The Day of The Daffodil


Last Friday lunchtime, a great floral garland of vibrant yellow and cream appeared on our famous Edward VII statue outside Tooting Broadway tube station. Just to be clear what was going on, he also clutched a large arty daffodil made out of canvas, chicken wire and a cardboard drink carton. Bewildered passers-by gazed curiously at the newly-decorated monarch and reached for their phones. Perhaps a clue may have been the direction he was gazing –  looking towards Garratt Lane and the Tooting Nurseries – towards the realm of a regal rival, Mr Peter Barr, ‘The Daffodil King’. Dressed to impress for the arrival of Mrs Langtry, Queen Victoria’s eldest has done many things and been to many places, but had he ever waved a giant daffodil from the Work and Play Scrapstore?


Twenty four hours later Mr Jan Pennings, Chair of the Royal Horticultural Society Bulb Committee, straight off the plane from Amsterdam, stepped out of the station to be welcomed to ‘Blooming Tooting’ by a Dutch-speaking Rose. He was carrying a huge bag of bulbs. It was game on, The Day of the Daffodil was underway. What followed saw Garratt Lane in Summerstown transformed for a few hours into a fragrant magical garden, inhabited by enchanted ‘daffodil people’. It could not have been any more joyous. A glorious day at the end of September beneath the bluest of skies. They came to salute Peter Barr ‘The Daffodil King’ and find out more about our wonderful horticultural heritage on the banks of the Wandle. And they came for their historic bulbs…


This was the grand climax to a year of Walks, Talks, participation in community events, visits to schools and trips to libraries, museums and archives, learning much more about daffodils than I thought it was possible to know. Our plaque unveiling day was proud to be part of Wandle Fortnight and the annual three day TOOTOPIA festival. But it was also the beginning of something – bags of bulbs were furiously swept up by people clearly enthused by our ‘let’s plant’ call. Now it’s over to the good folk of Tooting, Earlsfield and Wandsworth to plant those daffodils in time for a spring uprising not seen in these parts for one hundred and fifty years!


The entrance to the Holborn Estate opposite the almshouses looked magnificent that morning. A resident’s Mum had made us some beautiful yellow and green bunting which made sure everyone knew that something special was happening.  It was so hot we couldn’t tape the curtain over the plaque without it coming away and our planned exhibition on the wall of the gardeners hut kept falling down. Vijay’s cool warm-up tunes kept us calm as the two Johns ran up and down the ladder more times than Bob the Builder. It didn’t matter, there was something special in the air as people gathered at the entrance to the Aboyne estate. Some didn’t know what was going on, others had been told something about the daffodil man by their children who had been learning about him at school, a few had been looking forward to this day for years. Surely none more than 85 year old George Dear, all the way from Furzedown on his mobility scooter. The man who researched this story 25 years ago. I do hope he’s forgiven us for putting the plaque here and not on a wall in his hometown Pevensey. Road.


Also there was Sally Kington. We first met her in the summer when on a blazing hot day, we invited her to join us on a mad midsummer jaunt to St Albans to honour Frederick Sander, ‘The Orchid King’. It was such a big deal to get Sally’s blessing for this project and her enthusiasm and support has been boundless. Once upon a time she was International Daffodil Registrar, keeping track of 28,000 varieties of daffodil and thrilled when she got the call from Tooting to help George with his research. Joining this daffodil royalty and representing The Daffodil Society, also present was another former winner of The Peter Barr Memorial Cup, Reg Nicholl. He was so pleased to be among us – what an honour to have this trio of ‘Daffodil people’ grace our special day.  The Mayor of Wandsworth made sure they all got a special welcome in her opening address which referenced the Huguenots market gardeners who first turned the soil onthis stretch of Wandle Valley.


