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Saturday 28 January 2012


My great grandmother Jane Reyner came from one of the oldest mill-owning families in the Lancashire cottonmill town of Ashton Under Lyne. I would like to know more about the family business which spanned the whole of the nineteenth century in an industry absolutely central to the social and economic changes of the times.

Jane Reyner (c1850-1938) with two of her sons, 
Fred and Frank Salter, c1914

Jane’s grandfather Thomas Reyner was a haberdasher in London who decided to move from selling cotton goods to making them. In the first decade of the nineteenth century he saw opportunities in the north and brought his young family to Ashton: his wife, after whom my great grandmother Jane was named; and among their children their infant son Frederick, Jane’s future father after whom she would in time name her eldest son, my grandfather Fred Salter.

By 1811 Thomas was listed as a muslin manufacturer at Bank Top in the town. Ashton’s earliest mill, Throstle’s Nest, was probably built around the 1780s, and it was powered by a water wheel on the Cock Brook. Later, the Cockbrook Mill itself was built by Tom and James Wilson, straddling the beck just downstream of Throstle’s Nest. The Cockbrook Mill was state-of-the-art, powered by a 12 horsepower steam engine, and by 1832 it had changed hands. Now it was owned by Reyners: the family was on its way up.

Thornfield Hall, the Reyner family home in Ashton Under Lyne
(now demolished)

By 1861 when Jane was 11, the family had made it and was living in Thornfield Hall, built on a gentle hillside overlooking Cockbrook. At some point Reyners took over the running of another long-established manufactory, the vast Albion Mill on the River Tame in the town. Over the years the family firm survived many business crises – the cotton famine of the 1860s when the supply from the US was interrupted by the American Civil War; and two disastrous fires at Cockbrook Mill, after both of which it was rebuilt and enlarged until it covered 22,000 square yards and was operated by 100 employees working 20 pairs of spinning mules (the machines that spun the raw cotton into yarn).

But in March 1903 the decision was taken to close Cockbrook down and move all its machinery to Albion. By then Cockbrook (and the Reyners’ association with Ashton) was nearly 100 years old and, as a spokesman told the local paper, “it has no chance with modern factories.” 

It really was the end of an era. Now the Cockbrook Mill is long gone, although Reyner Street which ran down alongside it marks the site. Thornfield Hall lies under sports fields; and even mighty Albion has been swept aside for a supermarket. One branch of the family diversified into road haulage, and until very recently Reyners articulated wagons could be seen on motorways the length and breadth of Britain, playing a continuing part in the Reyner family’s contribution to British industry.

Reyners – two hundred years of selling, then making,
then delivering the goods

Saturday 21 January 2012


I have the contents of the writing desk of my great great great uncle Charles Castle, passed down to me by my uncle John Salter. It’s a treasure trove of correspondence from the mid-nineteenth century. Uncle Charles was active in Bristol politics and business, and the letters are peppered with details which build a rich picture of the times.

Charles Castle (1813-1886)

Tucked in amongst all the letters and business papers is the greatest jewel in the box, his passport. The document and its associated visas provide some great snapshots of Charles’ life. The main passport is a simple printed form folded up and pasted into a red leather wallet on which is stamped in gold “CAPTAIN CASTLE. Passeport”. It’s beautifully tooled and inside is the maker’s name: J.LEE 440.WEST STRAND LONDON.

Charles Castle’s passport

Also stuck into the wallet is a book of blank pages, and on the last Charles has written in pencil, “+Austria, +Bavaria, +Prussia.” Sure enough, elsewhere in the book or on the passport sheet itself are stamped Visas from the London consulates of each of those states, all dated 1st August 1861. The passport itself was issued two weeks earlier on 18th July and signed, as was the custom, by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord John Russell.

 The passport unfolded - Bavarian visa just visible top left

It’s a wonderful artifact – everything about it is of historical interest. John Russell, a liberal, served two terms a prime minister. In the 1850s his government was brought down by his own foreign secretary Lord Palmerston, who joined a vote of no confidence in him after a long-running personal feud. In 1861 the tables were turned and Palmerston was the PM, Russell the foreign sec. It was Palmerston’s sudden death in 1865 that raised Russell once again to the top spot. In the year this passport was issued, he stopped being Lord John Russell when he was elevated to the peerage as Earl Russell.

The separate visas for Prussia, Bavaria and Austria tell the story of the Deutsche Bund (German Federation), formed in 1815 and about to disintegrate under tension between Prussia and Austria. Bavaria had been an independent kingdom since 1806. It sided with Austria, who lost the Austro-Prussian War of 1866; it then backed Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and remained independent even after it joined the Bund’s replacement, the Deutches Reich (German Empire) in 1871.

“Captain Charles Castle … accompanied
by his wife … with a maid Servant.”

But the chief joys of this passport and its visas are their dates of issue. Two days after Charles had rushed round the consulates of London getting his stamps in order, he was off to Melton Constable in Norfolk – to get married! The passport was made out to “Captain Charles Castle (British Subject) accompanied by his wife, travelling on the Continent with a maid Servant.” It was for their honeymoon!

