Lessons from the French


London Bridge Station. Image by Jean Marchant, 1845. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections
London Bridge Station. Image by Jean Marchant, 1845. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

Thomas Ruddy, now 23, set out from London Bridge Station in October 1865 to study French methods of horticulture.  He does not describe in his journal how the arrangements were made with the Nursery of M. André Leroy in Angers, France.  The plans were obviously well organised, as Thomas appears to have been assured in his travel arrangements, stopping in Paris for two nights before continuing by train to Angers.  He even had the address of a Nursery in Paris which he visited on his way to Angers.

He soon found that his French lessons from a book at Minto House garden bothy were not sufficient to get by when it came to practical conversation.  Help came from an unlikely source:

On getting into the harbour of Dieppe we for the first time found ourselves in a strange land; the language seemed to change so suddenly that we felt quite helpless. The little knowledge I had of it was from books, so that I did not understand the strange sounds.  We were standing near an aged lady before stepping onto French soil, talking about our helplessness; this lady turned to us and offered to help us in any way. The lady was a native of Peru, spoke French and English well; she was a governess on her way to join an English family in Paris. This lady was of great assistance to us all the way to Paris.

By the time he left France 8 months later, Thomas had acquired enough French to be the assistant himself:

I was sea sick on the voyage, but all right and active when I got to Newhaven. I had the company of a French man to London, who was going to see a little daughter of his, who was at an English school. At Lewes, while waiting for another train I had to be his interpreter in getting coffee, and at London I sent him off all right. He was thankful to me.

For Thomas’ full account of his time in France, see here.  An edited account of his horticultural studies is here.


1865 A Year of Transitions

Dublin Exhibition

Image via archiseek.com

Thomas was 23 on the 6th January 1865.  The day before his birthday, his father had died in Jedburgh in the south east of Scotland.  Thomas at the time was coming to the end of a two year period working as a journeyman gardener on an estate in the Isle of Man.  Previously to that he had served a three year apprenticeship at Minto house close to his home in Jedburgh, sampled life as a gardener at two other Scottish estates and for a short time worked at an Edinburgh nursery.

1865 was to be the year when Thomas’ growing skills as a landscape gardener and a potential head gardener were recognised.  At a time of great activity and development in gardening, especially in the larger estates and great houses, Thomas was to recognise that he was potentially a gardening ‘hot property’ and could pick and choose his work situations, moving ever closer, and at an exceptionally young age, towards the coveted post of Head Gardener.

Despite being offered such a post, towards the end of the year Thomas made an intriguing and decisive decision which would take him beyond the shores of the British Isles.  Read the full story here.

Onwards and Upwards

I have been tracing the gardening situations that Thomas had from his initial entry as an apprentice at Minto House in 1858 until his employment as Head Gardener at Palé Hall in January 1869.

November 11.1858 – November 11 1861 Apprenticeship at Minto

November 11.1861 – November 11 1862 Gilmerton House, Athelstaneford, East Lothian  see here

November 13.1862 – December 1862 Rossdhu  House, Luss, Dunbartonshire see here and for Clan Colquhoun here

January 12.1863 – February 1863 Pink Hill Nursery Corstorphine, Edinburgh  I can’t find a direct reference to a nursery here, that will probably necessitate research at the RHS Lindley Library, but the Forestry Commission Scotland has its HQ in Corstorphine in the Pink Hill area.

February 1863 – March 6.1865      The Nunnery, Douglas, Isle of Man, see here for a picture and here for further description.   In Edinburgh Thomas was offered a choice of two posts, the Nunnery and Lambeth Palace in London:

I had the offer of two situations the same day, one was to go to be journeyman at Lambeth Palace London, which I declined; the other to go to the Isle of Man in a place where I was to get the foreman’s place when he left, this I accepted.

