Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Flowers in London

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FLOWERS IN LONDON.

    THE love of nature is not to be trodden out of the human heart by the conventional forms and usages of the world. Amid the most matter-of-fact and even repulsive aspect of business, with all its turmoils and anxieties, its annoyances and discomforts, the idea of her simple grace and loveliness will intrude and claim a place and find a welcome. The contemplation of beauty is to the millions, who perhaps are but very partially conscious of the fact, a necessity of their lives; and a very benevolent necessity it is, for more reasons than we have space to mention - and for the reason especially that is prompts every right-minded man to harmonise his own conduct with the ideal which nature exhibits, and silently admonishes him that his actions, to be beautiful, must be good, and honest, and true. It is impossible to say to what extent the exquisite flowers that summer sheds in profusion around our path are our friends and benefactors. They speak a language that all understand, and love to listen to - coming, like angels of mercy, to deliver a message of peace ; and dying, and we gaze upon them, to teach us how feeble and fragile are the loveliest and the brightest of all created things.
    The universal love for flowers in this great metropolis is a passion that admits of no question, but the proof of which greets us daily in our walks. Even in the smoky resorts of the city, the choicest productions of the conservatory and the garden are visible, during the season, in every street, and almost every house. The very back-slums and abodes [-180-] of the poor are green with dusty mignonette or lanky geraniums without a blossom, lifting their tops towards the light of the sky and if we walk into the suburbs, we find the residences of the comfortable classes brilliant with hues that are never spread on a painter's palette, or on the arch of the rainbow. In this respect the aspect of modern London differs immensely from what it was a generation back. Then, the myrtle (now almost an exploded plant), a few old-fashioned geraniums, and hyacinths in coloured glasses, with here and there a ranunculus, constituted nearly the whole of the portable garden which adorned the windowsills and balconies of our sires - or rather of their better-halves - for at that time of day flowers were held to be beneath the notice of gentlemen. Now, so widely has an improved taste extended, that almost every new house of any pretensions to comfort has its conservatory appended to it, and a new class, or rather many new classes, of traders and dealers in flowers have risen up to meet the growing demand for them. Walking some time ago in a fashionable district at the West End of the town, we came suddenly in front of a spectacle transcending in beauty and brilliancy all that we had ever seen or imagined in floral luxuriance. It was a family residence about sixty feet in height, and not less than thirty in width, the entire street-front of which, from the roof to the pavement, was one enormous and magnificent bouquet. From the battlements to the kitchen-window, level with the road, the whole was a monster flower-stand, crammed in every part with the finest specimens which the horticultural art could produce of the productions of all climes, all growing in pots and arranged in shelves one above another, concealing the whole of the brickwork and nearly the whole of' the windows of the mansion their delicate odour filled the street.
    The passion for flowers, of which the above remarkable demonstration is the greatest existing proof we happen to [-181-] know of, betrays itself in London in a two-fold manner - by the purchase of flowers full-blown and by their home-culture. The morning markets, and Covent Garden market especially, daily supply the flowers which, sold in shops or hawked through the city and suburbs, are disposed of for personal or domestic decoration to the two million inhabitants. Some idea may be formed of the quantities used for this latter purpose, from the fact that, at a single entertainment given by an aristocratic family to their friends, twenty-five or thirty pounds is no extraordinary charge for the flowers that fill the bouquet-vases scattered through the rooms or adorning the banqueting-table. We may remark, too, that London markets supply the whole kingdom with the choicest flowers, when wanted for festive occasions. We have seen bouquets for wedding parties adroitly packed in tins, and sent by express trains into the heart of Scotland, at the charge of a guinea each ; their stems being embedded in moist wadding, they arrive perfectly fresh after their journey, and often travel hundreds of miles after the feast is over, borne off as presents by the guests. In the immediate neighbourhood of London are grown the finest flowers of all kinds that our climate can be made to produce and so active is speculation in this branch of commerce, that the growers will give almost any price for a new specimen - and few indeed are the rarities in the Royal Botanical Garden, which have any claims to floral beauty, which may not be bought for a price in the nurseries surrounding the capital. It is owing to this commercial value of flowers that the gardens throughout the country, both public and private, present such a different appearance to what they did thirty years ago, and are so wonderfully enriched by new treasures. When the fuchsia, now a favourite with every cottager, first came to this country - hardly more than twenty-five years back - fortunes were made by its cultivation, five guineas each being  demanded and received for thriving roots, which may now be bought [-182-] for sixpence. Though the rose will not flourish well very near the city, yet roses are grown by the acre at no great distance, and their leaves are sold to the chemists by the hundredweight for the extraction of the attar, the most exquisite of all odours, and the most expensive. Moss-roses are retailed in the streets in immense numbers, by women, who, in the precincts of the Inns of Court or of the Exchange, and in the more gentlemanly resorts of business, find a continual demand for them. The violet, naturally a spring flower, has been transformed by the spirit of commerce into a perennial one; and the violet-girl accosts on at all seasons of the year, even in the depth of winter, with her dark-blue posies buried in scraps of letter-paper. Wall-flowers, cabbage-roses, pinks, and carnations, &c., &c., mingled with sweet-smelling herbs, come to town in waggon-loads, and find a place in the street-markets along with the roots and vegetables of the humbler classes, and are as readily and as certainly purchased by them as the greens and turnips for the Sundays dinner. A dealer, standing on the kerb-stone of a frequented thoroughfare, will sometimes, on a favourable Saturday, sell from three to four hundred bunches of mixed flowers at a penny a bunch.
    It is no marvel that the attempt to cultivate flowers should grow out of this general partiality in their favour. In consequence of this attempt, London plays very much the part of a general cemetery for the floral race. Millions upon millions are brought here from year to year to die. So soon as winter shows signs of retreating, come the cheap spring roots - primroses, polyanthuses, London-pride, and all that cottage-garden tribe so dear to the lovers of the countryside. These are cried about the town in hand-carts, and are followed soon after by flowering roots - early geraniums and rising seedlings. The travelling gardener pursues his trade throughout the summer, and is always welcome, notwithstanding the awkward fact, that - from one cause or other, [-183-] partly no doubt from doctoring, to get his flowers earlier to market - his merchandise is astonishingly short-lived. Lookings to our own dealings with this worthy - for we cannot do without flowers - the residuum of ten years' commercial transactions with him resolves itself into ten plants, two dead and three dying of this year's purchase, and a hundred or so of empty pots buttressing the dust-box in the garden.
    Having the disadvantage of smoke and soot to contend with, it seems strange that a dweller within the sound of Bow Bells should enter the lists against the floriculturist of the country, and compete with him for the prize at the flower-show, which occasionally comes off in the neighbourhood. Yet he does it, and, as we can testify, is often successful, as we have seen him carry off the prize more than once against all competitors. We had no idea, however, until properly instructed on the subject, of the labour and watchfulness entailed upon one who undertakes such a competition in a suburban garden of some forty feet by twenty. Our informant, who carried off a dahlia prize, did not allow himself, for the last. three weeks preceding the show, to sleep more than an hour and a half at a time. Twice every three hours during the night did he descend to the garden in his night-gown, and, lantern in hand, examined every leaf and spray of the flower in training, in search of slugs or earwigs, a single nibble from either of which would have ruined his hopes. He told us, with breathless interest, that he only saved his credit at last by catching a piratical earwig in the very act of assaulting his flower as the quarters chimed half-past two that very morning. The poor fellow wrought. sixteen hours a day at shoe-making, but he declared he should hardly have forgiven himself if he had allowed the earwigs to defeat him.
    We look upon the growing love for flowers as an evidence that we are getting on in a morally right direction. In the "good old times,'' when bull-baiting was a popular sport [-184-] and badger-drawing a gentlemanly pastime, there were no popular flower-shows; and the recreations of the artisan classes were more marked by the love of cruelty their the love of nature, which flower-shows are calculated to impart. The increase of public extramural cemeteries, where flowers are always planted in profusion, and droop their beautiful petals over the dead, may be one cause why we have learned to prize them more than we did. May we prize them more and more and may our words and deeds be flowers, and smell sweet and blossom when we are dust.

source: Charles Manby Smith, The Little World of London, 1857