Thursday, January 14, 2016

Book review: The gardens of the British working class

Another book review for the blog, and another book that I started ages ago and have only just finished. It's funny, now I'm having to read more for my EdD, my appetite for reading other material has increased, perhaps as an antidote to having to read about epistemology and hermeneutics.

Anyway, enough of that - on to the interesting stuff. I bought this book about 18 months ago, with my own fair money.

Margaret Willes is the author of The Gardens of the British Working Class, and she has previously worked as a publisher at the National Trust. She has had several garden-related books published, and I have another of hers on my pile.

This book is an attempt to fill the gap that so often arises when one looks back at any era of history - the story of the working class. The voice of the poor is difficult to find, but the author investigates the role of the garden or working class people from the 1500s onwards. She even manages to find evidence of a few of those most excluded from history - women. The book charts the move from rural setting, through industrialisation to suburbia, all the while discussing the importance of the garden, allotment or even window boxes. Throughout much of this time, a well-stocked garden was all that stood between many of the working class and starvation. It's only relatively recently that gardening for the pleasure of flowers has come to the fore, although Margaret does find evidence of flowers being cultivated whenever possible.

One good example of the desire to grow flowers was the rise of the 'florists' and their societies from the 1600s onwards. Here, middle class and working men (they all appear to have been men) competed for glory and prizes in the cultivation of flowers such as carnations, auriculas and tulips. Some bright perfection in what was often a hard life.

Some of the history of urban parks is also of great interest, with philanthropists providing land in places such as the East end of London to be developed as parks. Well, in part philanthropy but also to reduce the risk of rabbles and revolutions.

The book also discusses the rise of allotments and their political past (to be truthful, they still are...), Dig for Victory and the development of radio and TV gardening celebrities.

I could go on, but I'll never start the next book. I found this a fascinating read and am enthralled by the amount of research which must have gone into it. I can't wait to read the next book in the pile by Margaret Willes. However, first I'm reading SPQR by Mary Beard, so I may be gone some time.