DIY in the Victorian Garden with Shirley Hibberd

James Shirley Hibberd was born in Stepney in 1825 and was the son of a sea captain. He began his career as a bookseller but was writing articles on horticulture long before it became his profession and became expert in the cultivation of fruit, flowers and vegetables.

Following his marriage in 1850, Hibberd moved to Pentonville where he gradually changed from making his living by bookselling to horticultural journalism. In 1858 he became the first editor of Floral World, managing that gardening paper until 1875, after which he began to work on popular gardening manuals and on creating a series of specialist gardens. Running out of space in his North London gardens, he moved to Muswell Hill where he created still more specialist gardens.

His experiments and investigations led to his being consulted by individuals and interest groups for advice; he became a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and a judge at the Guildhall Flower Show.

Hibberd the horticultural expert had a reputation for picking fights with his peers but he was also a good communicator, particularly for the amateur gardener. His practical experience and advice and his enthusiasm for many types of gardening are demonstrated in these publications held at Guildhall Library:

The Floral World and Garden Guide edited by James Shirley Hibberd (1871).

Floral1An item from the Library of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners at Guildhall Library, shelf mark GC 2.3.

This guide was a monthly publication aimed at amateur gardeners of moderate means. Hibberd reported on the progress of his garden projects in each issue, thus helping gardeners find practical solutions to their own gardening problems.

Anne Wilkinson in her article ‘The Preternatural Gardener: The Life of James Shirley Hibberd (1825-90)’ points out that at the time The Floral World began, amateur gardeners were still considered a minority interest. Contemporary periodicals like The Gardeners’ Chronicle and The Cottage Gardener were aimed at those who employed professional gardeners, or at the head gardeners and nurserymen who worked for them. Hibberd saw the advantage of writing for people who took a ‘DIY’ approach to gardening. He also wanted to spread ideas and to share expertise and experience between professional and amateur gardeners.

Many of the articles in Floral World were by florists and nurserymen, people who could offer sound advice, and much of the writing was done by Hibberd himself. In his ‘Garden Guide for June’ Hibberd’s horticultural notes reviewed several RHS and other exhibitions which had taken place during May. He discussed the previous month’s weather (cold north-easterly winds) and its effect on the fruit crops. There were also sections for notes on new books and new plants as well as answers to readers’ questions just as in today’s gardening magazines.

Floral 2In his article Victorian Gardening Magazines, Desmond Ray states that the coloured plates for Floral World were provided by Benjamin Fawcett of Yorkshire and he suggests that they were subsequently used in Hibberd’s books, e.g. New and Rare Beautiful-leaved Plants (1870) and The Ivy (1872).

Benjamin Fawcett (1808 -1893) was one of the most able and gifted English nineteenth century woodblock colour printers. He had a long association with natural history writer and ornithologist Francis Orpen Morris, the printing of Morris’ works being done by Fawcett and the engraving by Alexander Francis Lydon (1836-1917). Most of the joint works of Fawcett and Lydon were published by Groombridge of London, also the publisher of the three works highlighted here which were written or edited by Hibberd.

The Ivy, a Monograph; Comprising the History, Uses, Characteristics, and Affinities of the Plant, and a Descriptive List of all the Garden Ivies in Cultivation (1872).

An item from the Library of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners at Guildhall Library, shelf mark GC 2.3.


This volume has a superb richly decorated Victorian binding with gold blocking, two colour plates and numerous wood-engravings throughout the text. It describes the history of ivy and the folklore associated with it, giving scientific descriptions of all known varieties as well as offering several ‘ivy’related quotations from Virgil, Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson.

Hibberd personally collected over 200 varieties of ivy and in spite of the breadth of his horticultural interests they were a particular passion for him.


The Fern Garden or Fern Culture Made Easy (1869).  

Floral5An item from the Library of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners at Guildhall Library, shelf mark: GC 1.1

Like many Victorians, Hibberd was a pteridomaniac (fern enthusiast). In the preface to his fern book we see a waspish side of his character whilst warming to his care for enlightening the beginner…

“Beginners in Fern culture are very much perplexed by the abundance of books on the subject, and their general unfitness to afford the aid a beginner requires. Almost everybody has written a book on ferns, it having become the fashion to consider a knowledge of the subject rather a disqualification than otherwise… we have plenty of good books on the subject, but for the most part they are technical and elaborate, and shoot over the heads of beginners.” (From Hibberd’s Preface)

Floral6The volume covers the identification and care of ferns, fern collecting and how to build a fernery etc.

I am endeared to Hibberd by a lovely story about his next door neighbour building a large structure which cast part of his garden into shade during the afternoons. Instead of having an un-neighbourly argument he converted his greenhouse into a fern house to work with the decrease in light levels!

Hibberd died on the 16th November 1890 and was buried Abney Park Cemetery, fittingly now a site of importance for nature conservation.

Written by: Jeanie Smith – Assistant Librarian and Keeper of the Lloyd’s Marine Collection
Photographs by: Elisabeth Dew – Library Assistant

References (All available at Guildhall Library)

Browne, Janet. ‘Hibberd, (James) Shirley (1825-1890)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OUP, 2004; online edition, May 2009. accessed 9th April 2015.

Hibberd, Shirley. The Fern Garden or Fern Culture Made Easy. London: Groombridge and Sons, 1869.

Hibberd, Shirley (ed). The Floral World and Garden Guide. London: Groombridge and Sons, 1871.

Hibberd, Shirley. The Ivy, a Monograph; comprising the History, Uses, Characteristics, and Affinities of the Plant, and a Descriptive List of all the Garden Ivies in Cultivation. London: Groombridge and Sons, 1872.

Massingham, Betty. A Century of Gardeners. London: Faber & Faber, 1982.

Ray, Desmond. ‘Victorian Gardening Magazines’. Garden History 5.3 (Winter, 1977): 47-66. accessed: 04/01/2014

Wilkinson, Anne. ‘The Preternatural Gardener: The Life of James Shirley Hibberd (1825-90)’ Garden History 26.2 (Winter, 1998): 153-175.


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