And so – to Palé

Palé Hall in about 1875, some six years after Thomas’ arrival (Wikimedia commons)

At the age of 27, and nearly eleven years after commencing his gardening apprenticeship, Thomas arrived at the situation where he was to spend the rest of his working life.  His employers the Robertsons, of whom much more later, had bought the estate and had demolished the house originally sited there to build the mansion as it is today.  Meanwhile the Robertsons were living at the estate at Croggen a few miles away, which remained in the family and is still occupied by descendants of the family. Palé Hall was not entirely completed until 1872.

1869  January 17th Mr. Dickson wished me to leave at once for North Wales to lay out grounds for Mr. Robertson of Palé near Llandderfel Station, east of Bala four miles. I left Chester on the 19th Tuesday, en route for Llandderfel, passing Saltney and Wrexham, changed at Ruabon on to the Corwen line. Although it was a dull time of year, I could not help admiring the scenery from Llangollen all the way up, but I thought that I was getting into a fearfully wild country, and I was afraid that I would pass the station unconsciously. Mr. Robertson was waiting at the station where I arrived at 11 am. On delivering my letter of introduction, he told me to go up to Bryntirion first where he had engaged apartments for me and then get to Palé. Mr. Smith the architect and Mr. Bull the clerk of works arrived at the same time.

Mrs. Robertson and family came from Crogan in the afternoon, so that we spent the day in talking and planning. A new house was to be built with the dining room windows looking west, the boudoir and drawing room windows looking NW & W. The flower garden was to be (according to the architect’s wish) in the small piece in front of the dining room, but I got Mr. & Mrs. Robertson to have it where it now is with terraces instead of a bank. Mrs. Robertson then wished me to plan the glass houses. I was quite pleased with the affable and modest manners of Mrs. Robertson and family. Mr. Robertson’s manner was more like that of a business man, quick at comprehending me, and quick at deciding. I felt quite at home with my new employer and his amiable family.

I slept at Bryntirion , with the determination to make Palé a fine place. I set to work next morning, got some men to work and formed many plans in my mind. I next took rooms from Mr. & Mrs. Ellis at the farm house of Brynbwlan.

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Headhunted for Palé

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Dicksons of Chester letterhead from a later letter to Thomas from George Dickson

‘1869 January 17th Mr. Dickson wished me to leave at once for North Wales to lay out grounds for Mr. Robertson of Palé near Llandderfel Station, east of Bala four miles.’

Mr. Dickson was George Dickson, son of James Dickson, an increasingly influential nurseryman and seedsman of Chester.  George’s father James had died in 1867 and George had taken over the business.  As you can see from the illustration, Dicksons were already royally recognised.  As with other nurserymen with whom Thomas had contact, they acted as headhunters for the gardens both of ‘old money’ or, like the Robertsons, the newly rich from the proceeds of the burgeoning industry and commerce of the central part of the nineteenth century.

A useful article gives details about the Dickson family and their business.  An interesting point is that they, like Thomas, were Scottish expats. Even more fascinating is that the man to whom Thomas was being recommended, the railway engineer and iron and coal magnate Henry Robertson was also born in Scotland.

Geo Dickson 1871

George Dickson  (aged 35) shown in the 1871 census living at Springfield, Newton by Chester with his wife Mary Elizabeth (31) and children Edith (6), Lavinia (5), John (3) Charlotte (1) and Bertha 2 months.  George is listed as ‘Seedsman, Nurseryman and Gardener’.

George was to become a close friend of Thomas.  As well as the connection with the nursery, George was an amateur naturalist and geologist, and it was he who would introduce Thomas to the Chester Society of Natural Science, Literature and Art, where Thomas’ talents would be nurtured and celebrated.
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A list of the members of the Society from 1885-6 Shows both James and George as members, as well as several others of their family including George’s daughter Lavinia.  I have never found Thomas listed as a member.  I believe this to be a matter of ‘social standing’ – which makes his award of the Kingsley Medal even more remarkable.


With the reopening of the RHS Lindley Library, I have opportunity to research further Dicksons and the other Nurseries used by Thomas as stepping stones to new employment. What were their operating methods, and are there any contemporary documents relating to this activity. A visit to the Lindley is on my ‘to do’ list.

