John Abercrombie

John Abercrombie was a Scottish author, kitchen and market gardener, publican, and garden designer active, especially in London, England, in the mid- to late-18th century. Abercrombie was born in East Lothian, Scotland in 1726, the elder of two sons of John Abercrombie, a market gardener at Prestonpans, near Edinburgh, Scotland. It was here that Abercrombie began work as his father's apprentice in 1740 at the age of 14, and from where, in 1745, the loyalist Abercrombie witnessed the Battle of Prestonpans as it took place beneath his father's garden wall.

Ever 'a king's man', after serving a four year apprenticeship to his father, Abercrombie, around the age of 18, moved to London where he began to work at several gardens including Kew and Leicester House. Abercrombie became gardener to Doctor Munro at Sunning Hill, Berkshire, England and to several others including Lord Bateman, Lord Kensington and Sir Robert Darling.

From about 1751 to 1759 Abercrombie worked as gardener to Sir James Douglas. He married a member of the Douglas family household and with his wife soon began what would become a very large family, consisting of 16 daughters and two sons. Abercrombie then returned to Scotland for 10 months.

By the early-1760s Abercrombie was once again back in England where he continued to be employed by a series of noblemen and gentlemen until 1770 when he began to keep a small nursery and market garden near Hackney, London.

Later, Abercrombie began to sell seeds and plants in Newington and Tottenham Court and supposedly accepted the position as Superintendant of the Gardens of Catharine the Great of Russia, only later to turn down the opportunity for fear of travelling over the ocean.

Around 1772 Abercrombie became a publican taking a house in Mile End (Dog Row) which he converted into 'The Artichoke Tea Gardens'. He later, in about 1774, took another tea garden at Hoxton where he raised exotics and fruit before later returning to market gardening at Tottenham.

A best-selling author of books on practical gardening as well as a practical gardener himself, Abercrombie's most noted work, Every Man his own Gardener was first published under the name Thomas Mawe, head gardener of the Duke of Leeds, in 1767.

Many publications followed including The Universal Gardener and Botanist (1778), The Garden Mushroom (1779), The British Fruit-garden (1779), The Complete Forcing Gardener (1781), The Complete Wall Tree Pruner (1783), The Propagation and Botanical Arrangement of Plants and Trees Useful and Ornamental (1785), The Gardener's Pocket Dictionary(1786), The Daily Assistant (1789), The Hot-house Gardener (1789), The Universal Gardener's Calendar (1789), The Complete Kitchen Gardener, and Hot-bed Forcer (1789), The Gardener's Vade-Mecum (1789), The Hot-house Gardener (1789) and The Gardener's Pocket Journal and Annual Register (1791).

From the late-1790s and into the early-1800s Abercrombie was occasionally employed to plan gardens and pleasure grounds. He continued his interest in tea and in practical gardening and writing up until his death.

Abercrombie died at his home in Charlton Street, Somers Town, some say on 1 May, others 2 May, 1806, aged 80. He was buried at St. Pancras in Middlesex, England. Today many of his books are still in print.

Sources:

'A Brief Sketch of the Life of John Abercrombie' in Abercrombie, John, The Gardener's Pocket Journal, 11th Edition (London: B. Crosby and Company, 1808), pp. iii-vi.

Coats, Alice M., 'John Abercrombie', Garden History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1977), pp. 24-26.

Desmond, Ray, Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturists (London: Taylor & Francis, 1994), p.2.

Johnson, George W., A History of English Gardening (1829) (London: Garland Publishing Incorporated, 1982), pp. 219-224.

Loudon, John Claudius, An Encyclopedia of Gardening (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1822) p. 1273.

Raphael, Sandra, 'John Abercrombie', in The Oxford Companion to Gardens, ed. Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe et. al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p.1.