Mr Roscoe's Garden by Jyll Bradley

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the gardeners of a municipal parks department. Men and

known this, but 130 years later, he had no choice; his was

women who had grown up on local estates.

both a Faustian pact and a placing of faith in the future. No

These ‘paphs’, as Jim Gardiner, the last Curator of

doubt inspired by post-war optimism and the way the garden

Liverpool Botanic Gardens pointed out to me, had a

had been re-built in the past, he had every reason to believe

Liverpool pedigree through and through. For a start ‘paphs’

that, when the time came and the glasshouses had reached

have always been thought of as the ‘northern’ England

the end of their life, others would re-invent the ‘botanics’

orchid, in the long held belief that they, above all other

as he had done. Never in his wildest dreams could he have

orchids, are more hardy to chillier climes and industrial

foreseen how that imperfect timber would, only twenty years

smoke. Then, they had a direct line through one of the first

later, be drawn into a spiral of politics that would eventually

‘paphs’ to be sent back to the UK, P.insigne a plant sent from

lead to his hopeful range’s destruction.

North East India to Mr Roscoe in 1820 by Nathaniel Wallich,

On a sunny autumn day, Friday 18th September, 1964

Curator at Calcutta Botanic Gardens. This plant was the first

Percy Conn stood, like John Shepherd had stood before him,

of this species to flower in British cultivation; and it did so

at the entrance to a new glasshouse, welcoming assembled

in Liverpool Botanic Gardens. Finally, the initial cross that

dignitaries. To me, his vast complex was like a great glass

then paved the way for the Liverpool Orchids was P.insigneX.

spaceship, packed with Liverpool’s botanical riches, ready to

spicerianum made by the Liverpool collector Sir Trevor

take off into the future. It was so large that for the publicity

Lawrence in 1884. The ‘Liverpool Orchids’ are now lost from

shot a light aircraft had to take to the skies to capture its

the Collection; it seems they went in the years following

entirety. The images from that sunny day show the party

the closure of the last garden. I had half gone to Bradford

in the entrance vestibule, gathered expectantly round the

thinking that John Keeling might have a clue to finding them;

Calder Stones. After speeches and ribbon-cutting by Sir

but even he had no idea where to start the search.

George Taylor, the Director of Kew (who had interrupted

I think The Burmese Lily and the Liverpool Orchids must

his Scottish holiday for the event), the party were at long

have helped give Percy Conn the weight to re-build the

last transported into the wonder of Liverpool’s new

gardens; after all they had been but shadows before the war.

botanic embrace.

Encouraged by these successes and the recognition they

There must have been a palpable sense of generosity

brought in the city and wider horticultural world, he started

in the air. Following the devastation of the old garden at

building a range of new glasshouses. He was supported by

Wavertree the plant collections had been re-built through

the Corporation. Percy Conn’s motivation was simple. In fact

the hard work of Liverpool horticulturalists but also through

it is carved in stone; on the foundation block of the Harthill

plentiful gifts from individuals such as Maurice Mason

garden – ironically one of the only things surviving today.

(remembered in Begonia masoniorum) as well as numerous

The stone gives the date of the loss of the earlier garden at

botanic gardens up and down the land; testament to Percy

Wavertree, describing it as DESTROYED BY ENEMY ACTION.

Conn’s international status within the world of parks. This

Conn’s new garden was to be a metaphorical Liver bird rising

re-launching of the Botanic Gardens caught the mood in

from the ashes of the past, filled with the orchid collection

the city – the economy was booming; the Beatles were

that had made Liverpool famous in times past.

dominating the airwaves; with its tropical, colourful vibe

Even though the city was in ruins and thousands of people

the Botanic Gardens were flower power on a grand scale.

needed basic housing, the Corporation backed Conn to the

There was a distinguished new Curator too, Mr James Muir

tune of £32,000, only to be knocked back by the government

whom as a young man Mr Conn had helped on his botanical

who reduced the sum to £1,350 – the price of a single

path. Muir had been employed under Conn at Coventry

glasshouse. So Conn had to build his glasshouse range

and his reference for a first botanic post to the University

by stealth using the timber that was pouring through the

of Cambridge Botanic Gardens was written by his mentor.

port for post war reconstruction. It was low grade spruce

The reference is amongst the papers he left on his death; an

(Picea abies or Picea glauca), the only wood available to

invaluable archive which his daughter Linda Kehoe donated

him – and the last thing that you should build a glasshouse

to the World Museum a few years ago, along with hundreds

from. I asked John Edmondson about this. He said that for

of his beautiful photographs – some of which I have been

temples of flora the wood should be teak (Tectona grandis),

lucky enough to reproduce in this book.

a hardwood – oily, lasting, weather-proof; he was sure that

On that opening day, Mr Roscoe was ever-present. He

the glasshouses of the very first garden at Mount Pleasant

was remembered in the opening addresses and again after

would have been built with it. Conn would of course have

lunch when the party headed over to Clarke Gardens next

to Allerton Hall where Mr Roscoe had once lived. Here a

I have been thinking a lot of the garden in which I grew

new aviary was opened on the very spot where Mr Roscoe’s

up. My understanding of all gardens, including Liverpool’s

private gardens had once stood. As Percy Conn invoked

gardens begins in the garden that my father made.

