Realities of Victorian Life and Death: 1880


It is little wonder that we can sometimes view Victorian culture as being inclined to melancholy and mourning.  Death and dangerous illness were always nearby, and no class of society was exempt from their touch.  In the first few months of 1880, when Thomas had been a widower for less than a year, tragedy struck the Robertson family and the staff of Palé.

First, Alexander Sherriff, the husband of Mr. and Mrs. Robertson’s second daughter Annie, died at the family’s London house; they had been married less than eight years.  She had become a widow at 25.

February 8th Sunday   Mr. Sherriff died at Lancaster Gate London aged 32. This has cast quite a gloom over us all, but especially Mrs. Sherriff and Mrs. Robertson. Mr. Sherriff to my knowledge was most honourable and straightforward, free from all mischief making, and deservedly popular. He used to come to see my collection, and was always amiable and humble in manners.

Within ten days Mrs. Robertson’s brother John Dean fell ill:

Feb. 18th, Wednesday   Mr. Dean took Scarlet fever, which has cast another gloom over Palé.   Feb 25th  Mr. Dean in a most critical condition.

A member of Palé staff was the next victim, but fortunately Joh Dean survived.

March 8th Monday Miss Jarvis the head housemaid died of the fever after 4 days’ illness. She was a quiet, good and industrious servant, whose untimely death all deplore.

Mr. Dean, I am thankful to say is past danger, he came out of doors today for the first time March 19th.

Thomas’ family escaped the illnesses on the estate that winter, and so Little Mary Emily began her education, just nine months after the death of her own mother.

March 23rd Mary Emily’s first day at school.

These are mournful journal entries, the only ones until May of that year, but they bring sharply into focus he realities of life and death in the nineteenth century.  The rest of the year becomes more cheerful!


1871 The Robertsons at Palé

The Robertson family moved into Palé Hall in September 1871.  Their home in Wales until this point had been the Crogen Estate.  However, when the census was taken on Sunday 2nd April that year, the family were residing at their London home, 13 Lancaster Gate.  The census return gives a good opportunity to see who comprised the family at this important date.

Henry Robertson, born in Banff, Scotland,  was 55 at the time, and described in the census as Magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant, with ‘engineer’ added as something of an afterthought.  His wife Elizabeth, daughter of a London solicitor, was 49 and according to the census born in ‘Surrey, Bermondsey’.  Their children were Elizabeth, 19 (‘Miss Robertson’) Annie, 16; Henrietta, 13; and Henry B. 8 (‘Master Robertson’)  Henry’s second name was Beyer, in tribute to his father’s engineering partner and mentor, Charles Beyer.  On his death, Beyer left the use of his home, Llantisilio Hall not far from Palé for the use of Henry Beyer and his sister Annie.

I devise all that my messuage or mansion house known as Llantysilio Hall in the County of Denbigh with the lands…. .. to the use of my Godson Henry Beyer Robertson”   “To the use of my god daughter Annie Robertson, daughter of the said Henry Robertson for her life without impeachment of waste for her sole and separate use independently of any husband with whom she shall intermarry and of his debts control and engagements and from and after the decease of the said Annie Robertson”  [via Wikipedia]

All the children were born in Shrewsbury

Nine live-in servants are recorded at the Lancaster Gate House, some originating in London, others in Shrewsbury or Corwen, near Crogen and Palé.

Screenshot 2016-06-01 14.18.58

Earlier Census returns

In 1861 Henry and Elizabeth are recorded as living at st. Mary’s Court, Shrewsbury, with their three daughters.  Also living in the same house were Elizabeth’s mother, Ann Dean ‘Solicitor’s wife’, her sons Charles ‘Engineer’ and Joshua ‘Secretary of Railway’ and a nephew John Dean 17, ‘scholar’ as well as a Governess, Coachman, Cook, Nurserymaid and three Housemaids.  This demonstrates Henry’s rise in fortunes as within the next 10 years he owned the Lancaster Gate house, Crogen, which he rented out on removing to Palé and Palé itself.

