Neat Houses and Battersea Bundles: Market Gardening in London

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Early Market Gardening

Market gardening or growing for profit developed in the sixteenth century as towns became large enough to allow making one’s living as a commercial grower viable. The Reverend Daniel Lysons in his “Environs of London” tells us that growing for profit or market gardening may have begun at Sandwich in Kent and its success there was soon followed by similar gardens closer to London. It is thought that Huguenot settlers may have been among these early market gardeners in Kent. Thomas Dorman records a list of the trades and occupations of Dutch Settlers in Sandwich taken from the Dutch Foreign Book of 1582, in which thirteen Huguenot settlers were market gardening in the area.

Before that time monasteries, private gardens and the surplus from large houses were sources of food supply for London but their role decreased during the sixteenth century with the dissolution of the monasteries and increased pressure on land for building. In his ‘Survey of London’ John Stow recorded an early market gardener named Cawsway who worked land at Houndsditch growing herbs and roots, but by 1553 the land was “parcelled into Gardens, wherein are now many faire houses of pleasure builded…” This pressure upon the land was to increase in the following centuries.

The Development of Market Gardening for London

The first market gardeners to supply London worked land along the Thames where the soil was rich, transport was easy and there was access to plentiful horse dung. The granting of charters to the Gardeners’ and the Fruiterers’ Companies in 1605 may evidence that market gardening was becoming important in the early seventeenth century. Webber tells us that the Gardeners’ Company appears to have owned or rented large market gardens outside the City and by 1649 they were reported as employing 1500 men, women and children as well as 400 apprentices. Lysons states that the principal places for fruit growing were Brentford, Isleworth, and Twickenham (known for strawberries) and Hammersmith, Kensington and Plumstead (known for cherries).

By the eighteenth century market gardening was thriving at the Neat House Gardens at Pimlico. The area was already known for its gardens but was now supplying London and Westminster with a range of fruit and vegetables.

“Water from the Thames was brought to the gardens through sluices while hothouses made possible the growing of early and tender crops. Dung from the London streets was used in abundance. The gardens were a training ground for young market gardeners and did much to raise the standard of British horticulture. By the end of the eighteenth century they covered 200 acres and were providing a gross income of £200,000 a year. They succumbed to the spread of London a few years later when the ground level was raised by soil excavated from St Katharine’s Docks and built upon.” (Webber, 34)

These market gardens of Pimlico were mentioned by John Strype in his 1720 Survey:

“The Neat Houses are a Parcel of Houses, most seated on the Banks of the River Thames, and inhabited by Gardiners; for which it is of Note, for the supplying London and Westminster Markets with Asparagus, Artichoaks, Cauliflowers, Musmelons, and the like useful Things that the Earth produceth; which by Reason of their keeping the Ground so rich by dunging it, (and through the Nearness to London, they have the Soil cheap) doth make their Crops very forward, to their great Profit in coming to such good Markets.”

The Nineteenth Century and the decline of Market Gardening

Milne’s Land Utilisation Map of 1800 shows the position of market gardens as well as nurseries and orchards in and around London at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The map shows that west of the City on the north bank of the Thames were the market gardens of Tothill Fields followed by the Neat Houses. Earls Court had several ‘common gardens’ and Fulham to Hammersmith was largely made up of market gardens and arable land. Even as far west as Isleworth, Richmond and Twickenham there were plenty of vegetable and fruit growers.

Most of the market gardens east of the City were in Hackney, Bethnal Green and Hoxton and further out at West Ham, Plaistow and Poplar. The main potato growing areas of London were around Wanstead, Barking, Ilford and Plaistow.

South of the Thames was another belt of gardens through Greenwich, Deptford, New Cross, Camberwell and Lambeth. Asparagus became the speciality of the gardeners at Battersea and Londoners would travel there to buy ‘Battersea Bundles’ or Sparrow-grass (asparagus).

Maisie Brown describes the rise and success of the market gardens at Barnes and Mortlake. It was a hard life and she records market gardener William Breffit’s description of the marketing and distribution of the produce (c1814).

“Every gardener had his market cart or carts which were loaded at sunset, leaving the garden grounds between 10pm and 1am. Each cart was accompanied by a driver and a person to sell the produce, often the gardener’s wife. They would reach Covent Garden Market between 3am and 5am when dealers would be waiting to do business. Sales would be completed by 7am at the latest, when the produce would be taken to retail shops and markets by ‘ill-paid Irish women who carried loads of up to one hundredweight on their heads, to all parts of London’[Quoting Sir Richard Phillips ‘A Morning’s Walk from London to Kew’]. The carts were back home by nine or ten in the morning. According to Phillips, this was the way of life of every gardener’s family within ten miles of London – of some every night and of others every other night – for at least six months of the year.”

Rates of pay were comparatively good but market garden workers still lived in overcrowded and often insanitary conditions and were hampered by a lack of income during winter.

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As we have seen the tension between use of land for produce or building has been part of London life for centuries. Brown states “There can be little doubt that London created the market gardens. What is equally certain is that they were destroyed by London, when its need for land became as pressing as its need for food.” (38)

Writer and architect Thomas Hardy was to reflect this building boom in Chapter 41 of his novel ‘The Hand of Ethelberta’:

“On an extensive plot of ground, lying somewhere between the Thames and the Kensington squares, stood the premises of Messrs. Nockett and Perch, builders and contractors. The yard with its workshops formed part of one of those frontier lines between mangy business and garnished domesticity that occur in what are called improving neighbourhoods. We are accustomed to regard increase as the chief feature in a great city’s progress, its well-known signs greeting our eyes on every outskirt. Slush-ponds may be seen turning into basement-kitchens; a broad causeway of shattered earthenware smothers plots of budding gooseberry-bushes and vegetable trenches, foundations following so closely upon gardens that the householder may be expected to find cadaverous sprouts from overlooked potatoes rising through the chinks of his cellar floor.”

You can find out more about the history of market gardening in Guildhall Library’s collections and upcoming exhibition, “Feeding London: The Forgotten Market Gardens”,  from 4 April – 24 June. Here are just a few items you may enjoy…

Maisie Brown’s “The Market Gardens of Barnes and Mortlake: the Rise and Fall of a Local Industry” (Ref. Pam 18103)
Thomas Dorman’s “Notes on the Dutch Walloons and Huguenots at Sandwich in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.” In Proceedings of the Huguenot Society of London, 2 (1887-88): 205-240.
Rev Daniel Lysons “The Environs of London” Volume 4 Herts, Essex and Kent (Ref. SL 93)
John Stow’s ‘The Survey of London’ (Ref. L 71)
Malcolm Thick’s “The Neat House Gardens: Early Market Gardening around London” (Ref. L 45.5)
Alan Charles Bell Urwin’s “Commercial Nurseries and Market Gardens” (Ref. ST 297)
Ronald Webber’s “Market Gardening: The History of Commercial Flower, Fruit and Vegetable Growing.” (Ref. 635)
E J Willson’s “West London Nursery Gardens” (Ref. L 45.5)

 

Jeanie Smith
Assistant Librarian

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