Spring 2002

English Gardens and the Division of Labor

A sociopolitical history of work on the land

Martin Hoyles

Who built Thebes, with its seven gates?
In books we find the names of kings.
Did the kings drag along the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times destroyed–
Who rebuilt it so many times?
Where did the builders of glittering Lima live?
On the evening, when the Chinese Wall was finished,
Where did the masons go?
—Bertolt Brecht, A Worker Questions History (1935)

Garden history has usually been a study of ownership, design, and style. In other words, it is a history of gardens, rather than gardening. Yet the labor in creating and maintaining gardens is crucial. As William Morris succinctly puts it in his pamphlet The Lesser Arts, published in 1878:

You look in your history-books to see who built Westminster Abbey, who built St. Sophia at Constantinople, and they tell you Henry III, Justinian the Emperor. Did they? Or, rather, men like you and me, handicraftsmen, who have left no names behind them, nothing but their work?

The word garden comes from the Old English geard, meaning a fence or enclosure, and from garth, meaning a yard or a piece of enclosed ground. Enclosure is essential to gardening, and this raises fundamental questions, such as who is doing the enclosing, who owns the land, and who is being kept out.

John Clare, the Northamptonshire poet, recognized this issue. He was a cowherd as a boy and then an under-gardener, and he witnessed the enclosures that took place in England in the early nineteenth century:

Enclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of Labour’s rights and left the poor a slave.

The history of royal enclosure since 1066 reveals the extent of the theft of common land. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 approximately 25 Royal Forests had been established. During the reign of Henry II (1154–89), more than a quarter of the country was subject to the Forest Law, which protected deer, and at the beginning of the eighteenth century, many new deer parks were constructed by the gentry. The word lawn was used throughout the eighteenth century to mean a deer park. Instead of an extent of open space and woodland, which could easily be poached, the parks were surrounded by high brick walls and protected by gamekeepers.

Edward Hyams, in English Cottage Gardens, has estimated that:

[B]etween 1760 and 1867 England’s small class of rich men, using as their instrument Acts of Parliament which they controlled through a tiny and partly bought and paid for electorate, stole seven million acres of common land, the property and the livelihood of the common people of England.[1]

Marion Shoard arrives at the same figure in her book, This Land is Our Land, and she explains what it means: “Seven million acres is more than the total area of the following ten contemporary English counties: Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridge, Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk.”[2]

Enclosure of land between 1750 and 1850 involved planting about 200,000 miles of hedges, at least equal to all those planted in the previous 500 years. This required a billion plants, mainly hawthorn, and a prodigious amount of labor to plant them. Hedges were big business and made fortunes for several nursery firms.

Such enclosure has always been resisted. Robin Hood and his outlaws opposed the privatization of the forests. The political slogan of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 questioned the exclusive ownership of land:

When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?

In 1549, the Norfolk uprising against the system of enclosures was led by Robert Kett, who, with an army of 20,000, captured Norwich, the second city of the country. At the end of the eighteenth century, gangs of armed poachers waged a guerrilla war all over England against rival gangs of gentry and their gamekeepers. In the nineteenth century, public campaigns were necessary to stop Hampstead Heath and Wimbledon Common from being enclosed for development.

Manual Labor
The attempt to hide the exploitation and division of labor involved in gardening is most apparent in the second half of the eighteenth century, the heyday of the English landscape garden. At this time, 400 families owned a quarter of the cultivated land in the country. The landscape garden, which was created in this period, is often seen as the greatest English artistic inventions. Yet credit for this is normally attributed to the designers—William Kent, “Capability” Brown, and Humphry Repton—or to the owners—the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim, or Viscount Cobham at Stowe.

In creating these landscape gardens, entire villages were destroyed to create pleasing vistas. In 1761, for example, Lord Harcourt, at Nuneham near Oxford, created the “deserted village” of Oliver Goldsmith’s poem. The village street became a path in the park for viewing the valley below. The church was turned into a Classical temple and the congregation, still responsible for its upkeep, now had to walk a mile and a half to worship. Cows were provided with a special underground passage so they could pass from field to field without spoiling the view.

The eighteenth-century English poet William Cowper calls “Capability” Brown, who was the main architect of these landscape upheavals, an “omnipotent magician,” and in The Task (1785) ironically catalogues his tricks:

He speaks. The lake in front becomes a lawn,
Woods vanish, hills subside, and vallies rise,
And streams as if created for his use,
Pursue the track of his directing wand
Sinuous or strait, now rapid and now slow,
Now murm’ring soft, now roaring in cascades,
Ev’n as he bids.