The mighty John ‘Mr Streatham’ Brown gave a rousing account of George’s efforts to dig out this history and how they had battled to carry out their research in a pre-internet era. Bruce from the Wandle Valley Forum spelt out how none of this would have happened without the presence of the sacred Wandle waters and the particularly blessed Trewint Street to Plough Lane stretch through Summerstown. We are mightily humbled to be part of Wandle Fortnight and recipients of a grant of £250 towards putting on our event. John Byrne’s exclusive plaque-unveiling recitals are a much-loved feature of these occasions and he didn’t disappoint. All the more relevant than ever this year as he is a long-term resident of Pevensey Road. He was a tough act to follow but Nardia and Mithuna from Broadwater Primary School blew us all away with their unique observations on the daffodil growing activity on the fields where their school now stands. It’s been wonderful to have this school so involved and engaged in this project alongside Fircroft and Smallwood.


To a dramatic drum-roll from Vijay, Sally and Mr Pennings unveiled the plaque and set the seal on another piece of Garratt Lane history. Shortly afterwards the Dutchman showed us how it’s done, stepping forward, trowel in hand to plant the first ‘Blooming Tooting’ bulb at the foot of the plaque. It was a glorious moment and the Mayor of Wandsworth followed suit and another historic daffodil prepared to take root in the grounds that a century and a half ago made horticultural history.


With the plaque unveiled and planting on their minds, the history-hungry  hordes turned on  Kate’s wheelbarrow and her beautifully packaged bulb-bags were gleefully received. Van Sion, W.P. Milner, Albatross, Mrs Langtry, Irene Copeland and Barrii Conspicuus, all dating from the 1870s, prepared for their return to the Tooting earth. A sight to make any daffodil-person blink back Angel’s Tears.


It was time for the second part of the great event and the crowd moved slowly down Garratt Lane to Streatham Cemetery. The previous day a ‘Great Chain of Daffodils’ a quarter of a mile long, had emerged on the cemetery railings. A handmade floral tribute of Scrapstore materials created by local people of all ages at various workshops at community events over the preceding months. Interspersed among them were the thoughts of pupils from Broadwater School alongside colourful tags indicating the names of some of the daffodil types once grown here by Peter Barr.


The madness of Garratt Lane yielded to the shade and tranquility of Streatham Cemetery. The former Springfield Nursery has never felt so welcoming. Some lost themselves in the delicious tea and cake provided by The Friends of Streatham Cemetery, others joined Roy Vickery of South London Botanical Institute in a ‘Wildflower Walk’ perhaps imagining themselves with Peter Barr in the high Pyrenees on the hunt for long-lost daffodils. All too soon it was over but as the evening sun passed over the Aboyne Estate, the new plaque seemed to light up like a dazzling sapphire.


A week later, we await more daffodils arriving soon from Mr Scamp in Cornwall. Three days of rain has been good for those already in the ground and softened up the earth for more digging. Daffodils have been planted in Streatham Cemetery and churches, organisations and schools are jostling to get their orders in. We gave them out in the market the next day as part of our ‘Throwback Tooting’ history talk for TOOTOPIA. On our way to deliver the Tooting Sikh community their bulbs this evening, we passed the Al- Muzzamil Mosque – there was huge enthusiasm, the Imam has put in a big request and showed us photos of his sunflowers to confirm his green-fingered abilities. Truly ‘Blooming Tooting’ is underway and somehow our neighbourhood already seems a brighter, more fragrant place – FLOWER TO THE PEOPLE!


Look out for your daffs coming through in the spring. Take photos and let us know about it on social media #BloomingTooting. If you need bulbs in the next few weeks, get in touch and we’ll see what we can do. Failing that they are very easy to get hold of at any garden centre or DIY store. Keep an eye out for further Blooming Tooting Walks next year as we continue to spread the word and expand our knowledge of the other things grown here. ‘The Orchid King’ lead us to RHS orchid painter Nellie Roberts and some kind of memorial on her unmarked grave in Lambeth Cemetery is on our radar.


The Primrose Pilgrimage


They came from Tooting, Earlsfield, Wandsworth, Summerstown and Streatham, united in the joy of newly-discovered  shared history about the place where they live. It was the warmest of Saturdays in mid-September, a day I will never forget. For almost a year we have been absorbed with the story of Peter Barr ‘The Daffodil King’ and trying to tell it to as many people as possible. It’s involved trips to museums, libraries and archives, consulting with experts. We’ve done guided tours, talks and school visits to spread the word. There have been trips to daffodil farms and involvement in community events encouraging people to make handmade flowers, write poetry and paint murals. We have found out about the likes of horticultural contemporaries such as Nellie Roberts, Frederick Sander, William Copeland and Henry Moon. We have sourced historic bulb varieties and will be giving them out for people to plant. We have learned more about daffodils than I ever thought there was to know. Nothing though was quite like the trip to Peter Barr’s grave in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in East Finchley on ‘The Primrose Pilgrimage’.


