A Gardener’s Life

Son of the Secret Gardener by Trevor Millum

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of my favourite childhood novels, read from my trusted Puffin edition with this glorious cover by the much missed, late Shirley Hughes.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover that FHB based Misselthwaite Manor in her novel around Maytham Hall at Rolvenden in Kent, where she lived from the mid 1890s to 1909, and transposed to Yorkshire. Gardens were ‘in’ at this time, and she established a walled rose garden there. Maytham had a team of gardeners, led by George Millum, who could be ‘an obstinate and difficult fellow’ – just like Ben Weatherstaff – the gruff old gardener in The Secret Garden, as in this quote where Mary is quizzing him about the lost rose garden…

“No door!” cried Mary, “There must be.”

“None as anyone can find, an’ none as is any one’s business. Don’t you be a meddlesome wench an’ poke your nose where it’s no cause to go. Here, I must go on with my work. Get you gone an’ play you. I’ve no more time.”

And he actually stopped digging, threw his spade over his shoulder and walked off, without even glancing at her or saying good-bye.

George Millum (sr) was Trevor’s grandfather, in his twenties/thirties while FHB was at Maytham, his cousin Harry worked in the stables. Trevor’s father, also George, was born in the Head Gardener’s cottage in 1907, a substantial cottage that is still standing. George sr. moved on after FHB returned to America, living in Woking where George jr. grew up, joining his father in the gardening profession at the age of 14.

After the initial pages, which tell the story of George sr. and the FHB connection, the majority of this book is about George jr. and the various jobs he had working for owners of different sized gardens etc. His first major job after working at nurseries until laid off during the Great Depression was at Brabouef Manor near Guildford, later moving to a house called Doiran to work for a chap called Philip D’Ambrumenil in his first Head Gardener’s post while still only in his mid-twenties. George kept meticulous notes in his diaries about all the tasks that he did, and Trevor has transcribed those from 1938 and 1949. War intervened in between. George, who had been in the TA was eventually called up but served at home, having those useful skills. His son Trevor was born in 1945, and George was demobbed a year later – having to find a succession of jobs at other houses and nurseries over the years. George jr. worked around the Woking area until his death at 66 of lung cancer. His son, Trevor, didn’t follow him into gardening, becoming a teacher and children’s poet instead.

Although many things remain the same between the two years of diaries included, things are also different. George’s entries in 1938 are short and to the point – with lots of abbreviations. He takes an awful lot of ‘Mum’ cuttings – Chrysanthemums to you and me. He uses a delightful term for that general weeding one does to disturb the soil around beds – ‘spuddling’ – less active than hoeing. He gives the numbers of cuttings and prickings out – lots of bedding plants – everything is in the hundreds. Apart from the flowers and veg, he also had to maintain the tennis court, stoke and rake out the boilers that heated the (green/glass)’houses’, lop trees, lay paths, edge lawns – it was a busy, manual life. In 1949, he’s slightly more expansive – still plenty of Mums though, plus Cars (Carnations). July 1949 began with a heatwave, and there was a hosepipe ban – plus ça change!

What was particularly lovely about this slim book were all the photos and documents that Trevor includes alongside his diary annotations – from a Tenterden Flower Show certificate his grandfather won (one of many)- “First Prize for Peas, 12 pods, Exhibited by G.Millum, Gardener to Mrs HB, Rolvendon.” to family photos, labels from rather lethal cyanide fumigants – which did for his great-grandfather! Spreads from the diaries showing George’s neat sloping script pepper the pages too, as do many cute illustrations by Twink Addison.

This is a charming book for anyone interested in garden history, and the work of gardeners in the big houses during these years. The FHB connection will lure you in (as it did me), but the documents and diaries, which form the largest part of the book, tell of a time gone past. But it’s one that still exists too – wherever there are formal beds and big gardens, there will still be Mums and Cars, Dahlias and bedding plants. It’s the relationship between employer and gardener that has changed, the latter now being employees or contractors rather than servants.

Source: Review copy – thank you. Quadrant books, March 2022, 120pp. Illus. BUY at Amazon via my affiliate link.

5 thoughts on “A Gardener’s Life

  1. Calmgrove says:

    Well, I was charmed too, Annabel, and not only by the FHB connection. Such work, in all weathers, must be laborious and intensive but for those who love working in and with nature there must surely be no better occupation. Sounds delightful.

  2. Lory says:

    I have never been a gardener myself but I have always admired gardeners, no doubt stemming from early readings of SG which gave me a lasting image of gardening as an almost subversively heroic act. How good to get some insight into the lives of often undersung workers.

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