“Capability” Brown gave the orders, but laborers did the work, and the workers who carried out these transformations are only occasionally remembered. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson visited England and toured some of the famous landscape gardens in order to “estimate the expense of making and maintaining a garden in that style.” At Stowe he found “fifteen men and eighteen boys employed in keeping the pleasure grounds”; and he notes of Blenheim’s 2,500 acres: “Two hundred people employed to keep it in order, and to make alterations and additions. About fifty of these employed in pleasure grounds.”

One of the hardest tasks in the garden was cutting the grass. Great care had to be taken to make the lawns look perfect. It would take three men with scythes a whole day to cut an acre of grass. They would be followed by lawn women who gathered up the grass cuttings. In 1721 at Canons Park in Middlesex, home of the Duke of Chandos, the grass was scythed two or three times a week and weeded every day. The lawns were often rolled and, according to the anonymous author of The Gardener’s New Kalendar of 1758, “care must be taken that the horses should be without shoes and have their feet covered with woollen mufflers.”

Well after the invention of the lawnmower in 1830, the hard work of scything lawns often continued, especially where there were many trees or flower-beds and the use of a mowing machine drawn by a horse was impractical. Scything was a skilled job, for the gardener had to keep the edge of the scythe at a uniform height throughout the entire length of the sweep. Gathering up the cuttings also had to be carried out meticulously, as any portion of cut grass left to wither would obstruct the edge of the scythe at the next mowing.

Invisible Labor
In 1644 John Evelyn, the famous English diarist, visited the Luxembourg Palace in Paris; he describes in his Diary (1 April) the “beautiful and magnificent” gardens, full of

... persons of quality, citizens and strangers, who frequent it, and to whom all access is freely permitted, so that you shall see some walks and retirements full of gallants and ladies; in others, melancholy friars; in others, studious scholars; in others, jolly citizens, some sitting or lying on the grass, other running and jumping; some playing bowls, others dancing and singing.

He ends with this significant note: “What is most admirable, you see no gardeners, or men at work, and yet all is kept in such exquisite order, as if they did nothing else but work; it is so early in the morning, that all is despatched and done without the least confusion.”

The invisibility of workers was to be a particular ambition of owners of eighteenth-century landscape gardens. But already in the seventeenth century, as James Turner shows in The Politics of Landscape (1979), poets generally leave out any reference to the violent labors of the countryside:

It takes some effort to appreciate what has been censored from the ideal landscape. There is virtually no mention of land-clearance, tree-felling, pruning, chopping, digging, hoeing, weeding, branding, gelding, slaughtering, salting, tanning, brewing, boiling, smelting, forging, milling, thatching, fencing and hurdle-making, hedging, road-mending and haulage. Almost everything which anybody does in the countryside is taboo.[3]

Vistas of lawn, lake, and trees could be seen from the big house or from other vantage points, but the labor on the land, which created the wealth to construct the vistas, was banished from sight. “Capability” Brown had the flower, fruit, and kitchen gardens hidden behind walled enclosures. The only human being you might have seen would be a hermit, specially hired to live in the hermitage, and liable to be sacked if he did not live a sufficiently austere life!

Meanwhile, off-stage the hard work would continue, separating production from consumption. The enclosed fields were set out in mathematical grids with straight hedges and straight roads, in contrast to the winding curves of the landscape garden. The former were being organized for efficient capitalist farming, using new mechanical inventions such as Jethro Tull’s seed drill, scientific crop rotation, and improved sheep and cattle breeding. This was the practical, productive side of the coin. The garden, on the other hand, was the aesthetic side, the composed yet natural landscape of “pleasing prospects” where sensibility could be cultivated.

Pay and Conditions
In the winter, during periods of frost and snow, many gardeners would be laid off. In the nineteenth century, groups of them could be found begging in the streets, holding aloft the tools of their trade. The precarious nature of the job of gardening is illustrated in the employment practice at the famous Chelsea Physic Garden in London. In the diary of William Anderson, who was curator in 1815, dismissals are recorded and the reasons given: “John Hutchins, discharged for a dunce,” Henry Wood, “too wise,” another man “for a blockhead.” Other gardeners were sacked for pilfering, fighting, or getting drunk.

Many gardeners were made unemployed because of the invention of the lawn mower. In The National Garden Almanack (1854) by John Edwards, the firm of Alexander Shanks & Son, from Arbroath in Scotland, advertised an improved machine for mowing grass, which mowed, rolled, and collected the cuttings at the same time. It was claimed that the machine would pay for itself in one year.

The job of gardening was so poorly paid and precarious at the beginning of the nineteenth century that gardeners often had to advertise for charity in the gardening press. The Benevolent Institution for the Relief of Aged and Indigent Gardeners and Their Widows was formed in 1839 to deal with such cases.

