The Flower and Vegetable Gardens Planted at the Parsonage House, Little Petherick in 1857

by David Donaldson

Sir William Molesworth, the 8thBaronet of Pencarrow, died childless at the early age of 44 in 1855. His younger brothers having predeceased him, the baronetcy passed to Sir William’s first cousin, Hugh (1818-62), a clergyman who, since 1848, had been Rector of St Petroc Minor in Little Petherick, North Cornwall, a Molesworth family living. However, Sir Hugh succeeded only to the baronetcy and did not inherit the mansion and estate of Pencarrow, since by the terms of Sir William’s will a life interest in both was left to his widow, Andalusia, who outlived Sir Hugh by some 26 years.

Journals kept by Sir Hugh reveal that the 9th Molesworth baronet was very much the country parson. He was a conscientious and caring priest, but he also farmed his glebe and enjoyed the traditional country pursuits of hunting, shooting and fishing. He was a committed ‘hands-on’ farmer, not just on a self-sufficiency scale, but also on a commercial basis. He kept cows (which yielded milk and impressive quantities of butter) and pigs which were fattened for eating or for sale; he bought sheep to keep the grass down in the meadows and he rotated crops of wheat, barley, potatoes, mangles and turnips in the fields of his 40-acre glebe.

Sir Hugh Henry Molesworth (1860)

Sir Hugh Henry Molesworth (1860)

The eight journals kept by Sir Hugh covering the years from 1856 until his untimely death at the age of 44 in January 1862 are preserved in the archive at Pencarrow. Two are a diary of his day-to-day activities and his social life for the last six years of his life; the remaining six journals are primarily a meteorological record for Little Petherick for those years. Sir Hugh noted the effect the weather had on animals, crops and plants at the Parsonage House at Little Petherick (as the Rectory was then known), but they also contain meteorological data from other parts of the West Country even from as far afield as Cobham in Surrey, from where he was provided with relevant data by his paternal aunt, Caroline Molesworth, who shared her nephew’s consuming interest in meteorological data.

Sir Hugh also pasted in his journals newspaper cuttings recording weather conditions and natural phenomena nationwide, and recorded many folklore proverbs relating to the weather. It is a banal truism that the weather has always been a topic of interest in this country, but Sir Hugh’s jottings reflect the very keen interest and intellectual curiosity which characterised the approach to the subject in the 19th century and, as such, they contribute significantly to local records. His own standing in this field was recognised in November 1859 when he was elected a Fellow of the British Meteorological Society.

Interestingly, the first of the ‘Meteorological Journals’ contains a horticultural bonus in so far as Sir Hugh recorded the plantings made in the  flower garden and the kitchen garden at the Parsonage House from March 1857 until May 1858. These are listed in columns, noting the date of receipt of the plants/seeds/bulbs, from whom they were obtained, the name of the plants or seeds and the date of planting, and these columns were meticulously completed. The details of the remaining columns recording the dates the plants came up, the date they flowered, the date they seeded, the date they died were not so faithfully recorded, and there is also a final column in which he wrote an occasional relevant remark.

The Parsonage House, Little Petherick from a watercolour by Lady Beatrice Molesworth, 1858

The Parsonage House, Little Petherick from a watercolour by Lady Beatrice Molesworth, 1858

It is not known whether Sir Hugh kept any journals before 1856, but his marriage to Beatrice Prideaux Brune of Place House, Padstow, in July of that year seems to have provided him not only with the incentive to keep a record of his activities, but also to create a flower garden and a kitchen garden for the new mistress of the Parsonage House. Sir Hugh noted not only the names of the plants (of which all the vegetables and most of the flowers are still recognisable today), but also the particular plant species, of which a number planted in the flower garden are no longer traceable.

Within weeks of his marriage, Sir Hugh had commissioned a greenhouse from John Henwood, a carpenter in Little Petherick, which was erected and had vines planted in it by November. In the same month with the help of Walter Knight and John Williams, a gardener and a small farmer respectively from among his parishioners, Sir Hugh laid out the flower beds in the front of the Parsonage House. There were six beds which he described as a ‘cross’ bed, a ‘crown’ bed, two ‘diamond’ beds (one to the left and one to the right of the house), a kitchen border bed and another bed ‘before the kitchen and dining room’. The edge of the carriage drive was also used for planting, as was the slope to the west of the house.

