Notes from ‘The Gardens of the British Working Class’

With a focus on the women, who are more prominent in the early period and less so in the later …

From Thomas Tusser, in 1562, talks about the work of housewifery, which is much focused on the garden …
“In Marche, and in Aprill, from morning to night;
in sowing and setting, good huswives delight.
To have in their garden, or some other plot;
to trim up their house, and to furnish their plot.

Have millons (melons) at Milhelmas, parsnips in lent;
in June buttered beans, saveth fish to be spent.
With these, and good pottagethrough having than;
thou winnest the heart of thy labouring man.’

He also house the housewife planting raspberries and roses together, and keeping bees. p. 14

Samuel Hartlib reports the rise of market gardening in the UK, (although Cochester had a vegetable market by 1529, and one is reported outside St Paul’s in London in the 13th century) in the early 1600s, helped by the arrival of Dutch refugees and their skills from the late 1560s. Through the dearth of the 1590s they helped keep London fed, “One of the factors that made the Dutch and Flemish so successful was their intensive use of manure … these gardeners would dig through the gravel deposits that ringed London, selling the stone for ballast in ships and street repairs. The holes were then filled with ‘the filth of the city… as rich and black as thick ink’.” p. 29

But some Londoners “thought the intensive cultivation would ruin the soil, so were reluctant to rent out their land to Hugenot gardeners”. p. 31

“One hundred years earlier, vegetables were regarded as food for peasants, with the wealthy eating meat and fish dressed with rich sauces, followed by dishes of sweetmeats.By the early 17th century, new vegetables such as artichokes and asparagus were beginning to feature in the fashionable diet.”

“Goodwife Cantrey makes a tantalisingly fleeting appearance in the mid-17th century. The wife of a Northamptonshire yeoman farmer, she planted a herb plot with fennel for an infusion to ease weak eyes, camomile for headaches and goat’s rue as an antidote to the plague. An idea of some of the flowers and fruit that she cultivated in her garden has also survived in the form of a receipt for plants supplied on 28 July 1658 to the Harton family of Kirby Hall. The list inclused lupins, larkspurs, sabious, sweet wiliams, honeysuckle and ‘double hollioake’, along with four sorts of gooseberries – white, green, red and yellow – double currants and ‘violette plumbe’….

An elderly lady from Essex, interviewed in the 1990s, recalled her grandmother using bottles of different tinctures on a sunny windowsil: one with marigold flowers in alcohol for sprains and sores, another of Madonna lily infused in oil to ease burns. A traditional recipe was to pick the flowers of St John’s wort on 24 June, the saint’s day, and put them on a windowsill in water until the sun turned the liquid red. The so-called blood of St John could then be used to treat skin complaints, as well as a balm against evil and the plague.” p. 37

In London … “Given that many physicians and apothecaries could not grow their own medicinal herbs, they had to turn to women gardeners. Early 17th-century records show that the physicians of St Thomas’s hospital in London employed a herb woman to provide the raw materials for the medicines and ointments that the chief medical officer, the apothecary, prescribed for his patients .. In 1629 it as noted that the apothecary was paid £60 per annum … the herb woman a mere £4. The apothecary was expected to pay for his ingredients out of his salary, so the herb woman may have received additional money.” p. 39

“By the end of the 17th century an increasing number of herbwomen were acquiring more respected social status, especially those able to rent stalls in London’s markets, where they sold not only medicinal plants but also herbs for stewing and cooking. .. The records for the Fleet Market for the years 1737-38 for instance, identify Mary Leech and Judith Vardey as specialists in ‘Physick Hrebs’. The records for the following years, 1739-40, go further, specifying the location of the hardens from which the herbs were gathered. Some herb women were located near the City, such as Hannah Smith from Grub Street in Finsbury, but most came from neighbouring suburbs such as Bethnal Green and stepney Green, Bermondsey, Camberwell and Vauxhall. … As well as selling planst at the herb market in Covent Garden, the women were employed toe strew halls in the hall in Southwark. One woman who held a long tenure as a regular supplier of herbs to Bridge House was Mary Earle, who died in 1758, leaving bequests to £20 to each of her granddaughters, £30 to her grandson, and her remaining estate to her daughter-in-law, a substantial estate for a woman.” pp. 42-3

For Michelmas 1698 John Risdall or Risden is recorded as the head gardener at Arbury, at an annual salary of £20 …. the Arbury records are particularly interesting in showing the range, albeit repetitive, of the tasks assigned to the women. Ann Suffolk and a woman named as Elizabeth were recorded working in the harden in April 1699, weeding and sweeping the grass. These two tasks took up a large proportion of their time throughout the summer, but they are also noted gathering herbs for the stillroom, carrying gravel, gathering strawberries and herbs for the kitchen, cutting rot out of apples, husking walnuts and cutting shreds. The last task refers to the lengths of cloth or leather that were cut into thin strips for fixing espaliers and climbers on walls. The women are recorded in February 2701 “straighting nails” for Risdall to use in tghe kitchen garden. During harvest time, they are often noted as absent, but appear in other account books for the estate, paid for bringing in the hay.” p. 75

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