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The Garden Museum's project to commemorate WWI

The Garden Museum's project to commemorate WWI

Thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund the Lambeth-based Garden Museum will reveal the widespread effects of the First World War on parks, gardens, memorials, the role of women and how the growing of vegetables and flowers spread from the UK to the Western Front.

In an encounter in Parliament with the decorated war hero, poet and by 1917 anti war campaigner Siegfried Sassoon, Winston Churchill put forward the idea that “War is the normal occupation of man” following a scornful look from Sassoon, Churchill amended his words adding “…War and Gardening”.

This short quote encapsulates the central theme of The Garden Museum's exhibition, the classic dichotomy of war and peace, and the extremes of human experience.

Throughout 2014 the nation will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War; and we will reveal some of the stories that military histories overlook.

How and why the RHS managed to get official permission to allow an enemy alien to continue to look after the rock garden at Wisely.

There are many other fascinating stories how Hatfield House played a role in the development of the Mark 1 Tank and how for example Highclere Castle became a hospital employing 30 of the best and prettiest nurses, as Lady Almina’ Carnarvon sought to heal the body and soul of the wounded.

Hundreds of parks and historic designed landscapes were transformed by temporary uses such as training camps or food production, or by abandonment. We will look at the impact on the Grand Estates and Parklands of the huge and tragic loss of man power as the departure and death of gardeners during the war introduced a generation of women to gardening.

The exhibition will explore the concept and consequences of the government campaign to encourage growing food. The first Dig for Victory campaign, although in 1914 it was not branded that, this campaign was vital to the country. Soldiers and civilians gardened to lessen the shortages brought about by actions of U Boats and the threats to trade from the Empire.

One of the most surprising and little known stories is that of Trench Gardens, soldiers growing flowers at the Front, bringing humanity to the squalor of the trenches. The army organised the growing of vegetables for food at the Front and the Garden Museum has a medal awarded for the best vegetables grown on the Western front, our exhibition will feature this and very rare photographs of flower gardens established on the front.

In 1914-18 gardening played an important role in the lives of internees and prisoners of war. We are working with The RHS to tell the story of the British interned at Ruhleben in Germany, where three quarters of the interned civilians joined the horticultural society. The Garden Museum has just acquired 3 gnomes carved by a prisoner on the Isle of Man in 1917 allowing us to look at the story from the enemy view as well.

The symbolism of flowers is expressed, famously, by poppies, yet during the war the English Country garden was an important symbol of home to thousands in Flanders. At home floral shrines were created in thousands of households in the absence of the bodies of their loved ones; first hidden by the authorities and then embraced by them, so much so that in 1918 100,000 people laid flowers at the official shrine in Hyde Park.

We will raise awareness of the design legacy of landscape memorials and memorial landscapes across the country. The planting around war memorials and grave is little-studied and yet this planting has such a powerful symbolic place in the memorials both public and private. The War Graves that were established in France changed in character dramatically as the conflict ended and peace and order was established and this story will be told for perhaps the first time.

Our exhibition will be the first to explore the therapeutic, spiritual and symbolic role of gardening alongside the practical need to garden during war time. We will unveil many new stories, interesting facts and details that have been long forgotten as we remember the human tragedy that was World War One.

Volunteers are being asked to uncover details of sites that were transformed by the need for food production and workshops will be organised next year for local schools to demonstrate the skills required to ensure self-sufficiency. We are working with the Association of Gardens Trusts, The Garden History Society, Parks & Gardens UK and the Royal Horticultural Society to deliver this project. If you are interested in participating as a volunteer, please contact:

Russell Clark
Curator of Exhibitions
Garden Museum
5 Lambeth Palace Road
London SE1 7LB
T.02074018865 x 824