Using the garden ghosts of your wartime or historic past

Kindly contributed by Mark Norris, Newquay Zoo, World War Zoo Gardens project.Poppies_Field_in_Flanders_CC

Visitors to your botanic garden are not just amazed by your plants, seeking tranquil green surroundings or an easy-to-reach wild space. Some may be(come) intrigued by your history, fascinated by who worked there and what went on at your botanic garden in the past.
We already use personality or biography – famous plant hunters, inspirational directors, royal connections  – to enliven our collections.  You might not have any ghost stories but you are hopefully haunted by the friendly spirits of all those who worked there in the past and their happy or sad life stories.
  • Did you dig up your lovely formal flowers beds or lawns to plant potatoes or onions during the First World War?
  • Did your grass cutting or carting horses end up as war horses, requisitioned by the Army?
  • Did your garden staff or estate owners head off to war and not come back?
  • Did your garden staff get called up to use their skills for the war effort?
  • Did your gardeners switch from digging gardens to digging trenches or graves?
  • What effect did the First World War have on your gardens?

Digging around and detective work

The Lost Gardens of Heligan is a celebrated and understated example of using its history, having now produced a book about their lost gardeners. Imaginatively in the past they have used ephemeral ice sculptures of staff to celebrate the restoration of the gardens which ‘went  to sleep’ after the war when many of its gardeners enlisted or were called up. See their online timeline.

Finding funding

You can see a little more about how the Great War is being commemorated in many ways at:  and related worldwide sites.
There is now Heritage Lottery Funding for First World War:  Then and Now projects based in the UK, a rolling programme of small grants for traditional and digital projects, available over several years:

Sources of staff names

If you are lucky enough to have an archive, then you may have estate books or staff records. Someone might also have written your garden’s history. Your local town or village war memorials might list local casualties. Occasionally ground staff are occasionally mentioned if they have died on active service as well as the usual benefactors, estate owners, directors and plant hunters.
You may be fortunate enough in your research to find a memorial plaque or ‘Roll of Honour’ , such as at RBG Kew or Edinburgh. Other gardens appropriately might have surviving memorial trees like Melbourne  as the easiest source of names
Kew has now placed freely online its Kew Guild Journal staff magazine (published since 1893) with a vast amount of information about the staff and working lives of Kew gardeners. There is lots of information about which gardens they moved to and came from in its Old  Kewite alumni  sections and obituaries to help you trace your own garden staff careers. From this I’ve been able to tease out blog posts on their Lost Gardeners:
Wartime volumes of journals such as The Garden (Illustrated) and The Gardener’s Chronicle can be found in archives or freely online. These contain much useful information including names of casualties etc. for example
Dig For Victory (in World War 1) ?

Memorial trees

Many staff serving in the forces overseas sent back herbarium specimens which may still exist and seeds from the battlefields such as the ‘Verdun oaks’ at Kew. Others include:

Zoo Do You Think You Are?

If you wish to flesh out the names in your staff records, probably the best records to use are the 1851 to 1911 UK census returns available (sometimes freely through libraries) through geneaology sites such as Ancestry and free forums such as Rootschat. Basic free BMD Birth, Marriage and Death records are also available online.
Your local library, records centre or  local  Family History society should be able to help with research or support a family history event looking at roots and family trees (and other plant puns no doubt).

Previous articles

Summary article in BGCI’s Roots journal website archive (French and Spanish  summary too)

Plant Hunters in wartime

Zoological Gardens

more to be added to these names as records are released.

Zoological Proclivities

Many zoological gardens from Kew to Birmingham in late Victorian and Edwardian times boosted their footfall with a display of exotic mammals, reptiles and birds. Some of these collections survive such as at Birmingham BG.
Owners of estate gardens often had the same “zoological proclivities” that Ray Desmond describes in his history of Kew and sometimes these estate gardens became safari parks and zoos after the war. Garden historian Twigs Way has written a short history of exotic animals in gardens A Crocodile in The Fernery.

BGEN resources

Far East Prisoners of War Garden at Ness BG

National Curriculum links

The Primary National Curriculum in England is shortly to change from Autumn 1914, including the teaching of plant biology, geography and history.
Due to the more chronological / timeline approach in the new 2013/4 curriculum, previously Primary school history sections on the Empire, Victorians and WW1 (e.g. poppy day) and  WW2 are now more formally focussed into KS3 / Secondary.
However elements of exploring anniversaries, national events or social history themes are still possible at KS1 and KS2 including “significant historical events, people and places in their own locality” and a “local history study” still exist amongst other links.

Please keep me informed of what you discover or are planning c/o

Many thanks, Mark Norris, Newquay Zoo, World War Zoo Gardens project

2 thoughts on “Using the garden ghosts of your wartime or historic past”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.