Before Mornington Grove – Magnolias!
Before Mornington Road, before Wellington Road and Archibald Road were built, the land upon which they were to appear was actively cultivated to become “the most influential nursery in the country” (John H Harvey, LAMAS Transactions, Vol.24 1973 pp 192-3). Thomas Milne in 1795-99 made a map of London showing land use. John H Harvey analysed the map seeking out those areas of land specified as nurseries. In Bow Milne marks three areas, located here by their position relative to modern roads:
(a) Bow Road (N. side), Morgan Street, Coborn Road, Alfred Street. 14 acres.
(b) Bow Road (S. side), Archbald Street, Merchant Street, Mornington Grove. 17 acres.
(c) [in parish of Bromley St. Leonard: Archbald Street (S. side), Arnold Road,
Wellington Way. 3 acres.]
Harvey writes: The Mile End Nursery, generally stated to have comprised 50 acres (see below). It is not clear whether these grounds (none of which is in the hamlet of Mile End) include the sites of the small nursery of one Clements, mentioned in 1691, or the original nursery of James Gordon (?1708-1780), opened in 1742. Gordon can first be traced as paying rates in Bow in 1751, and by 1755 he was tenant of 9 acres. For 25 years before the founder’s death this was the most influential nursery in the country, and was instrumental in introducing many important exotics, notably the Camellia. When Gordon died in 1780 the firm, James Gordon & Co., nurserymen, occupied the house, garden, greenhouse and land. Gordon left all his properties to his three sons, William, James and Alexander Gordon, but the business was thereafter in the name of Gordon, (Thomas) Dermer & (Archibald) Thomson, Gordon & Thomson in 1793-1811, then Gordon, Forsyth & Thomson until 1837, when [much of*] the land was taken over for building. The seed shop at The Thistle and Crown, 25 Fenchurch Street, London, opened by Gordon before 1764, survived the nursery until 1845. Archibald Thomson (c. 1753-1832) was rated on the grounds previously of James Gordon & Co. from 1805 onwards, the nursery in 1811 being reckoned as 17 acres. This would be compatible with the area (b) only, but cannot be reconciled with the statement that Gordon & “Thompson” of Mile End had a nursery of 50 acres at the same date.
* Land between Wellington Way and Merchant Street was identified on maps as Mile End Nursery as late as the 1890s, and there were repeated sales of plants by auction by James Thomson, Archibald’s son, into the 1860s.
If you grow Camellias in Mornington Grove you will be echoing their historic introduction to the British Isles. You can read a paper by Derek Morris, James Gordon, Mile End’s Famous Nursery Man. (LAMAS Transactions Vol. 51, 2000 pp183-187) After Gordon died the most famous nurseryman to tend the site was Archibald Thomson (1752-1832). In his obituary, 1832, he is given great credit for the performance of the nursery: The Mile End Nursery at that time was one of the first about London, and it was much extended and improved by Mr Thomson. The collection of hardy trees and shrubs was unrivalled; and very many of our finest American and other exotics were introduced through, and their cultivation determined in that nursery…. Magnolia Thomsoniana, amongst other estimable plants, is commemorative of Mr Thomson’s skill and assiduity.
The fine Magnolia tree in front of nos. 7 & 8 today was probably not an intentional memorial to the work of Archibald Thomson, nor is it Thomsoniana – but it’s good to have such a tree on the street.
You can read a short biographical note about Archibald Thomson on the Bedfordshire Gardens Trust Newsletter Winter 2014. (His name, and that of the Magnolia, are usually mis-spelt with a ‘p’).
Enter the Quakers
The oldest residents today remember that their landlord was Ratcliff and Barking Monthly Meeting Trust and Funded Properties. This was a Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends, a religious group known generally as the Quakers and their Monthly Meetings were essentially business and administrative meetings, as opposed to the religious weekly meetings. A search of their archived minutes at Friends House Library provided the following information.
Here is a minute of Ratcliff Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends from 30 April 1812, in which punctuation is somewhat sparsely applied:
Funded Property to be exchanged for Land
Joseph Foster one of the Friends appointed in the 10th mo 1809 to make inquiry for Landed Security to invest the property of the meeting in which is now in the Funds reports that they have the offer of a Piece of Ground containing about 3 ¾ acres with a frontage of about 90 yards towards a desirable part of Mile End Road for the sum of Eight Hundred and ninety Pounds, the Vendor to pay all the expenses of the Conveyance; it is at present on lease 42 years of which are unexpired at 36£ per annum, Land Tax redeemed £1.4.0 which pays about 4 ¼ per cent at the termination of the lease it will be likely to produce much more and thus meeting believing it to be a desirable purchase requests him to agree for the same on its behalf. This meeting appoints Henry Knight jnr Geo. Knight Samuel Harris, Samuel Thorbald William Nash jnr and John Harris to be Trustees for the Property now ordered to be purchased. The Trustees for the Funded Property are desired to sell out as much Stock as will be sufficient to pay for the purchase now agreed upon.
