A Home for The Daffodil King

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We are just three months away now from a momentous occasion on Garratt Lane, Tooting in south west London. On Saturday 21st September, a gathering on a patch of grass outside a utility building at the edge of the Aboyne Estate at the junction of Garratt Lane and Wimbledon Road will witness the unveiling of a historic plaque commemorating the extraordinary horticultural heritage of this Wandle Valley area. We will pay homage to a Scottish seedsman called Peter Barr, whose remarkable mission one hundred and fifty years ago, to rejuvenate the daffodil in this country, was undertaken at his nurseries, here in this locality. It very rightly led to him being renowned all over the world as ‘The Daffodil King’.

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This year, as if anticipating the great event, they came early – I saw my first daffodil in Sussex on New Year’s Day. Thankfully though, they were in their glory by the time of the first ‘Blooming Tooting’ Walk in mid-March. Over the past six months, funds for this initiative have been raised through a number of local history walks on the site of the ‘Tooting Nurseries’. Local schools have got involved, most notably Broadwater Primary who have produced some excellent material which can be seen at an exhibition on Unveiling Day. Talks were given to Mitcham Horticultural Society, at Merton Heritage Discovery Day and to various charities and community groups. There has been huge enthusiasm, Work and Play Scrapstore hosted and provided upcycled materials for a very successful ‘daffodil-making’ craft workshop at their Hazelfest event where Berit’s stunning blooms were a star attraction. It will be repeated at the Broadwater Road Fun Day and also the Friends of Streatham Cemetery Open Day. We’ll be using these magnificent creations made by local people to decorate ‘Peter Barr’s Hut’ on Unveiling Day. The response has been overwhelming, Tooting has truly been engulfed with ‘Daffodilmania’.
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Two more Walks in July will continue to explore the area and its horticultural connections. On 6th July ‘Blooming Tooting’ features the site of Springfield Hospital and the Share Community Nursery. ‘Fields of Gold’ on 27th July takes in both Lambeth and Streatham Cemeteries and the ‘Fairlight’ area in between. All these sites were once populated by nurseries and market gardens, a great swathe of yellow on my map. Of course it wasn’t all daffodils that were grown, Peter Barr alone was renowned for his tulips, snowdrops, irises and peonies – but the romantic vision of ‘Fields of Gold’ is hard to shake off. On 13th July we’ll have a presence at the wonderful Broadwater Road Community Fun Day in Tooting. Come and see the plaque, have a chat and help make some daffodil decorations for Unveiling Day. Beautiful Streatham Cemetery was built in 1892 on what was previously Springfield Nursery. We’ll be there with our stand at the Friends of Streatham Cemetery Open Day on 15th September. Listen, we’ll go anywhere to make sure the story of Peter Barr and his Tooting connections gets to as wide an audience as possible. Only last week it was up to City Hall to show the plaque to the Mayor of London.
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Old maps and archive material indicate that Peter Barr’s footprint covered a good stretch of Garratt Lane in the three decades he was associated with this area. His family were all raised here and on one momentous day in 1879, six of his children were baptised in St Mary’s Church in Summerstown. These children were all under ten when he first settled in Tooting and would have grown up amongst the flowers and sweetly-scented daffodil fields. The Broadwater pupils were particularly taken with Agnes, born in 1866 who was a small child when the family came to Tooting. She was encouraged by her father to illustrate various specimins to aid identification at a time when there weren’t any cameras. Clearly he had high expectations of her as in one correspondence he sternly notes ‘She is only young at flower painting but has good promise with practice’. She carried on this illustration work until after she married, an inspiration perhaps for fellow south Londoner, RHS orchid illustrator Nellie Roberts, buried in Lambeth Cemetery.
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Finding a location to put up the plaque was not easy. Peter Barr was definitely associated with numbers 6, 10 and 18 New Road, the name of which changed twice later. Now the last grand blast of Garratt Lane before it hits Tooting Broadway, at least two of these fine houses still stand, though they bear a very different address. Built around 1855, not long before Barr’s arrival in Tooting, they fulfil James Thorne’s description so aptly, when in 1876 in his Handbook to the Environs of London, he described the area as ‘A region of villas and nursery gardens, very pleasant’. With their long-disappeared names, Myrtle Villa, Slaveley Villa, Wycombe Villa and Sussex Villa, these were the villas and they formed a gateway to the nurseries of Garratt Lane.