An article in an edition of ‘The Journal of Horticulture and Home Farmer’ in the Lindley Library Archive indicated that a few years before his death, his daffodil work done, Peter Barr turned his attention to wildflowers. He was working on a classification of primroses – cowslips and oxlips also tickled his interest. His ‘Daffodil King’ legacy assured, but his wildflower work only beginning, he remarked in a letter to fellow daffodil afficianado H.P. Brotherston ‘I wonder who will plant my grave with primroses?’ How could we resist!


St Pancras and Islington Cemetery opened in 1854. Newly arrived in London and settled in Islington, it’s likely Peter Barr and his wife Martha bought a plot there. The 1861 census has then living at 31 Cloudsley Square. The cemetery is an enormous two hundred acre site with almost one million burials, one of the largest in the country. It was a magical day when we located his resting place a few months ago after a furious search in a densely overgrown section. Under a canopy of trees, midsummer sunlight danced on his headstone. We bathed in a green otherworldliness as we pulled away the ivy to reveal the names of Peter Barr, Martha, their daughter Alice Maud and her husband Edward. Perhaps most movingly of all was the surprise find of a fifth interment. Indicated by the top two lines on the headstone. ‘Samuel Hewlings Barr – born at Tooting July 31st 1869 – died September 17th 1869’ One hundred and fifty years after his infant son’s death, it was as if our connection with Peter Barr was rubber-stamped by these words on the family grave.


On Saturday we gathered at Tooting Broadway, local residents tickled, curious and most certainly a little moved by this history that most of them knew nothing about a few months ago. We were armed with a spade, trowels and secateurs. We also came with primulas, all the way from County Down and ‘Barrii Conspicuous’ daffodil bulbs from Ron Scamp’s farm in Cornwall. We also had Peter Barr’s Plaque, making a final outing before it gets fixed to the entrance of the Aboyne Estate. Our twenty two stop journey on the Northern Line whizzed by in a whirl of excited anticipation as we read some of the words written about The Daffodil King by pupils at Broadwater Primary School.


It was all going so well as we tumbled out at East Finchley. Boarding the wrong bus took us off-piste, but gave us a chance to view a bit of suburban north London dissected by the North Circular. Spirits remained high as we met up with Sam Perrin, historian and cemetery guide, who got us back on track and provided some fascinating insights into this remarkable cemetery. To show that Peter Barr is not the only royalty here, on our way to him we passed Henry Croft the original ‘Pearly King’. As we entered the heavily wooded section it all came back and we diverted from the path and tentatively took the plunge into the deep green realm of The Daffodil King.


At this point something magical happened. Our group of ten, who hadn’t planned what we were going to do – without any words and almost as one, sprang into glorious action. We pulled back twisted ivy roots and tore into the tangled mess on the grave. Removing some of the growth revealed the word BARR in four large letters at the edge of the plot. A small stone urn was straightened. Leaf mulch was gathered and the soil was turned in preparation for the planting of our historic bulbs. (By the way, it’s the same spade you’ll be using next week Mr Pennings!) Water was collected from a nearby tap in plastic bags to feed the voraciously thirsty earth. We then took it in turns to each gently dig in one of the bulbs. It took no more than forty minutes, though maybe I just dreamt that and we were there for hours. In any case I may never again witness a more moving display of teamwork or genuine show of the power of community history to bind people together.


All our connections worked out on the way home but it’s the one between Peter Barr and our area that had brought us together and our mission to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery has bound that more strongly than I ever believed was possible. Who would imagine such a scene a few days before the 110th anniversary of his death? We will be back soon, Mr Barr to check on our pilgrimage progress – FLOWER TO THE PEOPLE!