Xmera / Garden History / Nurseries: Durdham Down

Durdham Down Nursery, Bristol

In 1786 a new nursery was founded by the brothers John and William Sweet and their partner John Miller and his son John at St Michael's Hill. They subsequently expanded their business at a site on Durdham Down close to the important middle-class suburb of Clifton. This subsequently became the main site of the nursery. In 1798-9 the grounds of Dyrham Park were redesigned by the Bath architect Charles Harcourt Masters, a follower of Capability Brown. The new landscape garden created a demand for trees. Over the course of three years from January 1800 the nursery supplied around five thousand trees and shrubs to William Brathwayt's gardeners. These included a wide range of forest trees, including oak, beech, birch, chestnuts, sycamores, rowans, elms, hornbeams and larch. There were also shrub roses, lilacs, laburnums and hedging plants. Such valuable contracts were lucrative, but also held dangers when nurseries were kept waiting for payment. The Dyrham estate appears to have regularly taken six months or more to pay its bills.

The majority of the financing for the nursery seems to have come from the Sweet brothers, who were part of a significant horticultural family from Devon. Their brother James was gardener to Richard Bright of Ham Green, near Eastern in Gordano and subsequently established his own nursery in Westbury on Trym. Their younger half-brother Robert trained among them in the Bristol area before becoming involved with a succession of London nurseries. Robert Sweet published a number of horticultural works, which included various descriptions and illustrations based on plants supplied by the Durdham Down nursery. In a celebrated case of 1824 he was acquitted of having received stolen plants from Kew while foreman at the Colvill Nursery.

By November 1822 the elder John Miller, John and William Sweet had all died. John Miller needed to raise new capital, both to pay the executors of his former partners and to continue the nursery. Rather than find new working partners, he borrowed 13,000 from two Bristol merchants, Thomas Fyson and John Acraman, at a substantial rate of interest on the capital and on his profits. The scope of John Miller's ambition is shown by the extensive 54 page catalogue of trees, shrubs, herbaceous, greenhouse and hot house plants he produced in 1826. There was a separate catalogue for kitchen garden and flower seeds.

The extent of the nursery at Durdham Down and an outpost at Stoke's Croft is clearly seen on Donne's 1826 map of Bristol. Miller also acquired retail premises in Clare Street. His expertise in growing auriculas, hyacinths and polyanthus was attested by the prizes he won at the meetings of the Bristol Society of Florists, of which he was president in 1827-8. When the Bristol Horticultural & Botanical Society was formed in 1829, he became its first secretary. He subsequently played a pivotal role in the promoting the creation of a botanic and zoological garden at Clifton. In 1832 the capital owed to Fyson and Acraman became due along with the accumulated interest. The matter became acrimonious when John Miller asked for time to pay. His creditors attempted to foreclose, which resulted in a Chancery suit over whether the interest that had been charged was usurious. In March 1833 his problems led him to resign as secretary of the horticultural society and by August he was obliged to take out newspaper advertisements to counter the rumours that he was going to cease business. Despite his difficulties, John Miller continued to play a significant role in the horticultural life of the city. In June 1834 the 'principal feature' of the display of fruit and flowers at the horticultural society's show was a New White Providence pineapple he had grown, 'which was placed in a basket tastefully ornamented with flowers'. In July and September 1836 he supplied baskets of plants for the display which included orchids, fuchsias, ericas, calceolarias, amaryllis and dahlias. He also remained active in the Florists' Society, which continued to hold its annual shows.

In August 1836 the British Association for the Advancement of Science met in Bristol. During the meeting a 'walking conversazione' was held at Miller's nursery and one of the botanists 'with a considerable degree of horticultural knowledge, and who has seen many of the nurseries on the Continent' assured the members that 'in point of display, of general arrangement, and of high order and keeping, Miller's Nursery exceeds all others which he has seen. As a nursery for a stranger to walk in, he considers it the first in Britain, and , perhaps, in Europe'.

In July 1836 it was reported in The Floricultural Cabinet that the 'spirited proprietor of the Bristol and Clifton Nursery Mr Miller is going to give two or three Horticultural fetes, at which a considerable number of prizes will be given by him for flowers, fruit, &c.' The advertisement for the grand horticultural exhibition to be held at the nursery gardens in August 1837 indicates the scale of these events. This was intended to be no small, provincial affair. The garden had been especially laid out, judges were brought from London, there was a band and refreshments. John Miller had attracted the patronage of the Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria, as well as various dukes, earls, lords, MPs and other worthies. An extensive array of competitive classes were announced with cash prizes. The biggest prize was ten guineas for a display of 50 different dahlias. The prizes were limited to 'Gentlemen, Gentlemen's Gardeners, and Amateurs only', who were required to pay a five shillings entrance fee. Tickets were available to visitors for two shillings. The venture was presumably reasonably successful, as it was repeated the following June on similar lines although exhibitors were now to be charged 1s. 6d. for each entry. The nursery had been renamed the Bristol and Clifton Down Royal Horticultural Gardens and further events were planned for August and September.

John Miller's ambitions had finally exceeded his ability to manage his finances. He was listed as a bankrupt in the London Gazette on 4 November 1836. He continued to live at the nursery, but its running passed to his foreman Joseph Garaway, who eventually took over the business.

The Durdham Down nursery continued on the same site until after the second world war, although it was reduced in size as more houses were built around it. The Clare Street premises were taken over by John Miller's brother-in-law Joseph Hall. The 'experienced person' who according to his advertisements had carefully selected Hall's seeds from the best growers was presumably John Miller, continuing his trade through an intermediary.