132: Three 19th century black gardeners in England

Portrait of a Black Gardener by Harold Gilman

Portrait of a Black Gardener by Harold Gilman

Portrait of a Black Gardener by Harold Gilman painted in 1905 (possibly in the USA) was the focus of a gathering at the Garden Museum in London at the end of October 2013. Probably painted by the British artist when he was in the U.S.A. various comments were made about it and the general subject of black gardeners in Britain. The following is part of the talk given by Jeffrey Green:

Middle class homes can be defined as those which employed servants – a couple of young women, sometimes a cook and also a gardener. Urban servants generally lived in their own homes. Higher income families had servants who were accommodated in their employer’s homes – the attics and basements. Gardeners seem to have been classified as domestic servants (certainly in the list of inmates of Croydon workhouse, 1881). The late Victorian and Edwardian periods were an era of conspicuous consumption. The modern mind boggles at the size of estates and the numbers of servants judged necessary to look after them and their employers. The front door of one of Lady Henry Somerset’s residences was three miles from the front gate. The Rothschilds’s Mentmore Towers built in the 1850s was self-supporting, with 44 full-time gardeners. The Duke of Portland at Welbeck Abbey had kitchen gardens of 22 acres and a wall for growing peaches that was 1,000 ft long. The Duke of Newcastle at Clumber Park had a glass house 450 feet long (it had coal-fired under floor-heating) and over 100 varieties of apple and 121 edible varieties of rhubarb were grown there. Belvoir Castle, of the Duke of Rutland, had 365 rooms and was lit by candles and lanterns into the 1930s. In 1899 servants cost the equivalent today of £900,000 (Catherine Bailey, The Secret Rooms London: Viking, 2012, p 168). Its kitchen garden was 50 acres. Holland House (the remains are in Kensington, west London) had 28 servants to look after Lady Ilchester: nine were gardeners (Lucy Lethbridge, Servants. A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain London: Bloomsbury, 2013, p 201).

Talking with a soon-to-be ninety year old neighbour whose childhood was at Sandringham in the 1920s where his father was a servant, it was clear that most estate gardeners were generally young men, unmarried, who lived in a bothy – accommodation above the storage for tools – some distance from the main house.

I believe that a careful study of diaries and letters, and analysis of old photographs will reveal gardeners with dark complexions. Black and Asian house servants are revealed by newspaper advertisements. For example The Times had many announcements for and by servants. In 1863 a man who offered four years’ good character sought employment as a butler, or as a valet in a household where a page was kept, or single handed, and was prepared to work for an invalid gentleman (The Times (London), 18 March 1863, p 15). The following month a 28 year old wanted employment as an indoor servant, and one servant’s employer stated he would recommend his coloured man, who was available because he was going abroad (The Times (London), 15 April 1863, p 15; The Times (London), 8 May 1863, p 3).

Here are details of two black Victorian gardeners.

Thomas Birch Freeman, born of an African father in Hampshire in 1809, was a gardener near Ipswich. The house where he worked was later demolished and the family died out. Freeman is known to us because in the late 1830s he became a Methodist Christian missionary to the Gold Coast (Ghana) where he lived for over half a century. He died in Accra in 1890. His biographers concentrate on the religious work, but one noted he used Latin names for plants in correspondence. There are several entries of varying value on the internet.

In Newcastle in 1888 the caretaker of the Shieldfield Green Park was a black man. There were comments about unemployed whites: and the city’s engineer indicated according to the Newcastle Weekly Courant, 21 September 1888 ‘It is very improbable that the coloured gentleman will be re-engaged’. The complete report reads:

The Black Caretaker of Shieldfield Green.

Certain members of the Newcastle Town Improvement

Committee have been much agitated by the fact that the

caretaker at the Shieldfeld GreenPark was a black man.

They were averse to a black man being employed when there

are hundreds of white men going about looking for work

and cannot get it. The question came up in an indirect

manner at the meeting of the Town Improvement Com-

mittee on Wednesday, when the matter of providing a

shelter for the caretaker at Shieldfield Green was dis-

cussed. Mr Laws, the city engineer, suggested

that the caretaker should now be dispensed with,

and that the place should be put under what was known as

the “loose gang,” in the same manner as Eldon Square and

other plots that are part of the park accommodation of the

city. The committee decided to try this system for a

month or two, and in the meantime the Parks Committee

will be requested to take charge of Shieldfield Green. If

the “loose gang” arrangement does not answer, it is very

improbable that the coloured gentleman will be re-engaged.

This is speculation but perhaps black servants, especially those of foreign birth, were thought not to understand British plants (although one might consider tending pineapples and other hot house items was suitable). Also gardeners had to be out and about in all weathers. The Daily News (London), 8 December 1884 commented on crossing sweepers: ‘There is no doubt that, other things being equal, a black crossing-sweeper would take a good deal more than a white man. A negro is a stranger in a strange land; he is presumably friendless, and, being pretty certainly a native of a hot country, he may be supposed to suffer more from the wet and cold of our climate than an English-man. All these considerations would enable a steady blackman to make a good thing of a well-located crossing’.

I take time looking at sepia photographs of the outside staff employed at grand houses, posing among bedding plants in nurseries, caught in the background going about their routines as the gentry play croquet or tennis. They were photographed with trapped vermin, with prize vegetables, superb flowers – and gardening implements that would be recognised by someone from the 15th century. Thomas Birch Freeman, working for Sir Robert Harland at OrwellPark near Ipswich in the 1830s was not the only black gardener in nineteenth century England.


Fellow speaker Jan Marsh of the National Portrait Gallery spoke of George Makippe known as Watteau who worked as a gardener in Chislehurst, Kent, married, had three sons and died in 1931. The NPG had his photographs. There are strong doubts about his claim to have been a bearer of David Livingstone’s coffin but his role as a late 19th century gardener is not questioned. [see new page 155]


The Garden Museum is at:
Lambeth Palace Road,  LONDON SE1  7LB

It was a church and the small graveyard/garden contains the tomb of Captain Bligh, which notes he took the breadfruit to the West Indies but nothing about the mutiny on Bounty.


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