In 1851 Henry and Elizabeth are found living in Richmond Place Chester, Henry designated ‘Civil Engineer’ with several additional words including [indecipherable] Hereford, Shrewsbury [indecipherable] Coal and Iron Master.  Charles Dean and nephew John Dean are also living there, with a Cook, Housemaid and Butler.

It is clear from Thomas Ruddy’s successive journal entries over the 37 years of his service at Palé that Henry Robertson and the whole family were amiable and considerate employers, and Thomas an energetic and conscientious Head Gardener.  Henry seems to have offered Thomas’ advice to many of the local landowners, resulting in Thomas visiting surrounding estates to advise their owners on horticulture and design.  As Thomas became increasingly noted for his geological collections, Robertson seems to have been proud to allow him to demonstrate his collections to callers, and in due course to Queen Victoria herself.  Henry’s brother in law Joshua Dean was frequently at Palé and was often a companion to Thomas in various excursions.  The Robertson family continued to spend time at Lancaster Gate during the year, thus giving Thomas more latitude to undertake his geological expeditions during their absence.


1871 New Homes

Screenshot 2016-05-29 20.13.14
Palé Garden House, Thomas Ruddy, Mary his wife and their first son Thomas Alexander outside.

1871 was the year that in February Thomas and his new family moved into the Garden House:

Feb 10th Friday I took possession of my new house at Palé, got in my furniture and made all comfortable.

The photograph above was probably taken in  1871 or possibly 1872;  the shrubs planted by the house are very immature, and Thomas Alexander is a very small child.  The reverse of the photograph shows the photographer, and annotations,  the upper  (pencil) appearing to be in TR’s handwriting, the lower, (pen) probably by Henry Ruddy, Thomas’ first son of his second marriage.

Garden house reverse

[ I understand that the Garden House is now privately owned, and not part of the Palé estate, and is now known as Rose cottage]

Later the same year the Robertsons moved into Palé:

Sept 18th, Monday This was a great day here, owing to Mr. Robertson and family coming to Palé to live. There was a fine demonstration of welcome. The carriage was drawn up from the Lodge, and that by workmen.

Pale j. ThomasPale reverse

Note three gardeners at work on the lawn – possibly scything.

The Robertson family celebrated their arrival at their long-planned home by planting significant fine trees in the garden.  The choice of the trees and their siting was no doubt Thomas’ suggestion.

Nov 2nd Thursday Mr and Mrs Robertson planted an Auricaria each, the former on the south side of the drive and the latter on the north side. Both trees are a good size.

1872  January 15th Monday   Master Robertson planted a Deodar and a Picea Nordmaniana on lawn, each near the ends of the walls of the fruit garden.

31 Wednesday   Miss Robertson planted a Deodar on lawn in front of the pantry window. Miss Annie planted a Deodar and a Picea grandis, both near the library. Miss Henrietta planted a Deodar and Picea pinsapo, both near the little walk leading to the flower garden.


1869-1870 Settling In

Autumn at Palé Hall via
Autumn at Palé Hall via

During these years, at the beginning of his work in the new garden at Palé, Thomas Ruddy only writes sporadically in the diary. It is obvious that he was working hard; in June 1870 he reports having been ‘ill with debility’ .  There were also the responsibilities  of a new wife and baby. This was the first post in which Thomas was responsible for laying out a new garden entirely.

Unfortunately, Thomas gives no detail about the layout or development of the gardens. The Robertson family planted vines in the hot-houses in January and February 1870: Mr Dean, Mr. Robertson’s nephew also planted a vine – TR comments that Mr. Dean had been a very kind friend in many ways.’

It is here that Thomas mentions William Pamplin for the first time, in early 1870 undated:

Another gentleman, who I now name for the first time, Mr. Pamplin, has been a most interesting friend during the last year.  Mr & Mrs Pamplin have got a house in the village where they have lived for some years.  I knew him by name when I first went to the garden as Mr. Pamplin the publisher of the ‘Phytologist’  He is a good botanist, so that we had rambles together.

May 20 Friday Mr Pamplin and I went to Pont-y-Glyn where we found the toothwort. We both enjoyed ourselves very much.

