History Society Visits to Luton Hoo Walled Garden

10 and 13 September 2014

By Rosemary Ross

Photo:Part of the wall map in the Estate Offices, Luton Hoo

Part of the wall map in the Estate Offices, Luton Hoo

Gavin Ross, September 2014

The tour on Wednesday, 10 September started with an introductory talk by Felicity Brimblecombe, one of the team of researchers into the history of the Walled Garden. This took place in an upstairs room in the Luton Hoo Estate Office.

Lord Bute and 'Capability' Brown

Felicity gave us an overview of the history of the Walled Garden from the late 1760s to the 1970s. It was established by John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute shortly after he bought the estate in 1763, following his brief period as Prime Minister. He commissioned the Adam brothers to enlarge the house, the watercolour artist Paul Sandby to paint views of the estate, and ‘Capability’ Brown to lay out the gardens, including damming the River Lea to create a lake. Brown was also commissioned to design a Walled Garden, initially sited by the lake, but in fact built on higher land. The relatively rare octagonal layout enclosed 5 acres, with a further five acres of surrounding gardens, including belts of trees to provide shelter on the north and east. It was set on an alignment to maximise sunlight and shelter. A ‘fantastic’ conservatory was constructed, made up of three sixty-foot sections, with a viewing tower - to guard against poachers of rare plants. It was similar to that at Kew, where Lord Bute had advised Princess Augusta on the establishment of botanical gardens, to which he contributed many newly imported species. The design included chimneys for heating the walls. Though no plan of the layout has survived, it is known that probably a quarter of the garden was laid out in accordance with Linnean classification – along the lines of the Botanical Gardens established at Uppsala in 1750.

Lord Bute published nine volumes of Botanical Tables in 1785, and commissioned Samuel Taylor to paint illustrations. Mrs Delaney, a widow in her 70s, made exquisite flower collages during the 1780s, made up of tiny slithers of coloured papers: a number of these were from the Bute collection.

During the 1780s Lord Bute moved away to his newest property, Highcliffe, on the Dorset coast, and though the gardens were maintained in his lifetime, following his death in 1793 his descendents were not interested in the gardens or the botanical collection, which became badly overgrown. The conservatory was demolished.

Renewal by John Shaw Leigh

In 1847 the estate was bought by a wealthy Liverpool solicitor, John Shaw Leigh, who built the Home Farm and Head Gardner’s Cottage and re-established the Walled Garden to provide flowers and fruits for the house. New greenhouses, heated with pipes, kept the kitchens supplied with cucumbers, melons, grapes, figs, cherries and strawberries out of season. Fruit trees were trained in toasting-fork, candelabra and palmette formations. The ladies came down by coach to walk in the gardens or in the conservatory. .

John Gerard Leigh inherited the estate from his father in 1871, but died in 1875. However, his widow remarried and, as Madame de Falbe, entertained lavishly, and maintained all the gardens. The tea-house and dairy, with its Italian octagonal tiles, date from her time.

Arrival of the Wernhers in 1903

Photo:The conservatory in its prime - from a display board

The conservatory in its prime - from a display board

Gavin Ross, September 2014

In 1903 the estate was bought by Sir Julius Wernher, who had the conservatories rebuilt by Mackenzie and Moncur in 1910. Early autochrome photos show the 229 foot-long range, with a central fernery and six ‘finger’ houses. The boiler house, just outside the garden walls, provided heat for propagation and the conservatories, which furnished flowers for displays in the house, which might be changed during the day when family and guests were resident, or sent by train to the Wernher’s London residence, Bath House in Piccadilly.

In the both WWI and WWII the estate was used by the War Office for training and convalescent purposes. Sir Julius had died in 1912, and in the interwar years Lady Alice Wernher, whose initials can be seen in the wrought iron gates to the Garden, remarried and, as Lady Ludlow, maintained the gardens and glasshouses. Her second son, Sir Harold Wernher and his wife Lady Zia re-established high standards in the gardens, but the Walled Garden declined from the 1950s, and part was used as a Garden Centre in the 1970s.

With the division of the Luton Hoo estate at the time the mansion and northern grounds was sold to Elite Hotels in 1999, the Phillips family have worked with a team of voluntary researchers and gardeners on a plan to restore the Walled Garden and its immediate surroundings.

A walk round the gardens

Photo:Nora Shane, researcher and guide

Nora Shane, researcher and guide

G Ross, Sept. 2014

Nora Shane, who has researched Lord Bute’s contribution to garden design and botanical collections, led a most informative tour of the gardens, starting with the west entrance, set in the original walls, with the upper courses renewed with Luton grey bricks and glass-furnace slag coping stones.

Photo:West gateway, including Alice Wernher's initials - the dividing wall is on the right alongside the path.

West gateway, including Alice Wernher's initials - the dividing wall is on the right alongside the path.

