James Pulham & Son of Broxbourne in Hertfordshire were one of the most important firms of landscape designers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were one of the main manufacturers of artificial rockwork, a highly natural-looking brand known as ‘Pulhamite'.
The Pulhams specialised in water gardens and rock gardens - building cliffs, ravines, waterways, ferneries and grottoes - as well as manufacturing vases, urns, sundials and other garden ornaments. By the end of the 19th century, at the height of their reputation, they were also designing gardens in Japanese, Italian and Dutch styles.
In 1895 the Pulhams received the Royal Warrant from the Prince of Wales. This continued when he became Edward VII and was also granted by George V. Their work survives at the royal residences of Sandringham in Norfolk and Buckingham Palace in London.
The Pulhams' many other clients included the Rothschilds at Waddesdon Manor , the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) at Wisley and Lord Braybrooke at Audley End . They also received public commissions from places such as Folkestone, Ramsgate, Buxton and Preston.
Documentary evidence for the firm and family is scant. All official records were lost when the firm closed during World War Two. All that survives are a few copies of a promotional booklet, Picturesque Ferneries and Rock Garden Scenery (1876-7), and small numbers of a trade catalogue dating from around 1920.
The promotional booklet contains a list of places where the ‘Pulhamite System of forming Rocks' had been installed in the previous 28 years. This includes places all over the British Isles and not just Hertfordshire, where they were based.
A family business
There were four generations of Pulhams involved in the firm. In each case, the eldest son was called James. The first James was born in 1788 in Woodbridge, Suffolk, and was apprenticed to the principal builders of the town, John and William Lockwood. Here he showed great gifts for modeling. As agents for Roman cement, the Lockwoods were involved in making mouldings and ornamental work for shop fronts and private houses.
In about 1820 they began production of their own Portland Stone cement - this was better for making imitation stone than the Roman cement because it needed no extra colouring. The finished product closely resembled real stone and was excellent for interior purposes, such as stucco-work and moulding, and for making external features such as fountains, vases and other artefacts.
The Lockwoods expanded their business to London, acquiring newer and larger premises at Tottenham in 1827. Some seven years later James Pulham and his brother Obadiah took over the running of the London business, making architectural ornaments such as porticoes, entablatures and pediments in the current classical style, as well as arms and insignia for London companies.
In 1838 the first James Pulham died. The business was taken over by his eldest son, another James, at this time only 18. In the early 1840s, James and his family moved to Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, where the Lockwoods had also had business connections.
The Pulhams' manufacturing methods
In the mid-1840s James built Pulham House near Broxbourne Station, Hertfordshire, where it was conveniently sited for the transport of materials. On adjoining land he built brick kilns and a grinding machine. Here pieces of claystone were fed into a channel and ground to a powder by huge concrete wheels, pulled by horses. This powder was then transported to the works and moulded into tiles, sculpture and ornaments.
A richly ornamented vase made and entered by James Pulham won a prize medal in the Great Exhibition of 1851. Contemporary accounts praised the sound principles involved in producing both common articles for the building trade as well as items of. more artistic interest.
The factory produced cement-based artificial stone and two colours of clay-based artificial stone, one buff and the other a rich red. All of these products were known as Pulhamite.
A Romantic folly
Probably the most impressive of the follies built by the Pulhams is the Norman gatehouse at Benington Lordship , near Stevenage. In 1838 the owner, George Proctor, decided to romanticise the ruins of the Norman castle by adding a huge gatehouse, complete with inscribed stone, a mock dining hall along the side of the house and a summerhouse let into the Norman wall. The walls are mostly flint-covered but the facings, columns and stones of the gatehouse are of the artificial stone that was the hallmark of the firm.
This same artificial stone was used in the construction of West Hyde Church, Hertfordshire (1843-4) and Ware Cemetery Chapel, Hertfordshire in 1854.
Pulham & Son is born
The firm became Pulham & Son in 1865 when the third James joined the firm. One of the grandest of their works at this time was a terracotta monument to painter William Mulready. Designed by Godfrey Sykes, it was commissioned for the Paris Exhibition of 1867 by the Science and Art Department of the South Kensington Museum (later known as the Victoria and Albert Museum). The painter rests on a raised bier and a large canopy, supported by columns, covers the effigy. This well-preserved monument can be seen today in Kensal Green Cemetery.
It was, however, for rock gardens and ferneries that the Pulhams were best known. Flat land was channelled, streams diverted and lakes formed. Rocks could be made to simulate cliffs and waterfalls, built with elaborate systems for piping the water.
The firm used natural rocks where possible, but if none were available they constructed their own. In his booklet, Pulham stresses the need to imitate nature, to make the rocks consistent with natural formations.
Rough waste material and bricks were covered with a tinted cement mixture. The surface was then figured, tooled and brushed to make the finished effect more convincing, and durability was guaranteed. Many experts were taken in by the geological accuracy of the landscapes thus created.
Good examples of Pulham rock gardens survive at Audley End in Essex, Sandringham in Norfolk, Lower Gatton Park in Surrey, Madresfield Court in Worcestershire and the RHS garden at Wisley in Surrey.
Most of the places listed in Pulham's booklet mention ferneries, for the 19th century saw the great craze for ferns. The ferneries designed by Pulham varied from a simple ‘rockified' wall at the end of a conservatory to a much larger structure built into the side of a hill. Walls of either real or artificial tufa were constructed to incorporate growing pockets for ferns.