24 September 1812 Joseph Foster reports to the meeting that the conveyance of the estate in Mile End Road is duly executed. This purchase is referred to in a minute of 22 November 1855, where it is now clearly specified as being the “Bow Road Estate” that was bought for £890 – the 2017 equivalent of that being in the region of £65,000:
The meeting’s attention has been called to the Legacy of Elizabeth Hearn, left in 1714 “to be kept in Ratcliff Meeting as a stock, the interest to be paid to the Workhouse towards the maintenance of a School mistress”. This was invested in 1728 in £80 South Sea Annuities and £2.8s has been since paid yearly to that institution (now Friends’ school Croydon): but in 1812 the stock was sold; and the proceeds £45.2s were applied, with other trust property to purchase the Bow Road Estate for £890, which produces from the beginning of the past year a greatly enlarged rent. And the question what should be the future annual payment to Croydon School in consequence is referred to Joseph Foster, Rickman Godlee, Henry Fowler and William Nash; who are also desired to take into their consideration the general altered circumstances of the meeting under the increased income from our Trust property, and report.
The Mile End Nursery remained active, but it is not clear that it continued to make use of the land the Quakers had bought. In the Morning Post of 12 July 1828 (British Newspaper Archive) Archibald Thomson’s son published the following announcement: MILE END NURSERY. – JAMES THOMSON begs most respectfully to inform the Nobility and Gentry that have honoured this Nursery with their orders, that he has succeeded his Father in the NURSERY and SEED BUSINESS here, and begs to solicit a continuance of their favour. The fine hardy Magnolia Thomsoniana, and other fine American plants, raised here, are now finely in flower, which J. T. will have great pleasure to show.
A minute from Ratcliff and Barking Monthly Meeting (Ratcliff and Barking Meetings joined together in 1821) summarises the situation on 23 March 1830: The remaining Trust property consists of a Freehold Estate situated on the Mile End Road near Bow, it was purchased in the year 1812 out of a portion of the funded property of the meeting as an eligible Investment. On that occasion the several Clauses of the Wills were consulted, under which such property devolved to the meeting for the relief of the poor &c, and the following amount of Stock (the particulars of which are inserted in the Book of Clauses) were sold, viz £850 3 per cent Consols, £700 Old South Sea Annuities and £105 4 percent Consols. The estate which contains about 3¾ acres cost £890, it is let on lease at a rent of £36 per Annum, and £1.4s for redeemed Land Tax, the terms of the Lease will expire on or about the year 1854.
Maps in the 1830s, such as Greenwood’s map shown in the header at the top of the page, show the land remaining as ‘Nursery Ground’. One tenant of this plot was apparently John Gibson (1778-1840), “manufacturing chemist and collector of Pleistocene fossils from Kirkdale Cave, Yorkshire and Ilford, Essex.” (A short but detailed record of his life was researched, written and published by William H George in 1998, ISBN 0953409201). Gibson, from Yorkshire, came to Plaistow by 1805, moved to Bow by 1833 and lived in Tredegar House, exactly opposite the site where the Mornington Road would later be built. In partnership with two Quakers, Luke Howard and Joseph Jewel, he worked in high quality and very successful chemical works at City Mills Stratford, on the Back Rivers of the River Lea. There is a minute from the Ratcliff and Barking Monthly Meeting for 19 July 1842 to the effect that executors for John Gibson’s will were preparing to give up the lease on the late Gibson’s Bow Road property, but shortly thereafter the executors sold the lease on. It is this minute that establishes John Gibson as having been a tenant of this site.
In the Chelmsford Chronicle, 12 August 1836, (British Newspaper Archive) a report on the second South Essex Horticultural Society exhibition, the second prize for Heartsease [wild pansy, viola tricolour] was won by Mr J Taylor, gardener to J. Gibson, Esq., Bow. And the prize for the Green-house Plants was won by Mr Thomson of Mile-End Nursery for two splendid specimens of Fuchsias. Later maps show the Mile-End Nursery centred on the area between Wellington Way and Merchant Street, so its area appears to have diminished since its heyday in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The lease for tenancy of the site was for 42 years when the Quakers bought the freehold of the land in 1812. That lease was due to ‘fall-in’ in 1854. It is then that the land begins its transformation into a street of grand suburban dwellings.