March 7. 1865 -27th March 1865 In Chester using Mr. Dickson of Newton Nursery as an intermediary for obtaining a new post.  An interesting description of the history of Dickson’s nursery can be found here.  At this time, when many large estates were being built or refurbished, well-qualified gardeners were much sought after, and large Nurseries appear to have been used as agencies for gardeners.

March 27. 1865- May 6.1865 Titley Court Herefordshire See here for description and here for Greenly family history.

May 6.1865 – June 2.1865 at home in Jedburgh June 3.1865- July 7 1865 at Chester

July 7.1865 – August 14.1865 The Barns, Sunderland  I have not found any direct reference to this house, except this Wikipedia article

August 14.1865 – October 16. 1865  Laing’s Nursery, Stanstead Park, Forest Hill, London

October 16 1865 – June 15.1866 Studying horticulture in France.

More detailed descriptions of these progressive gardening situations to be added later.


Minto Gardens – an apprenticeship for life.


Image from http://www.albion-prints.com  Victorian gardeners had a great fondness for ferns.

The description Thomas gives of his three year apprenticeship in the gardens of Minto House shows how early in his life the pattern was laid down of the man he was to become.

You can read the full diary entry here

There are three ‘mentor figures’ mentioned; the Head Gardener Mr Williamson, the Revd. James Duncan and Adam Mathieson, who was the custodian of the museum in Jedburgh, and whose enthusiasm for geology led Thomas to his lifelong interest.  As he moved from place to place in his gardening career, Thomas constantly sought out people whose knowledge he could draw on.  In his final post at Palé it led to his friendship with William Pamplin and to his second marriage and family.

Also demonstrated is his naturally studious nature.  He had obviously studied the Linnaean system of plant names and learned to recognise plants in order to discuss them with experts and confidently seek out rare species.

Finally, there is his habit of becoming trusted by his employers or senior colleagues to mix with their families.  From being trusted to escort Mr. Williamson’s amiable daughters, he moves on to considerable trust and intimacy with the Robertson family of Palé.  He is also sometimes a bit of a prig!

Don’t expect ever to read of Thomas undertaking any day-to-day gardening tasks.  All of that is taken for granted throughout the diary.  He doesn’t expect anyone to be interested that he planted a row of cabbages or a rose bush!

A Gardening Apprenticeship at Minto House

Minto House  Minto House 1910, www.maxwellancestry.com via http://www.flickr.com
Thomas began his gardening apprenticeship at Minto House in November 1858.  As was usual at the time, he lived in the ‘bothy’ in the gardens – perhaps not as grand as the one at the National Trust’s Calke Abbey – see here.

Life in the gardens would have been hard, under the direction of the Head Gardener, but I was amazed to find out what went on after the day’s work was finished.  Here is Thomas’ description:

November came and I went to the garden on the 11th of the month to live in a “bothy” with other four companions; luckily these were sober and intelligent. …. During the long winter evenings, all of us instructed ourselves in geometry, mensuration, and in languages. My companions were Oliver Taylor, who used to read aloud to us when resting from study; he was a well instructed man and a distinct reader. Andrew Stormont was studying French, James Stables was studying Latin, and Wm. Nichols was like myself, studying botany and geometry. I took also to French and Italian. Our “bothy” was during the winter evenings more like a school than anything else.

You cannot now visit Minto House, as it was destroyed very unfortunately during 1992.   Read about this incident here

If you are interested in the education, lives and work of the Head Gardeners, I recommend:

The Head Gardeners, Forgotten Heroes of Horticulture,  Toby Musgrave,  Aurum, 2007




Jedburgh Abbey

Abbey Bridge End, Jedburgh (Stanley Howe) / CC BY-SA 2.0

It is not clear how Thomas and his parents, Thomas and Ann Ruddy, sister Annie and brother James arrived in Jedburgh either directly or indirectly from County Mayo in Ireland.  Most refugees from the potato famine arrived initially in Liverpool.  Nor is it certain when they moved from Ireland to Scotland; probably some time between 1845 and 1851.

