Being a ‘good’ gardener

People today garden for a whole host of reasons – as a hobby, a delight in horticulture generally, exercise, well-being and being out of doors, to grow their own produce – but, historically at least, gardening has also been seen as a highly moral activity.

By the end of the 19th century the garden was advocated as a way of keeping the working classes away from the public house, where they could be usefully engaged in a more wholesome and productive activity. William Hogarth’s cartoons of ‘Beer Street’ and ‘Gin Lane’ are visual reminders of the conditions which were a cause of concern.

William Hogarth's cartoon of Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751)
Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751)

John Claudius Loudon (1783 – 1843) championed the creation of public parks to improve both the mental and physical health of working people, so that ‘the pale mechanic and exhausted factory operative might inhale the freshening breeze and some portion of recovered health’.[1] It was Joseph Strutt who picked up on these ideas and put Loudon’s vision into practice to create the Derby Arboretum in 1840. Strutt was very clear on the rationale behind this work: to wean people away from the ‘brutalising pleasures’ they might seek elsewhere and to offer them a new form of ‘rational enjoyment’. In Edinburgh recreation in a park was thought to be a solution for drunkenness and in the Midlands it was thought to lead to a decrease in crime rates.

‘In 1919 the Conservative MP for Chelmsford was reconciled to spending money on housing by the thought that good garden plots would ensure that when the man of the house got home at night “he will find not only a healthy family, but healthy occupation outside where they can go and work together as a family”’.[2] A well maintained garden was also viewed as an indication of a well maintained (and thus moral household). As late as the 1920s and 1930s inspectors were employed to visit the gardens of council estates to ensure that they were being kept tidy.

Vija

[1] Loudon, J.C. (1822) Encyclopaedia of Gardening.

[2] Floud, R. (2019) An Economic History of the English Garden, Penguin Books, p247.

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