Liverpool’s beloved son, enchanting birds from far off lands

My father never did build his brand new house, architect

flew behind him, their colourful iridescent wings catching the

designed with nothing, nothing from the past. By the

late afternoon sun. To those present they must have seemed

mid-sixties he had a family including a father-in-law, my

like the avian cousins of the Botanic Gardens’ exotic blooms.

Grandfather, so he compromised for the convenience of a

The souvenir brochure shows the busy schedule of this

1930s detached house. He always told us that he bought

memorable day. A copy was loaned to me by Arthur Dallas,

the house for the garden, which although very close to the

who at the time was a young apprentice. He remembers

centre of the town where we lived (Maidstone in Kent) was

nothing of the day. He told me he was held in the ‘private

quite large. In fact, if you stood at my bedroom window

side’ of the glasshouses, in the propagating area, away from

which faced it, barely any houses intruded upon the view.

dignitaries’ views. Though he never got to experience its

This was because at one point there had been a quarry

pomp and circumstance, the brochure is now a treasured

there, in fact they had quarried the stone for the walls of

possession; hymn-sheet to a moment that promised so

Maidstone Prison which was built ten minutes away down

much for the city’s future. Content with his new garden

the hill. Long since redundant, the quarrying had left a great

and the team in whose hands he left its care, I am told that

dip in the land, unfit for building, so there was a confluence

Mr Conn retired to the south coast and married his long-

of gardens instead; our garden and the neighbours’ gardens

time secretary. As far as I know he did not live to see what

conspired into a veritable feast of green. A pocket oasis so

became of his post-war idyll. Maybe it is just as well.

close to the town centre.


moved there shortly after I was born and this was the only

I think my father would have admired Percy Conn. He would

home I knew. The garden was the first thing I saw in the

have admired his building of brave new glasshouses; brave

morning when I opened the curtains. It was the last thing

new gardens. He once told me that after the war it had been

I saw at night when I closed them.

his dream too to build something new, in his case a brand

I don’t remember life before this garden because we

My father had not planned for us to stay in this house very

new house, architect designed – a complete break with

long. When I was young every year there would be talk of

the past. He said he had wanted to fill it with new furniture,

moving on, possibly of that new house, architect-designed

new cutlery, new everything. His war had been inglorious.

which haunted him. And each year we stayed exactly where

He left school at 17 and joined the Essex Regiment where

we were, for reasons of schools, or jobs or convenience or

he was promptly sent to Freetown, Sierra Leone to teach

money or some other. As each year passed and we stayed

local troops to fight; he never explained for what purpose,

put, my father began to lavish attention on the garden.

I do not think he knew. I do not know what happened to my

He made some signature alterations to suit our needs. He

father, he never discussed it, but whilst there his health

grubbed up the large circular rose bed that dominated the

broke. Invalided home for ‘nerves’ he spent the rest of the

lawn and laid turf down so that we had room to play. The

war in Cornwall with his mother, my Grandmother. As a form

garden rebelled, the scar of the turf never healed, like an

of convalescence he was found a job in a post office.

imperfect skin graft. He planted a damson tree against one

Later my father trained in forestry and then as a surveyor.

wall and a passion flower against another. Up at the top he

Working for the local County Council he was known for his

planted raspberries, rhubarb, gooseberries, strawberries,

meticulous attention to detail. One of his last jobs before he

several small apple trees and beneath them spring bulbs,

retired was surveying Chatham Dockyard prior to its being

crocus and tazetta narcissus, tulips and daffodils flushing

sold off in the 1980s. It gave him no joy. I remember him

from February to May. In the small greenhouse up there

telling me he hated to see the once proud port redundant,

he tended a vine.

carved up, cast adrift into an uncertain future. I am writing this because, looking back, many of my

He planted lily of the valley near the house for my mother, large clumps of lavender and rosemary, great plum

father’s dreams were lived out in the garden that he created

red peonies and lavishly scented roses. He planted two

after the war. Thinking about gardens over the last year as I

laburnum trees, one for me, one for my brother, their loose

have been in thinking about Liverpool’s – of their decline and

lipped yellow flowers came in May and I knew from very early

fall, their creation, what they mean and why we make them,

on not to eat the little black seeds. POISONOUS! My father

grew a eucalyptus and a myrtle both of which he said had been struck from my grandmother’s wedding bouquet. My father built a rustic seat and a summer house from

