The Gardens of the British Working Class Margaret Willes

Publication date:
25 Apr 2015
Yale University Press
424 pages: 210 x 140mm
16 pp. color + 87 b-w illus.
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This magnificently illustrated people’s history celebrates the extraordinary feats of cultivation by the working class in Britain, even if the land they toiled, planted, and loved was not their own. Spanning more than four centuries, from the earliest records of the laboring classes in the country to today, Margaret Willes's research unearths lush gardens nurtured outside rough workers’ cottages and horticultural miracles performed in blackened yards, and reveals the ingenious, sometimes devious, methods employed by determined, obsessive, and eccentric workers to make their drab surroundings bloom. She also explores the stories of the great philanthropic industrialists who provided gardens for their workforces, the fashionable rich stealing the gardening ideas of the poor, alehouse syndicates and fierce rivalries between vegetable growers, flower-fanciers cultivating exotic blooms on their city windowsills, and the rich lore handed down from gardener to gardener through generations. This is a sumptuous record of the myriad ways in which the popular cultivation of plants, vegetables, and flowers has played—and continues to play—an integral role in everyday British life.

Margaret Willes is an enthusiastic gardener and the former publisher at the National Trust.

'This is a wonderful book, and an unusual addition to the gardening shelf. It reveals the democracy of gardening and its being both a craft and an art – a mixture of hard labour and passion. Margaret Willes's book shows how people with no money and little time to themselves produced riches on small plots – little paradises, even. How begging, borrowing (and stealing), they would create wealths of flowers and food, and find joy in doing so. How gardening would become their chosen taskmaster – and their deliverer. Willes's history is a constant statement of how green fingers have transformed lives. The book is a delight.' - Ronald Blythe, author of Akenfield


'An encyclopaedic and enjoyable read, so well written and so informative that it should appeal to anyone interested in history and horticulture.' - Bob Flowerdew, regular panel member of BBC Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time


'Garden historians characteristically focus on the gardens of grand houses and their makers. By contrast, this is an intriguing study of an often overlooked area of both horticultural and social history. Through dauntingly energetic research, Margaret Willes has produced a colourful and remarkably detailed account of how a passion for flower and vegetable gardening has enriched the lives of millions.' - Michael Leapman, author of One Man and His Plot

‘…in this wonderfully rich study, Margaret Willes reveals the forgotten history of Britain’s working-class horticulturalists’—PD Smith, the Guardian.