Xmera / Garden History / Nurseries: J. C. Wheeler

J. C. Wheeler & Son

The future of the William Wheeler's nursery in Gloucester must have seemed bleak, when his widow died in 1810. James Cheslin, the couple's eldest son, was still only twelve. Custody of their four children passed to their grandmother Hannah Cooper and her husband. The elder daughter Elizabeth formerly took charge of the business, while the care of the nursery was undertaken by Samuel Jeffs, a nurseryman living in Hare Lane. He had probably worked for James and William Wheeler and run the practical side of the business since William's death. This arrangement ensured that the business was in a healthy condition when James Cheslin finally took over formal control in 1819. His sister Elizabeth, who never married, continued to run the retail premises in Northgate Street.

In 1822 work began on the building of Worcester Street to create a new, straighter entrance for the Tewkesbury Road into the city. James Cheslin and his siblings had to sell a strip of land twenty yards wide and a hundred and thirteen long to allow the road to cross the nursery. Subsequently Elizabeth moved from Northgate Street into the now isolated house and remaining land in Hare Lane. Once the road had divided the nursery, James Cheslin raised a mortgage of £700 on the land to the east of Worcester Street and bought out his siblings' interests. At the same time he married Elizabeth Humpidge, whose family owned a nursery at Tibberton, near Newent and with whom he had two sons: Alfred Cummins and William Cheslin.

The Northgate area of Gloucester was significantly affected in the 1840s by the coming of the railway, when several houses in London Road, Hare Lane and St Catherine Street were demolished to make way for the viaduct. Elizabeth Wheeler having died in 1836, the Hare Lane property was sold by Anna Maria and her husband to the Dean Forest railway company. In addition to the demand for land created by the railway, new houses were also being built and its proximity to Worcester Street made the land of James Cheslin's Alvin Street nursery valuable. Arthur Causton's map of Gloucester, published in 1843, shows how housing development was encroaching on the nursery. Parts of it were gradually sold off to a local builder and in the 1850s a substantial portion of the surviving nursery was used for the creation of Worcester Parade. During these decades the land in Kingsholm became the main focus of James Cheslin's nursery. In 1849 he was still living over the shop in Northgate Street, but shortly after he moved to Longford. The Northgate premises were pulled down and replaced by a purpose-built shop and warehouse.

By the 1840s James Cheslin Wheeler was a substantial citizen, employing a number of men and boys at his shop and nursery. In 1846 he was elected as a Liberal councillor for the East Ward of Gloucester. A bequest to the Wesleyan Reform Sunday School in his will suggests that he was a Methodist, although this may simply be evidence of a local worthy supporting an educational charity. In early January 1851 he was walking home from Northgate to Longford at around 7pm on a Saturday evening, when he was set upon and robbed of his gold watch and chain by two men. A comparatively wealthy citizen walking alone on a cold, moonlit night had proved too tempting a target for the keeper of one of the inns James Cheslin passed on his regular journey. The innkeeper and his accomplice were rapidly caught and at the spring assizes they were transported for life. This incident may have encouraged James Cheslin to hand more of the responsibility for running the business to his elder son, Alfred Cummins, who became his partner and then formally took over the business in 1858. The following year the nursery received an order to supply fruit trees to Windsor Castle and Osborne House, indicating that Wheeler's retained a reputation for high quality fruit. The nursery was responsible for propagating the French pear variety Bonne d'Ezée for the English market and in 1870 Alfred Cummins submitted a seedling of this pear to the fruit committee of the Royal Horticultural Society under the name of Brockworth Park. James Cheslin's younger son William Cheslin took a degree at Trinity College, Dublin and was ordained in Ireland before returning to England to become vicar of Pollington in the East Riding of Yorkshire. James Cheslin died in 1860, aged sixty-two, and Alfred Cummins bought out his brother's share in the business.

In 1861 Alfred Cummins was living in Sebert Street with his mother and two female servants. The nursery extended east beyond the house to cover a substantial area of Kingsholm and Wotton. The nursery and seed business was then employing twenty-four men and two boys. Over the following decade the business enjoyed a modest expansion and at the census in 1871 Alfred Cummins specified that he was then employing twelve men and two boys in the seed trade and fifteen men and three boys in the nursery. He had married the previous year, but his wife had died within months and he would remain a widower for the rest of his life. The relative numbers of men employed in the two aspects of the business indicates that seed growing had by this time become as important as the straightforward nursery trade, necessitating the purchase of an additional seed warehouse in New Inn Lane. Under Alfred Cummins agricultural seed became an increasingly important part of the firm's production. Consequently he became the honorary secretary to the Gloucester Chamber of Agriculture and the Gloucestershire Root, Fruit and Grain Society. He also followed his father into local politics, although as a conservative rather than a liberal and in 1888 he served as mayor. The business continued to grow steadily, by 1881 employing thirty-two men and four boys. Alfred Cummins himself moved to a country villa in Upton St Leonards, although at the end of his life when he needed to employ a nurse to look after him he returned to Kingsholm. He died in January 1899, bringing his family's involvement in the nursery trade to an end after four generations and over a hundred and fifty years.

After Alfred Cummins's death the Worcester Street nursery, Northgate Street shop and a warehouse in New Inn Lane were acquired by a company that continued to trade as J. C. Wheeler & Son. The Worcester Street site was sold in 1903. In 1922 the company acquired new premises near the railway bridge in London Road and sold the Northgate Street shop. The land around Denmark Road was developed for housing, while the nursery moved out to Barnwood, where it occupied thirty-six acres until the 1930s. Even after the site was purchased for the building of the ring road, they continued to rent some of the buildings until the road scheme went ahead after the war. After the war the shop occupied a site in King's Square, where it remained until the redevelopment of the square in 1961. Its final shop in Grosvenor House closed in 1974, when the parent company went out of business and the history of Wheeler's nursery in Gloucester finally came to an irrevocable end.