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′



Home from France


Adam Matheson window



Window in Jedburgh Parish Church dedicated to Adam Matheson


 (I can no longer find a reference to this window on line, and would be glad of any information)

After his return in June 1866 from horticultural study in Angers, France , Thomas immediately returned to his home in Jedburgh.  His father had died, but his mother and brother James ( and perhaps his sister Annie, who is hard to trace) still lived there.  He remained in the Jedburgh area until the 28th February, when he traveled to his first post as Head Gardener, secured for him through the Nurserymen Downie, Laird and Laing, who had branches both in Edinburgh and London.

Thomas spent his time revisiting old friends including his apprenticeship companion, Oliver Taylor, by now gardener at Sunlaws, [Now the Roxburghe Hotel and Golf Club].  While at home Thomas visited many local sites of interest.  A major part of the time was spent with his friend Adam Mathieson, curator of the Jedburgh Museum, whom he had first met in 1861 while an apprentice at Minto.  Read more about Matheson here

It does not seem that Thomas had any work during the more than seven months after his return from study.  Always cautious, he must have kept savings either from France or from his previous posts in Scotland and England or both.  No doubt he kept abreast of the many and rapid developments in horticulture at the time, perhaps from the pages of The Gardeners’ Chronicle.  The most significant aspect of this time in Scotland is his time ‘geologising’ with Adam Matheson.  Once again Thomas found himself in the right place at the right time, with a mentor who was to shape a significant aspect of his later life.


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