G Ross, Sept. 2014


The gardens were divided by an internal wall in the mid 1800s. The southern section, where a border is planted with species from Lord Bute’s time, is used for events run by the Luton Hoo estate in conservatory-style marquees. Lord Bute had kept detailed weather records of when plants flowered. He kept similar records for his Argyll estate, Mount Stuart.

Lord Bute memorial - an analemmatic sundial

Photo:The analemmatic sundial, under construction

The analemmatic sundial, under construction

G Ross, Sept. 2014

The northern half, part of which is a wild-flower meadow, contains an analemmatic sundial, under construction, designed to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Lord Bute’s birth in 1713. For an explanation of this type of ground sundial see http://plus.maths.org/content/analemmatic-sundials-how-build-one-and-why-they-work.

Small plots have been laid out with herbs. Half of this section is laid out in small beds devoted to varieties of species grown from Lord Bute’s time onwards. The central path leads to the central Fernery of the now badly neglected Mackenzie and Moncur conservatories. The project managers had been advised to cover the conservatories with plastic sheeting, but this too is decaying, and subject to additional wind-damage. Restoration would cost around £8 million.

Photo:The cactus house, based on Lord Bute's collection

The cactus house, based on Lord Bute's collection

Gavin Ross, July 2014

One section is functioning very successfully as a cactus and succulent house – based initially on species known to Lord Bute. The vines and fig trees in the north-eastern wing are still surviving, but the main ranges on either side of the fernery are overrun with brambles.

Beyond the garden walls

Outside the walls to the east lie the Flower Garden Woods established in the late 1700s, and renewed in the late 1800s for the Masters Walk. Little is known of the original planting. A range of buildings on the east includes the mushroom house currently used for a display of tools and the boiler house, which supplied heating for the Back Sheds and propagation sheds from the 1870s. The Back Sheds including potting houses, rooms for washing vegetables and preparing flower arrangements for the house, and mess rooms for the labourers and foreman. The Head Gardener’s House was built in the 1860s as part of the general improvements to farm and estate buildings.

Photo:Madame de Falbe's Tea House

Madame de Falbe's Tea House

G Ross, Sept. 2014

Photo:Marble slab in the Dairy

Marble slab in the Dairy

G Ross, Sept. 2014

Also outside the garden are the Tea House and ornamental Dairy, built for Madame Lafalbe to entertain her guests. No expense was spared in sourcing Carrara marble and Italian painted tiles to decorate the cool Dairy.

Nora was full of information, and gave very generously of her time – we greatly exceeded our hour-long tour, and learned much about the whole restoration project.


Visit on 13 September

The second tour, on the Saturday, was equally informative, and slightly longer, as it was not preceded by a preliminary talk.  We said our thanks to our guide, Judy Smedley, outside the Old Dairy, adjacent to the Tea House.  And then finished up at the "Back Sheds" for the chance to buy LHWG home grown produce, and honey, and linger for a cup of tea, in the warm sunshine.  Saturday was the European Heritage Day, and they had more than 400 visitors, so we were glad that we were there early!

Photo:Herbaceous bed in the SW garden

Herbaceous bed in the SW garden

Gavin Ross, September 2014

Photo:The north west gardens, with wild flowers, and the conservatories shrouded in plastic, awaiting restoration

The north west gardens, with wild flowers, and the conservatories shrouded in plastic, awaiting restoration

G Ross, Sept. 2014

Photo:One of many ornamental displays of cacti

One of many ornamental displays of cacti

G Ross, Sept. 2014

Photo:Nora Shane among the formal flower beds

Nora Shane among the formal flower beds

G Ross, Sept. 2014

Photo:The back sheds and propagation houses

The back sheds and propagation houses

G Ross, Sept. 2014

Photo:The boiler house, built in 1904 by Sir Julius Werher. It provided heating for the propagation houses and for the orchid and carnation wings of the main conservatory

The boiler house, built in 1904 by Sir Julius Werher. It provided heating for the propagation houses and for the orchid and carnation wings of the main conservatory

G Ross, Sept. 2014

Photo:The Head Gardener's House, built in the 1860s

The Head Gardener's House, built in the 1860s

G Ross, Sept. 2014

This page was added by Rosemary Ross on 30/09/2014.
Comments about this page

Had a lovely visit with my brother and his wife. We were taken around the garden by Felicity Brimblecombe, a historical researcher for the garden. Our great Uncle Ted was head gardener after the second world war, trying to put back the garden after it had been used by the land army girls. At the time the garden was used to bring in income by selling what they grew. I think great uncle was very disillusioned by this and only stayed for 2 years.

It was so sad to see the state of what had been the most amazing greenhouses and what it would cost to put them back to the way they looked when they were built.

We wish the team at Luton Hoo and their volunteer helpers success in their efforts to get this wonderful walled garden back to the way it looked in its glory days.

By Marilyn Dawkins
On 26/09/2017

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