What the Victorians did for Sheffield - left us lovely gardens

Collecting ferns was once an obsession for Victorians. Pictures: Vin Malone
Collecting ferns was once an obsession for Victorians. Pictures: Vin Malone
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As Reg said in The Life Of Brian: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

The same could be said of the Victorians, with canals, transport, railways, buildings and gardens, writes Vin Malone.
The Victorian age, of industrial revolution and squalid city slums, was also the age of a popular explosion of interest in that most British of pastimes, gardening.
Prior to the Victorians’ insatiable search for new plants and trees, the gardens that the working class cultivated was more or less non-existent.
In the countryside you could see the original cottage gardens where agricultural workers had a small garden to grow flowers and vegetables but the town dwellers didn’t even have a window box.
The Victorians did change all that with botanists travelling to the far-flung reaches of the world to bring back rare plants, of which some turned out to be invasive and now are a big problem.
The well-to-do Victorians in the towns and cities jumped at the chance to have the exotic plants and trees in their gardens.
From this surge in the interest in gardening, a concerted effort was made by authorities to provide extensive public gardens.
There was a reason for this benevolent behaviour by the well-to-do.
They believed that gardens would decrease drunkenness and improve the manners of the lower classes, a belief that was entirely wrong.
Intellectuals and the upper classes also encouraged gardening as means of decreasing social unrest.
The expanding British Empire opened up far-flung corners of the globe to avid gardeners, and a sort of collector-mania spread throughout Britain.
Avid botanists combed the globe for new and exotic plants to bring home.
One of the results of this frenzy of collecting was another craze, bedding out plants.
The concept of bedding plants was Aztec in origin, but in the hands of Victorian enthusiasts it became a British passion.
The bedding out craze, together with improved greenhouse design, resulted in a fashion for massed beds of vibrantly-coloured plants laid out in intricate mosaic patterns.
In the course of my walks around the city, usually Broomhall, seeking out the homes of the Victorians who were the movers and shakers of the day, besides having some fantastic homes, the gardens they stand in are a horticulturist’s delight.
I’ve seen Monterey cypress trees, which is an endangered species back in California and here it is growing quite happily on Broomhall Road.
The many different types of pine and fir trees are unbelievable.
Japanese maples abound, as do tulip trees, beech, sycamore, holly, acers, plane, hornbeam, elm etc.
Think of any tree and you will find it hereabouts.
One tree that only attains a height of 33 feet or so is the amelanchier laevis, which is also known as juneberry, serviceberry and snowy mespilus.
In April it produces delicate white flowers which turn into berries that start out red and turn to black.
There’s an abundance of these trees around Broomhall and the berries are totally ignored by people, despite the fact that they are more beneficial than cranberries and taste very sweet.
Just close by on Wharncliffe Road I noticed a leycesteria formosa (I looked it up). I know it as pheasant berry and it was popular with Victorian gamekeepers because, as the name indicates, pheasants loved the berries that form after flowering.
This plant seems to have fallen from favour now but they still grow in gardens, the last one I saw was in Colwyn Bay.
The plant also goes by the name flowering nutmeg.
The pheasant berry’s natural habitat is the Himalayas but here it is in the heart of Sheffield, growing quite happily.
As I don’t drive, my journeys are always by bus, the 120 to be precise.
I alight just opposite the Hallamshire Hospital, from there there’s a short lane on to Clarkehouse Road.
A few times I’ve noticed shrubs growing along the right-hand side of the lane, the leaves are quite large, so I decided to search for what I thought these shrubs are.
On looking for the leaves I was right, they are figs. These specimen trees come from Turkey to as far as India, and you can see these fig trees growing along the sides of the Don where their seeds have been dropped by birds and then just taken root.
In his column last Saturday, Professor Ian Rotherham wrote about Sheffield’s internationally-famous fig forest along the River Don.
