Conference 2017

Our next Conference will be held on 30 November 2017 at 70 Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6EJ.


Further details will be advertised in due course – but in the meantime please see below for a report on our last conference by our Chair, Julia Sheppard:

“The 2016 conference was run jointly with The Gardens Trust (TGT) and took place at the Linnean Society, Piccadilly, an appropriate venue given the theme of the conference ‘Keeping the memory green’: records of small gardens.

BRA members with a good memory will recall that the BRA Annual Conference of 2001 also covered Garden History and its records and was very popular. Much new research and cataloguing has been undertaken since then. This is the Year of the Garden and also the 300th anniversary of the birth of Capability Brown, so the organisers (Sally Jeffery TGT), and Julia Sheppard and Matti Watton (BRA) wanted to avoid covering larger gardens. What qualified as a small garden has of course changed over time and the talks covered back yards and allotments to Lambeth Palace gardens.

Brent Elliott of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gave an introduction to the garden press coverage of small gardens. The records are not plentiful but the Journal of Horticulture, the Amateur Gardening journal and Garden News, plus the media, postcards and the Chelsea Flower Show’s models for small gardens all yield information. Liz Tayler, archivist at the RHS, told us of recent cataloguing which went online in 2014. Their collections include donations from individuals – some gardeners kept diaries or even illustrated journals. Minutes of garden committees are invaluable and their deposit at the RHS much appreciated.

Sally Williams spoke on the London Parks and Gardens Trust Inventory which can be searched on line. Launched in 2012 with the help of volunteers, it covers 2600 sites: a marvellous resource ( and hopefully with further funding it can be improved with the addition of good maps. Sally used the story of Finsbury Circus as an example of the diverse sources of information: LMA; BL newspapers, maps and prints; Guildhall images; Sir John Soane’s Dance plans; the London Institution; legal documents in the City of London; and the evidence of Select Committees on private bills. Dogs and disrespectable people were banned and Finsbury Circus was only opened to the public in 1901 nearly a century after it was first laid out.

Margaret Willes has written Gardens of the British Working Classes (2014) which covers gardens from medieval times to the current day and she spoke about the ephemeral nature of the garden experience of ordinary people. Among many sources used she found material at the Weald and Downham Museum, local authority archives and libraries, oral history collections as well as fiction, Dickens and Hardy for example.

Oxford’s eighteenth century college gardens were described by Toby Parker who is currently writing a thesis on the subject. As far back as the mid-eighteenth century the gardens attracted visitors and large amounts were spent on them, competition being rife. Parker found that the more he studied the account books (each college keeping its accounts differently) the more they started to ‘talk to him’ as he recognised names and understood the sums. St Johns College holds very good archives and receipts, although a rearrangement of them at some point has meant that the original administration by the Bursar was not easy to follow. At Worcester one over-zealous organiser had written in biro over old reference numbers.

Lambeth Palace, home to the Archbishop of Canterbury, acquired land by charter in 1197 and a court roll of 1237 refers to cultivation of the land. Listing of the seeds used and the name of the gardener, Roger, can be found as early as 1322: the records were well kept and survived because the gardens were an asset being managed. Drawings and prints indicate some of the changes made over the years. Much of the site was sold after the Civil War and few records survive for the eighteenth century. Additionally some of the private records kept by Archbishops’ wives throw light on the work done in the gardens.

Allotment records have not been well kept over the twentieth century and posed a problem for the research of Lesley Acton who described one set of allotment minutes being destroyed by a council as unimportant. Dig for Victory, the Second World War campaign, ensured many people started to garden for food but the popularity of allotments and support by governments and councils has waxed and waned. Records can reveal who is gardening – what class and gender, where the allotments are popular (mostly outside London), and what crops and flowers are grown.

The final paper of the day was given by Ruth Frendo of the Garden Museum who described the holdings of the Museum and in particular the work of Joy Larkcom and the Grow-Your-Own Revolution.

The speakers used excellent illustrations and many questions were raised from the floor. Buffet lunch in the library upstairs allowed the chance for further discussion and the Linnean Society kindly displayed a case of relevant material from their collections. A future issue of Archives will carry some of these papers and illustrations.”