Lobb’s Cottage

by Matthew Biggs

By the roundabout on the outskirts of Devoran, hidden in a dense clump of trees, stands a derelict cottage and garden, once home to the great Victorian plant hunter and Cornishman, Thomas Lobb (1817-94). Now shrouded by conifers, as if protecting their decaying treasure, it stands resolute in adversity, like its most famous inhabitant.

Thomas Lobb's headstone in Devoran churchyard (Photo: courtesy Mark Norris, Newquay Zoo)

Thomas Lobb’s headstone in Devoran churchyard (Photo: courtesy Mark Norris, Newquay Zoo)

Early in 2011, a planning application was made by the trustees of the property’s late owner to demolish the cottage. The application was withdrawn and the house put on the market and efforts are now underway by our group of supporters to save the cottage.

Prior to this, in October 2010, Leo Hickman, Environment Correspondent of the Guardian and Lobb enthusiast, contacted both the Cornwall Gardens Trust and the Cornwall Garden Society stressing the cottage’s historical importance as part of the county’s heritage and appealing for someone to undertake fundraising or finance its purchase. More recently, the Duchy of Cornwall has declined a request to buy it. In March 2011 a group of supporters, from as far afield as Dover and Rutland, met in The Quay Inn in Devoran and The Lobb Society was formed to promote research into the Lobb brothers and search for potential purchasers for the cottage. Our work is being supported by eminent horticulturists and botanists such as Alan Titchmarsh, Roy Lancaster, and the Directors of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Edinburgh.

The supporters’ next plan is to approach the Heritage Lottery Fund, though we are rapidly running out of options. There is concern that the cottage will eventually be in such a parlous state that demolition will be the only solution, and our horticultural history will be destroyed and the one-acre site developed for housing.

The background

The Lobb brothers William (1809-64) and Thomas spent their early years in Egloshayle where their father worked as an estate carpenter at nearby Pencarrow, and later as gamekeeper at Carclew. There are varying accounts of the brothers’ early employment but it seems that, following a good education in Wadebridge, both worked in the stovehouse at Carclew. Thomas Lobb joined the Veitch nursery in Exeter at the age of 13 and it was he who suggested William as a collector to James Veitch.

In 1843, encouraged by the success of William Lobb, who introduced the Giant Redwood and Monkey Puzzle into cultivation, James Veitch sent out Thomas, his brother, as the nursery’s second collector. On his first trip, after being denied entry to China, Thomas collected in Java, Singapore, Malaysia, Malacca and Penang. On his second trip in 1848, he headed to India for three years and also visited Malaysia, Sumatra and Java before heading to the Philippines where he gathered ‘the best orchids in the neighbourhood of Manila’. An intrepid plant hunter, he was described as ‘the most exasperating of collectors, who never seemed to stay long in one place but hopped with a flea-like agility from one end of the map to the other in his quest for plants’.

He scaled mountains, crossed rivers and plunged into leech-infested rainforest, emerging with delicate treasures, particularly orchids and rhododendrons, to grace the glasshouses and conservatories of eminent Victorians.

Lobb introduced several rhododendrons Veitch bred some 30 hybrids from Thomas’s collections starting a craze for ‘hot house’ rhododendrons, which lasted until 1914. Among them, Rhododendron javanicum found in dense forests, at an elevation of 4,000ft, Rhododendron brookeanum, an epiphytic rhododendron from Sarawak, and Rhododendron jasminiflorum, introduced in 1948 from Mount Ophier in Malaca, discovered at 5,000ft and which first flowered in September 1849.

Illustration of Nepenthes ampullaria by J.M. Macfarlane (1908)

Illustration of Nepenthes ampullaria by J.M. Macfarlane (1908)

He also introduced the first Pitcher Plants to be grown in British greenhouses, including Nepenthes ampullaria and Nepenthes albo-marginata. On his second expedition to India his most notable introduction was Vanda coerulea, a rare blue epiphytic orchid, discovered by W. Griffiths in 1837 but not successfully brought alive to England until dispatched by Lobb from the Khasia Hills and which flowered for the first time in December 1850, and the Phalaenopsis or Moth Orchid, growing in the eastern Himalayas, at an altitude of 1500 m, whose hybrids are now sold in their millions. Among his hardy introductions were Hypericum hookerianum and Berberis hookerii plus an introduction of what is now Cardiocrinum giganteum.

Such was his reputation and success, The Gardeners’ Chronicle of May 1881 commented; ‘It is not saying too much to assert that during his long period of collecting in the east for the Veitchian firm, British gardens were enriched with more beautiful plants of Indo Malayan origin than by any single collector of his own or any other time.’

In 1860, having lost a leg while in the Philippines, (or, according to other records, it being amputated on his sister’s kitchen table), Thomas retired after 43 years’ collecting to Devoran, Cornwall to be near his sister, living in the cottage called Stanley Villa (now Spring Vale) where he was visited by his plant-collecting brother, William. He died on 30 April 1894. A plaque on the wall of Devoran church commemorates the lives of Thomas and William and an island bed of Lobb plants ornaments the churchyard where he rests.

Thomas and William Lobb's garden plaque in Devoran churchyard (Photo: courtesy Mark Norris, Newquay Zoo)

Thomas and William Lobb’s garden plaque in Devoran churchyard (Photo: courtesy Mark Norris, Newquay Zoo)

If you would like to join us or offer help or advice, please email me at matthew-biggs@btconnect.com We have one opportunity to save this priceless piece of Cornish gardening history and need to act, before it is too late.

Matthew Biggs trained at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He has presented many television programmes, written several books, and contributes to a number of magazines, including the RHS The Garden and Gardens Illustrated. He is a regular panelist on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time.