Friday 21 October 2016

James Hornby: Heslington Hall Horticulturalist

BI/JHOR/4/1/4 James and Mary Hornby

Earlier this year we were gifted a very exciting archive - the archive of James Hornby, head gardener at Heslington Hall between 1870 and 1902. This small but fascinating group of records gives us some real insights into the day-to-day role of a Victorian head gardener, and well as a different perspective on life at Heslington Hall, formerly the home of the Yarburgh family and now one of the University's most iconic buildings. The archive includes many photographs and drawings of the Hall as well as portraits of James Hornby, his wife Mary and members of their wider family, letters (including one from the then Lord Deramore thanking James Hornby for putting out a fire in the Hall!) and even a medal for prize-winning pears.

However, for me, the most fascinating document in the archive is James Hornby's 'Diary of Operations' which documents the first eighteen months of his 32 year employment at Heslington Hall. It showcases the beginning of the changes in the gardens at the Hall, starting with a note dated 18th August 1870 stating ‘No peas, nor cucumbers, nor melons nor yet many vegetables of any kind’. Even over the span of time recorded in this journal, it is possible to see James Hornby, at the head of a team of gardeners, taking and shaping the gardens into both an ornamental space and a productive garden supplying Heslington Hall with fruit, vegetables and flowers.

BI/JHOR/1/1/1 Pages of James Hornby's horticultural journal

The journal records successful cultivars, harvest dates, crop yields and temperature changes, as well as practical tasks such as cleaning the glasshouses, whitewashing and even (repeatedly!) mending a lawnmower. The image of the page above shows a typical spread of entries and illustrates one of the other ways in which this document helps us to understand the role of this head gardener. As with many of the other pages, these entries include backdated annotation, often in different coloured ink, which indicate how some tasks were recorded and then amended or added to at a later date. The detail below shows and entry recording potatoes being planted out on January 31st, with a note added in purple ink to say that the first dish was collected on April 9th but that it would be beneficial to plant a crop in time for Easter Sunday instead.  

BI/JHOR/1/1/1 extract of a page of James Hornby's journal

Even for those of us who aren't keen gardeners, the journal is a really interesting record documenting as it does the rhythms of life at Heslington Hall and events in the life of the Yarburgh familyincluding visits from ‘company’ for evening events, periods when the family are away from Heslington and also the birth of George Nicholas de Yarburgh-Bateson, noted as ‘Master Nicholas’ in November 1870. With characteristic brevity, it also records events in James Hornby’s own life including frequent visits from his brother William and trips to country fairs, including one to his home-town of Gisburn. 

BI/JHOR/4/2/2 James Hornby at the rear of Heslington Hall

The catalogue, listing each item in the James Hornby archive, is now available online through Borthcat and also includes a brief biography of James Hornby himself. All of the material is available for consultation in our searchroom and enquiries can be made via 

Lydia Dean

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