Castle, who was 48, had led a fairly carefree dilettante life up to this point, and perhaps felt he needed to settle down at last. His new wife Ada Crickland, born like Charles in the Clifton area of Bristol, was half his age, and he may have watched her grow up. The marriage was, as far as I can tell, a success, although touched with sadness; three of their four children (all girls) died before their father, all under the age of 20. Only Charles and Ada's second daughter Mary lived to spinster old age, and it was from her that my uncle John inherited her father’s papers and passport. I wonder who I’ll leave them to!

Mary Castle c1925
with her great nephews John and Charles Salter

Charles Castle, an orderly man, used his 1861 passport to store visas acquired for earlier journeys in the 1840s. Truly fascinating historical documents, they will be the subject of a future post here.

Saturday 14 January 2012


John Salter, a cousin of my great great grandfather’s, was a pioneering horticulturalist. As a prolific breeder of new varieties he was intensely interested in, and acutely sensitive to, variations in leaf and bud (see Part 1). Given his wide reputation, it is unsurprising that another enthusiast for the process of variation should have joined in a correspondence with him.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection was published in 1859 and its impact was no less earth-shaking in botanical circles than in any other sphere of biology. He regarded Origin as merely an abstract of his theories, and immediately began work on a new more detailed book, The Variation Of Animals And Plants Under Domestication. During the research for it, he noted, he “applied to two great authorities on this subject [of bud variation], namely, to Mr. Rivers with respect to fruit-trees, and to Mr. Salter with respect to flowers.” 

Charles and John exchanged ideas about the nature and fixity of variations in botany and the best conditions for maintaining them. Many of John’s observations found their way into Charles’ new book when it was published in 1868. Darwin was interested that Salter mimicked nature in using selection (of the most appropriate buds or stock or soils) to refine and fix new varieties. It was a sort of pro-active, interventionist version of the survival of the fittest, an experimental proof of Darwin’s ideas.

The variegated plants discussed by Salter as reported by Darwin included:
  • Euonymus japonica (golden-striped form liable to revert, silver-striped more stable)
  • Pelargonium “Dandy” (dwarfed with variegation, remains dwarfed even after reverting)
  • Phlox (two varieties variegated from suckers, but could not be repeated by root-joints)
  • Tussilago farfara (can be propagated by root-joints)
  • Berberis vulgaris (seedless variegated form propagated by cuttings, but suckers revert and produce seeded berries)
Darwin also described in some detail the relative merits of different methods of propagation of variegated forms, as practised by Salter. It would be interesting to know how they compare with current techniques. (If you want to check, Darwin’s Variation Of Animals And Plants is available at time of writing as a free download for Kindle!)

Title page of the first volume of The Variation Of Animals And Plants Under Domestication, published in 1868

Salter knew what he was doing: those famous winter chrysanthemum displays were often set in a mosaic of variegated species of Sedum, Sempervirum and Echevaria. In the summer months he staged entire speciality displays of variegated plants at RHS shows in Crystal Palace and elsewhere. This report from The Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener and Country Gentlemen describes his show at Kew in early May 1863:

In a house devoted to hardy variegated plants, a variety of Sedum telephium or Orpine, called picturatum, had the leaves beautifully mottled with rose; Oxalis corniculata picturata was also very pretty, the leaves being brown mottled with bright pink, instead of being green. Funkia japonica picta from Dr. Siebold had large yellowish-green leaves with dark-green edges; and in Convallaria angustifolia, another Japanese plant, the leaves were prettily edged with white. Another ornamental-foliaged plant was a variety of the common Comfrey, endowed with a name of formidable length — Symphytum officinale variegatum superbum, in which the leaves had a margin of yellowish-white. Artemisia maritima, Mr. Salter states, forms an excellent cut-leaved plant for bedding-out, the foliage turning quite white when out of doors. We also observed a new Centaurea with woolly leaves, which measured 17 inches long by broad, and which, we are told, become much longer and as white as those of C. candidissima.

Does anyone recognise anything there? A fortnight later, the same journal reports from another RHS exhibition, held on 27th May 1863. The correspondent notes that Mr Salter’s variegated collection was “to my mind as interesting as anything there. … [In it] were Funkia undulata variegata; and variegated forms of Acer negundo, Hedera helix, Ruta graveolens, Scrophularia nodosa, Hesperis arabidtefolia, Tussilago farfara, Salix caprea, Spiraea ulmaria, &c.”

The Versailles Nursery, Hammersmith
from Stanford’s Library Map Of London And Its Suburbs (1872)

In the late 1860s the business was trading as John Salter and Son – Alfred had worked alongside his father since the founding of the original nursery at Versailles. He exhibited separately and won honourable mentions in both France and England. But by 1871 both men had retired and the Versailles Nursery was closed down. Perhaps cashing in on the value of land in Hammersmith was too tempting for Alfred to consider continuing the family firm. Although the nursery still appeared on maps for a few years, it and William Street on which it stood were soon buried beneath the newly laid Avonmore Road estate.

