Xmera / Garden History / Nurseries: Wheelers of Gloucester

James Wheeler of Gloucester and his sons

On 20 June 1763 the Gloucester Journal announced the forthcoming publication of The Botanist's and Gardener's New Dictionary by James Wheeler, gardener and nurseryman of Gloucester. Robert Raikes of Sunday School fame, who had taken over the Journal and his father's printing works six years before, was one of seven parties involved in the publication of this small book of gardening advice. Advertisements for the work appeared in the paper eight times over the succeeding sixteen months. The Monthly Review dismissed Wheeler's work as little more than an abridged version of the well-known Gardener's Dictionary by Philip Miller, the gardener at Chelsea Physic Garden. Priced at six shillings, however, the book cost only half the price of Miller's own abridgment of his work. The reviewer conceded that Wheeler's New Dictionary was distinguished by his strict adherence to the newly popular Linnaean system of classification, its comprehensive treatment of English names for genera and species, the inclusion of a gardener's calendar and the emphasis on the uses of plants within the body of the work. Nevertheless, he concluded that Mr Wheeler 'is rather to be considered as a Book-maker, than as an Author'. The New Dictionary was James Wheeler's only contribution to horticultural literature and it is impossible to know what impulse led him to produce the work. We can, however, surmise that the explanation lies in the meeting of two young, energetic and entrepreneurial men in Gloucester in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. The subsequent career of Robert Raikes as a promoter of the Sunday School movement is well-known. The career of his author is more obscure, but James Wheeler founded a nursery business that flourished in Gloucester for two centuries.

In his preface to the New Dictionary James Wheeler described himself as an 'obscure person' and it is certainly true that his origins are uncertain. He was almost certainly not a native of the city. The first record of his presence in Gloucester is his marriage to Arabella Hacket at the cathedral in November 1749. The previous year Daniel Wheeler of Tetbury, mercer, was among those trying to dispose of the Chapel House nursery in Gloucester and its stock. It seems plausible that James was related to Daniel and arrived in Gloucester as caretaker for the Chapel House nursery until it could be sold. His familiarity with the Linnaean system suggests that he trained in London, possibly under James Lee at Hammersmith.

The establishment of Wheeler's own nursery in Gloucester, which according to his successors occurred in 1753, was helped by an association with Charles Barrow,one of the trustees of Arabella's marriage settlement. Barrow was the son of a Gloucestershire family that had acquired considerable wealth in the West Indies, where he had been born. His relationship to Arabella is unknown. Barrow unsuccessfully contested the parliamentary election in Gloucester in 1747 and was subsequently elected in 1751 and served until his death in 1789. In 1750 Barrow acquired the manor of Minsterworth and established his seat at Hygrove House. James and Arabella's first son, born ten months after their marriage in September 1750, was probably named Charles Edward in Barrow's honour. It seems likely that Wheeler was involved in the establishment of the garden for Barrow's new house before setting up his own nursery in a city where he enjoyed the patronage of a wealthy and influential man. The connection was maintained throughout Barrow's life and he left Arabella the substantial sum of £50 in his will. The banker Charles Evans, who had married Barrow's illegitimate daughter and heiress, subsequently replaced Barrow as Arabella's trustee.

The nursery was initially established on various parcels of land bordering on Hare Lane, which was then the main route out of the city towards Tewkesbury. By 1755 James Wheeler occupied a strip of land running between Watering Street and Twyver Brook, leased from the Dean and Chapter. The lease of another area of cathedral land of around one and a half acres to the east of Hare Lane south of Alvin Street was held in trust for Arabella and her sons. In 1793 this land was described as having been converted into a nursery and bowling green. Bowling was a popular pastime among the eighteenth-century gentry and a green might be used as a location for entertainments such as public breakfasts as well as sport. Because of their personal ties Barrow and Evans would presumably have bought plants from Wheeler's nursery rather than sending to London for them and encouraged their friends and neighbours to join them in supporting the local enterprise. Such influential contacts and the publicity provided by his book apparently enabled James Wheeler to establish his nursery without having to seek clients, as some of his rivals did, by advertising in the Gloucester Journal. In 1777 James Wheeler leased 4 acres of land in Kingsholm from the city council. Although he was described on the lease as a gardener, he was clearly expanding into a fully-fledged nurseryman.

From an early stage Wheeler's nursery established a reputation for the cultivation of fruit, especially apples. Fruit trees were what the clientèle of an urban nursery primarily demanded. While the great landowners of the eighteenth century were turning their grounds into landscaped parks, the demand in towns and cities was for walled gardens well-supplied with a wide-range of fruit. James Wheeler did not just grow established varieties, he also introduced new apples to cultivation. In 1780 he supplied the famous Brompton Park Nursery in London with Ashmead's Kernel, a dessert apple that originated in a Gloucester garden later destroyed by the building of Clarence Street. Wheeler's Extreme was a dessert apple bred by James, the original tree of which was still fruiting on the nursery in 1850. He was also credited with raising another dessert variety, Wheeler's Russet. The existence of an apple with the same name thirty years before the Gloucester nursery was founded has thrown doubt on this, although it seems likely that two distinct varieties were involved. Hackett's Kernel, a cider apple growing in Dymock in the early twentieth century, may also be associated with Wheeler's nursery.

