An Economic History of the English Garden

by Roderick Floud

Penguin Random House 2019

Reviewed by Valerie Joynt, May 2020

Do not be deceived by the illustration on the dust jacket of this book – it is a reproduction of  Thomas Robins the Elder: The Chinese Kiosk, Woodside, Old Windsor. It may suggest to you another literary tribute to the eighteenth-century rococo garden but that is far from the truth.

The garden illustrated on the jacket is Woodside, near Ascot, which underwent several ‘make-overs’ in its history.  In the nineteenth century it was the home of the socio-political economist Charles Stanton Devas (1848-1906) an association which may have appealed to Professor Sir Roderick Floud FBA who has edited four editions of The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain.  Woodside today is the home of Elton John and has been the object of considerable financial husbandry since it was purchased in 1974 for over £400000, equivalent to nearly £5 million in today’s values.

Professor Floud had a much more prosaic intention in writing this book: to examine in detail the realistic costs incurred by garden-makers from 1660 in terms of today’s money and to emphasise the huge economic contribution made by the horticultural industry to the modern economy.

This is a serious book about the real cost of creating historic gardens and the impact of Floud’s message is dependent upon an acceptance of his method of translating historic costs into present day values.  The Introduction is not long enough to explain the economic theory behind his chosen method, but the reader is referred to a websiteⁱ for further research.  In simple terms if we were to translate, say, the 1716 cost of building a garden wall (£11 6s 4d: Appuldurcombe accounts book) this could be translated into 2020 values by one of several methods, each producing a very different result.  Using the RPI this equates to £1660 today but using the measure of Average Earnings, which Professor Floud prefers, it becomes a more realistic £23,200.   It is suggested that in 1789 Humphry Repton charged five guineas a day for his advice, this would equate to apx. £8000 per day.  It is essential that the reader understands and accepts these comparators as Floud’s argument is that we have been led grossly to underestimate the costs of garden making in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

The second question which Floud poses is this: if over  several centuries the English people have not ceased to create gardens, improve landscapes, employ hundreds of thousands of workers and to develop associated trades in horticulture, botanical exploration, tourism, literature  and television, why does the government dismiss it all as merely ‘ “a hobby” of little economic significance’?  This, he contends, is the fault of past writers and historians who have failed to make valid equivalence between the expenditure of the past and the value of the pound today.

If all this sounds a bit dry, there is plenty of interest to the non-economist. There are chapters on ‘Great Gardens’, ‘Designers’, ‘the Nursery Trade’,  the Working Gardener’, and ‘Kitchen Gardens’.  He is guilty of some repetition across the chapters: this I believe is because his work has evolved over many years, giving lectures² on the disparate subjects, which are brought together finally in this highly informative book.

ii  For example Gresham College: Gardening Entrepreneurs – Professor Sir Roderick Floud FBA.