An inner­city garden in Birmingham, from the Bournville Village Trust’s ‘When We Build Again’, 1941
An inner­city garden in Birmingham, from the Bournville Village Trust’s ‘When We Build Again’, 1941

Gardens are entwined with class. So is just about everything else, despite the wish to be “classless” among the under-thirties. In Britain, class-conscious gardening no longer derides dahlias as fit only for the lower classes or pesticide-free gardening as a middle-class fantasy. However, only the members of a high economic class can afford to buy and maintain a big garden. “Working-class” gardens have had to be on a different scale. Nobody in the working class would dream of using a garden designer. Those dire “makeovers” on television gardening programmes are a middle-class fantasy, to a degree which the programme controllers have probably not realised.

What exactly is a working-class garden in image and reality? The owner or occupier of course does all the work. At its best, I think of it as intensely well-gardened, in a way which, to me, has singular beauty. It mixes flowers and vegetables. It does not have borders. It is not at all into “new wave” planting. It is not reduced to “ground cover”. It shows flowers which are yearly grown from seed, often from seed for which the owner has “sent away”. It manages to combine outdoor chrysanthemums, a few rose bushes and next spring’s purple sprouting. The paths are often earth paths, beaten flat, There is no lawn, but plenty of canes and staking. Many of the pots are made of clay. It still grows clarkia and larkspur and it has productive gooseberries and blackcurrants. The sweet peas are excellent and so are the gladioli. This class-category used to be clear, even to non-gardeners.

George Bernard Shaw referred openly to the “cockney art of carpet bedding”. Nowadays the only such carpets are those bussed in, pre-grown, by middle-class councils within earshot of London’s Bow Bells. In 1869, the society of florists in York introduced a competition at their flower show titled “Window Gardening for the Working Classes”. Exhibitors had to be “bona-fide members of the working class”, and the judges needed no guidelines to identify them.

These questions, and much else, are explored in Margaret Willes’s new book, The Gardens of The British Working Class. She is a keen gardener with a garden in east London, but not, I think, one of “cockney art”. She used to be a publisher at the National Trust. She takes the subject chronologically, from the 1560s onwards, observing that London’s population nearly trebled over the next 40 years. Her best material comes from the 19th century onwards, especially in the century from 1860 to 1960.

Chrysanthemum Bronze Max Riley
Chrysanthemum Bronze Max Riley © Robert Bird/Alamy

Is a working-class garden usually a male affair? Cottage gardening, certainly, is not. It conjures up old women in bonnets, photographed in thatched porches with a cat near to hand. How often people refer to cottage garden plants which their “grandma” or their old lady neighbour used to grow. Much less often, they recall a plant from their grandpa. However, males come into their own in our image of gardens which are “working class”. They go into them at weekends and in the evenings while the woman, if present, prepares the evening meal. As males have been the main heavy workforce, they feature naturally in the working-class gardens of our minds. In 1935, the hugely popular radio broadcaster, CH Middleton, talked to the nation about “working gardeners”, an important subset of working-class gardeners. They were all male, in his view. “Generally speaking,” he told listeners, “they are wholesome, decent men who love their work, usually straight and often deeply religious people, perhaps without knowing it. They know that their work is under the supervision of the Great Architect.” One of the best working gardeners I ever worked with told me that he had become an atheist because he could not understand why God would have created slugs.

Clarkia © Alamy

As Willes points out, the years after 1945 saw lots of statistical surveys, which tried to quantify the nation’s gardening. A Mass Observation report concluded that “about two-thirds of the population did some kind of gardening”. In 1964, Mr JAR Pimlott claimed to have discovered that 5.56m male householders (half the national total) gardened regularly. To his surprise, but not at all to mine, he found that 2.84m “housewives” did the same. Certainly, since 1920, women have been much more prominent as workers in gardens.

How prominent, though, is this fabled gardening in “lower” levels of British society? Here, Pimlott concluded on a sceptical note. The British, he thought, were not really a nation of gardeners. They were even more a “nation of dish washers, cooks and darners of socks”. Fifty years on, these jobs, except sewing, are mechanised, but have workers gone back into the garden? More, I believe, than in many other countries, and certainly more than in the US. I base my answer on allotment gardening (not only in middle-class areas), on sales of seeds and on one of those gut feelings, based on keeping one’s eyes open.

Larkspur © Alamy

I will also go to the wall for my belief that poorer people do not only want gardens so as to grow things to eat. It is a frightful myth that the love of beauty is only to be found in leisured, educated people. Not only is it rare there, but it is present, just as randomly, in supposedly “ordinary” gardeners. I have worked with them. I listen to them and I see how some of them garden, not only the few who are pushy at shows and therefore leave the records which historians then repeat. So often they comment on a plant or planting’s “beauty” and when they then garden, they too pursue that aim. I do not happen to think it is best realised by a kidney-shaped fishpond, but nor do I think it is to be found in a middle-class prairie of nothing but ornamental grass.

Willes ends with some intriguing new initiatives. The Incredible Edible project was launched in West Yorkshire in 2008 and has impelled imitators to take over neglected land and turn it into “working” gardens whose produce can be shared. The skill of gardening also has to be passed on, which is a less easy process in an age of migrant workers. The next generations move away from the older families who could have taught them by example.

On the Walworth Garden Farm, in Southwark, unemployed residents are now being offered training in “work-based horticulture” and are then helped to find “sustainable” work. In east London the Growing Communities project offers training one day a week, admittedly only in organic and edible gardening. However, the scheme has spread into north London and begun to inspire community start-ups.

Before our politicians try to plunge us into yet more “garden cities”, we need to be sure that there are enough people who can garden and want to do so. I do not believe what was written in 1979, that Britons “do not sing or dance, they garden”.

Nowadays they do all three, especially as dance has such a multi-ethnic appeal. I do believe the “working class” is unusually keen on gardening. Members of it, however, will not have a hope of owning houses in a new “garden city” within reach of Gerrards Cross.


‘The Gardens of the British Working Class’, by Margaret Willes, Yale University Press, £25

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