Category Archives: Gardening

The Perfect Regency Hero? Defender of the Common Man? The Saviour of the Scillies ? Pioneering Plant Collector? Or Sexual Predator? Who was Augustus Smith?

During a recent holiday on the Isles of Scilly I visited Tresco Abbey Gardens and discovered that they had been created by a man whose name was familiar from my childhood. Augustus Smith (1804-72) was the hero who defended the commoners rights in my home town of Berkhamstead when Lord Brownlow attempted to enclose the common land. Lord Brownlow erected steel fences, so Augustus Smith brought in a trainload of navvies who uprooted the barriers, rolled them up and dumped them on his lordship’s front lawn. Berkhamstead Common remains unenclosed to this day.

Then I read the quote under the picture of Augustus above – an image where he looks every bit the handsome and sensitive young Regency gentleman. Given that, amongst other things, I write Regency romance, I couldn’t help feeling that Lady Sophia Tower’s description of Augustus Smith sounded almost too good to be true:

A man of good presence, above the middle height, lithe in figure, firm in step, upright in carriage, with well-cut, handsome features closely shaven (it was the English fashion then) and an eye cold, grey, observant; he looked as if he had been accustomed to command, or was born to be a ruler, whilst his gentlemanly address was prepossessing, conversation with him quickly added to the good impression he first made; nature had well moulded him, education and refinement aided him to please and to reform others.”

So, who was this paragon? Augustus was born in 1804 to a wealthy banker, raised in Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire and educated at Harrow and Oxford. He soon developed an interest in social reform and in education and these passions were allowed free rein when, in 1834, he acquired the lease of the Isles of Scilly from the Duchy of Cornwall. The islanders had suffered dreadfully from the neglect of generations of absentee landlords and were without education, support or resources. Agriculture was at a subsistence level and the only industry was the burning of kelp to create soda ash, although by the time Smith took over it has been almost overtaken by industrial processes on the mainland. A niche business supplying the very fine white beach sand for sanding wet ink was also foundering with the use of blotting paper. Most families existed on fishing and scavenging from shipwrecks.

Smith descended like an incoming monarch – his word became law on the islands, regardless of what the islanders had to say. He made education compulsory up to the age of thirteen, built a church and a pier, renovated dwellings and built himself a magnificent house on the island of Tresco next to the ruins of the 12th century abbey.

Harbour on St Mary’s with the church that Augustus Smith had built (copyright A J Hilton)

Undoubtedly he raised the living standards of the islanders, but he also created considerable controversy by what the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls his “mix of liberalism and authoritarianism….In public life his reputation was for over-persistent and often footling controversy.” Many applauded his approach, but John Stuart Mill described it as “detestable”.

Tresco & Smith’s Abbey (copyright A J Hilton)

He began work on the fabulous gardens on Tresco in 1834, importing plants from all over the world to create what is now an internationally famous collection.

The Abbey Gardens on Tresco (copyright A J Hilton)

Smith certainly expected high standards from everyone else, but I wondered about his own character. He never married, but he had two children by islander Mary Pender who was twenty years younger than Smith and whose first child was born when she was seventeen. He is also reputed to have fathered children on his domestic servants. How consensual were those relationships, given that Mary was a shop girl and the servants probably had no other employment prospects? How do you say No to the King of the Islands?

So, not the perfect hero, certainly deeply flawed, but also the man who rescued the Isles of Scilly when their inhabitants were virtually starving. The image below (unknown artist or date) seems to show a man who had no doubts about his own rightness!

After my last visit to The Isles of Scilly I wrote a trio of books linked by the shipwreck of an East Indiaman: you can find the Danger and Desire series here.

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Just the Thing For the Garden

Now the drought is over I am returning to the garden in an attempt to rescue the parched remains and thinking it might be time for a makeover. And where better to turn for landscaping tips than Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts?

Of course, it does help if one has several acres and significant financial resources, to say nothing of strapping young men with spades and wheelbarrows…

Pyne 10002

But I will not be put off by the lack of acres and wheelbarrows (the one on the left is by W H Pyne) because the issue for February 1800 informs me that “Great diversity of surface may, in general, be obtained at no objectionable expense, if the labour be discreetly governed. To sink the valley and raise the hill is a good rule, when properly applied; in which case, the advantages produced are so immediate and striking, as amply to compensate for every exertion for every exertion: hence plants and trees obtain the appearance of several growths, as they are situated on greater or lesser elevations and produce varieties of incident, and opposition of light, shadow, form and colour, that cannot be effected on level ground.”

Apparently, once I have excavated and elevated I will have created something ideal for “garden seats, temples and alcoves… suited to retirement and study.” I don’t think a temple would work, but Ackermann helpfully illustrates an “alcove” that might fit in. It would certainly startle the neighbours.

Gardening

 

“The style of this little building is light and elegant, but of no specific architectural character; and from its arrangements and design, should be rather splendid in its furnishings than otherwise. The pillars are of iron, and from them are suspended china pattera, of rich colours: the chains are gilt, as is the terminal of the roof. The scale-like forms of the roof-covering are of thin lead, and might be richly painted: indeed the whole should be so decorated as to become highly ornamental, and be in splendid harmony with the accompanying parterres and flower-beds.”

Somehow I think this might be more the scale of project that my resources will run to – another Ackermann print, this time from September 1820

1820 gardening001

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