THE WELL-CONNECTED GARDENER: a biography of Alicia Amherst, founder of garden history

by Sue Minter

Publisher: Book Guild Publishing (2010)
ISBN 978-1-84624-513-8

Hardback £16.99

Sue Minter, a personal colleague of mine, has produced a very detailed biography of a little known Victorian and Edwardian horticulturalist, Alicia Amherst, later Lady Rockley.  Her archives were locked away for many years at Chelsea Physic Garden where she was on the management committee from 1899 till 1941. Sue Minter, as curator from 1991 to 2001, had access to these archives and the enthusiasm to research this biography.

I was initially unsure of the title, ‘Founder of garden history’, however on reading the book it transpires that Alicia’s early published works A History of Gardening in England (1895) and London Parks and Gardens (1907) are treasured documents of garden historians today.

Alicia Amherst was born in 1865 into a privileged background. Her father, Lord Amherst, was an MP; he was an antiquarian and collector of Egyptology. Her mother Margaret, née Mitford, was also a keen Egyptologist. The family were very charitable philanthropists and had a great love of travelling. This gave Alicia connections and involvement with many influential people. Her wide education allowed her to follow her horticultural interests alongside the social, political and technological developments of the time.

Alicia married Evelyn Cecil in 1898. Becoming the wife of a Tory minister ensured that, along with her passion for gardens and botany, Alicia became a politician and energetically involved in British Women’s Emigration and then overseas settlement of British women in the colonies. She had a special interest in the training of women in horticultural skills; four of the women with diplomas from the college in Swanley emigrated to Natal in South Africa to run farming and horticultural projects.

The book reads as a thesis full of accurate references and a detailed bibliography. References to Amelia’s own diaries especially on the family travels through France, Spain and Italy on their way to Egypt together with beautiful photos of her paintings produced whilst travelling with husband Cecil to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand all give an inspirational balance between factual information and anecdotal writing.

It is not a coffee table book or for lay readers. However it is certainly more than a book just to be read by scholars in garden history as it entwines the social history of the Victorian and Edwardian eras with the aspirations of the British Empire at the time. It was a very educational read and insight to both.

Hilary Bosher