Repton’s Work House Garden

From ‘Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening: including some remarks on Grecian and Gothic architecture, collected from various manuscripts in possession of the different noblemen and gentlemen, for whose use they were originally written; the whole tending to establish fixed principles in the respective arts’ (1816)

The English landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752 – 1818) is generally celebrated for his work on large country estates, so while reading Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening I was intrigued to find plans for a model workhouse and garden.  Produced with his son John Adey Repton and published in 1816, this book was  written towards the end of Repton’s life, as a survey of his career.  Amongst flagship projects like Woburn Abbey and Longleat, his own garden in Essex is featured, together with designs he believes to have had merit, but were never actually implemented.

In some ways, looking through this book is a bit like viewing a modern landscape designer’s website.  Just as today’s designers use plans and concept boards to illustrate how gardens will look, and photographs showing the final result, Repton uses coloured ‘sketches’, both to enable clients to visualise his designs and to illustrate completed gardens.  His theories on using the ‘borrowed landscape’ (which he calls ‘appropriation’) and using contrasts between the forms of plants sound very similar to techniques used by designers today.

The work house project came about at the instigation of another son, the Rev Edward Repton, who wanted to improve conditions for his parishioners in Kent.  The existing work house occupied a piece of land that was waterlogged, so the first priority was to relocate it to drier ground.  Unfortunately, the new work house was never actually built.  As Repton explains,

‘This Plan was at first highly approved by the leading persons in the Parish, till it was discovered that the Situation proposed was so desirable, that the Site occupied in private houses would produce more profit, and therefore the Poor for the present continue in their former unwholesome abode;’

His detailed sketch explains how the workhouse community might function.  (For convenience, I’ve divided the image in half, so as to examine it more clearly.)  At the top of the picture is the work house building where the residents would have lived and taken their meals, flanked on either side by accommodation for the governor and matron.  The south facing terrace has seating for the ‘aged and infirm’ and is also used as an outdoor classroom.  Grape vines were to be planted on the walls of the building – if you look very closely you can see a wooden trellis structure on the roof supporting the plants.

Below this is the garden with neat rows of crops, intended to be sold to the public as well as for use by the residents.  On both sides of the sketch are neat tables covered with white cloths, where passers-by are purchasing fruit and flowers.  The pond would have provided a water source for the institution.

Repton is concerned that the children of the work house should be taught practical skills, giving special value to gardening (as we might expect) and to military service:

‘This might be considered as the reward of good conduct: the Children, supplied with spades, and hoes, and tools, proportioned to their strength, should be taught and exercised in the cultivation of the Garden, and perhaps drilled to become the future defenders of their Country.’

On one side of the sketch we can see children hoeing rows of vegetables, while on the other side, boys in military uniform stand to attention.

The workhouse project also reveals the ambivalence towards the poor in England at this time.  On the one hand Repton encourages generosity from local people to fund the new building – pointing out that with changing fortunes, they might one day have need of such a place themselves.  However, his design enshrines the idea that the poor should deserve the help given to them – while the sunny, south facing garden with the view of the Dover road rewards co-operative residents, the contrasting north facing courtyard at the back of the building is designed to punish them:

‘Let the back-yard be considered as a sort of punishment for misbehaviour and refractory conduct, where, shut up between four buildings nothing can be seen to enliven the prospect.’

Do read the book for yourselves via the link below.  It makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in social history of this period as well as those interested in Repton’s ideas about design, and the importance he attached to access by ordinary people to England’s parks and gardens.

A picnic at Longleat – Repton praises the ‘Noble Proprietor’, whose park is always open and ‘parties are permitted to bring their refreshments’.

Further Reading:

Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening

Humphry Repton (Wikipedia)

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