John Salter (1802-1874) was a skilled craftsman who made a valuable contribution to horticulture, not only in the breeding of chrysanthemums but in his invaluable exchanges with Charles Darwin. Perhaps best of all and least celebrated, he promoted variegated species at a time when England’s middle classes were going garden-crazy. Variegated enthusiasts today owe him a small debt of gratitude for suggesting, as the reviewer of that late-May RHS show pointed out, “how much may be done in adorning our gardens with this section of ornamental-foliaged plants.”

I am indebted to the editor of The Sport, Ian Warden, for bringing the variegated aspects of my plantsman ancestor John Salter to my attention. I’ve posted here, with his permission, the article which he commissioned.

Saturday 7 January 2012


I’m a genealogist, not a gardener. There is a strained joke to be made about roots, branches, family trees, cross-pollination and bad apples; but the pages of the magazine of the Variegated Plant Group of the Hardy Plant Society of Great Britain (where this article first appeared) are probably a better place for it than here. Thanks to Ian Warden, editor of The Sport (the magazine in question), I am however enormously proud to have found an ancestor who left his mark in several spheres of horticultural endeavour, not least the study of variegation.

Symphytum officinale, Common Comfrey
in (L-R) its normal and variegated forms

When I started looking into my family tree nearly 20 years ago, one of the first things I came across in a box of papers was a note from a long dead aunt Emily to my recently deceased Uncle John: “Your namesake was head gardener at the Tuilerie Gardens (until the coup d’├ętat). He came to England bringing his wife (a French lady, whom I well remember), & his 2 children, Alfred & Annie (Mrs Holborn).”

To cut a long story short, dear old Aunt Emily got it wrong on virtually every count. My uncle’s namesake John Salter, a cousin of my great great grandfather’s, was not head gardener at the Tuileries but proprietor of a thriving English-style garden nursery at Versailles. (And Jane his wife, far from French, was born in Reading, Berkshire.) John’s father, a cheesemonger, left money in his will for his children to be apprenticed in the trades of their choice. John chose horticulture, but quite what took him in 1838 to practice his art in French soil remains a mystery. Perhaps the global reputation of English gardens contributed to his success there.

He regularly won medals at the Versailles spring and autumn exhibitions, notably for his dahlias and chrysanthemums. Two of his most successful varieties, Annie Salter (named after his daughter) and Queen of England, both introduced at Versailles in 1847, were still listed in the National Chrysanthemum Society Register over 110 years later. John Salter published his seminal work, The Chrysanthemum: Its History And Culture, in 1865. Original copies complete with their fine colour plates fetch hundreds of pounds now; but it is still available today in a black and white facsimile edition, a measure of its continuing authority.

Achimenes picta
as pictured in 1845 by Van Houtte

Of more direct interest to readers of The Sport is the excited headline from the Revue Horticole (Journal des Jardiniers et Amateurs) in 1844. In translation:

Achimenes picta, a new species, will flower for the first time, before the end of September, at the premises of Mister Salter of Versailles (32, Picardie Avenue).

Achimenes picta (Benth. ex Hook) has many modern synonyms – Giesleria picta, Tydaea picta, Diastema pictum, D. vexans, Kohleria amablis var bogotensis. It’s a beautiful flower in trumpet form, the upper half orange-red, the lower half yellow with bold vertical lines of orange-red dots. The leaves, rising from dark red stems, are variegated: deep green, with a silver-grey shading spreading from the midrib and the veins. The earliest illustrations of it which I’ve been able to find are Paxton’s of 1846 and Van Houtte’s of 1845. So in 1844, John Salter’s successful blooms of this Mexican native must have been among the very earliest seen in Europe. Was A. picta Salter’s first brush with variegation? It certainly wasn’t his last.

Perhaps the royalist tendencies indicated by his choice of name for a new Chrysanthemum – Queen of England – were the reason for his hasty departure from France in 1848. When the French King Louis Phillipe was deposed in a coup d’├ętat that year, John was forced to return with his family to his native Hammersmith. There, in William Street he and his son Alfred established a new business, defiantly named the Versailles Nursery. (Indeed, he subsequently created varieties of Pyrethrum and Chrysanthemum both called Versailles Defiance.)

Chrysanthemums Versailles Defiance (purple)
and (L-R) La Sapojon, La Ruche and Golden Drop
by C.T. Rosenberg, 1852

The new nursery flourished as the old one had. Over the next twenty years his annual display became “an established floral tradition of the metropolis, for it is a show of no mean order. Year by year it becomes more extensive, and at the same time more varied in its details. No description we can give will do due justice to this admirable winter-garden, when seen about the second week in November, just as autumn is merging into winter; and when "The flush of the landscape is o'er, The brown leaves are shed on the way".” (This description is from a feature on the 1868 event in The Gardener magazine.)

As a prolific breeder of new varieties Salter was intensely interested in, and acutely sensitive to, variations in leaf and bud. Given his wide reputation, it is unsurprising that another enthusiast for the process of variation should have joined in a correspondence with him. Who, you may ask, could possibly be interested in the variations of species? Find out in Part 2!
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