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An Economic History of the English Garden

Author(s):Floud, Roderick
Reviewer(s):Elliott, Brent

Published by EH.Net (April 2023).

Roderick Floud. An Economic History of the English Garden. London: Allen Lane (Penguin), 2019. xiii + 399pp. £12.99 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0141981703.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Brent Elliott, formerly of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library, London.


Roderick Floud’s book was published four years ago; it has since been issued in paperback and generally has been enthusiastically received and described as magisterial.

The originality of Floud’s book lies particularly in his standard of calculations for an historical comparison of financial figures. He had launched this standard a few years earlier, in a paper ‘Capable entrepreneur? Lancelot Brown and his finances’, published in Occasional Papers from the RHS Lindley Library, vol. 14 (October 2016). Capability Brown is the major figure in Floud’s book, followed by Joseph Paxton; both gardeners have been the subject of previous biographies, and forty years ago Peter Willis drew attention to Brown’s account at Drummond’s Bank, which has been a lively source of information for Floud. Few other figures have been as well documented, at least from the financial point of view.

Previous garden historians, I suspect – and know in my own case – had based their estimates of income and expenditure in previous centuries in the Bank of England’s website calculator, and that is largely based on a comparison of prices for consumer goods. Floud rejects this as unviable: ’Since consumer prices have increased by 128 times since 1741, we would multiply [Capability] Brown’s salary of £25 by 128 and conclude that he was paid, in today’s value, £3,200. But this figure doesn’t make sense. It suggests that the head gardener of the greatest garden in England in the 1740s was paid for a year the equivalent of someone working for twelve weeks at the current national minimum wage of an unskilled labourer’.  He goes on to enumerate some of the reasons why consumer prices are unreliable for long-term comparison: ‘the things on which we spend money have changed in nature and quality … We also spend less of our income on manufactured goods and good than we did two centuries ago and much more on services … We live our lives and spend our money quite differently’. He proposes as an alternative ‘to compare their pay with changes in average earnings over the centuries. In 1700 the average worker earned £12 and 8 shillings a year; in 2015 he or she received £25,609. … if something cost two-thirds of average earnings in 1800, we say that its equivalent is two-thirds of average earnings today’. This is the system of comparison used by the online calculator Measuring Worth, whose graph of changing money values Floud reproduces after his introduction.

On this basis, Floud calculates that Capability Brown’s £25 per year was the equivalent of £45,580, and for comparison, a century later Joseph Paxton, as head gardener at Chatsworth, was paid the equivalent of £47,120.  The results of this change in the mode of comparison is a salutary shock to the system, and over the last few years has shaken up the work of many garden historians as they rethink their calculations.

I do not think, however, that the matter can yet be regarded as settled. Floud’s litany of the changes in the content of consumer spending could surely be echoed by a list of changes in the status and functions of different types of work over the centuries. For example, having determined that Capability Brown was paid £45,580 a year, Floud adds, ‘or £63,810 if one includes the value of the house that came with the job’.  But should the value of the house be included? Brown didn’t own that house; as it came with the job, it was the property of his employer. On p. 177, Floud remarks that ‘The head gardener was provided, on top of his salary, with a free house and fuel and usually with free fruit and vegetables from the garden’. This makes the provision of accommodation sound like an unambiguous benefit, but socially and politically it caused difficulties. In 1840 Paxton, having been provided with an upgrade to his existing house at Chatsworth, bought a property in Darley Dale, and moved away from Chatsworth for six months to do it up, landscape the grounds, etc.; he then moved back to Chatsworth and leased the house out. Why? – an obvious reason is that by doing so, Paxton became a landowner, and therefore eligible to vote (people who lived in accommodation provided by their employers did not gain the right to vote until the Third Reform Act in 1884). For an aspiring head gardener, property investment could be considered as part of the necessary expenses for living the life of a true citizen.

Simple income, then, may not be the major determinant of status. Take a case from the eighteenth century. John Abercrombie wrote a manual entitled ‘Every man his own gardener’, but it appeared under the joint names of Abercrombie and Thomas Mawe. Mawe was head gardener to the Duke of Leeds and was apparently chosen to be identified as the principal author because of his high reputation. When Abercrombie first met him, he saw ‘a gentleman so bepowdered, and so bedaubed with gold lace, that he thought he could be in the presence of no less a personage than the Duke himself’. But despite his powder and lace, could Mawe vote in an election? If so, he must have been a property owner; where was his property?

All this ties in with the question of professional status, about which Floud has an informative section in his fourth chapter. The head gardeners of the nineteenth century longed to be recognised as professionals. In 1845, the young David Taylor Fish was offered a position ‘at £30 per year, with board, and the half of a footman’s room for lodging’; he angrily responded, ‘Why couple the knowledge and culture of professional men with the rewards of a livery servant?’ (See his autobiography, published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1875.) But the hoped-for professional recognition was never achieved, and in the twentieth century gardening sank to the level of a ‘semi-skilled occupation’.

Floud’s book is organised into ten chapters: ‘The English garden in 1660 and 2020’; ‘Gardens and the state’; ‘The great gardens’; ‘Designers’; ‘The nursery trade’; ‘The working gardener’; ‘Technology’; ‘The people’s gardens’; and ‘Kitchen gardens’. Of these, the chapter on the nursery trade is the least adequate, largely because there has been no systematic history of the nursery trade yet published. John Harvey, the pioneer of nursery history in the 1970s, took the subject up to the end of the eighteenth century only, and the best works on the subject since have been histories of individual firms or of regions (like E. J. Willson’s book on the nursery gardens of Woking). Floud does not deal with the question of the price of land required for nurseries, and while he considers the role of the railways in the ease and speed with which plants could be transported, he does not deal with the way in which access to railways allowed nurseries to move away from the urban perimeter where they had traditionally flourished. He does make a lovely point about the advantage for nurseries of proximity to the urban horse population and its quantities of useful dung. In 1904, the Bedfont seedsman Alexander Dean worried that the replacement of horses by automobiles would lead to ‘the ruin of both agriculture and commercial horticulture’ by reducing the available stock of dung.

I find the chapters on technology, the people’s gardens, and kitchen gardens the most satisfactory. Floud’s figures for the costs of lawn mowers in the nineteenth century are particularly eye-opening. But it is the chapters on the great gardens and on garden designers – the traditional subjects of most studies – that have had the greatest impact so far on garden historians, by forcing them to rethink the costs of garden-making in earlier centuries. This impact is entirely beneficial, even if further research and economic studies lead to some reconsideration of the historical comparisons. And when scholars finally get around to writing the history of commercial horticulture, the questions Floud raises will provide a sound basis for getting started.


Brent Elliott, now retired, was formerly the Librarian, then the Historian, of the Royal Horticultural Society. He is a former editor of Garden History and the author of Victorian Gardens (1986) and other works.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Labor and Employment History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII