Garden History Research

Garden labour and produce account book, 1881-1882
Warwickshire County Record Office, CR136/V157

The historical background and development of gardens has always interested me. When I first started my research work, I regret to say that I had never even been into my local record office!

For historical garden research, maps and plans are perhaps the most useful source of information that the Warwickshire County Record Office provides. They also have a large collection of prints and pictures of properties.

Written archives

Having put together some of the historical changes on a given estate with maps and prints, this picture must then be supplemented with a study of the written or printed archives. These are many and varied, and may be very extensive or virtually non-existent. The archive collection for Arbury near Nuneaton, for example, is very large, but much of the material is not relevant to gardens, so it has to be gone through methodically. Arbury was fortunate in that the Newdigate family kept a regular diary and we are fortunate enough to have more than 50 of these in the record office [under catalogue number CR0136]. It is quite a thrill to be able to handle and read an 18th century diary!

Sales catalogues themselves are often useful, containing maps and descriptions. Old collections of letters can be most informative and so can travel journals and diaries. Those from the 17th century onwards may talk about the parks, but scenery was not generally considered important enough to comment on until the second half of the 18th century.

Some basic texts can be consulted, including the Bibliography of British Gardens by Ray Desmond, the Victoria County Histories, Dugdale’s Warwickshire and the English Heritage Registers of Parks and Gardens. One of the most useful sources of information is the magazine Country Life, started in the 1890s.

‘In the field’

This interesting tour of discovery in the Record Office and the libraries must then be backed up by some practical work in the field. Armed with a photocopy of my site from the old OS maps and a modern map showing footpaths, I go and walk round the site, assessing what there is on the ground, making notes and taking photographs. Finally I can then write up as complete a history as possible from both the archive material and the site survey.

This is an abridged and edited version of an article originally published in the Friends of the Warwickshire County Record Office Newsletter, May 1993, and is reproduced with their permission.

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