Skip to main content

Keep off the Grass: St John's College Gardeners Through Time

This exhibition celebrates the great work of the College gardeners during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Cricket Field Cottage

A picture of Cricket Field Cottage in1858. Part elevation showing proposed alterations to the bow window. This is the cottage the groundsman and his family was permitted to live in whilst he was employed by the College. Henry Fuller was custodian of the cricket ground and gardener in 1871, had a wife and seven children to support and paid an annual rent of £8 for his house. He then became head gardener, and was succeeded in that post in 1881 by John Newman. Newman was succeeded as custodian of the cricket ground by James Down, widower who lived in the Pavilion with two nieces, one his housekeeper, the other a barmaid. John Robinson also described as ‘custodian’ in the census, lived in the cricket ground cottage (1881 census).

Allotment rents

The College offered its servants the opportunity to rent an allotment on the old Grange Farm site. The 20 allotments were in high demand from 1866-1891 when it appears the scheme may have been scrapped. The highlight of the year for many of the allotment gardeners was the annual show when they exhibited their produce. Several servants entered and won prizes in local shows and this was one opportunity for a friendly competition with some of the College Fellows, notably Dr Sandys.

William Burgess, College Gardener

William Burgess, College Gardener, 1890. The Bursar recommended to Council that they provide William Burgess, aged 77, with a pension upon his retirement. Burgess had been a College gardener for 57 years. Council agreed and Burgess was granted a pension of 10 shillings per week or £29.95 in today’s money. It was also decided that the College would recruit a younger successor for Burgess; his duties would include helping the Bedders in the Lent and Michaelmas terms in addition to his gardening tasks.

Groundsman’s Contract

Contract for the appointment of James Covill as College Groundsman between Covill and JR Tanner, President of the Cricket Club, 1899. Covill was to be paid £40/ year and permission to occupy the ‘dwelling house at the Pavilion’ on the College’s cricket ground. In addition to his contract, Covill was given a job description outlining his duties. In addition to the obvious tasks of taking care of the field, equipment and umpiring matches, Covill was responsible for the supply of refreshments at the Pavilion. His instructions clearly outline the prices he could charge for these drinks.

Head Gardener’s Report 1

Ralph Thoday’s report in 1936 on the state of the College Grounds for the Gardens’ Committee. Thoday goes into some detail outlining the current issues in the gardens and his suggestions for improvements.

Head Gardener’s Report 2

Ralph Thoday’s report on the state of the College Grounds for the Gardens’ Committee, 1936. Thoday goes into some detail outlining the current issues in the gardens and his suggestions for improvements.

Gardening Staff

The College Garden Staff gathered behind the Gordon Lennox Cup, presented by the Royal Horticultural Society to the best amateur gardeners, 1954. The cup was won by the Head Gardener, Ralph Thoday, and his staff on two occasions, in 1954 and 1959. Thoday is in at the back second from the right, the tall member of staff in front of him is Robert ‘Big Bob’ Fuller, who served on the garden staff from 1946-1960, and was Head Porter from 1969-1985.

Prize-winning apples

Prize-winning apples, c. 1959. Thoday and his garden staff won a number of horticultural awards, especially for apples. Pictured is an exhibit of 27 varieties of apples, all grown in the College gardens. Thoday was once awarded First Prize for his Cox’s Orange Pippin.