Growing vegetables, fruit and flowers has, in Dulwich, like many places, a long history as Edward Alleyn’s diary and the statutes he compiled for running his foundation bear witness. However, the cultivation of exotic species, especially citrus fruits, requiring protection from frost and the application of heat in the winter months, was, until the mid 19th century, the preserve of the wealthy. The equipment needed in the form of glasshouses, particularly ones with a heating system, was expensive. This cost was made even more of a burden by the imposition of two taxes: the window tax on buildings, and a tax on glass.
Two particular local residents took particular pride in their gardens. John Coakley Lettsom lived at Grove Hill, Camberwell, overlooking the Dulwich valley, in the late eighteenth century. The site of his garden remains partly cultivated today and is retained as an open space accessible to keyholders who pay an annual charge. Lettsom, a distinguished medic, allowed his passion for gardening to become an obsession and his reckless spending on it ultimately reduced him to financial ruin.
Not very far distant from Grove Hill, on Denmark Hill, was the large estate of a wealthy lawyer, Richard Shawe. His is the massive tomb in the old burial ground in Dulwich Village, inscribed with the name of his house, Casina. Shawe employed John Nash and Humphrey Repton to design his house and garden. The lake in Sunray Gardens is the only surviving feature and was created by using the clay soil removed to make the bricks for the new house.
In 1810, Richard Shawe’s head gardener was James Brown (1786-1859) who became an expert on forcing the growth of pineapples through the use of steam (Brown had a paper on the subject published by the recently established Royal Horticultural Society in 1817 and he was awarded a silver medal for his work. He also contributed another paper, five years later on forcing peaches). After Shawe’s death in 1816, Brown moved on to Stowe and there produced a pineapple weighing 12 pounds, which his employer, the Duke of Buckingham, presented to George IV.
In 1804 Lady Holland, on a visit to Madrid, sent some seeds of a new plant from Mexico called Dahlia, which she had been given by the botanist Antonio José Cavanilles, to England. Seeds of two other varieties of dahlia would soon follow. Lord Holland’s librarian. Mr Buonaiuti, clearly a green-fingered expert, succeeded in raising England’s first dahlia, a deep purple bloom. Buonaiuti would continue experimenting with the species and develop variations in form and colour.
Lady Holland must have been enthusiastic about the flower because she planted a dahlia bed (now covered by Holland House’s car park) which would remain for the rest of the century. The connection with Dulwich is through John Allen ( 1771-1843 ) who was employed initially by the Hollands as a tutor and doctor for their son who suffered with delicate health. Allen became a lifelong fixture at Holland House and a distinguished historian as well as being warden (1810) and master (1820) at Dulwich College. It seems he suggested naming a new dahlia cultivar - Beauty of Dulwich.
In 1824, Lord Holland penned a note to his wife which contained the following verse:
The dahlia you brought to our isle
Your praises for ever shall speak
Mid gardens as sweet as your smile,
And in colour as bright as your cheek.
By the 1830’s the Beauty of Dulwich dahlia had been exported to the United States where it was being widely grown in New England and winning medals at horticultural society shows in Massachusetts and Maryland. Much of this was down to the efforts of the Hovey brothers of Boston who were enterprising nurserymen. The only other dahlia named after Dulwich was the Glory of Dulwich introduced in 1948.
By 1840 the first horticultural society had been formed in Dulwich. This was probably the Surrey Floricultural Society which drew members from the clergy and gentry of Dulwich, Herne Hill and Brixton. In 1865 a dispute arose within the society and a break-away society named The ‘New’ Surrey Floricultural Society was formed, thereby causing great confusion to many local subscribers who merely wished to encourage the growing of flowers. Both societies finally agreed to try to resolve their differences and the president of the New Surrey, the Revd Ransford of All Souls Dulwich Road reached a ‘peaceful settlement’ with the Revd. G K Flindt of St Matthew’s Denmark Hill, through the mediation of the Revd Powell.
Flower shows were frequent; there were classes for the professional gardeners employed in Dulwich’s large houses, and also the cottagers who lived in the Village. These were usually held in the infants’ school hall or in the hall of Dulwich Girls’ School next door and on occasions the band from ‘P’ Division of the Metropolitan Police provided a musical background.
The repeal of both the glass tax in 1845 and the window tax in 1851 lowered the cost of owning glasshouses and the development in new materials and construction techniques, notably by Joseph Paxton, led to their appearance in many Dulwich gardens. Some were free-standing greenhouses, others were conservatories which extended from one wall of the house. These were used as winter gardens for the display of tender plants.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there was much enthusiasm for cultivating exotic varieties of plants such as orchids in these conservatories and by the early 1890’s a specialist orchid grower, Seeger & Tropp, had established nurseries in East Dulwich near Goose Green. By the Edwardian period, the cultivation of chrysanthemums had also become very popular locally among the emergent lower middle class as well as the upper classes. R B Leach, gardener to the chemist and inventor of the famous fruit salts, James Eno, who lived at Woodhall, College Road, won third prize in 1912 in the national chrysanthemum show. In 1916 the Dulwich Chrysanthemum Society was formed, which still exists although it later amalgamated with an allotment society to form the Dulwich Horticultural and Chrysanthemum Society and has allotments in Lordship Lane near St Peter’s Church. The chrysanthemum, Dulwich Pink was raised in Dulwich but its origins are something of a mystery. It is bushy, hardy, 2.5’ high and flowers in October/November and is available from growers, including Norwell Nurseries of Nottinghamshire. It was successfully trialled by the RHS in 2012.
Greenhouses and conservatories became increasingly popular as the detailed Ordnance Survey maps of the area confirm. Their presence remained until World War 2 when so many suffered damage from bombs, shrapnel or just were left to decay. Today, new materials and advances in insulation have seen an explosion in the number of new conservatories throughout the area. Most however, are used as additional living space rather than places to raise exotic plants.