A Researching Community

Newtonairds House

Newtonairds House from the website:

I pondered for a long time how best to share the diaries, papers and artefacts relating to Thomas Ruddy with the wider audience I felt they deserved.  Some are already lodged in Museums – the Kingsley Medal and related papers in the Grosvenor Museum Chester, the Museum founded on the work of the Chester Society; the diaries of William Pamplin, nurseryman, grandfather of Thomas’ second wife in the Garden Museum.  All are registered with the National Archives.

I can’t now remember when I decided that a website/blog would be the answer.  It has been an immense pleasure to plan and begin to create this archive, and already there are people to thank; my younger son for his technical know-how, Toby Musgrave and the Victorian Web for publishing the site more widely and a number of people whose feedback has been encouraging.  But most of all, there is an opportunity to expand the research needed.

When I wrote of Thomas’ first head gardener post at Newtonairds House, I was unable to find a picture of the house.  Today a kind friend has sent me the above link, and filled in the gap.  She believes the house to have been demolished about 1954, following a fire.  Thank you Barbara P. for contributing to the research.

This is what the web can do at its very best.  It would have been almost impossible to research and make sense of the journals and papers without minute by minute recourse to the internet.  The time is now!


illustrated: Kingsley Medal of the Chester Society awarded to Thomas.

‘Luck is a lifetime of preparation for a moment of opportunity,’ as a wise man once remarked.  I have already mentioned Thomas Ruddy’s propensity for being in the right place at the right time; although some of this was chance, much more was the product of planning, a ferocious programme of self instruction, a sense for seeking out the right people to mentor and instruct him, and a large measure of sheer determination.

Thomas’ journals are indeed the writings of a Head Gardener – that was his work, but he writes little about the content of his day’s toil.  It is in part a family saga, and in part a portrait of his times.  But above all, it is the journal of a passionate amateur naturalist, and pre-eminently  of a geologist so knowledgeable and dedicated that his specimens collected in the Bala area continue to be curated in museums in the USA as well as in Britain.

The invitation to become Head Gardener of Palé, where he was to remain for the rest of his working life, placed him in the employment of a sympathetic and congenial family, and in a part of the country which was, at that very moment, at the heart of a massive geological controversy.

Here is a summary of the various situations, decisions and acquaintances that prepared Thomas for that moment.  It draws together several diary entries mentioned in previous posts.

Two years in Derbyshire

Stoney Middleton, via the Parish Council website

Leaving the winter damp, summer flies and argumentative Smith father and son of Newtonairds, Thomas set out on for his second Head Gardener post at Middleton Hall near Stoney Middleton, Derbyshire.

His employer was somewhat different from those self made men for whom he had previously gardened.  I’ll let Thomas explain in his forthright style:

I left on Monday 11th November 1867- went to Dumfries, thence to Annan and Carlisle.  I had an hour to stay here so that I went to see the city. It was now dark so that I could not see much. From Carlisle my route was by Lancaster and Skipton to Leeds. Here I had to wait for a long time. Left Leeds, passed through Marsbro [sic] and got into Sheffield for the first time. I found Sheffield to be a smoky stuffy place, with a fearful number of public houses. I was glad to get out of it. I left it on the Baslow Coach.   

 Our route was over a wild moor most of the way and a country without much interest until we got to Chatsworth park. We had now a beautiful country before us, the grounds of Chatsworth and the valley through which winds the river Derwent. I got off at Baslow and had to walk to my destination along the Derwent, past the village of Calver to the village of Stony Middleton, where I got by mid day on the 12th of November. My situation was to be Head Gardener to Lord Denman at Middleton Hall.

 This Hall is close to the village of Stony Middleton, one mile from the village of Eyam, one mile from Calver, two from Curbar village, over two from Baslow, five miles from the town of Bakewell, five from the little town of Hathersage and five from the little town of Tideswell. Middleton Hall was once the Parsonage. After that it was occupied by Dr. Denman, who was once the Court Physician to George III. Dr Denman’s son became Chief Justice of England – known as Chief Justice Denman.   

 Lord Chief Justice Denman, father of Thomas’ employer ( via Wikipedia)
The present Lord Denman is the son of the Chief Justice. He is a tall spare man, eccentric, very stern, but frank and generous, once fond of hunting but now devoted to farming and politics. 

[TR’s footnote: the above Lord Denman died on the 9thof August 1894, aged 89 years, was twice married, second time in 1870.] 

He is a devoted Conservative and was much disappointed that his party did not give him an official appointment in Germany. His nature is suspicious or distrustful and somewhat superstitious. 