On 22 June, Wednesday Mr. Ellis of Brynbwlan and I went to the town of Barmouth, for the first time to me. I enjoyed myself exceedingly, and found many seaside plants new to me.

During last month [June] I became very ill with debility. I have been very faint and weak. I have brought it on by over-work – I have been so anxious to make Palé nice and satisfactory , both to Mr. Robertson and myself.  Dr. Hughes ordered me to the sea side, so that my wife, baby and myself left here for Towyn on 22 August, Monday. Towyn is a quiet, nice watering place, so that we had a pleasant time of it, but I was too weak to enjoy myself much. We lodged at the farmhouse of Tyddyndu with John Roberts, an acquaintance of Mr. Ellis. [ Mr Ellis shown in 1881 Census as farmer of Brynbwlan – where TR lodged before moving into his house in Palé gardens.] During my stay I botanised along the seaside from near Aberdovey to the river Dysini, and a good deal of Towyn Marsh. I found many plants new to me too numerous to mention. We stayed for a week which gave me much strength.

My wife and I went to the sale at Aberhirnant on the 28 September, Wednesday. I thought it a beautiful locality.

24 & 25 October I was with Mr. Dean at Chester buying trees at Eaton Rd Nurseries. Mr. Dean and Mr. Joshua Dean, who also went, were very kind to me. I felt much better when I got back.


First year at Palé

Thomas began work on the day after his arrival at Palé, engaging men to work and arranging to move from the Inn of Bryntirion situated at the foot of Palé’s drive, where he had spent the first night in rooms arranged for him by Mr Dickson of the Nurseries, to the nearby Brynbwlan farmhouse farmed by Mr & Mrs. Ellis.  Within five days he had decided that he was ready for his pregnant wife to join him, and had planned for the purchase of a large quantity of trees and shrubs.

January 23rd Saturday I went back to Chester for my wife and I ordered about £100 worth of trees and shrubs. My wife and I came here for good on the 25th of Jany. Monday 1869.  [£100.00 probably worth £4,000 – £5,000 today]

There are few journal entries for the first few months of 1869, but on the 26th March a notable event is recorded – the birth of a first child, Thomas Alexander.  [Thomas and Mary had married in December the previous year.  Slight raise of eyebrows from editor/transcriber!]

Four days later, Thomas secured a permanent post at Palé:

March 30th Tuesday. I engaged to be Mr. Robertson’s permanent gardener. Mr. & Mrs. Robertson were leaving for London; they told me that several wanted the place, but that they would much rather that I would take it; and that I would be at liberty to make myself comfortable. [Mr and Mrs Robertson owned a house in Lancaster Gate, London, where they resided for several long periods each year.]

By the end of April Thomas records walks in the area with friends.  Unfortunately he does not record the friends’ names or details.  Descriptions of walks form a substantial part of the journal through the rest of his life.

The full journal entries from January to April 1869 here


A new employer – Henry Robertson

henry_robertson (1)


Henry Robertson

via Shrewsbury Local History site


The owner of Palé Hall, Henry Robertson, was 53 years old when in January 1842 he appointed the 27 year old Thomas Ruddy as his Head Gardener.  Like Thomas he spent his childhood in Scotland, came from a family without wealth, and carved out a career for himself through innate ability and hard work.  Winning a scholarship to Aberdeen University at 14 studying engineering, he had achieved his MA by the age of 2o.

Initially working in coal mining in Lanarkshire, he moved on to railway engineering as a pupil of Robert Stevenson, and finally through a series of chances, moved to Wales, probably about 1840.  A detailed description of his working life can be found here.

Henry had married Elizabeth Dean, daughter of a London solicitor in July 1846, and with their children Elizabeth (born 1852) Annie (born 1855) Henrietta (born 1858) and Henry Beyer (born 1862) they would move into the completed Palé Hall on September 18th 1870.

It would seem from Thomas’s description of his initial meeting with Mr and Mrs Robertson that it was Elizabeth who was chiefly involved in planning the details of the garden:

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.

The family were living nearby at the smaller Crogen Estate which is still in the Robertson family.

Further details abut Henry Robertson can be found here

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.

Screenshot 2016-03-31 15.45.32