Gardens and War

The Lindley Library and the Garden Museum are collaborating for an exhibition on another, less well-known 'RHS'

Over the summer we have been working hard on our latest exhibition in partnership with the Garden Museum.  As part of the Garden Museum’s Gardens and War exhibition we have produced a display on the remarkable story of the Ruhleben Horticultural Society.

A Barrack Garden at Ruhleben in 1917Ruhleben was an internment camp outside Berlin, set up by the German government in 1914 to house thousands of British citizens stranded in Germany at the outbreak of war. In the face of considerable hardship, the men set up a horticultural society with support from the RHS, which sent seeds, bulbs and advice throughout the war.

Here at the RHS Lindley Library*, we hold a fascinating collection of photographs and documents sent to the RHS by the internees. We wanted to supplement this ‘official’ archive with personal stories from the men themselves to get an understanding of why they chose to make gardens in a prison camp. With the passage of time there are no surviving internees, but we hoped that their families would still have letters home and other mementoes hidden away in their attics.

We launched an appeal for information which was included in the BBC coverage of  the RHS Chelsea and Hampton Court Palace Flower Shows and received an overwhelming response. So far more than 100 people have made contact. Unfortunately, even though we know that over 900 inmates were members of the horticultural society, very few of the people who got in touch knew whether their ancestors were involved in gardening.

Mrs Doreen Black and Mrs Margie Mellis at the opening of the exhibition. They are both descendants of Ruhleben internees who were shipmates on the SS RubislawIt seems that many people found it hard to talk, even to their close families, about their time at Ruhleben. However some people were able to provide really valuable information which was included in the exhibition. We were delighted that some of the descendants of Ruhleben horticulturalists were able to join us at the opening of the exhibition on 23rd September. It was a very enjoyable event, especially as it involved bringing together the families of two Ruhleben internees who had been shipmates on the SS Rubislaw, a merchant ship impounded on the Elbe in 1914.

The exhibition is on at the Garden Museum until December 19th and will go on tour to the RHS gardens in 2015 and 2016. First stop is RHS Garden Hyde Hall where the Ruhleben exhibition will go on display from 16 March to 12 April 2015.

*RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries – visit our online catalogue

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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.