What is most significant is the extent of Thomas’s educational achievement.  Both his father and elder brother James are listed as labourers in the Scottish censuses, and when Thomas senior died in 1865, James registered his death using a cross rather than a signature, suggesting he could not write.

In Jedburgh, Thomas came into contact with several influential mentors who influenced the course of his life, the first being a retired gardener and amateur botanist, William Hobkirk.  He met Hobkirk in 1858, in the interval between his decision to become  gardener and taking up his gardening apprenticeship.  Read Thomas’ diary entry here

To Become a Gentleman


How did a young man from a poor family become a well-known and much consulted Head Gardener to a self-made industrialist, a friend and colleague of a leading Cambridge Professor, and the recipient of a prestigious Scientific medal?

From the outset, Thomas showed a focussed determination to make good.  Here is an extract from the early pages of the first diary, written regarding the year 1858, but probably written retrospectively some years later:

(p4a) The time came at last that I must take to some occupation – various occupations were thought of, but I did not fancy them because they were to be in shops – these did not suit my fancy, for I loved the open air, I loved natural objects, I loved to see Nature. At last the time came for me – my father had a friend named Robert Daniel; he was a stranger there, and I now believe he must have been Welsh. He was a woodman, and a very intelligent man – (5) a man who had travelled a great deal, so that he surprised his neighbours by his general knowledge. This man gave my father glowing accounts of gardeners, and how he knew of many and that he was nearly being one himself in his day, but that he foolishly let a companion of his go in his place – how that companion went to the garden, served his time, pushed up and in a few years after came to see him with the ‘air and address of a gentleman’. He ended by strongly advising me to be a gardener.


Murrisk Famine Monument

The Irish Famine memorial, Murrisk, County Mayo, Ireland

In 1889 Queen Victoria asked Thomas what part of Scotland he came from. He obviously retained a Scottish accent, despite leaving Scotland many years before.  I imagine that Thomas mentioned the Jedburgh area of south east Scotland – but in fact he didn’t arrive there until he was somewhere between 6 and 10 years old, and under dramatic circumstances.

Thomas was actually born in Murrisk, County Mayo, Ireland in 1842, a dramatic place and time in Ireland’s history. It is likely that he was born into a Roman Catholic family and baptised Patrick.  His younger sister, later known as Annie was probably baptised Bridget. (From family research in Ireland)

Screenshot 2016-01-07 15.12.51

1861 Scotland census shows Thomas born in Ireland

Screenshot 2016-01-07 15.34.23

1911 Wales census shows Thomas born in Jedburgh, Scotland

Read more about the famine and its life-changing effect on Thomas here.






The Treasure Chest!

Have you ever dreamed of opening a box and finding inside something unexpected and fascinating?

That is what happened to me, back in 2005, following the death of a dear friend, for whom I had acted as Executor.  Before his last illness he left a large trunk in our care, telling us it was his family papers.  Only after his Memorial Service did I look inside the box.

The main items were the diaries of his grandfather, who had been Head Gardener at Palé Hall, near Bala, mid Wales, the home of the Robertson family, Henry Robertson being an engineer, ironmaster and railway builder.  The Robertson family appears throughout the diary pages after 1869.

Thomas Ruddy’s second wife was a member of the interesting Pamplin family, originally nurserymen, and then botanical booksellers with links to Charles Darwin and Thomas Hooker.  They too make their appearance in the diaries an other material from the treasure chest.

Thomas was an enthusiastic amateur geologist, contributing greatly to the geological understanding of his time.  Under the guidance of the Professor of Geology at Cambridge University, he published a paper for the Journal of the Geological Society, and also won the prestigious medal of the Chester Society of Natural Science – no mean feat for a man who was largely self-educated.  Geology and botany will appear here, together with delightful walks that can be followed today.

Then there is the matter of the visit of Queen Victoria in 1889….

This blog is intended to explore the life, work and contacts of a fascinating Victorian, typical of his age.  I hope to build up a picture over time, and to keep alive the memory of a remarkable man.