The Backhouse Nursery of York 1815 - 1955
- Written by Jenny Asquith
The next generations
When he returned to York in 1841, James took up the running of the business, firstly with Thomas, who died in 1845 and then with his son James Backhouse (4) (1825-90) . Father and son were keenly interested in alpine plants and botanised together in Teesdale, in highland areas of Britain and on the continent. With the coming of the railway the nursery had been moved to Fishergate, York and in 1853 was moved again to a 100-acre site (bigger than Kew!) at Holgate, York.
James died in 1869 and his son carried on the business, later being joined by his own son James Backhouse (5) (1861-1945). It was in this period up to 1890 that the nursery was at the height of its fame and prosperity, importing plants, maintaining 40 greenhouses as well as an underground fernery, and a much-visited rockery that was famous for its huge cost and the attractive arrangement of its alpine plants.
‘My first love of ferns was gained by a visit to the Fernery of Messrs. Backhouse of York'In the 18th century the wealthy elite had formed collections - for instance of art, archaeology, insects or rare plants - and developed their gardens. In Backhouse's time these interests were also apparent among middle-class and newly rich people, appealing, too, to the desire for compendious knowledge. The Backhouse nursery was able to display and sell ferns and alpines and an American visitor in 1890 wrote: ‘Nowhere, not even at Kew, is there so rich a collection of filmy ferns... Only the favoured are allowed to see it...'. James Backhouse (4) shared his botanical knowledge and possessions, supplying, for instance, specimen material for the author of an eight-volume work, who wrote in 1865: ‘My first love of ferns was gained by a visit to the Fernery of Messrs. Backhouse of York'.
The troubled economic times that followed the Agricultural Depression of the 1880s, the 1910 Land Tax and the First World War all led to a reduction in the demand for trained gardeners and for costly and labour-intensive gardens and estate plantations. So, despite James (5) forming a new company in 1891, Backhouse Nurseries (York) Ltd., the firm suffered a loss of income over time, caused also by fierce competition from other nurserymen.
In 1921 much of their land was sold and the firm was closed in 1955. The 28 acres of land left was bought by York City Corporation as a nursery and to make into a public park. It is to be hoped that the Backhouse Nursery ledgers and account books, mentioned by Davis, may one day be located and provide us with more detail on the firm's history.