The men who worked for the big country houses and estates as gardeners, woodmen and gamekeepers fared somewhat better than the female staff indoors below stairs, whose lives were recalled last week. The housemaids and kitchen maids slept in the house and were at the beck and call of their employers day and night, under the eagle eye of the mistress. But life outside in the potting shed and the woods was much more relaxed, as "The Way We Were" finds out this week.
The head gardener usually lived on the estate in a tied cottage, and led a far more independent existence than staff indoors, largely because his daily movements couldn't be watched at all times out of doors. But he didn't escape entirely:
"We didn't have anything to do with the staff outside, but we did see the gardener. He used to bring the vegetables in every morning, but apart from that we never saw them much. I don't think they were as supervised as we were in the house, but she kept her eye on everything, she was always roaming round seeing everything was right."
The responsibilty of the gardener extended beyond simply supplying vegetables and produce for the big house. There were the flower gardens and green houses, flowers to be supplied for balls and dinner parties, and the gardens to be kept beautifully and shown off during the season of summer garden parties. One large house on the shores of Buttermere even had a short tunnel hacked out through solid rock to enable the garden staff to cross without setting foot on the lawns, or spoiling the view for guests on the terrace. But gardening wasn't all for show, and many gardeners were expected to show a profit by selling off surplus produce and flowers. Gardens as well as their gardeners had to earn their keep.
If the lady of the house was something of a gardener herself, and it was indeed quite the done thing to cultivate a knowledge of horticulture, she and the gardener shared their garden together, enjoying a relationship otherwise unheard of between employers and servants:
"She was a very, very kind old lady. She was well educated in gardening, and she did actually learn me a lot. I learnt a lot from her, she used to come out and work with you, she knew a lot and she passed it on , and while you were working you were learning all the time, she was telling you the names of different plants and shrubs, their likes and dislikes and so on.
". . . she had a heated greenhouse where she'd grow indoor plants for winter months. We had a rose tree growing in that greenhouse, it used to flower in April, beautiful pink flowers with a sweet scent, picked in April."
The greenhouse had a small coke stove supplied with cinders from the house which fuelled the boiler and sent heated water all round in pipes. Just a bucketful of broken-up coke would keep the " Number One All Night Burner" going night and day.Bad weather in winter gave gardeners the chance of a warm dry break, pouring over seed catalogues and planning ahead:
"There was Owens, Toogoods and Riders, just to mention a few. They all used to send glossy catalogues, well illustrated, and you used to pick out the seeds.This was a job for wet days in winter, and at this time of the year if we had snow on the ground, you'd be ordering the seeds."
All the standard vegetables were grown, like potatoes, peas, beans, carrots and onions:
"Perhaps we grew more variety than what are grown today, like chicory and salsify, and you'll not find that so much today.
"The soil was improved each year by composting and manure... in those days the road men used to cut the turf along the roadsides every year and then they heaped it up into heaps along the roadsides and anyone could go and have it carted off if they wished. Eventually the Council would send a lorry to pick it up, but if you wanted a lot of compost you could get a farmer's cart and go and get cartloads of it and this is what we used to do. We used to get a farmer to go and pick up loads of these here heaps from the roadside because it consisted of turf cut off and the sweepings contained leaves, sand, and horse manure and the like which had been swept off the road and if you got a good big pile of that and let it rot down for twelve months it was wonderful stuff to build up poor soil... it was very good compost when you put it on the ground."
A gifted skillful gardener was treasured and jealously guarded by those houses which took a pride in their gardens, and showed them off to each other at summer tea parties. But the decline of the big families and their houses took their toll on the gardens too, and domestic economies resulted in fewer gardeners struggling to maintain the acres under cultivation. Many skilled gardeners were not as hardy as their annuals; some had opted for the less taxing job rather than heavier farmwork or forestry because they had suffered serious illness or war injuries as younger men, and as they got older,the large gardens became less unmanageable. Once the houses were sold and began new lives as flats hotels, or institutions,it was only a matter of years before once glorious gardens fell into ruin. The hard facts of life were that if a garden was to survive, it had to earn money, otherwise a lifetime's work could be laid waste overnight, at the whim of an employer.
One experienced gardener was asked to take on a garden and make it do better, a challenge which he accepted without seeing the land first. The new owner had spent lots of money equipping the house, and had seen no return on the garden. It had to do better:
"I didn't wonder they hadn't much from it because there'd been very little commonsense gone into the actual planning and cropping of it," he recalled. The garden consisted chiefly of a ploughed field on a bank for growing the vegetables which had been incorrectly cropped across instead of up and down, preventing natural drainage. It took three years of hard work to transform the land into a highly productive vegetable garden, and the arrangement was that it should provide for a large hotel nearby in which there were business interests, thus making a healthy profit. But the chef was dishonest and underhand and took a backhander from the wholesaler to supply him with vegetables, leaving the gardener's to rot.
"The return was useless and the garden went back and back. It was sold off, and the market garden packed up. That finished it - it was finished with."
Gardening had travelled a long way from the free cottage and secure lifetime's job to part-time employment with wages based on how much return could be got from selling the produce.