After my father died, my brother and I sold the house. Just before the sale went through I visited one last time. It was a late summer’s day. I did not spend long walking

recycled planks where garden chairs were kept. He made twin

around the house – it was sullen with abandonment

flower tubs from old tyres and when we were a bit older and

and showing the battle scars of 30 years of us; I did not

didn’t need the lawn as much he planted a cherry tree on it so

really care about it anyway, but I cared about the garden.

he could sit beneath its shady limbs. A succession of pets was

Stepping outside through the back door, as I had done

buried in various flowerbeds: dogs and guinea pigs, goldfish,

all my life, I was met with a scene of carnage. Left home

gerbils, stick insects (those 1970s must-have pets); each loss,

alone for months the garden had grown delinquent and

mammalian or otherwise marked by a solitary rose.

wild, as if magnificently wrecked on the endless draughts

I never gardened myself. I used to watch the weekend

of sunlight from the all out party that is an English summer.

gardening activity from my window. I watched my parents

All the familiar order my father had for years imparted onto

kneeling before the flower beds in a vain sort of prayer

it had been lavishly, gloriously, guiltlessly squandered. In

silently stabbing at the unyielding Kentish soil with forks and

that moment I realised that the garden and I, for so long

trowels. Breaking their backs and their hearts over plants.

synchronised, had finally gone our separate ways. It was

In my teenage years I thought they were mad or sad, but

time to say goodbye. I took some photographs. I took a

I would inevitably descend after works were complete to

series of the small wooden greenhouse as I left down the

be shown what had been done, probably acknowledging

garden path. In each one it becomes progressively smaller,

the ‘improvements’ with a vaguely dismissive air. I did not

the wooden frame like the prow of a small scuttled ship,

want to admit that privately I was having a love affair with

sedately sinking into the luxuriance of a riotous, overblown

that garden. That I always had been since my eyes could

English garden, at last reclaimed by its original maker,

first focus on it from my bedroom window. Over the years

nature herself.

the garden had become my conspirator, my solace, my confidante. We had an understanding. The garden was the reason we lived in that house. The garden was, in the end, the reason that my father wouldn’t leave it. My grandfather and mother died, and my brother

As I turned my back on the garden of my childhood for the last time, I began a journey to discover others; to find its reflection elsewhere, as well as new horizons. This is how I arrived at the door of Liverpool’s Botanic Gardens.

and I left home, all in quick succession. My father remained.


In the winters, he complained about rattling around in the

What’s in a name? Liverpool’s three botanic gardens

house like a pill and I would suggest he came to live near

have had many. It’s like a restless search for identity.

me in London. Estate agents would be consulted, and then

The first garden will always and forever be known as

the spring would come. The garden would begin its annual

‘Liverpool Botanic Gardens’ but the second has been

seduction, wooing my father with all that he had planted,

styled ‘Wavertree Botanic Gardens’, the ‘Botanic Gardens

over all those years so that he couldn’t bring himself to

at Edge Lane’ and ‘Edge Lane Botanic Gardens’. Today it is

leave. He would say to me: I sat outside in the garden today for

known as ‘Wavertree Botanic Walled Garden’ and the park

the first time and I looked out, the cherry blossom was coming

beyond is ‘Botanic Park.’ The third garden has been known

into flower, the Ceanothus is breaking through, and I thought to

respectively as ‘Liverpool Botanic Gardens’; ‘The Glass

myself, there is nowhere I would rather be. So my father stayed

Section of Liverpool Botanic Gardens’, ‘Harthill Botanic

and I visited. Instead of moving house he moved round each

Gardens’, ‘The City Of Liverpool Botanic Gardens’ and

of the now empty bedrooms, finally settling on my old room.

‘Calderstones and Harthill Botanic Gardens’. What is clear

He said to me: It’s so quiet. The view of the garden is so lovely.

to me of the third garden is that both Percy Conn and Jim

When I wake up in the morning it’s still there.

Muir intended that the whole of Calderstones Park to be

In all my family lived 30 years with the garden that my

considered the Botanic Gardens. But I don’t think others

father made. It was a garden of games, celebrations, sulks

saw it this way. For most people, the Botanic Gardens

and arguments. A garden of suppressed longings, of wild

were the glasshouses. Sometimes I think the failure to

abandon, a place to break very bad news, a place for illness

re-name the whole of Calderstones Park as the Botanic

and a place to mourn. It held us back, it brought us forth.

