History The Gardens of the British Working Class by Margaret Willes | Book Review Roundup | The Omnivore

Published on April 2nd, 2014


The Gardens of the British Working Class by Margaret Willes

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Blurb: This magnificently illustrated people’s history celebrates the extraordinary feats of cultivation by the working class in Britain, even if the land they toiled, planted and loved was not their own. Spanning more than four centuries, from the earliest records of the labouring classes in the country to today, Margaret Willes’ research unearths lush gardens nurtured outside rough workers’ cottages and horticultural miracles performed in blackened yards, and reveals the ingenious, sometimes devious, methods employed by determined, obsessive and eccentric workers to make their drab surroundings bloom. She also explores the stories of the great philanthropic industrialists who provided gardens for their workforces, the fashionable rich stealing the gardening ideas of the poor, alehouse syndicates and fierce rivalries between vegetable growers, flower-fanciers cultivating exotic blooms on their city windowsills, and the rich lore handed down from gardener to gardener through generations. This is a sumptuous record of the myriad ways in which the popular cultivation of plants, vegetables and flowers has played – and continues to play – an integral role in everyday British life.

(Yale University Press 2014)

John Carey, The Sunday Times 

“[A] marvellous book… Willes’s range is staggering. She covers garden magazines, garden broadcasting, garden cities, garden centres (introduced into Britain from America in 1953). She lightens fact-packed sections with comic stories — Queen Victoria opposing public admittance to Kew Gardens in 1841 on the grounds that she had nowhere else to exercise; Neville Chamberlain recommending gardening as “a fine antidote to Bolshevism”. Her book is a virtually inexhaustible source of pleasure. Just like a garden, in fact.”

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Katherine Lambert, New Statesman 

“She has succeeded in letting the individual voices of the underdogs of the gardening fraternity shout or whisper tellingly through its pages… Allotments quite rightly feature strongly, but they crop up (pun regrettably intended) in several chapters, which can be confusing. And does the work of gardening professionals – head gardeners, market gardeners and nurserymen – really belong in a book about working-class gardens? Such carping aside, the material assembled is remarkable in its depth and range, and is packed with economic, social, horticultural and literary insights.”

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Emma Townshend, The Independent 

“Willes has tracked down diaries, newspaper articles, reports from government inquiries, and autobiographies, all of which provide the book’s rich texture and make for delightful and often surprising reading. So, a “History from Below”? Yes. Yet inevitably, a lot of Willes’s evidence comes not from working-class gardeners themselves, but from possibly helpful, possibly meddling middle-class sorts, determined to improve the lot of the downtrodden. Horticultural newspapers and political campaigns alike need to be treated with caution as evidence of working-class attitudes.”

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Robin Lane Fox, Financial Times 

“Her best material comes from the 19th century onwards, especially in the century from 1860 to 1960… Willes ends with some intriguing new initiatives. The Incredible Edible project was launched in West Yorkshire in 2008 and has impelled imitators to take over neglected land and turn it into “working” gardens whose produce can be shared.”

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Tom Fort, The Telegraph 

“Unfortunately Willes’s treatment of the post-1945 era in popular gardening is cursory, certainly compared with her exhaustive investigation of the distant past. Much space is taken up with quotations from long-forgotten treatises – for my taste there is too much of the musty smell of the library here, and not enough of the rich savour of newly turned earth.”

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