file JHOR/1/1/1 - Diary of Operations in the Gardens of Heslington Hall

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Diary of Operations in the Gardens of Heslington Hall


  • 1870-1872 (Creation)

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James Hornby was baptised at Paythorne, Gisburn, in June 1840. Born to weavers Richard and Mary Hornby, he was the eldest of five sons and by the age of 20 was working an an under gardener. In October 1867, he married Mary Milnes Cupit in Eckington, Derbyshire. At the time of their marriage he was living at Clifton Castle, the private estate of the Pulleine family, and presumably working on the estate's extensive landscaped pleasure grounds and gardens. Three years later in 1870, he became the head gardener at Heslington Hall which at that time was the seat of the Yarburgh family. Although they had no children of their own, for many years James and Mary Hornby shared their home with Mary’s neice, Annie Cupit, who lived them from a young age.

James Hornby was responsible for all aspects of the gardens at Heslington Hall and his early diary of operations includes details of fruits, vegetables and flowers grown in the gardens and greenhouses. In a 1900 article about Heslington Hall in Country Life it is noted that: “The gardens occupy a notable place in the history of English gardening”, “It is a garden of strange character, such as we like to linger in”, and “A quaint old garden, with the charms which belong to modern times, a placid lake and a splendid park, must needs (sic) be famous even among the great domains and fair gardens in which Yorkshire is so rich”. Aside from Hornby’s diary of operations, which covers the first 18 months of his 32 years service, little detailed information is available about his life and work but under his direction, a large specimen (approximately 8m tall) of Agave Americana Variegata was grown at Heslington and exhibited elsewhere. In 1896 he was awarded first prize for pears by the Darlington Gardeners’ Institute. James Hornby would remain at Heslington Hall for the rest of his life, dying there in August 1902 after 32 years service. He is buried in the parish church of St Paul, Heslington.

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James Hornby's Diary of Operations covers August 1870 - June 1872, the first year and a half of his 32 year employment as Head Gardener at Heslington Hall. It showcases the beginning of the changes in the gardens at the Hall, beginning with a note dated 18th August 1870 stating ‘No peas, nor cucumbers, nor melons nor yet many vegetables of any kind on coming’. Even over the span of time recorded in this journal, it is possible to see James Hornby taking and shaping the gardens into both an ornamental and a productive landscape. Although Hornby himself described the volume as a ‘diary’, it is really more of a garden planner with many instances of backdated annotation on successful cultivars, harvest dates and produce yield. It includes notes on the weather, temperature and ongoing experiments with growing cucumbers, pineapples and melons in the garden buildings. It also describes seasonal tasks like gathering apples and stocking the ice-houses, as well as transactions with bulb and seed sellers from across the country and abroad.

As well as the rhythms of the seasons, the diary documents events concerning the Yarburgh family, including 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. It also provides an insight into James Hornby’s own life, noting frequent visits from his brother William and trips to country fairs, including one to his home-town of Gisburn.


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