The primary source of seeds for the vegetable garden was the neighbouring nursery of William Best at Rosehill, but Sir Hugh also visited and patronised John Pontey’s nursery at Plymouth. From Best, he obtained potatoes, peas (Prolific, Early Warwick, Early Emperor, Champion of England and Daniel O’Rourke), carrots (Early Horn, Horse), onions (Spanish White, James Long-Keeping), beans (White Long Pod, Common Broad, Negro’s Early French, Dwarf French, Cannon’s Broad Beans), parsnips (Hollow Crown), cucumber (Long Prickly and Short Prickly), stockwood,[1] melon, chervil, turnip (Scarsbrick, Dutch and Golden Ball), marrow (Dwarf), sweet basil, chickory, dill, mangles, leek and anise. From Pontey, he bought saffron crocuses, Virginia tobacco plants, borage, orache, chervil, myrtle, radish and peas (Champion of England). He also sought seeds from further afield. From James Carter & Co. Seed Merchants, High Holborn, London, he ordered pot marigold, broccoli, bugloss and golden purslane, and from Sutton & Son Ltd, Reading, cabbage (Imperial), chervil and broad beans. Sir Hugh’s aunt, Caroline Molesworth, although principally a source for seeds for the flower garden, also sent him seeds of cauliflower, globe onions, Jersey Cow cabbage, vegetable marrows, cucumber (Long Wood), millet, alsike clover, bird chilli, curled parsley and Ricinus communis (Castor Oil plant); from Pencarrow, he received potato tubers and cucumber, runner bean, turnip and broccoli seeds he also was given some Indian seeds from Miss Dietz at Pencarrow which he planted in May 1859 but there is no record of what they were exactly, nor that they ever flowered!

[1] The following information was kindly supplied by Rachel Crow, Information Coordinator for the Heritage Seed Library: ‘Stockwood’ was a ridge cucumber which grew 9-12 inches in length (Commercial Gardening, Vol. 4 (1913), ed. John Weathers). It was listed for sale in an advertisement in The Daily Southern Cross, a New Zealand newspaper, in 1855. The advertisement implies that the seller had acquired the seeds from Egmont, a commercial company based in New Zealand. The Vegetable Finder states that ‘Stockwood’ is a synonym for ‘Long Green Ridge’.

Although the above plants are the only ones mentioned in the planting record for 1857-8, incidental references in Sir Hugh’s journals for subsequent years show that the vegetable garden was considerably expanded as the following additional crops are mentioned: rhubarb, mushrooms, berries (raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries), apples, quinces, celery, artichokes, sea kale, asparagus, leeks, spinach, lettuce and endive.

The flower garden was planted between March 1857 and March 1858 with the following plants:

Alonsoa Warscewiczii * Jalapa mirabilis alba #
Amaranthus caudatus # Nemesia versicolor compacta *
A.hypochondriacus # Nemophyla insignis *
Anemone coronaria # Paeony
Anemone pulsatilla # Pansy Mr Beck
Anemone stellata # Pansy fearless
Anemone + Pansy Gen. Markham
Arabis collina # Pansy Ld. J. Russell
Arctotis acaulis # Pansy supreme
Auriculas Papaver coquelicot #
Calandrinia grandiflora # Papaver Dieppe #
Calliopsis * Papaver variegated #
Carnation Prince Albert Papaver meconopsis cambrica #
Carnation rainbow Papaver double mixed #
C. William W Phlox Drummondii Zinnabaring *
Centauria (?) rosea nova * Picotee delicate
Chrysanthemum carinatum # Picotee gem
Clarkia pulchilla * Picotee privateer
Collinsia bicolor alba nova * Pink Laura
Collinsia multicolor marmarata * Pink Lola Montes
Convolvulus major * Pink Prince of Wales
Convolvulus minor * Pink Sarah
Coronilla Poppies *
Crocus Queen Victoria + Primrose double yellow
Cyclamen Ranunculus +
Daphne green Ricinus communis
Delphinium fissum(?) # Salpyglossis dark scarlet *
Delphinium formosumii * Silene schafte #
Dianthus califolius # Snowdrops +
Erysimum persifolia * Spornea boradii #
Eschscholzia Sweet Peas
Fedia cornucopia # Sweet Williams
Gelia tricolor Tropaeolum (minus collinsum) *
Godetia Lindleyana * Tropaeolum peregrinum #
Humea elegans # Tulip blanc borde(?) +
Hyacinths Tulip Buonaparte +
 Jonquils + Tulip Crown Imperial (double)
Kaulfussia (?) rosea nova * Tulip Duke of York +
Larkspur German dwarf  * Tulip la beaute supreme +
Leptosiphon aurus * Tulip la tour d’Auvergne
Lilies pink Tulip marriage de ma fille +
Lobelia ramosa, nana rosa * Tulip mixed single +
Lupinus Cruikshanksii # Tulip parrot +
Lupinus nortkadensis(?) # Tulip tournesol (double) +
Lupinus polyphylius # Turinia alata #
Lupinus pubescens * Violets white #
Lupinus Hartwegii * Waterloo Rose
Lupinus nanus # White Rocket


