1897 Interview with William George Turner, Head Gardener at The Rookery, Streatham Common

A few years ago, I made a fun research discovery: this remarkable interview, transcribed below, with William George Turner, my husband’s great-great-grandfather, who was the head gardener at The Rookery on Streatham Common in England. [Read more about William George Turner’s life in this post: William George Turner (1833-1904), Head Gardener of The Rookery, Streatham Common] At the time of this interview, W. G. Turner was 64 years old, and had been a gardener at The Rookery for 45 years and had a wealth of knowledge about the history of the property and its plants, some of which still exist on the site today. The Lambeth Parks department describes The Rookery today as follows: “The Rookery, a Grade II Listed Historic Garden, contains a cascade of ornamental ponds, planted herbaceous and wildflower beds, including an Old English Garden and a White Garden. It also includes ornamental and native hedges, an orchard and community garden, and is adjacent to public toilets, a car park and a popular café.” The Rookery is a part of the active community organization the Streatham Common Co-operative who do incredible work and run markets at The Rookery, learn more about them here!

The Gardeners’ Chronicle, 20 November 1897, p. 357.



“THE Rookery” stands upon the brow of Streatham Common and is the present residence of Lady Key. The house was built long before an ever-expanding London had encroached to Streatham Common, when, indeed, for most practical purposes, the locality had as little pretension to urban life as the New Forest possesses today. A water supply, a railway station, gas, and other modern necessaries did not enter in those days into the everyday life of the Streatham Common district. It seems to be pretty clearly known that the building was erected by a smuggler who used to convey his ill-gotten goods from the South Coast to cellars he had made below this residence, the transference, of course, being deputed to armed gangs of men. In those days the great North Wood was cropped with forest trees but it has departed long since and its only influence that can be observed today is in the fact that it succeeded in perpetuating its name in the district by which it was supplanted – Norwood. As one sees the number of omnibuses that arrive at Streatham Common every few minutes from the City, a good many of the historical associations of The Rookery that one learns from Mr. W.G. Turner, who has been gardener at the place for about forty five years [ca. 1852], appear incredible and would be so had circumstances not afforded us similar experience in other districts that have fallen before the forward growth of the metropolis. The present Lady Key has resided here for fifty six years [ca. 1841] and it is of interest to speculate what will become of The Rookery when she ceases to need its tenancy. It may be re-let, and it may not, the probability is that bricks and mortar will invade the grounds and it is whispered that even now such action has been determined upon. Before the end comes these few notes may be interesting for it is a place where years ago gardening was practised successfully if not extensively; and Mr. Turner has won many prizes for fruit in the old “Regent’s Park” days about which the most venerable of present day gardeners are always eloquent. On reference to fig. 105 p. 359

The mansion house at The Rookery in 1897, seen on the right side of this image, was demolished in 1910.

a partial view of the front of the house may be seen. It is beautifully covered with Magnolias, Myrtles, and Ampelopsis. At the end may be noticed a fine Cedar of Lebanon, not aged, but of excellent proportions There are two other good specimens of the same species in front of the house and a poor tree of Araucaria imbricata. Concerning this species, Mr. Turner says: “I bought it about thirty years ago [ca. 1867] from Mr. Jno Waterer and it was then 10 to 12 feet high It grew splendidly and every two or three years I removed a larger orcle of the clay soil from around the roots and gave it a more agreeable compost. But at last it failed to grow and a handsome specimen became a poor looking cripple in a very short time.” From the terrace shown in the photograph it was once possible to obtain an unbroken view to Addington but trees have been planted on neighbouring property and they have grown high until now the view from The Rookery is shut in disagreeably. But on a clear day you may see Epsom grand-stand – a poor compensation for Time’s depreciating effect upon the place. The ground slopes steeply from the front of the house where the lawn is kept very beautifully and mark how little matters have been attended to in the beautifying of the terrace. Baskets and vases are filled with plants and Retinosporas and even the skeleton lampposts have been utilised for planting Ivy Pelargoniums, which certainly help to screen the stiff unpleasant looking objects during the summer.

 We next walk to the bottom of the lawn and among some shrubs notice a pretty shelter part of an arched walk 80 feet long over which Roses are trained. The shelter is supported by eight iron pillars each covered with a small leafed Ivy and the roof with a Banksian Rose The old ice well 35 feet in the ground has not been used since the common has been frequented by Londoners and the ice is required by them for skating upon. There is a little house with a number of fine old Camellias in it. The walls are clothed by them and a centre bed is filled by them. All of these have been planted about thirty years [c. 1867] and each of them cost a £10 note most of them having come from Messrs. Lee’s old nursery at Hammersmith. Some carpet bedding is noticed, a fine lot of border Carnations, Sweet Briar hedges looking very bright with numerous haws, and an old fashioned kitchen garden that suggests in its Peach and Apricot walls that it has nearly run its course. There is a good sized Walnut tree and one is reminded of what can be done in a period of forty years when Mr. Turner assures us that he once had the same specimen in a 6 inch pot [c. 1857]. In the kitchen garden is a locked up place that looks not unlike a fruit or store room but upon entering it one finds it is a covered bath in a mineral well where the late Jas. Coster, Esq. then owner of the property used to have daily dips. This Mr. Coster was one of the exhibitors of plants in the days when the late Dr. Lindley was at Chiswick. The water in the locality contains considerable mineral matter, is aperient, and is even injurious to many plants. In front of the covered well is an old sun dial but its capacity for usefulness was ruined one night by a policeman who was “on patrol” for it is said he had no person to arrest and consequently arrested the brass fittings. The fruit garden affords much interest in its present condition. One can easily see that it was well done once but for years the garden has stood still except in the matters of tending and keeping. There have been few renewals. Some of the old espalier, bush and pyramidal trees are the most quaint objects possible see fig 105 p 359. Numbers of them too have been trained according to a system once common in the case of Pear trees when they looked like Weeping Willows and stones wore attached to the tips of the shoots to bring them into a drooping position. The espaliers have grown out of all bounds and some of them are twisted and crooked very curiously, being considerably over a hundred years old. One of the bush specimen Apple trees is shown by fig 106 p 361 and is probably the variety Yorkshire Greening.

A Yorkshire Greening apple tree in The Rookery’s gardens in 1897.

Said Mr. Turner, “Some of the younger of the fruit trees I grafted or budded in Penge Wood about forty two years ago [c. 1855]. I worked them in the spring of one year and the next, such as had taken were removed to the garden here. But in spite of little planting during late years there have been good crops of Apples even this year and some varieties are exceedingly plentiful in a good season, Ribston and Blenheim Orange Pippins particularly so.” Mr. Turner is an intelligent gardener and though circumstances do not warrant the planting of young fruit trees and such like, he does his best to obtain crops from the old ones and is successful. R.H.P.

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