Joint event with The Kew Society. Talk by Val Bott on The Greenings of Brentford End: Royal Gardeners

Date(s) - Monday 12 February 2018
8:00 pm - 9:00 pm

Duke Street Church

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John Greening with garden plan

Museum consultant and historian Val Bott has been studying the heyday of nursery gardening since 2006. In parishes along the Thames their garden grounds were well located for river and road transport and they supplied estates and gardens of every size. Members of one family held the majority of royal contracts in the 18th century, in London, Windsor, Hampton Court and Richmond. Although they were based in Isleworth, the Greening family had royal contracts at both the Kew Garden and the Richmond Garden (both part of Kew Gardens today).

This was a joint event with The Kew Society.

John Foley reports on Val Bott’s talk

Not a particularly attractive spot: on a westbound bus you jolt out of Brentford over the
canal bridge, past a truncated brick railway embankment and find yourself in a road of
drab brick depots, warehouses and shopping parades. But here, on the north side of this
busy road, 300 or so years ago, in a fine red brick house covered with a flowing grapevine,
lived the Greening family.

Who were the Greenings? Pre-‘Capability’ Brown, the Greening family, as Val explained in
her riveting presentation, deserve to be much better known in the world of horticulture
and landscape gardening. Horticulture was hugely important at that time, and there were
many skilled nurserymen working the many market gardens – especially in Middlesex.

Thomas Greening Senior developed his business as a plantsman in the early years of the
18th century. He had four sons, three of whom became involved in the family business. Val
described how in 1719 the Revd George Harbin visited the Greenings’ garden, writing
about fruit trees growing in tubs and dwarf apples and pears in pots, of peaches,
nectarines and espaliered apricots; also of roses, hyacinths, tulips, cherries and almonds.

In 1720 Greening’s expertise led to the grant to him of a royal patent in the cultivation of
the elm tree: to encourage faster growth, English elm stock could be grafted onto Dutch
elm stock. Val showed drawings of neighbouring land at Kew with great rows of elms
sheltering long walkways. Greening’s expertise also attracted the attention of George II’s consort Queen Caroline who employed Greening continuously in the development of her land at Richmond Lodge, so much so that in his regular ferry trips with horse and cart across the
river at Kew he accumulated considerable unpaid ferry charges (Greening’s name survives
in a log kept by the Kew ferryman). In due time Greening was appointed head gardener at
Kew, but having royal employers didn’t mean instant riches. The aristocracy were
notoriously tardy in settling accounts, which could mean large debts, and this in turn
impacted on Greening’s business and ability to pay his own debts. For a long time the
family business struggled to stay solvent.

Of the sons of Thomas Greening, Thomas Jr, Robert and John played prominent parts in
the business, being involved in much work for royalty and the aristocracy, Robert helping
his father from 1738 in the work for Queen Caroline at Kew, then becoming Princess
Augusta’s head gardener in 1753, again at Kew (and later producing much admired
designs for gardens at other estates, notably for the Earl of Hardwick at Wimpole). John
took over the management of the Kew gardens after Robert died in 1758, having before
this been head gardener at Claremont for the Duke of Newcastle, as well as working at
Hampton Court and Windsor. Thomas Jr took on management of Kensington Gardens and
St James’s Park; sadly there was a bad falling out between the brothers Robert and
Thomas, and in 1757 both Thomas Sr and Thomas Jr died, followed soon after by Robert.

The Greenings’ house at Brentford End has long gone, but only a stone’s throw away is the
popular garden centre at Syon Park. How many of the amateur gardeners with their
purchases of bedding plants have heard of the Greenings, gardening pioneers? They may
now become wiser thanks to Val Bott and her research, and the stories shared on her