The Backhouse Nursery of York 1815 - 1955
- Written by Jenny Asquith
The botanising Backhouses
The Backhouse wealth came from linen manufacture and banking in Darlington, County Durham, where James Backhouse (1) (1721-98) founded the Backhouse Bank with his two sons Jonathan and James (2) (1757-1804). It was the son of James (2), James Backhouse (3) who founded the Backhouse Nursery.
James was attracted to the nursery business for a number of reasons. He suffered from asthma and was often sent as a child for fresh country air to Quaker friends in nearby Teesdale, a place rich in wild flowers. He had cousins and two uncles who were interested in botany, but perhaps the earliest influence on him was the inheritance at the age of 9 of his brother Nathan's herbarium, when Nathan died aged 17. James later wrote, ‘[his] herbarium falling into my hands first set me to study my botany'. After school in Leeds he continued exploring Teesdale with local botanists.
Starting in the nursery business
When James was 19 he was apprenticed for two years to Wagstaffe's Nursery in Norwich, an open-air career being thought good for his chest. He then visited nurseries in Scotland and in 1815 he and his brother Thomas Backhouse (1792-1845) were able to buy the nursery business of John and George Telford (or Tilford) in York, having found nothing suitable around Darlington. This firm had probably been established since around 1665 at Tanner Row, Toft Green, on ground granted to the Dominican Friars by various kings from 1228 onwards.
In 1736 a York historian wrote:
The site of this ancient monastery is now a spacious garden; at present occupied by Mr Tilford a worthy citizen, and whose knowledge in the mystery of gardening renders him of credit to his profession; being one of the first that brought our northern gentry into the method of planting and raising all kinds of trees for use and ornament.
In referring to ‘our northern gentry' as having a nursery local to York, Drake would perhaps have been displaying some regional pride, as it was usual in the 18th century for wealthy people to have plants and trees sent up from London nurseries, or even from Holland, France and Italy. Edwin Lascelles of Harewood House, Yorkshire wrote slightingly of local nurseries' ability to provide unusual plants. In a letter from London to his steward Popplewell, he wrote: ‘I shal [his spelling] bring some Tube Roses roots. There is no depending upon country Nurserymen for any thing of this kind that is not quite common'. Backhouses showed their ability to compete with London when, in 1819, they put an advertisement in the Yorkshire Gazette for ‘Choice BULBS of BELLA-DONNA and GUERNSEY LILIES'.