In his Gardener’s Magazine (1826–44), John Loudon, the foremost gardening writer of the first half of the nineteenth century, constantly campaigned for better wages, hours, and lodgings for the hired gardener. He compared an illiterate bricklayer, with wages of between five and seven shillings a day, to a journeyman gardener who, despite having studied geometry, land surveying, and botany, received only two shillings and sixpence a day. In 1841 even head gardeners were paid only about a tenth of a cook’s salary and half that of a footman. At the end of the nineteenth century, a 10-hour day was normal for gardeners. A 60-hour week was common, with unpaid Sunday duty, and holidays consisting of three feast days a year. Sometimes a day was granted to visit a flower show, but the time usually had to be made up later on.

Living conditions for gardeners were often atrocious, as Loudon writes: “There is no class of gentlemen’s servants so badly lodged as gardeners generally are.” In his Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1822), he describes how they lived:

In one ill-ventilated apartment, with an earthen or brick floor, the whole routine of cooking, cleaning, eating, and sleeping is performed, and young men are rendered familiar with the filth and vermin, and lay the foundation of future diseases, by breathing unwholesome air. How masters can expect any good service from men treated worse than horses, it is difficult to imagine.

By the end of twentieth century there were about 200,000 men and 70,000 women agricultural and horticultural workers in Britain. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food distinguished them in the following descending order of pay: foremen, dairy cowmen, all other stockmen, tractor drivers, general farm workers, horticultural workers, females, youths. Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, gardeners continue to be amongst the lowest paid workers in the country.

Women’s Work
Women’s work in the garden has been neglected and ignored even more than men’s. Yet women were almost certainly the first gardeners. Edward Hyams, in Soil and Civilisation, concludes that “the earliest agricultural communities were matriarchal and feminine in their social values” and “women long remained in charge of their discovery of agriculture.”[4] In England, plant lore was traditionally a female area of knowledge handed down from mother to daughter. Women looked after the herb garden and were expert in the medicinal use of plants. Female healers, often called herb-women or wise women, were often superior to the more formally educated male doctors.

All the early English gardening writers, however, were men, which may explain the belief sometimes expressed in their books that women could injure plants just by looking at them. William Turner, in his sixteenth-century Herbal, for example, quotes from Pliny concerning gourds: “And let weomen nether touche the yonge gourds nor loke upon them, for the only touchinge and sighte of weomen kille the yonge gourds.”

Similarly, Thomas Hyll, in The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577), quotes Pliny’s contemporary, Columella, who got it from the Greek Florentinus, that the same thing can happen to cucumbers. Special care had to be taken “that no woman, at that instant, having the reds or monethly course, approacheth nigh to the fruits, especially handle them, for through the handling at the same time they feeble and wither.”

The earliest English records of women working as paid laborers in a garden are the entries in the fourteenth-century rolls of Ely Cathedral, where women appear in the wages list for digging the vines and weeding. The number of historical references to weeding women is remarkable, and in the fourteenth century they were paid two-pence halfpenny a day, only half the male gardener’s wage.

In 1516, women were paid three pence a day for removing charlock, nettles, convolvulus, dodder, thistles, dandelions, and groundsel from the gardens at Hampton Court. In 1696, the accounts for the Royal Gardens at Hampton Court show that the labor force consisted of about 60 men paid by the year. Additionally, there were 10 casual men whose daily rate was about two shillings. Women on casual rates were paid a third of this sum. In the nineteenth century, while a casual gardener would earn about five or six shillings a day, his weeding women helpers would be paid about a sixth as much.

Female gardeners were not allowed to work at Kew Gardens until 1895, and then they were ridiculed in the press and laughed at by male passengers passing on the buses. They had been instructed to wear clothing “similar to that of the ordinary gardeners,” which consisted of thick brown bloomers, woollen stockings and boots, tailored jackets, waistcoats and ties, and peaked caps. The director ordered the women to wear long macintoshes on their way to work to hide the bloomers.

Women were finally allowed to attend horticultural college in 1891, when female students were admitted to Swanley College in Kent, and during WWI, with male gardeners fighting in the trenches, there were more opportunities for women to be employed as gardeners. Similarly in WWII women were again encouraged to garden and work the land. By 1943, over 10,000 women had chosen to go into horticultural employment. Two-thirds of their time was devoted to food production; the other third could be given over to the flower garden. After the war, however, the women were expected to give up their jobs to the returning men.

Traditionally there has been a sexual division of labor within gardening, expressed, for example, in Thomas Tusser’s gardening books in the sixteenth century. He indicates that the orchard and fruit lie within the man’s province, and that flowers, plants for the kitchen, herbs, and salads are within the housewife’s.

