In the late 1970’s, I had the great fortune of working at Avery Hill Nursery and Winter Garden. My first full time job* was at the premier horticultural estate in south east London. Built by entrepreneur John North in 1886, ninety years on, it remained the best example of a high Victorian garden estate in that part of London: a mansion with a sumptuous, glazed winter garden surrounded by an external winter garden and set in parkland planted with a huge range of choice plants and trees. Only while Crystal Palace was intact was Avery Hill outshone, and after the fire in 1936, Avery Hill became the most significant horticultural estate in south east London.
I cycled to work, and cycling gently uphill for 10 kilometres warmed you up even on a freezing morning. The ride home was easy and very welcome after a day’s labour. During the winter of 1978-79, the ground froze solid during a snowy week. When we manually unpacked an articulated lorry delivering bagged potting mix, solidified in the cold, we were able to slide them along the road and almost into the potting sheds. During that cold snap the potting sheds were heated day and night, but not for our comfort. The heat was required to defrost the potting mix to make is useable. We stood on duck boards, I wore long johns and despite wearing two pairs of socks inside my steel toe capped boots, I still got chilblains.
I have clear memories of many of the hundreds of varieties of plants that used to be grown and displayed at Avery Hill. It is such an under appreciated estate.
The Winter Garden is the centrepiece and it had a tropical, a warm temperate and a cool temperate house. The warm temperate house roof was tall enough for a mature Canary Island date palm (see title picture). A Norfolk Island pine was also generally planted inside, but they were replaced in succession when they reached the roof.
The main warm temperate collections were drylands plants, such as cacti and succulents, dry temperate South African plants, South American, Australasian and Californian plants. There were also seasonal displays of cold-sensitive flowers that could not be grown outdoors, such as Schizanthus, Cineraria, Calceolaria, Streptocarpus, ferns, Mimosa pudica and Abutilon. Also on display, just next to the Cool Temperate House, was a collection of Victorian gardening equipment used at Avery Hill. Sometimes we would use items that were still operational; for example the water engine came in handy for spraying horticultural oils.
Surrounding the glazed Winter Garden was another tiered winter garden in two sections: east and west. The eastern section was the simplest because it had become shaded by the cedar tree, making the lavender hedges grow and flower irregularly. There were two formal rose beds and camellias, arum lilies, daffodils and ferns were planted in the border alongside the temperate house.
The western section was the most diversely planted with a full spread of classical plants of interest for winter. It really was the best example of an outdoor winter garden in south east London. Furthest from the glazed winter garden and at the lowest point was a shrubbery planted with sweet scented Daphne mezereum (a British native), Maclura pomifera, variegated Elaeagnus, towering Berberis bealei (formerly Mahonia bealei) with large panicles of scented yellow blooms followed by bunches of blue berries, fragrant wintersweet and hamamelis, and shrubby winter jasmine (Lonicera x fragrantissima). There was Choisya ternata, Viburnum davidii with blue winter berries, clumps of spring flowering daffodils and evergreen Pachysandra terminalis.
Against the tall, red brick south facing wall to the west of the glazed winter garden was Garrya elliptica, grown for its felted catkins, trained as a fan using wires attached to the wall using special flat nails designed to hold in the mortar. Similarly trained was a golden flowered Fremontodendron californicum, a rarity at the time, and on either side of that yellow banksia roses were also trained against the wall. Below these fans was a long border which followed the base of Tropical House. In one end of that border grew winter flowering heathers, interspersed by a range of decorative dwarf conifers, clumps of tufted winter iris (Iris unguicularis), drifts of crocus, miniature daffodils and, of course, snowdrops and aconites. A low, evergreen hedge of two kinds of Ceanothus, planted for their stunning bright blue flowers, one sky blue, the other a deep, dark blue, edged the exterior of the hothouse.
The two lower beds grew coppiced Cornus their bright red or yellow stems (one bed each), and underplanted with clumps of Hellebores. I loved the cornus beds because autumn leaves were swept into them as a mulch and the dark brown colours as they gradually decomposed contrasted so well with the bright cornus stems. Planted in between them was a winter hellebore collection, which included two native species, they looked beautiful when they flowered from late winter onwards.
From New Zealand there were Pittosporum, various Phormium and Cordyline australis with their decorative foliage, another tree-like evergreen was Hoheria sexstylosa which had late summer flowers. There was also a low hedge of flowering Hebe pinguifolia that edged the south facing front of the temperate house. Either side of the grand entrance was a specimen Cordyline australis. Pittosporum, Hebe and Phormium became highly popular from the 1970’s onwards and, during mild winters, some of the hebes would throw sprays of out of season flowers.
The western section had formal rose beds, mostly varieties of tea and floribunda roses, the walkways had wisteria arches, and on the top level there were two beds with formal seasonal bedding displays for spring and summer bedding. Spring displays included primulas, pansies, Bellis perennis and tulips. Summer displays included cineraria (aka dusty miller), geraniums (which we dwarfed by spraying with Ethrel). I sowed the Zea japonica ‘Tricolor’, a multicoloured variegated-leaf corn which was planted there, but they also displayed Eucalyptus globulus and E. gunnii, jacaranda and silky oak seedlings grown specifically to give height to summer displays. But the main attraction for me was the walk lead you around the outdoor winter garden. Enclosed to the north by a generous, south facing red brick wall was a display collection in the winter.
