Seed Catalogues and Invoices of Yorkshire Nurserymen and Suppliers

By Gail Falkingham, Record Assistant

Within the collections of the County Record Office, there are many examples of documents recording the various kinds of trees, shrubs, flowering plants and vegetables that were being grown around North Yorkshire in the past.

In a further instalment of our garden history series, we look at one of the most common forms of evidence: invoices and receipts for the purchase of seeds and plants. Many of these can be found in the bills, accounts and vouchers deposited with the archives of private family estates and individuals.

Yorkshire Nurserymen and Suppliers

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the families of Telford and Backhouse were noted Yorkshire nurserymen and suppliers. They provided young trees, plants and seeds to many of the wealthy estates in North Yorkshire. The 18th century saw a great increase in the demand for a wide variety of trees for the new styles of wooded landscapes being created at many large estates, such as Castle Howard, Studley Royal, Swinton and Duncombe Park. Hitherto, plants would have had to be sourced from London, or further afield in France and Holland. This would have been more expensive, and taken far longer, not least with the risks of keeping plants alive in transit. Having a local supply was much more convenient.

Telfords of York

This later 18th century example of a seed catalogue of Telfords of York is from the Darley of Aldby family archive (ZDA). John and George Telford were brothers, who ran the business following the death of John Telford, their father, in 1777. An extensive range of salad, flower, vegetable and tree seeds are available, along with a range of tools and ‘several other things for the use of gardeners’.

ZDA ‘A Catalogue of Seeds &c Sold by John and George Telford, Nurserymen and Seedsmen in Tanner Row, York’, undated [later 18th century].
ZQG  A Telford’s bill to Mr Cholmeley Esquire, signed as paid in full by John Telford on 25 September 1775.

Their catalogue is headed with a large illustration of Pomona and Vertumnus surrounded by a formal garden, plants, flowers and vegetables, as well as garden tools. In Roman mythology, Vertumnus is the god of the seasons, change and plant growth, as well as gardens and fruit trees. Pomona also is the goddess of fruit trees, gardens and orchards. Her name derives from the Latin word for fruit – pomum. Their story is one of the poems in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and their associations with gardens and fruit trees explain their presence in this catalogue.

Amongst the collection of vouchers in the Cholmeley of Brandsby archive (ZQG), a Telford’s bill to Mr Cholmeley for 1775 provides a long list of seeds, trees and shrubs purchased by him that year. A grand total of £8 12s 2d was spent, equivalent to £741 in today’s money (thanks to the National Archives’ online currency converter).

In March, he bought five different varieties of peas, as well as onions, radishes, beans, mustard, lettuce and carrot seed.

In April he was buying shrubs and flowers, including striped hollies, box, bays, best French carnations and yellow variegated geranium.

In August, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower and radish for growing over winter.

J Backhouse & Son Ltd

The Telford nursery business in York was bought by James and Thomas Backhouse in 1815, under whose ownership it became known as the ‘Kew of the North’. They were particularly noted for their collections of orchids, alpines and ferns, and for the creation of rockeries. A rare survival is the Edwardian Aysgarth Rock Garden in Wensleydale. This was built by William Angus Clark (1858-1950), who had been the alpine manager at J Backhouse and Sons until 1905. Commissioned by Frank Sayer Graham, who lived opposite at Heather Cottage, Aysgarth, around 1906, its importance is recognised by its designation as a Grade II Listed Building. Built from huge limestone blocks, which rise as high as eight metres in places, the rockery is designed as a miniature version of the Alps.

In the same period, we have a three-page estimate from Mr W King, manager of J Backhouse & Son Ltd, dated 10 October 1905 for the groundworks and planting around the newly built County Hall building, Northallerton (ZRA 49). This lists in detail the range of trees and shrubs which were to be planted ‘in a first class manner for the sum of £250’. They include 12 ornamental dressed pyramid golden yews for the forecourt and drive sides, which can still be seen today, somewhat larger than their original size of 4 feet! Also listed are oval-leaved privet for hedging, ornamental green hollies, rhododendron, Norway maple, horse chestnut and silver birch trees, and well as hundreds of assorted ‘flowering shrubs in great variety’.

Clipped golden yews to the forecourt and sides of the driveway of County Hall, Northallerton, March 2021 (photos by G Falkingham)

Further reading:

‘The Family of Telford, Nurserymen of York’ by John Harvey, 1971 in Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Part 167, being the 3rd part of Volume XLII for 1967-70, pp.352-357

‘Early Gardening Catalogues’ by John Harvey, 1972, Phillimore & Co. Ltd

The Backhouse Nursery of York 1815-1955’ by Jenny Askwith

The Backhouse Nursery Archive was deposited at the Borthwick Institute, York in 2010

‘Aysgarth Edwardian Rock Garden: A Story of Creation and Re-creation’ by Rosemary Anderson, 2014, York Publishing Services Ltd

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