The Backhouse Nursery of York 1815 - 1955
- Written by Jenny Asquith
From Toft Green to Australia
The land at Toft Green remained a nursery until the York railway station was built in 1841. So the Backhouse brothers continued in the Telford tradition and could hardly have chosen a better time to become involved in such a business: their customers were wealthy from land ownership, trade with the colonies and from British manufacturing and their attendant service industries. They were keen to stock their gardens, greenhouses and estates. This was the time, too, when many horticultural societies and botanic and public gardens were founded and when the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew grew to become the British empire's centre for the exchange of scientific information about plants.
The development of the railways, in which the Backhouse family were also involved, helped many businesses to prosper. It was the marriage alliances of the Quaker Pease, Backhouse and Gurney families, with their ownership of banks in the North East and Norfolk, that produced enough capital to fund the early railway system (at the time mainly needed for the transport of coal from Newcastle). For the Backhouse Nursery it meant that correspondence, plants and seeds could all be far more efficiently distributed. Previously, transport had been slow by horse and ship, often resulting in damage to plants.
Plantations Undertaken by the acreThe nursery purchase was advertised in the York Courant of 13 May 1816 by each firm. The 1821 catalogue, apart from listing the great variety of trees, shrubs and perennial plants, including culinary and ‘Aquaticks' and gardening tools, advertises two other services often supplied by British nurseries: ‘Plantations Undertaken by the acre' and ‘Gentlemen supplied with experienced Gardeners'.
James's married life was cut short by the death of his wife of five years in 1827, leaving him with two small children. Despite this he felt confident enough to leave them and the business in the care of his family in order to sail for Australia in 1831 to continue with his Quaker missionary work. He was away for 10 years, returning home via Mauritius and South Africa. But, being a keen botanist, he naturally collected plants and seeds to send back both to his nursery and to his friend from Norwich days, William Hooker , by now Professor of Botany at Glasgow University .