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Keep off the Grass: Archive exhibition celebrates the work of College gardeners

1954 - The College staff gathered behind the Gordon Lennox Cup
1954 - The College staff gathered behind the Gordon Lennox Cup, presented by the Royal Horticultural Society to the best amateur gardeners.

The neatly-mowed lawns and well-maintained grounds at St John’s are often taken for granted, but a new exhibition in the College Archive Centre celebrates the great work of the College gardeners during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The exhibition entitled ‘Keep Off The Grass: SJC Gardeners Through Time’ showcases photographs of garden staff, balance sheets and wages books, contracts, garden reports, news clippings, and also focuses on the successes of College gardeners. By the late 19th century St John’s had extensive grounds and by 1871 the College employed a Head Gardener and two under-gardeners, bringing in other staff seasonably to work alongside the permanent staff members.

Visitors can view letters and recommendations written by the Bursar regarding the appointment or promotion of staff members; one such letter written in 1890 recommends to Council that William Burgess, College Gardener, should receive a pension upon his retirement; he had been a gardener at St John’s for 57 years. A pension of 10 shillings a week was granted, or £29.95 in today’s money.

A picture of Cricket Field Cottage is on display, a cottage in which the groundsman and his family were allowed to live whilst employed by the College. In 1871 Henry Fuller, custodian of the cricket ground and gardener – later Head Gardener –  lived in the cottage with his wife and seven children, and paid £8 rent for the house.

A contract and set of instructions for College Groundsman James Covill, appointed in 1899, can also be viewed; Covill was responsible for taking care of the field, equipment, and umpiring cricket matches, as well as supplying refreshments at the Pavilion. He was paid £40 a year, and the groundsman and his family were also able to occupy ‘the dwelling house at the Pavilion’.

Prize-winning apples, 1959, An exhibit of 27 varieties of applesThe exhibition particularly highlights the work of Ralph Thoday, Head Gardener of the Kitchen Garden in 1928 and then of the College gardens in 1931 until his retirement in 1973. Thoday became widely known in the horticultural world for exhibiting at the shows of the Royal Horticultural Society on behalf of St John’s and he and his garden staff won many awards over the space of 30 years for their exhibits of fruit and vegetables. One of the prize-winning exhibits of 27 varieties of apples was especially popular, with the apples grown in the Kitchen Garden on Madingley Road or in the orchard on the Backs, now the Scholar’s Garden; a photograph of this exhibit is on display.

The Head Gardener’s Report, dated 1936, can also be viewed, in which Thoday outlines the current issues in the gardens and his suggestions for improvements in areas including the Wilderness, the paths, and the shrub border. He mentions that the paths were in a very unsatisfactory condition due to the amount of horse and cart traffic.

Thoday, who called himself “an instinctive gardener”, said that he chose to work in a Cambridge College because “If you are working for a firm, you very seldom see any plant bought to perfection because as soon as it’s a saleable size, it’s gone. As a head gardener of a college you get to see the fruit of your labours.” After his retirement he was awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour, the highest award from the Royal Horticultural Society.

The College gardens have changed since Thoday’s retirement – there is now no Kitchen Garden, the College gardeners no longer provide the College with fruit and vegetables, and two female gardeners are now employed by the College, which was unheard of in Thoday’s time.

‘Keep Off The Grass: SJC Gardeners Through Time’ is open until Friday 28 April and is located in the College Archive Centre in the School of Pythagoras. Members of the College can visit from 10am to 4pm Monday to Friday, and members of the public from 10am to 4pm on Wednesday and Thursday, or by appointment on Monday, Tuesday and Friday – please contact archivist@joh.cam.ac.uk.