By the 1780s James had been joined at the nursery by his sons Edward and William. In his twenties William developed a new area of expertise for the family business. In 1785, aged 22, he won prizes for his carnations at the annual Florists Feast held in August at the Upper George coffee house in the city. The Florists Feast provided an opportunity for enthusiastic carnation growers to meet for a convivial meal and to compare the results of their labours. The emphasis was on the production of new crosses and by 1787 William Wheeler had bulked up his prize winning efforts sufficiently to offer them for sale. The two bizarre (irregularly striped) carnations, one red and the other pink, were called Wheeler's King and Queen of England and could be bought for the substantial sum of 10s. 6d. for the two. Run of the mill carnations were available from the nursery for between 4s. and 12s. a dozen. He also offered a pink called Wheeler's Defiance that he had raised from seed that year. This generation of Wheeler's embraced the power of advertising as their father never had. As is common with advertising the emphasis was on the new. So in 1786 Wheeler's nursery offered the 'new' scented leaf pelargonium Attar of Roses at 7s. 6d. a plant and proudly announced that the 'new' Terling pear, advertised by Ford and Chambers of Exeter for 5s. might be had from them for 2s. They also had the equally 'new' Paddington pear and Bigereau cherry. In October 1787 they had the 'excellent new scarlet strawberry', that had been advertised in the London papers that spring, a 'new' strawberry with variegated leaves and a 'new seedling summer golden pippen-apple'. These novelties were offered alongside their stocks of apples, pears, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, Lancashire gooseberries, red currants, white currants and ranunculus roots all imported from Holland, a double polyanthus, anenome roots and a range of flower and vegetable seeds. The advertising of novelties apparently proved effective. In 1790 the Codrington Estate bought two hundred Pineapple Strawberry plants, a variety with greenish fruits. In December 1798 James Agg of Cheltenham bought a variety of fruit trees for the garden of his new house, including a dozen named varieties of peaches and nectarines, a plum, two apples and three pears. He also bought two arbutus or strawberry trees, two red cedars, a cypress, a cistus and a rhodendron ponticum, following this two months later with a number of provence and moss roses. The following spring he bought a range of plants for his greenhouse. The majority of these were plants had been collected in the Cape by Kew's collector Francis Masson and introduced to cultivation in England within the last twenty-five years. The nursery business was expanding and flourishing, providing their customers with the latest horticultural fashions.

When Arabella died in the summer of 1796, the lease of the nursery land held in trust for her descended to her two sons. In 1800 they jointly bought the freehold from the dean and chapter and divided the land between them. Both by this time were married with young families. In January 1787 Edward had married Anne Woodward by licence at St Mary de Lode, although neither lived in the parish. Their son James Daniel Holbrow was christened at St John's seven months later. He was named James for his grandfather and Daniel Holbrow for the friend who had witnessed his parents' wedding. Three years later Edward's brother William made an apparently more considered marriage to Elizabeth Cheslin, the only surviving child and heir of William Cheslin of Gloucester, deceased. Two months before this marriage, Elizabeth's mother Hannah had married Thomas Cooper, a peruke maker from London. When her new stepfather was appointed guardian to the seventeen-year-old Elizabeth, William joined in the bond required by the ecclesiastical court. This was a good match, as Elizabeth's father had left property in Gloucester, including a plot of land known as Hunt's nursery in Kingsholm. This conveniently adjoined the land rented by James Wheeler from the city council. Although her mother had a life interest in this property, it would eventually descend to her daughter and her daughter's heirs. The importance of Elizabeth's family to the couple is apparent from the naming of their four children: Elizabeth Cheslin, Anna Maria Cooper, James Cheslin and William (two sons both christened William Cheslin died in infancy).

Following the purchase of the freehold of the land inherited from their mother, Edward established his own independent nursery, separate from that run by his father and brother. In December 1802 an advertisement in the Gloucester Journal announced James Wheeler's retirement after fifty years as a nurseryman in Gloucester. At the same time William 'for the greater convenience of carrying on his business' opened a shop in Upper Northgate Street next to the bank run by Charles Evans. The following month Edward used the same method to acknowledge his father's retirement and to advertise his own separate nursery. As well as a wide range of plants he also offered a new service of laying out grounds, conservatories, peach and hot houses 'on the most approved plans'. Edward stressed that, as mistakes had arisen, his clients should be careful to address their orders to Edward Wheeler. In retaliation William took out another advertisement asking that 'as there is a person of the same name engaged in the same business' his clients should be particular in addressing their orders to William Wheeler.

Over time this sibling rivalry might have damaged the business of both men or spurred them on to greater entrepreneurial efforts. In the event it did not have long to produce any results, as Edward and William died within three weeks of each other in the spring of 1806. The cause of their deaths is not known, but it would appear to have been unexpected. At the end of March, just a fortnight before writing his will and six weeks before his death, William had completed the purchase of just over two acres of pasture land in Monkleighton, a formerly common field to the north of Alvin Street. Both William and Edward assumed their nurseries would be continued by their wives. Their father is not mentioned in either of the wills they each hastily wrote in the last month of their lives. James was presumably too old and infirm to take an active role at this crisis and was to die himself the following spring. Anne was instructed to give her and Edward's eighteen-year-old son James Daniel a third of the profits from the nursery, in the hope that this would encourage him to give his mother 'every assistance in the care and management thereof'. William's eldest son James Cheslin was only seven and could be of little help in the running of the nursery for some years. To encourage one or both of his sons to continue the business when they were of age, William stipulated that if they did so they should be allowed to rent at a fixed rate the land he had so recently bought and which was left to their sisters. In May 1806 Anne Wheeler of Hare Lane and Elizabeth Wheeler of Northgate Street advertised their intention to carry on their husband's respective businesses in the Gloucester Journal.

In the next generation both James Daniel Wheeler and James Cheslin Wheeler were to develop the nurseries started by their fathers.