* = Plants/seeds obtained from Carter & Co., High Holborn, London
+ = Plants/seeds obtained from Pontey & Son, Plymouth
# = Plants/seeds supplied to Sir Hugh by his aunt, Caroline Molesworth, Cobham, Surrey

A page for March 1857 from Sir Hugh's journal

A page for March 1857 from Sir Hugh’s journal

It is possible that Sir Hugh will have ordered his seeds from catalogues produced by Carter and Pontey, but he also visited their nurseries in London and Plymouth respectively to make his selection in person. The source of some of the remaining plants/seeds is uncertain, but a Cornish friend, Joshua Fox, supplied coronilla, cyclamen, daphne and sweet william; William Best supplied auricula, sweet basil, waterloo rose and white rocket. Sweet peas and hyacinths came from Sir Hugh’s brother-in-law, Charles Prideaux Brune, and all the carnations, pinks, gillyflowers, picotees and pansies were supplied by a Truro policeman who was the brother of John Ball, a farmer at Ballaminors in Sir Hugh’s parish of Little Petherick.

The planting in the parsonage flower garden in 1857 was almost exclusively of bedding plants, and these were to remain a feature of the garden, for Sir Hugh records in his journal that for the next four years, ‘Her Ladyship put out her green house and bedding plants’ usually in the second or third week of May, having planted out her hardy annuals two months earlier Over the next four years, Beatrice introduced a greater variety of plants into the garden and Sir Hugh mentions the following incidentally in his journals of day-to-day events 1858-61:

Aconite Arabis (caucasia) Calceolaria Coltsfoot
Cowslip Daffodil (Lenten lily) Geranium Heliotrope
Honeysuckle Lilac Magnolia Mahonia
Narcissus Orchid Periwinkle Petunia
Polyanthus Primrose Scilla (italica) Verbena

When Beatrice fell ill in June 1857 after having lost a son who lived only a few hours after birth, Sir Hugh contemplated employing a gardener at the Parsonage House. He wrote to his younger brother, Paul, who was dispensing with the services of his gardener at Nansladron, near St Austell, but Paul was unable to recommend Abbott, his gardener, because, as he wrote to his brother, ‘his knowledge of horticulture is so small. He took care of our little spot of flower garden very neatly, but then it was completely under Fanny’s [Paul’s wife, Frances, née Gregor] superintendence, who did all the headwork in the matter.’ No gardener was ever appointed at Little Petherick and, although there is mention of some casual labour in the garden (‘Wallace’ is recorded digging in the garden in September 1857 and ‘Julian’ was sowing seeds in April 1858), Sir Hugh took charge of the vegetable garden and Beatrice was not only responsible for the ‘headwork’ of planning the flower garden, but laboured in it whenever she was well enough.

The gardens at the Parsonage House were typical of the mid-Victorian squirearchical garden. The aim of the flower garden was to produce an explosion of vivid, rich colours in flowers and foliage planted in trim symmetrical beds containing many varieties of species single, semi-double and double flowers with patterned petals wherever possible. It was in the horticultural tradition of carpet bedding which can still be seen today in the planting schemes of many urban parks and pleasure gardens. Unlike most of his parishioners, Sir Hugh was not forced by necessity to grow his own vegetables, but he clearly liked the challenge: he enjoyed the labour of rotating, sowing, watering, weeding, hoeing, pruning and harvesting his plants. He proudly recorded the dates on which he dug up/cut/picked his vegetables and fruit, and he took a delight in noting the first meal of the year which the parsonage household enjoyed from his garden produce.

The terms of his cousin’s will decreed that Sir Hugh was denied what many would have considered to be his rightful inheritance of the mansion and gardens of Pencarrow. He was, however, not only a regular visitor there when his cousin’s widow, Andalusia, was in residence, but also at other times of the year when he went shooting. Intriguingly, he never once recorded his impressions of the house or the magnificent Italian garden. In his journals he is revealed as a contented country parson and gentleman farmer. Could it be that he was content to enjoy the title and relieved not to have the responsibilities of Pencarrow? We shall never know, but we can be sure that, in the infinitely smaller setting of the garden of the Parsonage House, Sir Hugh had shown that he had inherited the horticultural gene and green fingers which were characteristic of other members of the Molesworth family, notably his father, the Rev. William (who transformed the garden at his living in St Breock), his aunt Caroline in Cobham, and his cousin, Sir William, the 8th baronet, the architect of the gardens at Pencarrow â–

David Donaldson is a retired teacher and headmaster. For the past eight years, he has acted as the honorary archivist of the Molesworth family records held at Pencarrow. He was a founder member of the Friends of Pencarrow. His particular interest, and the subject of his doctorate, is the history of the island of Minorca, and he has published articles on this topic in journals both in this country and in Spain.