Last year I wrote a post about Harry Higgott Thomas the garden writer and journalist who was awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour. Whilst doing the research I discovered that his father, Owen Thomas, also gained one of the first VMHs towards the end of a pretty meteoric career in which he rose from being a garden boy on Anglesey to being Head Gardener at Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria, taking in spells as head gardener at 3 other grand estates, including Chatsworth, on the way. So I thought Owen deserved a post too.
But having started researching and writing, as usual I got sidetracked. However, as the sidetracking gave useful insights into some of the gardens where Owen Thomas worked I’m making two posts rather than just a single one, so to begin with read on to find out about the great Anglesey estate of Bodorgan and its glass walls, as well as some idea of the early career path of an outstanding Victorian horticulturist…
And we’ll begin at the beginning. Born on Anglesey in 1843, Owen was only about 10 when he was sent to work on the local estate as an errand boy earning the princely sum of 3 shillings a week. Although that was obviously hard work, in some ways he struck lucky because he was soon working as a garden boy with Head Gardener, “Mr Ewing”.
Young Owen was also lucky because he was working on no ordinary estate but Bodorgan, the largest on Anglesey and the home of the Meyrick family. The house sits in a magnificent coastal position overlooking the estuary of the Cefni. It was built in the late 18thc and although it has been altered it retains many of its original characteristics, and these days it retains an extensive deer park, well preserved formal terraces and the remains of a large walled kitchen garden as well a large circular brick dovecote and other buildings of interest and, as can be seen from the aerial photos, plenty of woodland.
There is an account of the grounds in the local paper a few years before Owen was born, when the newly formed Anglesey Horticultural Society organized a visit. It’s clear that the Meyricks were keen plant collectors, with plenty of money to indulge their passion. There was a 140 ft long conservatory divided into 5 sections: one each for geraniums and heaths – still fashionable imports from South Africa, and two others for cherries, peaches, and the final one a hothouse for exotics. In addition there was a 60ft vinery and 2 pineapple houses. All were heated by hot water. A “pit yard” had a further 320 ft glass containing other exotics and tender plants including melons. I’d guess all of these were ranged around the walled garden.
As you can see from the clipping below money was no object.
The estate clearly was adept at technology – mature elm trees had recently been successfully moved, and the article concludes in a very laudatory fashion: ” On visiting Bodorgan… the wonder is how such an Eden could be formed in so ou-of-the way a place.”
In Owen’s day Bodorgan was famous for Owen Fuller Meyrick’s orchid collection and for his collection of rare conifers and fruits trees. It was no ordinary head gardener either who was responsible for all of this. Charles Ewing invented the “glass wall” for growing fruit such as peaches, apricots and figs, and an account of this was commissioned, as part of a general description of the Bodorgan estate by George Johnson editor of The Cottage Gardener and published in the magazine in January 1864. It was written by head gardener and nurseryman turned journalist, Thomas Appleby, a friend of Ewing.
Annoyingly there are no illustrations in the magazine, so Appleby has to resort to a lengthy description. But the principle is quite simple. Ewing’s glass wall is basically a very narrow glasshouse which makes a fruit tree sandwich… two walls of glass panels, less than two feet apart, and with a glass roof, with the fruit trees planted against a trellis in the middle between them. The glass panels are supported by brick columns, and alternate ones [and the roof] open to provide ventilation. Appleby gives them his seal of approval and notes that there was already one installed at the RHS gardens in Chiswick, although he confesses to not having seen it.
What Appleby perhaps did not know was that the Chiswick version crucially did not have the brick columns to provide stability but merely iron struts. As a result, although it produced promising results the glass wall did not stand up well to strong winds, and the Chiswick versions were dismantled in 1862 and the glass recycled into span-roofed greenhouses. [For more on that see Brent Elliott’s History of the RHS, 2004]
For more on glass walls generally see:
Elsewhere in the Bodorgan garden was a 300 ft long peach house of glass and iron, standing against a wall. This had cost the Meyricks £400. Another house held “numerous good specimens of the usual greenhouse plants such as Aphelexis, Boronias, Eriostemons, Polygalas and other New Holland shrubs”. There was a mushroom house where other things were blanched including turnip tops which “were very delicate eating, much more so than seakale itself.”
The estate woodlands also came for particular praise. The predominant planting was of Silver Fir and there were also around fifty monkey puzzles [Araucaria imbricata] around 18-20ft tall “not at all affected by the sea breezes”. These would presumably have been planted soon after the monkey puzzle was introduced into commercial nurseries in the late 1830s or very early 1840s. There were also extensive plantings of rhododendrons.
