mentioning popular features such as asparagus beds, as well as staffing levels and weights of harvests of apples and pears, and includes named varieties of plants, and practices such as budding, forcing and grafting. Of Garbrand Hall, Ewell, where he was head gardener for 14 years, he wrote: ‘This was a beautiful garden with a fine lake, the water rising naturally from springs. The garden was most artistically laid out, and every yard of ground was made the most of. The glasshouses were numerous, including two conservatories adjoining the Hall, large orchard house, four vineries, orchid house with a rare collection of orchids, cucumber house, melon house, fernery, two greenhouses containing a fine lot of specimen plants, many of them from five to seven feet through and as much in height. There was also pine pits [pineapple pits], and other pits and frames.’

James Child and his familyFrom 1908 until 1921 he used the exercise book as a journal. He comments on his experience of ageing, family news and events such as the death of his daughter and his 50th wedding anniversary. He includes observations relating to the weather, vegetable crops, the reign of Queen Victoria, the proliferation of bicycles, motor vehicles and buses on the roads, the outbreak of the First World War, and his shock at its consequences. He writes about the price of food and fuel, his health, the end of the war and resulting celebrations, strikes and unemployment, the housing shortage and the death of his wife. On his 79th birthday he wrote: ‘I shall be in my 80th year tomorrow. It don’t seem possible that I am so old but it’s a fact.’

The exercise book was kindly donated by James Child’s family to the Library’s permanent heritage collections. Family members looked out photographs of Mr Child and his family, as well as a cup he was awarded by the Sutton and Cheam Horticultural Society, when he was gardener for Mrs Torr at Garbrand Hall. These were loaned to the Library for copying, and the archive includes digital copies of these items. Also donated was the gardening diary of his son, William, compiled during the 1930s.

James ChildThe memoir was unfit for production in the Reading Room in its original state, with all pages brittle, and split along the spine so they were a loose pile of papers. We don’t have an in-house conservator at the Lindley Library, so we commissioned a London-based paper conservator to undertake the necessary repairs. The edges of the pages were strengthened and tears repaired with fine Japanese tissue, and pages were re-joined along the spine and sewn so that now the item is restored to its original book form.

It turns out that James Child also dabbled in the building trade and erected a number of houses in Epsom, Surrey, though he barely mentions this in his journal. He himself lived in one of these terraces of cottages, called ‘Roseleigh’, which is opposite the entrance to my local park on Alexandra Road. I like to think of him there, dip pen in hand, composing his entries by candlelight.

You can view the catalogue of James Child’s memoir via the Archives Hub. If you would like to view the archive, please make an appointment at the Lindley Library, London: [email protected]. If you have questions about this or any other archive, feel free to email the Library at the same address.

More about RHS Libraries

Exhibitions and events
The libraries hold exhibitions of photography, botanical art and more, along with talks and courses.
Library collections
As well as books and periodicals, discover, art, photos and archives. Open to all.
Library services
Our libraries can help with your academic research and provide access to digital resources too. 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.