Gardens divided the tropical glass collection further from

Somehow it sustained us. It certainly survived us and I doubt

its outdoor cousins; just as the dried collection had been

it misses us.

distanced from the living plants when it was removed to

the museum in the early 1900s. Sir George Taylor said

origin. I’m told this led to some interesting personal trials

in his opening speech at Harthill in 1964 that he hoped

by botanic gardeners all of which (like the Customs and

the collections would be reunited by turning the Mansion

Excise experiment) failed when it was established that

House at Calderstones Park into the Botanical Library and

hemp requires a particular light spectra in order to produce

Herbarium. But it was never to be.

its ‘medicinal’ effects – ones filtered out by the regular

When I think about the course of the gardens, I think of these degrees of distance as leaving them vulnerable.

horticultural glass of which the houses were made. After the ‘economics’ came the ‘broms’, Bromeliads, for

Sometimes I wonder: could the tyrannies of the ’80s have

which the gardens had been famous for over a hundred

happened if the Botanic Gardens had kept its collections

years; these were grown by Bert Cross who was a highly

together? If the enclosed garden which forms the classical

regarded specialist. Following on came the orchid house

botanic template, had been configured at Harthill?

for which Liverpool was famed. This was tended by Olly


Maguire who had learnt his craft from Blackwood Dalgelish and Charles Potts. Working alongside him was one of the

Through the ’60s and the early ’70s the Botanic Gardens

few female horticulturalists at the gardens – Sheila Woods,

enjoyed a heyday and there are plenty who recall it. The

a consummate grower who had trained at Kew.

gardens were the ’jewel in the crown’ of Liverpool’s parks department – one of the most renowned in Britain. The glasshouses were undoubtedly the centrepiece.

House 6 continued with orchids, but in landscaped displays – exquisite settings of both terrestrial and epiphytic plants. Finally came two outstanding phenomena; the

They were ranged round a vast corridor and divided into

begonia house with its popular displays of the winter

the ‘private’ where the plant propagation took place, and

flowering ‘Gloire de Lorraine’ and a fernery, comprising a

the ‘public’, the show-houses. To be in charge of one of

huge wall constructed of tufa rock. This had been rescued

these was the goal of all who worked there. The entrance

from the rockery at the Wavertree gardens and according

vestibule (where you paid your 5p fee) held magnificent

to myth had originally come from the volcanic region of

tree ferns, some of the oldest plants in the collection, set

Southern Italy, brought to Liverpool as ship’s ballast – a fact

within a colourful changing scene of bulbs, Pelargoniums,

confirmed when the Geologist at the World Museum recently

Hippeastrum and Fuchsias, plants associated with the

analysed a remaining piece of it for me. The fernery was the

garden’s Edwardian era at Wavertree. Entering the main

domain of Lol Hulme whose knowledge was legendary. From

corridor, visitors would find climbing Hoyas, Peperomias and

this wall, echoing both earlier gardens, grew an extraordinary

Passifloras. Next grew insectivorous plants – Dionaea and

green tapestry of textured ferns both temperate and

Drosera echoes of John Shepherd’s earlier experiments

tropical; Davallias, Platycerium, Adiantums.

at Mount Pleasant. In House 1 grew Angelonia gardneri,

It was the final pièce de resistance of a truly remarkable

introduced from Brazil by George Gardner in 1838; Begonias,

collection belonging to the people of the city, and the city

and in rotation; Streptocarpus, Saintpaulas and Euphorbia.

visited just as they had done for 140 years. If you went to

House 2 held temperate plants; the Dragon’s Blood Tree,

the gardens on a Sunday you might have seen local solicitor

the Olive.

Rex Makin who told me that he and his wife used to go – the

Following through was a lush vista of tropical foliage.

Sun Lounge being the perfect place to retreat to on a cold

Mimosas, Bow String Hemp and Marantas, Palms, the Fiddle

winter’s day. I wonder if they ever passed by Paul Scragg,

Leaf Fig, Cycads and Nepanthes, then more ‘economics’

now the Director of Liverpool’s Parks? Paul told me that

– Sugar Cane and Cotton, Rubber Plants, Coca, Pepper

his first visit came quite by chance when he and his wife

and Henna, all labelled to demonstrate their use to the

were new to the city. Strolling through Calderstones Park

thousands of schoolchildren who were brought to the

one weekend he says he more or less stumbled upon the

gardens. Gardeners who worked there have told me that

range, having no idea of its existence. He recalls being

the ‘economics’ (especially the medicinal plants) were far

overwhelmed at the sheer scale of the diversity and planting,

from being mere curios. They were the subjects of various

one vista unfolding after another.

experiments, some more scientific than others. At one time

Robin Bloxsidge, now Editor of Liverpool University Press,

Customs and Excise had a deal whereby the numerous

has also said that it was this sense of the never-ending green

types of illegal hemp (Cannabis) seized at the port would

that lured him to the gardens. He was a student then and

be grown on in the botanic glasshouses, the differing

the glasshouses were the final destination of many walks he

strengths of which could determine the crop’s country of

used to take round Liverpool as a new undergraduate and