In 1857, an article by Caroline A. White appeared in the periodical The Ladies’ Cabinet entitled ‘Home-Gardening for Ladies’. It offered some helpful tips for residents of the recently built sprawling London suburbs, where ‘green fields [were] daily disappearing before “freehold lots for building leases”’. Evidently, the gardens of these new houses had been plots themselves in the immediate past like those surrounding them. This was a horticultural problem, as the spectre of that workmanlike history always threatened to surface in the flower beds:
I have witnessed the formation and growth, aye, and sometimes the dying out, of many of these suburban fore-courts and gardens, and know full well the difficulties with which the proprietor has to struggle, unless the constant relays of mould and manure, and the attendance of a gardener from the nearest nurseryman’s, and a frequent renewal of plants, keep up an extravagant and meretricious beauty, or till the whole lapses into a wilderness of weeds; or in a fit of hopelessness or economy, is suddenly converted into a gravelled court.[i]
The origins of this initial struggle to secure a garden from a building plot lie beneath, of course, the soil having been corrupted by building debris. When it was a construction site the ground suffered a violation that changed its very composition. The place requires costly attention if it is ever to recover:
With the digging-out of the foundations of the intended dwelling comes the sale of the real mould that bedded the grassy turf it has encroached on; and after having been beaten down for months with scaffolding and trampling feet, the inequalities of the surface are filled up with a compost of brick-layer’s rubbish, over which sundry barrows of yellow clay are thrown…
The language is strikingly physical, ‘encroached’, ‘beaten’, ‘trampling’, ‘filled up’, and ‘thrown’ being suggestive of some kind of violence, a primal scene of abuse that can only ever be partly hidden by the ‘oblong centre bed’ that currently features. The advertising boards that surround building plots describing fully-built houses aim to distract attention away from the sites as they actually appear, suggesting that they are peculiarly future-oriented kinds of space.[ii] Yet construction work has an unintentionally lengthy afterlife in the places where it is has been undertaken, echoes of the builders’ ‘trampling feet’ lingering on in ideally feminised domestic environments long after the workmen have vanished.
White suggests that all is not lost, however, and a viable garden can be won, with a degree of effort. Indeed, there can even be unexpected benefits to the speculative builder’s replacement of industrial ‘yellow clay’ for ‘real mould’:
…this condition is not in itself, inimical to future culture; on the contrary, the sub-stratum of builder’s rubbish creates capital drainage, and the clayey soil is infinitely better than a sandy one, and may be lightened and enriched…with the addition of a few barrowfuls of stable manure, easily procurable in any neighbourhood…
In the new suburban houses, constructed swiftly by speculative builders at the edge of Victorian cities, and in particular, London, it was a challenge for the owners to make the best of it: in their gardens, women of the ascendant swollen middle classes were on the front-line, working hard to secure what social capital they could from the commodity into which they had invested: to transform a plot into a garden, and thus, a house into a home.
[i] Caroline A. White, ‘Home Gardening for Ladies’, The Ladies’ Cabinet, 1 Jan 1857.
[ii] Ian Sinclair writes compellingly of the weirdly futuristic character of contemporary building plots and the advertising billboards that encircle them when he discusses the site in Hackney currly being prepared for ‘London 2012’ : ‘this termite activity, the neurotic compulsion to enclose and alienate, justifies itself by exploiting temporary fences to use as masking screens, noticeboards for sponsors’ boasts, assertions of a bright, computer-generated future.’ ‘The Olympics Scam’, in London Review of Books, Vol. 30 No. 12, 19 June 2008, p17-23.