- Francis Espinasse
- , revised by Anne Pimlott Baker
Abercrombie, John (1726–1806), horticulturist and writer, was born in Prestonpans, near Edinburgh, the son of a market gardener. He was educated at a grammar school, and at the age of fourteen began to work under his father. He went to London about 1751, and was employed first in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and next at Leicester House; he then worked for nearly twenty years as a gardener for several noblemen and gentlemen, including the botanist William Munro. In the 1750s he married a woman employed in the household of Sir James Douglas, for whom he was working, and they had two sons and sixteen daughters. Abercrombie survived them all except for one son.
About 1770 Abercrombie established a market garden near Hackney, and also leased a public house near Mile End, which he turned into the ‘Artichoke Tea Garden’. He later sold the lease and set up a nursery and market garden at Tottenham. His first work on practical gardening, Every Man his Own Gardener, appeared in 1767 under the title of Mawe's Gardener's Calendar. Abercrombie had written to Thomas Mawe, head gardener to the duke of Leeds, offering £20 in return for permission to use his name as author. The book was a great success, and eventually, in 1776, Abercrombie added his own name on the title page as joint author with Mawe. The book continued to be issued, in revised editions, until 1879. Abercrombie did not meet Mawe until after the publication of the second edition, when Mawe invited him to Yorkshire. They remained friends, and collaborated on The Universal Gardener and Botanist (1778).
In 1779 Abercrombie published his first book solely under his own name, The British Fruit Gardener and Art of Pruning. In the 1780s he published a number of books on practical gardening. One of the most popular of his works was the Gardener's Pocket Journal and Daily Assistant (1790), which by 1857 had reached a thirty-fifth edition. Among his more specialized works were The Complete Forcing Gardener (1781); The Complete Wall Tree Pruner (1783); The Propagation and Botanical Arrangement of Plants and Trees, Useful and Ornamental (1784); and The Hot House Gardener, or, The General Culture of the Pineapple and Method of Pruning Early Grapes (1789); a German translation of this appeared at Vienna in 1792. Abercrombie was also invited to Russia to superintend the gardens of Catherine the Great, but he panicked at the last minute and did not go, sending a copy of Every Man his Own Gardener instead.
In 1796 Abercrombie moved to Somers Town in central London, and worked on The Practical Gardener and on revising his earlier works. Despite the success of his manuals, he became impoverished at the end of his life, and was supported by his friend James Donn, curator of the Cambridge Botanic Garden, who brought out Practical Gardening in 1813. Abercrombie died on 15 April or on 2 May 1806 at his house in Chalton Street, Somers Town, London, after falling down some steps and breaking his hip.
- F. M. G. Cardew, ‘John Abercrombie’, Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, 72 (1947), 245–8
- A new catalogue of living English authors: with complete lists of their publications, and biographical and critical memoirs (1799)
- The practical gardener, 2nd edn (1817) [James Mean's memoir]
- line engraving, BM, NPG; repro. in J. Abercrombie, Every man his own gardener, 16th edn (1800)