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London Branch of the Welsh Family History Societies
Cangen Llundain o'r Cymdeithasau Hanes Teuluoedd Cymru
Stark Mad With Gardens
The untold story of women gardeners in Wales, 1750-1850

At the May 2011 meeting, Jean Reader gave a fascinating talk entitled Stark Mad With Gardens, based on her ground-breaking researches into the history of women gardeners in Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These women, whose contribution to the gardens of Wales has been largely unrecognised, were mainly women of the moneyed and leisured classes, who made & designed gardens, financed garden development, ran estates and grew food crops, botanised, recorded gardens with pen, paintbrush & camera, and finally influenced their descendants. The involvement of their poorer sisters in gardens is sadly almost entirely absent from the historical record.

Ladies of Llangollen

Better known today for the scandal of their relationship, in their time the "Ladies of Llangollen" were celebrated for their romantic lifestyle and the unique rural retreat that they created at Plas Newydd in Llangollen, Denbighshire. Eleanor Butler & Sarah Ponsonby were Irish aristocrats who eloped together from Ireland in 1778 to settle in Llangollen, estranged and financially cut off from their families. Together they rented a small property where for the next fifty years they spent a life of "sweet retirement", creating a romantic garden which was much influenced by French ideas and included a model dairy and rustic bridge based on the designs of Hirschfeld in Théorie de l'art des jardins.

In contrast, Anne Evans at Highmead, Llanwenog, Cardiganshire, seems to have been uninterested in the pleasure garden, but for nearly thirty years ran her husband's estate with a rod of iron, cultivating fruit, growing vast supplies of vegetables and establishing hedges, the remnants of which can be seen today. Samuel Meyrick said of her "Though a lady, her agricultural knowledge and practice far exceeds that of any man in the county". [1]

Among the women known for their botanical interests was Mariamne Johnes (1784-1811), the much-loved daughter of Thomas and Jane Johnes of the Hafod estae in Cwmystwyth, Cardiganshire. A serious-minded child, she developed a great interest in plants and corresponded with Joseph Banks. She contributed a 'pensile garden' amid the picturesque landscape which Johnes created at Hafod, and was involved with the other gardens there. Thereza Llewelyn of Penllegare (1834-1923) was also a learned botanist, the second woman to have a paper presented to the Linnean Society.

Welsh strawberry girl in London

Lady Mary Talbot (1776-1855), the grandmother of Thereza Llewelyn, was a notable gardener at her husband's estate at Penrice Castle on the Gower. In 1811 Nicholas Carlisle wrote "The Flower Garden is worthy the notice of the Botanist, being well stocked with choice flowers, and laid out under the direction of Lady Mary Talbot" [2]. She also influenced future generations of gardens and gardeners across Glamorgan through her children and grandchildren at their estates in Merthyr Mawr, Coedarhydarglyn, Margam Castle and Penllergare. The family's interest in photography, inspired by their connection with the Fox Talbot family, ensured that there remains a permanent record of the gardens at Penllegare and elsewhere.

Though there are few records of non-elite women gardeners in Wales, the merched y gerddi who travelled to England each year to weed in the market gardens around London attracted notice. In 1748 Per Kelm observed "there come mostly only women and girls from Wales, all well, cleanly, and very neatly clad. These perform nearly all the summer cropping in Kent, both of hay and grain. They also take down and pluck off the hops. They remake the hop gardens. They gather the various kinds of beautiful fruits which Kent produces" [3]. Many brought their knowledge of plants and their gardening skills back to Wales; others made their fortune in London, going into indoor service and inheriting money from their employers, or "marrying well", and Jane Evans from Pumsaint went to the Crimea with Florence Nightingale.

The Shell House ar Pontypool ParkThe Shell Grotto at Pontypool Park in Torfaen was was built around 1829 and probably designed/influenced by Molly Mackworth as a summerhouse. Situated about 220m above the surrounding area it, enjoys stunning views across open countryside and the Severn Estuary. Molly Mackworth was widowed at The Gnoll in Neath at the age of 18 and later became Molly Hanbury Leigh at Pontypool Park, taking the Gnoll money with her! The Park contains a number of other historic areas including the Italian Gardens, Tramway Tunnel and Ice Houses. (Photo by Jean Reader)

Jean Reader is a doctoral student at Bristol University, researching the role of women in the history of the gardens of south and west Wales between 1750 and 1850, and chairman of the South and Mid Glamorgan branch of the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust.

Anna Brueton

[1]. Samuel Meyrick, The History and Antiquities of the County of Cardigan.

[2]. Nicholas Carlisle, A Topographical Dictionary of The Dominion of Wales (London, 1811).

[3]. Joseph Lucas, (Translator), Pehr Kalm's account of his Visit to England on his way to America in 1748. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1892).

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