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They stretched all the way up Garratt Lane to Summerstown covering land now filled with streets and houses, Broadwater School and Streatham Cemetery. On the other side of the road was Bell’s Farm and the Exotic Nursery run by Robert Parker, renowned for his orchids. The Barrs was definitely resident at Bell’s Farm for a while around the time of the 1881 census and they pop up at a Park Terrace in Summerstown before relocating to more spacious surroundings in Surbiton around 1891, thus ending their 30 year connection with Tooting.
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It was agreed that a better place to place a plaque would be somewhere that daffodils were actually grown. Helping us find such a location was none other than Peter Barr himself, with a little help from E A Bowles’ transcription. Filling in a few of the gaps in George Dear’s research, we made visits to the RHS Lindley Library, Kew Gardens Herbarium and the RHS Archives at Wisley. All proved extremely productive and made us understand even more distinctly just what a significant figure Peter Barr is. The Kew Archives contained fascinating correspondences but it was hard to beat the thrill of opening up a dense volume of pressed ericas grown in the Tooting nurseries in 1859. They might have pre-dated Peter Barr by a few years but it really was quite a jaw-dropping moment to see something so old, grown in our area, preserved for the nation in such an auspicious collection.
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Amongst the extensive notes in the Lindley Library at Vincent Square, we found one key indicator as to where his nursery was – certainly in 1885 when he wrote it. Peter Barr was giving directions to someone and described how they could get a train from Waterloo to Earlsfield. He even knew the times of the trains! The visitor was advised to check with the station-master and come down Garratt Lane and look out for the entrance of ‘Barr and Sons Grounds opposite the Holborn Almshouses’. Built in 1848, the beautiful Holborn Estate almshouses are still there and it’s across the road from them that we will put up Peter Barr’s Plaque.
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It will be fixed to the small building currently used by council maintenance staff looking after the estate. A patch of grass directly in front of this has potential for future developments; some planting, an information sign, perhaps a bench. Somewhere to sit and ponder the magnitude of the horticultural activity that took place here. Its certainly not an unpleasant view, looking out on one of the oldest most ornate buildings in the area, a view more akin to the rustic Cotswolds than south London SW17. A zebra crossing connects the location with the almshouses. Garratt Lane intersects with Wimbledon Road via a roundabout. Close to a number of schools and a bus-stop, its a busy place with thousands of people passing by every day. The Aboyne estate is known by many who live there as having been built on the site of the grounds of Springfield Farm. Very few knew about its earlier association with the nurseries.
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George Dear viewed the plaque for the first time a few days ago and was thrilled to see another step forward in the work he started 25 years ago, Just how relevant that was became clear to me when RHS International Registrar (Daffodil & Delphinium), Melanie Underwood showed me the files at RHS Wisley, containing all his carefully preserved notes and correspondences. Her predecessor Sally Kington helped George all those years ago and did additional research later. It is very fitting that she will be attendng on 21st September. She has been a great help in advising on the wording for the plaque as well as the location. Sally has also identified a number of varieties of daffodil grown by Peter Barr which we hope to have on hand on the big day to encourage local planting. Thanks also to John Brown, Marion Gower, Kate Filby and Sheila Hill who have all contributed to getting to know Peter Barr a little better.
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And thanks most of all to the good people of Wandsworth and further afield who have come on our walks and donated so enthusiastically and generously towards this initiative. A huge thankyou also to everyone at the Royal Horticultural Society and The Daffodil Society who have been so helpful and supportive. We’ll never forget the first visit to the Lindley Archives and the hushed, almost reverential aura as Peter Barr’s portrait was brought to us on a trolley with great ceremony. Encased in a box, the lid was slowly raised to reveal his familiar visage and a pair of piercing turquoise eyes danced with delight. Surely I believe at all the fuss we are making of him. He deserves it – Flower to the People!
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