It’s a sign of advancing years, I know, when you start to research your family history. In my family there’s a surprising amount to go on: assorted letters and papers covering, in all, four hundred years. It’s not that any of us were grand or landed; there has clearly been an itch to record passed down from, on my mother’s side, farmers in Saxony who were anxious to be considered ‘respectable’, which seems to have meant owning something, and on my father’s side someone described as ‘a gardener’ – which has naturally intrigued me.
The gardener lived near Waterford. That much we knew. There was also a family legend attached that he had extremely smart connections involving the Marchioness of Waterford. My sister has the itch, too, and did something about it. She took the miniature portrait we have of a soldier in a red coat, the subject of the legend, to Curraghmore, the palatial seat of the marquesses of Waterford, now as then, met his land agent, told the story, and was rewarded with a copy of A Common Country, An Englishman’s Ramble through Connaught and Munster during the summer of 1833, by William Bilton.
Bilton was one of those inquisitive travellers who noted everything and spoke to everyone. One of his visits was to the country round Waterford, where he introduced himself at Curraghmore and was taken round the
demesne , of ‘nearly five thousand Irish acres’ by ‘the very intelligent gardener, Mr Johnson’ – at which my sister naturally pricked up her ears. This is what Bilton has to say about Mr Johnson:
‘I have nowhere seen a garden conducted on so liberal a scale. The hothouses are filled with all the choicest varieties of grapes, and there are large and numerous succession houses for pines. Of out-door fruit I was shown a very complete collection of apples, both of the many excellent kinds peculiar to Ireland and of those lately obtained by the Horticultural Society, &c. Among the flowers, I noticed above two hundred specimens of the best and rarest sorts of dahlias, each of them displaying a profusion of prize-flowers. There seems no limit, in point of expense, to this department; and the whole management is left in the uncontrolled hands of Mr. Johnson, who generally has about fifty men and women employed in the gardens and adjoining pleasure-grounds, besides a score of carpenters and glaziers, all equally under his orders. I wonder what his Lordship’s grapes cost him per pound!’
Almost the Irish Paxton, in fact. He was Owen Johnson, and my great great great great grandfather. So that’s where Trad’s love of gardening comes from.