Picturesque cottages might be so disposed around a park, as to ornament and enliven the scenery with much more effect, than those misplaced gothic castles, and those pigmy models of Grecian temples, that perverted taste is so busy with: but it is the unfortunate principle of ornamental buildings in England that they should be uninhabited and uninhabitable.
This impassioned call for landowners to reject the fashion for ornamental garden structures and build cottages on their estates instead, to address a rural housing shortage caused by inclosure, comes from the social reformer Sir Thomas Bernard’s fascinating text An Account of a Cottage and Garden in Tadcaster (1797). It was published for the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor, a charity which Bernard helped to found.
The picturesque cottage garden is a powerful motif in English garden history. The cottage garden represents a modest beauty, simplicity, a place of domestic production, supplying fruit, flowers and vegetables to the owners; perhaps some eggs, or honey. It is unpretentious, a sanctuary, in harmony with nature and its surroundings; it possesses an essential integrity born out of hard work and self-reliance. All these qualities are attractive, of course, and the cottage garden style is one many aspire to re-create today.
The first garden Bernard discusses belongs to Britton Abbot. At the age of 67 Abbot is still working as an agricultural labourer. The interview with Abbot takes place on a Saturday afternoon – his wife is sent to fetch him from a field where he is working a mile or so away. Abbot’s fortunes had nearly collapsed when his previous house and land were enclosed. He appealed to a local landowner, who gave him a strip of land upon which he was able to build his current house and establish the garden. Without this generous assistance, it is likely Abbot and his family would have faced ruin.
Abbot’s garden is about a quarter of an acre and has a hedge enclosing the garden. Cultivated by his wife and noted for its neatness, the garden contains, ‘fifteen apple-trees, one green gage, and three winesour plum-trees, two apricot-trees, several gooseberry and currant bushes, abundance of common vegetables, and three hives of bees’.
The produce the Abbots would expect to harvest annually from the garden amounts to, ‘about 40 bushels of potatoes, besides other vegetables; and his fruit, in a good year, is worth from £3 to £4 a year. His wife occasionally goes out to work; she also spins at home, and takes care of his house and garden’.
Bernard appeals to other landowners to give land to working people to be used in the same way:
The quarter of an acre that Britton Abbot inclosed was not worth a shilling a year. It now contains a good house and a garden, abounding in fruit, vegetables, and almost every thing that constitutes the wealth of the cottager. In such inclosures, the benefit to the country, and to the individuals of the parish, would far surpass any petty sacrifice of land to be required. FIVE UNSIGHTLY, UNPROFITABLE, ACRES OF WASTE GROUND WOULD AFFORD HABITATION AND COMFORT TO TWENTY SUCH FAMILIES AS BRITTON ABBOT’S.
The second case study, contained in an Account of the produce of a Cottager’s Garden in Shropshire (1806) features Richard Millward’s garden. Millward is a collier, and his wife Jane cultivates agricultural land, and a garden, which together amount to just over an acre.
The wife has managed the ground in a particular manner for thirteen years with potatoes and wheat, chiefly by her own labour; and in a way which has yielded good crops, and of late fully equal, or rather superior, to the produce of the neighbouring farms, and with little or no expense; but she has improved her mode of culture during the last six years.
Jane Millward has introduced the new cultivation method after becoming frustrated waiting for local farmers to have the time to plough the larger part of the garden for her. Now she and her husband do all the work themselves. In October, she sows wheat straight into the ground where potatoes have been, so the wheat over-winters in the ground. Then the ground which has grown wheat in the previous year is dug for planting potatoes the following spring. This excerpt gives an impression of the sheer hard work involved planting the potatoes:
The ground is dug for potatoes in the month of March and April, to the depth of about nine inches. This digging would cost sixpence per pole, if hired. After putting in the dung, the potatoes are planted in rows, about twelve or fourteen inches distant. The dung is carried out in a wheelbarrow and it takes a great many days to plant the whole, generally ten days. Her husband always assists in digging, after his hours of ordinary labour.
In the vegetable garden Jane plants peas, beans, cabbages and early potatoes for the family plus turnips which she boils for their pig. Both accounts give us an unusual amount of detail about the gardens and the way they were arranged and used.
Sir Thomas Bernard (1750 – 1818) spent much of his working life on social projects to improve conditions for the poor. He helped to establish the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor and was treasurer of the Foundling Hospital in London. He also established a school for the blind. He was an advocate of vaccination, rural allotments and was instrumental in obtaining consents for the building of the Regent’s Canal.
Below is a link to the 1806 version of Bernard’s text which is very short and well worth reading. Also some contemporary images of rural scenes and cottage gardens and a link to Margaret Willes’s The Gardens of the Working Classes – an extraordinary survey of gardens belonging to ordinary working people in the UK.
(from the Biodiversity Heritage Library)