• Shoreditch: The Historic Eden of the East End

    “One may guess at the general Love my Fellow-Citizens have for Gardening in the midst of their Toil and Labour, by observing how much Use they make of every favourable Glance of the Sun to come abroad, and of their furnishing their Rooms or Chambers with Basons of Flowers or Bough-pots, rather than not have something of a Garden before them."

    - Thomas Fairchild of Hoxton and Shoreditch, 1722

    There are many conflicting definitions of what constitutes London’s ‘East End’, though British Author Alan Palmer maintains that its limits, as defined in the 19th century, included “the old Inner London Boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets, together with the western fringe areas of Hoxton, Shoreditch and the dockland overflow into West Ham and East Ham” [1].

    Before becoming part of London’s East End, which was formalised with the emergence of maps such as Mogg's strangers guide to London (1836), Shoreditch was an important centre of Elizabethan theatre in the 16th century; “Perhaps nowhere in all London have rooms echoed oftener with Shakespeare's name than those of Shoreditch” [2].

    Though outside the theatre, Shoreditch has a history as a botanical force in the nursery trade, funding horticultural lectures, and advocating for urban city gardens.
    Its etymological origins are ambiguous. Some believe that the town got its name from Jane Shore, the mistress of Edward IV who, supposedly, died miserably in a ditch. However, Walter Thornbury writing in 1878 claims that this legend had not been believed since the 1580s. “Shoreditch, or, more correctly, Soerdich,” he explains, “really took its name from the old family of the Soerdiches, Lords of the Manor in the time of Edward III” [2].

    Until the 18th century, Shoreditch was known for its archers, many of whom were given titles for amusing Henry VIII such as one Barlow who became the Duke of Shoreditch. It was seen as fields dotted with windmills and parishes, such as Shoreditch’s St. Leonard’s Church, which stands on a church site at least as old as the 13th century.

    The early days of gardening in Shoreditch were characterised by waves of migrants bringing with them seeds and bulbs that were easy to transport, set up nurseries, and sell on the street.

    As the author of ‘Cries of London’ notes, “[b]efore the East End was urbanised, the territory was filled with nurseries and market gardens tended by growers who rose at dawn, walking into the city and crying their produce through the densely populated streets” [3]. All would change, however, with Thomas Fairchild (1667-1729) known as the first city gardener.

    He fashioned his Selby Gardens to extend from the west end of Ivy Lane to the New North Road. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, he was well known for his excellent vineyard and was one of the foremost nurserymen and florists of his time.

    He made himself known on the botanical scene with his experiments on vegetable sexuality and his paper on the “different and sometimes contrary motion of the sap in plants” published in the Royal Society’s Transactions vol. xxxiii [4].

    When Fairchild died in 1729, he left a sum of money to St. Leonard’s Church for a recurring botanical sermon to be delivered every Whit Tuesday. The £25 he left at the time would be roughly equivalent to £5,900 today [5].

    With his generous contributions, he made possible a recurring source of botanical teachings in the form of a sermon titled “On the Certainty of the Resurrection of the Dead, proved by certain changes of the Animal and Vegetable Parts of the Creation” that was initially delivered by Dr. Colin Milne and later taken up by Rev. Mr. Ellis [6].

    So important were these teachings that they appeared in both famed Scottish botanist John Claudius Loudon’s An Encyclopedia of Gardening (1828) and the infamously popular Mrs. Evelyn Cecil’s A History of Gardening in England (1896).
    Not only was he an investor into the botanical teachings in his community, but he also arguably began the care for houseplant movement. In 1722 he published The City Gardener which advocated and instructed London dwellers on how to grow and maintain gardens in an urban environment. While many may recognise him today as the first person to grow bananas in England, he is better known for the ‘City Gardens’ he set up in Shoreditch, which consisted of an assortment of fruit trees and imported plants from America and other exotic places, which he showed off in the frontispiece to his book.

    As a member of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners and a founding member of the Society of Gardeners (1725), he saw it his duty to advocate for gardening in urban areas as a way to improve the attractiveness of the city (which had previously been ill-regarded), to encourage wildlife (he was also in correspondence with Carl Linnaeus), and to help with residents’ mental health (prioritising self-care way ahead of his time). He made history as a staunch supporter of Shoreditch horticulture and an innovator of the precursor to all modern hybrids with his cross between a sweet william and a carnation and was known as Fairchild’s Mule [7].

    Today Shoreditch is bursting at the brim with a vibrant community of urban gardeners and plant lovers following in Fairchild’s footsteps. While we may think of East End flower women characteristically as Eliza Doolittle archetypes (specifically the watercress sellers of Shoreditch), today a flourishing community of plant and flower growers have come together, even during the midst of the pandemic, as seen in the initiative of the Spring Summer Autumn Winter (SSAW) Collective of Lulu Cox, Jess Blume, and Olivia Wetherly Wilson who adapted their shops to provide weekly subscriptions for a weekly bunch of locally and sustainably grown seasonal flowers [8].

    We see Shoreditch as a people as much as it is a place. It is the reason at Sowvital, we chose Shoreditch as our place of origin; we saw an opportunity to join our values of plants in the urban environment, proper plant care, and blending crafted interior spaces with the environmental, sustainable, and personal benefits of keeping plants to make a house a home.
    [1] Palmer, Alan. The East End: Four Centuries of London Life. London: John Murray Publishers Ltd., 2004, xvii.

    [2] Thornbury, Walter. "Shoreditch." In Old and New London: Volume 2. London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1878, 194-195. British History Online, accessed April 19, 2022.

    [3] The Gentle Author, “London’s East End Eden: a horticultural history.” August 7, 2020. The Financial Times, accessed 19 April 2022.

    [4] Loudon, J.C. “Statistics on Gardening,” In An encyclopaedia of gardening; comprising the theory and practice of horticulture, floriculture, arboriculture, and landscape-gardening, including all the latest improvements… London: Longman, Ross, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1828, 1102.

    [5] Ian Webster, “£25 in 1750 → 2022 | UK Inflation Calculator.” Official Inflation Data, Alioth Finance, 19 Apr. 2022.

    [6] Cecil, Evelyn, Mrs. A history of Gardening in England. London, B. Quaritch, 1896.

    [7] Smith, Jeanie. “Thomas Fairchild: Gardener and producer of the first deliberate hybrid.” October 5, 2021. Guildhall Library Blog, accessed April 19, 2022.

    [8] The SSAW Collective sells flowers from their field from April until October. You can shop for their stock at https://www.ssawcollective.com/shop.


    “Frontispiece” of Thomas Fairchild’s The City Gardener, containing the most experienced method of cultivating ... such ever-greens ... shrubs ... exotick plants, etc. as will be ornamental, and thrive best in the London Gardens. London, 1722. Public Domain. Credit: Guildhall Library.

    St Leonard's, Shoreditch. ​​18th century print. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

    Sheet 1f of John Rocque’s map of London and Westminster, and the borough of Southwark, 1746. Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.