He said: “I still get visitors from around the world, coming to see the fig trees around Meadowhall. Following their 1970s discovery by local steel-owner Richard Doncaster and botanist Margaret Shaw, these Mediterranean trees were made famous by the late Oliver Gilbert, Sheffield’s pioneering urban ecologist.
“The fig seeds pass intact through the human gut and are ready to germinate.
“With local rivers constantly warm from acting as coolants for great factories, this was home from home for heat-loving figs.
“Crude sewerage systems meant raw human waste passed straight into the rivers and carried the fig seeds with them. The rest as they say is ‘history’.
“The River Don was where the figs were first discovered and the extensive ‘forest’ along the riverside at Meadowhall is the most famous site.
“However, there are good numbers along the Sheaf and the Porter, where you can see specimens at Heeley Bridge and by the old Ward’s Brewery, for example.
“There are also huge fig trees along the Sheffield Canal near the Tinsley marina.
“Figtree Lane commemorates a notable medieval specimen grown in a garden close to the residence of a famed ‘blind-fiddler’.”
If it wasn’t for the Victorian botanists searching the four corners of the world, risking life and limb, we just wouldn’t have the variety of plants, trees and shrubs which we see in every garden in England.
While walking up the drive of Oakholme, now part of the university, each side of the drive has tall fir trees all the way from the road to the house.
It’s a pity John Wilson who lived there in 1825 never saw what they have grown into,
I’m lucky I did, all John Wilson could do was just imagine.
The Victorians were very fond of ferns, these can be seen in nearly every garden in what was Broomhall Park.
Victorian decorative arts presented the fern motif in pottery, glass, metal, textiles, wood, printed paper, and sculpture, with ferns appearing on everything from christening presents to gravestones and memorials.
A great Victorian craze, pteridomania (pterido being Latin for ferns) was the huge love affair for ferns and all things fern-like in Britain between 1840s and 1890s.
The term was coined in 1855 by Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, in his book Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore.
The Victorian era was the heyday of the amateur naturalist.
Originally marketed in the 1830s as plants that appealed only to intelligent people, ferns soon became a nationwide phenomenon.
To collect ferns – the more exotic the better – you needed a fernery.
This was often a glasshouse where the ferns could be cultivated and displayed but there were also outdoor ferneries, created in the form of gothic grottos such as the one at Bicton Park in Devon.
This is one of the earliest ferneries in England, being laid out in the early 1840s. The fernery’s strategically-placed boulders and large rocks create a cool, moist root-run whilst the surrounding trees and shrubs give shade and protection to the plants.
The large rocks and boulders abound around Broomhall Park, The craze lasted for some 50 years before waning, when many ferneries were allowed to fall into disuse and grow wild.
There appears to be no particular reason for this: it did however coincide with the death of Queen Victoria and the early 1900s, so perhaps ferns simply became unfashionable – it was “so last century, my dear.”
The Broomhall park was denied to the hoi-polloi and they were avidly discouraged not to come to the area, as the surviving gatehouses lay witness to.
At one time gates reached across the roads to restrict access by the undesirables.
Despite their ideas on the poor people of the town, the forward-thinking Victorians left us a great legacy, with their great houses, inventions and gardens.
Unfortunately, some of the gardens have been left to run wild, which is a shame, some have been ripped up for the car but most have been looked after and tended as was intended by the people who set them down.
I have a great love of trees and one thing I have noticed in the Broomhall Park area is that there’s no trees growing at the roadside, they are all in the gardens of the houses.
That to me shows just how dear the Victorians held their trees, the species to be seen is unbelievable.
Take a walk round Broomhall and see for yourself just what the Victorians did for us.

Beautiful mixed planting in one Victorian Sheffield garden

Beautiful mixed planting in one Victorian Sheffield garden

Figs seen growing on a lane in Broomhall

Figs seen growing on a lane in Broomhall

The pheasant berry, an imported Himalayan plant

The pheasant berry, an imported Himalayan plant

An abundance of trees on Mackenzie Crescent

An abundance of trees on Mackenzie Crescent