At Danesbury in Hertfordshire, the Pulhams built a fernery in a chalk pit for William-John Blake in 1859. Garden writer William Robinson stated some 20 years later that ‘there is not a better fernery than at Danesbury. Most of these ferneries have been demolished, but a good example of a Pulham fernery survives in the Swiss Garden at Old Warden, Bedfordshire.
A prolific period
All detailed information about the Pulhams' work after 1877 has to be gleaned from contemporary journals and estate records. It would seem that this was their most prolific period, when they worked at Buckingham Palace, Wisley and many other large private gardens, as well as making balustrades, statues, jardinieres, bird baths and various other items.
At Folkestone they were employed in 1920 to construct large rocky walls to decorate the cliff path, which had been built to allow the passage of bath chairs between the cliff-top promenade and the undercliff walk. The walls cover an area some 75 metres wide and 50 metres high.
Undoubtedly the most impressive example of Pulham landscaping can be seen at Dewstow, Monmouth. Here at the end of the 19th century a seven-acre garden was laid out with ponds, ravines, grottoes and underground tunnels for Henry Oakley, a director of the Great Western Railway. Almost forgotten and largely buried for the last 50 years, the garden is now being restored (www.dewstow.com ).
The second James died in 1898, leaving his son and grandson, James Robert Pulham, in the business. One of these opened a nursery in Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire and the firm won many awards at Chelsea for their rock gardens. But two world wars had a depressing effect on the business. Horticultural fashions changed and money was not available for large garden projects. James Pulham & Son finally closed its doors in 1945.
Revived interest in the Pulhams
The past 20 years have seen a revival of interest in the works of the James Pulhams. Articles have appeared in garden history journals and Claude Hitching, several of whose ancestors worked for the Pulham & Son, is compiling a book about the firm (http://pgdp.codewallahs.com/www.pulham.org.uk).
Each year sees the discovery of previously unrecorded sites in many different parts of the country. English Heritage has recently published a list of Pulham sites and in response to pleas for help, has issued guidelines for the care and restoration of the artificial rocks.
Remains of one of the kilns and the puddling wheel are now Grade II listed and maintained by Broxbourne Borough Council, although the house and works were demolished in 1966.
The considerable variety of their output and its unquestionable quality should ensure that work by ‘the old-established firm of Messrs Pulham & Son' continues to survive and become increasingly valued in the 21st century.
Kate Banister is the author of ‘The Pulham family of Hertfordshire and their work' in Hertfordshire Garden History, edited by Anne Rowe (Hertfordshire Publications, 2007).
Anon., The Art-Journal Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition 1851 (London, 1851) 303.
Anon., Art-Journal (1859) 25-29.
Anon., The Art-Journal Illustrated Catalogue of the International Exhibition 1862 (London 1862) 101.
Anon., 'Garden Memoranda', Gardeners' Chronicle, (1842) 607-8.
Anon., Gardeners' Chronicle (28 Jan 1893) 101.
Anon., Gardeners' Chronicle (8 May 1920), 231-2.
Anon., Gardeners' Magazine (12 February 1912), 106.
Corfield, John, 'Pulham & Son', Hertford and Ware Local History Society Journal, 1 (1998) 12-15.
Davis, John, Antique Garden Ornament, 2nd edn (Woodbridge: Antique Collectors' Club1998) pp.186-197.
Elliott, Brent, 'We must have the noble cliff', Country Life 5 Jan. 1984.
Festing, Sally, 'Pulham has done his work well', Garden History, 12:2 (1984) 138-158.
Festing, Sally, 'Great credit upon the ingenuity and taste of Mr Pulham', Garden History, 16 (1988) 90-102.
Festing, Sally, 'J.Pulham 3: Recent Discoveries and the Restoration of Pulham Sites', Garden History, 25:2, (1997) 230-237.
Francis, A.J., The Cement Industry 1796-1914: A History, 1st edn, (Newton Abbott, 1978) pp. 91-109, 275-6.
Hitching, Claude, 'James Pulham in Herts', Parts 1-5, Hertfordshire Countryside Jan-May 2004.
Hitching, Claude, The Pulham Legacy. http://www.pulham.org.uk.
Hitching, Claude, 'Preserving our Pulham Heritage', Garden History Society News 62 Summer 2001, 23-25.
Hitching, Claude, 'In Search of Pulham's Fountains', Garden History Society News 67 Spring 2003, 21-23.
Jewitt, Llewellynn, TheCeramic Art of Great Britain (1st edn London, 1878, reprinted 1985) pp.428-9.
Lawrence, Andrew, The Aldenham House Gardens (Cambridge 1988).
Pulham, James, Picturesque Ferneries and Rock-garden Scenery, (London 1876/7).
Pulham, James, Garden Ornament: vases, terminals etc. illustrated catalogue (about 1925).
Pulham, James, The Builder (5 April 1845) 160.
Robinson, W., The English Flower Garden (15th edn London 1883, reprinted Sagapress 1995) p.170.
Hertfordshire Garden History, ed. by Rowe, Anne (Hatfield: Hertfordshire Publications, 2007).
Thomas, Graham Stuart, The Rock Garden and its Plants (London: Dent 1989), pp.31-41.
Wareham, Anne, ‘Digging Deep', The Garden (RHS), 131, Part 1, Jan. 2006, pp.18-21.
The Pulham Legacy, a website hosted by Claude Hitching. Visit the Portfolio area to read further articles about James Pulham and Son.
Download the pdf version of English Heritage's Durability Guaranteed, Pulhamite rockwork- Its conservation and repair.
Click on the image to visit the Resource Area and view more examples of Pulhamite and the work of James Pulham & Son.