 Lady Denman was stout, tall, full face affable and highly polished; a good German scholar, from which language she translated some tales, but she was also an original writer. Lady Denman was Georgina Moore, the daughter of a lecturer before she married Thomas Denman. The estate is but small, with an income of about £1,800 only. The village church is in Grecian style, but of no particular merit. The Vicar was Rev Urbin Smith, a stiff but affable man; a good geologist. The village is but little having one good inn called the ‘Moon’. The bulk of the people are engaged in lead mining.  

Head Gardener at 25


Newtonairds Gatehouse

© Hugh Close (via Geograph)


Thomas set off from his home in Jedburgh to his first Head Gardener post on 28th February 1867.  At 25 he already had nine years’ experience in horticulture, including his eight months’ study in France.  Again supplied with a situation courtesy of Downie Laird and Laing of Edinburgh, he traveled to Newtonairds near Dunscore.  Thomas says of the situation:

The estate was not large but it was a nice place but out of the way. The owner was Mr. P Smith, formerly a Glasgow merchant. I soon found that he was not very popular, but he employed a great number of men in building a nice house in the Scotch castle style.

Typically, Thomas says almost nothing of the day-to-day work there, except that once again the main focus of his occupation was to be glass houses: ‘I had hothouses to erect and furnish’.  As was so often the case, never more so than at Palé, Thomas struck up a good relationship with his employer – at least at first!  ‘I got on uncommonly well with himself and his son Hugh, who was all the family. I found both to be original characters and full of anecdotes.’

As a Head Gardener, Thomas found time to follow his own hobbies, whist working in the gardens to his employer’s satisfaction: ‘During the summer I botanised the whole district, and found many plants new or rare to me.’

The servant class pursued their employment, whilst the upper classes sometimes led more exotic lives: ‘May 2nd  [1867] I went to sow some seeds in the garden of Stroquhan, a house rented by my employer. This is a nice old-fashioned place belonging to a fast young man who had to fly the country for bigamy’   Meanwhile, Thomas continued in his socially upwardly mobile trajectory by accompanying his employer on journeys to purchase plants for the garden: ‘May 7th Tuesday I went with Mr. Smith to Edinburgh to buy plants. We both stayed in the City all night, and I enjoyed my trip very much.’    ‘September 23rd Monday Mr. Hugh Smith and I went to Edinburgh for more plants. He made me travel in the same carriage as him, and to luncheon with him in the Café Royal. We got many rare plants. I stayed again two nights in the city. We got all our hampers of plants to the station to take with us, but when the station master saw them he said to Mr. Smith ‘You cannot take these as luggage’. Mr. Smith answered, ‘I can take an elephant if I pay for it! And all you have to do is get a van and put them in it at once!’ The station master soon did as told. We got home all right and I enjoyed myself very much.

However, it is clear that the Head Gardeners of the time, once trained and in post, were in a strong position when it came to employment, and could leave one position and take up another without detriment to their career path: ‘I found that this part was very rainy and disagreeable in autumn and spring, and during summer it was most uncomfortable to walk out owing to flies. I had to keep continually whipping them off. I determined to leave this place owing to the way that father and son disagreed about what was to be done. I had the offer to go to Derbyshire from the firm of Downie and Laird. The Smiths were very angry with me for leaving, but they knew the cause was of their own making. I parted as the best of friends in the end, Mr. Hugh shaking me heartily by the hand.  I left on Monday 11th November 1867′


Why France?

Screenshot 2016-02-03 15.56.33 Angers, France

I have so far recorded the experiences of Thomas Ruddy as a traveller and a horticulture student when he went to France in 1865-66 at the age of 23.  [Read the full diary extract here and an abbreviated version concentrating on the horticultural aspects here .]

The question remains: why France?  Obviously it was a popular venue for students, Thomas recounts that as well as two English men, studying at the same Angers nursery there were a Swede, Nicholas Peter Jensen, son of a nurseryman, André Rovelli, another son of a nurseryman near Lake Maggiore, and Hesterman, from Potsdam, where his father was Mayor.  French horticultural education was obviously popular and widely well-regarded.  Thomas chose to study in the town of Angers. He records the nursery where he studied, owned by M. Leroy was 375 acres, 8 acres being for roses, and 10,000,000 trees were sold annually.

Was Angers a particularly renowned area for horticulture?  Did other potential Head Gardeners go to France to study?  So far I have not been able to find much detailed evidence.  I should be glad of any assistance that a reader might be able to contribute.

I have gathered some thoughts and research that might give a commentary on Thomas’ decision to study in France, which you can read here.