Research and the archives at Hidcote

Lawrence Johnston and his gardeners c1910

Lawrence Johnston is today well known as the creator of one of the most beautiful gardens in England. However very little was known about him and how he came to create this garden as no records were provided when he gave Hidcote to the National Trust.

For the past 15 years Hidcote's volunteer archivist, Graham Pearson, has uncovered exciting new information about Lawrence’s life as a gardener, plant hunter and soldier.  This has added immensely to the research carried out in the late 1990s by Katie Fretwell, the then National Trust gardens historian.

Graham's research was triggered by the appearance in 2002 of a slim notebook covering the years from 1925 to 1928 and two engagement diaries for 1929 and 1932. These contain Lawrence’s notes and engagements covering those years.

He has subsequently visited several places as well as archives and libraries in the British Isles, France and the United States to seek and uncover new information about Lawrence, his family and his gardens. Many friends have helped in this work and have encouraged this search for new information.

The family

In regard to his family, Graham found, for example, that his parents divorced in the early 1880s and his father, Elliott, then aged 59, married a young girl of 18 and went to live on the Eastern Shore of Virginia until he died in 1901.

We now know that his mother, Gertrude, took good care to look after her son financially by making two wills on the same day in London in 1924 – one for her estate in the United Kingdom and the other for her estate in the United States of America – so as to minimise death duties.

Garden and plantsman

As to Lawrence himself, he had become interested in gardening in Little Shelford in the early 1900s and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1904 three years before he came to Hidcote. He was borrowing books on gardening and garden design – including Thomas Mawson’s The Art and Craft of Garden Making – from 1905 onwards.

Furthermore, his plantsmanship was recognised as early as June 1911, less than four years after arriving at Hidcote when he received an Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society for the Hidcote strain of Primula pulverulenta (also known as Candelabra primula).

He was an early member of the Garden Society and had many friends amongst the landowners of Britain who, like him, were enthusiastic gardeners.

His diaries show that he, like his mother, was a sociable person. He was also generous with his plants making many gifts to botanic gardens around the British Isles.

The new information enables us to gain a far better appreciation of Lawrence Johnston and of his creation of Hidcote.