The local paper in 1850 said the gardens were “the most perfect and best conducted in Wales” and being only a mile or so from the nearest railway station could be visited by “respectable visitors” by arrangement. They were shown around by Mr Ewing who lived near the shore in “a neat little cottage, with a turf before it on which fairies might love to dance”.
One other feature which was picked out as “of absorbing curiosity” was the tobacco plantation from which “exquisite cigars were manufactured …for the use of its princely owner.” You almost have to wonder if Meyrick owned the North Wales Chronicle!
Not content with proving that tobacco could be successfully grown on Anglesey Mr Ewing was also apparently a keen propagator of unusual plants, and he obviously enjoyed passing on his skills.
By the age of 14 Owen was given his own propagating frame set up over a dung heap where he grew begonias. Unfortunately we don’t know what kind. Begonias belong to one of the world’s largest plant families but Kew didn’t receive its first begonia until 1777, although by 1789 Jonas Dryander, working for Joseph Banks, was busy describing the 21 species which had reached Europe, and by the time Owen would have been experimenting there were probably around 80 species in cultivation. [National Begonia Society] Many of these would have been highly prized exotic hothouse species grown by plantaholics like the Meyricks.
Bodorgan is still in the hands of the Meyricks, who remain one of the richest families in Wales. It is not open to the public and for security reasons visitors do not seem to be as welcome as they were in Mr Ewing’s day. Bodorgan’s more recent claim to fame is because William and Kate lived in a farmhouse on the estate while he was serving as a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot nearby. For more on Bodorgan see:
Owen Thomas was clearly an ambitious young man and at the age of 18 he took what he had learned from Ewing and left Anglesey, for a job with a commercial nursery, Dicksons of Chester. Nurseries were often asked to recommend suitable candidates for gardening positions so its possible that his ambition was already showing.
Dicksons was a family firm founded by two Scots brothers, Francis and James whose partnership had recently ended. They had extensive nursery grounds around the Chester area, as well as shops there and in Manchester. Owen began working for Francis who described himself as the ‘senior partner of the late firm, a practical nurseryman of 40 years’ experience.’ He was a friend of John Claudius Loudon, and a corresponding member of the Royal Horticultural Society. For more on Dicksons see:
However he had hardly got started at Chester – in fact about 2 weeks – when he was recommended for a post as journeyman at Aston Hall where a massive improvement programme was underway. There are several Aston Halls but I think although am not absolutely sure, this was Little Aston Hall near Lichfield. An early Georgian mansion it had recently been enlarged and extended at vast expense by Edward Swynfen Parker Jervis, son of the second Viscount St Vincent. His attention was now turned to the grounds. There was a short account of Little Aston in Gardeners Chronicle in January 1880 which makes it clear that things probably had not changed much since Owen’s time there. “The gardens, like the conservatory, belong to a past generation [but] Little Aston Hall deserves a niche in the temple of fame where good gardens are enrolled.” However he was not at Little Aston long either.
His next move was to work for James Veitch. Veitch was based in Exeter but had just taken over Joseph Knight‘s premises on the Kings Road in Chelsea, and was on his way to becoming the country’s premier – and fashionable – commercial horticulturists. Owen went to London but was, as he had been at Dicksons, soon recommended by Veitch for a post at Drayton Manor, near Tamworth under the head gardener, Mr Ballingall.
Drayton Manor was the home of Sir Robert Peel, the son of the former prime minister. It was an Elizabethan style mansion with a three storey tower designed by Robert Smirke between 1831-35, and grounds laid out by William Gilpin. There was even a hot water plant which supplied the greenhouses and vast conservatory as well as the house itself.
By the spring of 1866, after about a year at Drayton he was made a general foreman but in 1869 left there to return to Veitch’s in London with the hope of being recommended by them for a head gardener’s post. He must have made a good impression on the Peels because when Mr Ballingall retired later that year Owen was asked to act as interim head gardener back at Drayton, and had only been in his acting post for a fortnight when he was offered the post permanently “without any solicitation on his part.”
Gardeners Chronicle visited in 1868 before Owen took over but the description shows what a responsibility the garden was, with a staff of around fifty who worked on the gardens and grounds.
Owen’s promotion enabled him to get married and 3 sons were born during the 13 years he held the post. Indeed the only reason he was to leave was because the Peels decided to shut up the house as an economy measure. It was the beginning of the end for Drayton and it was eventually demolished in 1929, with only the clock tower left standing. The grounds that Owen once lovingly tended are now Drayton Manor theme park.
The Peels decision to close the house may, from Owen’s immediate point of view have been a disaster but it was lead to bigger and better things very soon as next week’s post will show.