To my knowledge, Avery Hill Winter Garden was the last place in SE London where school children could taste fresh sugarcane, pineapple or bananas, or smell the fragrant blossom of frangipani.
About twenty garden staff, and all our gardening equipment, were accommodated in the long row of stables that originally serviced the estate.
Stock beds grew a wide range of rare and collectible hardy trees and shrubs which we propagated in autumn. In the image above, you can still see some of the stock beds. They surround the stable block on the right hand side and the estate manager’s house.
There were nine acres under glass, some heated, others just frost-proofed, for growing spring and summer flowers. The largest and most modern glasshouse complex remains and is pictured above.
There were glazed frames in a ‘frame yard’ for growing hardy conifers. One unheated house, one hundred feet in length at just under twenty feet wide, was where all the canna lilies (cultivars of Canna x orchioides) were lifted in autumn from GLC displays, returned to Avery Hill, trimmed, tidied, and placed in plastic lined trays for overwintering. This section has all been demolished and replaced by allotments.
Several acres of ploughed fields to the north of the stable blocks and to the south were where we grew row upon row of flowering and evergreen shrubs, roses, and hundreds of street trees. All destined for Greater London Council parks and housing estates. Plus we supplied indoor decoration – foliage plants and cut flower displays – for inside County Hall. These were grown in the main glasshouse complex, alongside a propagation house and a weaning house.
Avery Hill was the first and only place where I have worked that operated a bothy system, whereby staff were separated by gender during break times. The only time we could mix and socialise during work time was the Christmas party, when the women gardeners joined the men, not the other way around. For one week I was permitted to work alongside the women in their bothy. The honour was to help them prepare winter hardwood cuttings of heavily spined Berberis.
There is a Facebook page ‘Save Avery Hill Winter Garden and Mansion’, however, they have never replied to my enquiries as to whether this fabulous heritage estate actually has been saved.
One person, Debbie Dorset, responded to one of my posts about Avery Hill, this time it was on a separate social media page dedicated to south east London:
“This was a wonderful part of my childhood and I remember the banana tree and other plants. Now sadly quite empty with all the plants in the hot house gone. The site has been sold to Harris Academy for a new secondary school.”
Another, Tim Hobbs mentioned that his grandfather had been a gardener at Avery Hill Park. Well before the 1970’s, the open parkland of John North’s estate had been excised and was maintained by Greenwich Borough Council. Quite a few of the heritage trees growing there had been planted for John North.
When I last visited in 1997, an indoor plant hire company was using the nursery glasshouse complex but they were only occupying a fraction of the space. Developers seem only to be interested in the college, built against the mansion, not the mansion itself and Greenwich Council has long avoided taking responsibility for the Winter Garden, the nursery, stables, the nursery managers cottage or the significant horticultural heritage they represent.
In her self-published book, ‘The Chemical Conquistador: Colonel North and His Nitrate Dream House’, Roberta Woods writes:
“Twelve years toiling in the heat of the South American nitrate fields, the ‘humble mechanic from Leeds’ returns. ‘Build me a house’, he says, and a quarter of a million pounds later, in 1890 he moves into his Victorian extravaganza of a Mansion, with its three roomed Turkish Bath, mini Crystal Palace of a Winter Garden and 100 fox onyx-pillared Picture Gallery.
Just six years later the whole would be abandoned and remain empty for the next six.
The story of an extraordinary man and his extraordinary house.
Reputedly one of the richest men of his time, a philanthropist and celebrity, beloved by the popular press. Sadly, not even remembered with a bench amongst the Local Notables recently installed on Eltham High Street. Very little has been written about John Thomas North, and having become interested in the man and his house, I have collated my findings within this account”.
Roberta Woods, Eltham, London, November 2019.
In the Australian state of Victoria, Werribee Mansion is a similar estate, a legacy of an entrepreneur. The mansion is far larger and the grounds are of comparable size but lacking in the complexity that Avery Hill once excelled in. Happily, Werribee Mansion has been conserved.
I found this video clip about the ‘Save Avery Hill Mansion’ campaign.
Jerry Coleby-Williams RHS, Dip. Hort. (Kew), NEBSM
16th March 2021
* While I worked at Avery Hill by day, I studied for the General Certificate in Horticulture with the Royal Horticultural Society on the evenings and weekends, cramming a three year course into one year at the request of Kew Gardens. Passing this certificate was one of the three preconditions I had to fulfill to become a student.
At that time, the final examination was taken in a hall at Vincent Square, the city headquarters of the RHS where they held their seasonal shows. It was there I twice almost bumped into the Queen. At the final exam, I met Tony Danford, also taking the final and, to my surprise, Tony turned out to be a fellow student in my year at Kew Gardens.