In the nineteenth century, vegetable gardening was considered a male occupation. In Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson describes the division of labor in Oxfordshire during the 1880s: “The women never worked in the vegetable gardens or in the allotments, even when they had their children off hand and had plenty of spare time, for there was a strict division of labor and that was ‘men’s work.’” The women grew the flowers and cultivated an “herb corner, stocked with thyme and parsley for cooking, rosemary to flavour the home-made lard, lavender to scent the best clothes, and peppermint, pennyroyal, horehound, camomile, tansy, balm, and rue for physic.”

These attitudes survive to this day. In 1988, a survey conducted by the Garden Centre Association illustrated the continuing separation of tasks. Men tend to dig the vegetable patch and mow the lawn; women more often look after plants and weed the garden.

The division between those who own gardens and those who work in them is evident to those who look. So, too, is the split between those who do the mental work of planning and design and those who carry out the manual labor of digging and planting, pruning and weeding. However, abolition of this division of labor has sometimes been attempted during revolutionary periods.

William Dell, an army chaplain in Cromwell’s New Model Army, wanted to see universities or colleges set up in every city in the country, through which students could work their way while still living at home. Dell had a vision of schools and universities where both intellectual and manual labor would be combined. This idea was also the impetus beind Marx’s proposals for polytechnic education and was incorporated into the educational program of the Paris Commune. Schools in Cuba today combine the theory and practice of gardening.

At the beginning of the twentieth century in England, there was a movement to introduce gardening into schools. Some of its proponents were followers of educationalists such as Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel, who emphasized practical learning. On the other hand, it was also seen as a way of preparing working-class boys for agricultural work and stopping the drift of people from the country to the towns.

In addition to bridging the division of labor, gardening can also unite the academic and the popular. Most gardeners are self-taught or have learned from other gardeners, not from an educational institution. At the same time, gardening provides an entry into many relevant academic worlds which can be seen to have practical and theoretical purpose: botany, anthropology, linguistics, sociology, history, chemistry, literature, politics, ecology, art, and architecture, to name but a few.

What remains to be explained is how the monotonous, manual work of gardening can, under certain circumstances, be pleasurable. This seems strange, for when it is alienated wage labor, which people are obliged to do, it is usually deadening. Amateur gardening, however, can destroy the alienation associated with the division of labor. Those who voluntarily sweat over their own gardens know that even weeding can be fulfilling. If planning, execution, and appreciation of the result are all done by the same person, the alienation can disappear.

Gardening can also provide a link between the separate spheres of work and leisure. These are so distinct in our culture that it seems strange that people should enjoy work and want to prolong it. A survey in 1948 showed that Australian Aborigines in Arnhem Land collected food every day, whereas if they wished, they could have collected enough yams or fish to last for several days. This was because they enjoyed the food expeditions, as they were social outings in which much time was spent talking and resting. The same is true of those who spend the evening working on allotments after a hard day’s manual labor.

The Garden of Eden and Paradise are religious utopias, common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Etymologically, utopia comes from the Greek, meaning nowhere, or a place that does not exist. The place may not exist, but the yearning is real.

The garden as an integrated part of a free and equal society is utopian: it does not exist. Nevertheless there has been a continuing tradition which has presented a vision of such gardens and has tried, however partially, to realize it: women healers and radical apothecaries; Winstanley and the Diggers during the English Revolution of the seventeenth century; the movement for free public parks in the nineteenth century; cottage gardeners and the working-class florists’ societies; land cooperatives and the allotment movement; garden cities; the Green and ecology movements. The hallmarks of this tradition are the attempt to integrate beauty and use, town and country, work and leisure, public and private, academic and popular, mental and manual labor.

Further Reading
David Crouch & Colin Ward, The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture (London: Faber & Faber, 1988)
Jennifer Davies, The Victorian Kitchen Garden (London: BBC Books, 1987)
Martin Hoyles, The Story of Gardening (London: Journeyman Press, 1991)
Martin Hoyles, Gardeners Delight: Gardening Books from 1560–1960, Volume 1 (London: Pluto Press, 1994)
Martin Hoyles, Bread and Roses: Gardening Books from 1560–1960, Volume 2 (London: Pluto Press, 1995)
Thomas Jefferson, Garden Book 1766–1824 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1944)
William Morris, News from Nowhere (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1973)
John Prest, The Garden of Eden, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981)

  1. Edward Hyams, English Cottage Gardens, (London: Penguin, 1987), p. 158.
  2. Marion Shoard, This Land is Our Land (London: Paladin, 1987), p. 66.
  3. James Turner, The Politics of Landscape (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979), p. 165.
  4. Edward Hyams, Soil and Civilisation, (London: John Murray, 1976), p. 40.

Martin Hoyles is a senior lecturer in Communication Studies at the University of East London. He has written books on literacy, childhood, mixed-race identity and also several on gardening.

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