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Fish [née Townshend], Margeryfree

(1892–1969)
  • Catherine Horwood

Margery Fish (1892–1969)

by Valerie Finnis, 1960s

Fish [née Townshend], Margery (1892–1969), gardener and author, was born at 16 Eastbank, Stamford Hill, London, on 5 August 1892, the second of the four daughters of Ernest Townshend (d. 1926), City of London commercial traveller in tea, and his wife, Florence Harriet, née Buttfield (d. 1920). Her time at the Friends' School in Saffron Walden, where she was head girl, instilled the virtues of patience and hard work which were to prove useful during her twenty-year career in Fleet Street. She passed out of secretarial college with flying colours and started work on Land and Water and The Country Gentleman (which was later incorporated with The Field, a magazine to which she also contributed). After working for the advertisement director of Associated Newspapers, she accompanied Lord Northcliffe as his personal assistant on the Northcliffe British war mission to the United States in 1916, for which she was appointed MBE. She then worked as secretary for six Daily Mail editors, including Thomas Marlowe and finally Walter Fish [see below], a widower, whom she married on 2 March 1933, three years after he retired from the newspaper. Despite the long hours required in newspaper offices she found time to write freelance articles for the women's pages of the Daily Mail, Evening News, and some provincial newspapers, as well as reviewing books.

Marriage to Walter Fish brought a home in London, travel to Europe, and leisurely days playing golf. But after a holiday to Germany in 1937 Walter decided that war was imminent and that they should move to the country. Early on in their search for the right house they briefly saw East Lambrook Manor, South Petherton, Somerset, but it was dismissed by Walter as needing too much work. For three months they carried on looking for the right place until they returned to East Lambrook in November 1937 and decided it was the house for them. The house, built of Somerset hamstone in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, was in a poor state of repair but the Fishes decided to buy it along with the 2 acre garden for £1000, and for the next two years they commuted between London and Somerset.

During their early years at East Lambrook the pair developed the garden together but often warred over differences of style. Margery Fish admitted that she was a gardening novice but soon knew the informal look she wanted: an abundance of cottage-garden flowers allowing for self-sown seedlings. Walter, on the other hand, insisted on rolled gravel paths and neatly edged lawns, and was keen on giant delphiniums, dahlias, and hybrid tea roses.

After Walter's death in 1947 Margery Fish was able to give full rein to her ideas. He had had little interest in what she called the 'small, unshowy plants … [liking] a good show for his money' (Fish, 63). She was also particularly keen to have flowers blooming all the year round, which Walter—and many other gardeners of this period—felt would only take space away from the flamboyant, labour-intensive summer display. Her first gardening book, We Made a Garden (1956), gently describes the battle of wills between the couple over their differing tastes.

In the 1950s East Lambrook Manor became the cottage garden Margery Fish had dreamed of, full of unfashionable ‘green’ flowers, and shady corners packed with hellebores, snowdrops, primroses, and epimediums. Throughout the year there was always some small delight to be found nestling near the stream or falling over the stone paths and walls. Gardening friends gave her choice cuttings, knowing that she would care for and propagate them. In doing this she saved many rare plants from extinction. In return she was renowned for sharing and swapping plants with other plant-lovers. Among her correspondents were Lawrence Johnston, of Hidcote Manor, Gloucestershire; the society garden designer Nancy Lindsay, who was the daughter of Norah Lindsay; and her near Somerset neighbour Violet Olive of Brympton d'Evercy. In the late 1950s she opened a small nursery as an adjunct to the garden (which she opened for charities, in particular the British Red Cross, with which she was actively involved).

Margery Fish's garden at East Lambrook, while not small, was still of a size with which many gardeners could identify. Its importance was recognized in 1963 when she was awarded a silver Veitch memorial medal by the Royal Horticultural Society for its creation and her writing. For many years she had little help in the garden and worked an eighteen-hour day, squeezing her writing in early and late just as she had done during her time at Associated Newspapers. Although photographs of her (she hated having them taken) show her as a somewhat elderly lady always gardening in a dress and sensible shoes, her energy was legendary and she was remembered as 'fast-talking and quick-moving' (private information). She laid her own dry-stone walls and winding narrow paths, creating several areas such as the silver garden which caught the heat of the day, and a damp, shady garden utilizing the stream that ran behind the old malthouse. Artemisia absinthium 'Lambrook Silver' remains a popular variety of one of her best-loved silver-leaved plants. She made a special selection of another favourite, Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii, which was named 'Lambrook Gold'. Santolina chamaecyparissus 'Lambrook Silver' and Primula 'Lambrook Mauve' were also introduced by her. In addition she and Lambrook are remembered through many other plants introduced after her death. As well as promoting such unfashionable plants as hostas and bergenias, she delighted in variegation in leaves. Her greatest love was for primroses. She hunted out rare old double forms and single, named coloured forms.

Marrying her dual talents for writing and gardening wisdom, Margery Fish wrote seven more books including An All the Year Garden (1958) and Cottage Garden Flowers (1961). They remain essential reading for anyone seeking to achieve the informal cottage garden look she made so popular. She also contributed to the Oxford Book of Garden Flowers and The Shell Book of Gardens. In the late 1950s and 1960s she had a regular column in Amateur Gardening and then in Popular Gardening. In addition she appeared regularly on the BBC Home Service programme Home This Afternoon as well as In Your Garden and Gardening Club, and also lectured across the country. When a database of every plant she mentioned was compiled by the nursery at Lambrook in the 1990s, it ran to 6500 names and included more than 200 single snowdrop varieties.

Margery Fish died at South Petherton Hospital, Somerset, on 24 March 1969, and was cremated at Taunton crematorium. East Lambrook Manor was bequeathed to her nephew, Henry Boyd-Carpenter, who with her sister-in-law and her sister-in-law's husband maintained the garden and extended the nursery. For many years the nursery was associated with hardy geraniums, another of Margery Fish's great loves and a species she brought to the public's attention as one of the best, trouble-free perennials.

Her husband, Walter George Fish (1874–1947), journalist, was born at 69 Whalley Road, Accrington, Lancashire, on 3 June 1874, the son of George Fish, a newspaper reporter, and his wife, Margaret Anne, née Pierce. He was educated at Westminster City School. Following in his father's footsteps, he entered journalism, given as his occupation at the time of his marriage, on 13 April 1898, to Nellie (b. 1875/6, d. in or before 1933), daughter of David Thomas Oakley, bootmaker. Their marriage, which ended with his wife's death, produced two daughters. He was discovered by Lord Northcliffe, and joined the Daily Mail in 1904, rising to become its news editor between 1906 and 1919. He was an intuitive newshound: his contacts during Dr Crippen's attempted escape to Canada enabled Daily Mail readers to be the first to read of his capture. During the First World War he was honorary director of publicity for the coal mines department of the Board of Trade, for which he was appointed CBE in 1919. That year he became editor of the Daily Mail and a director of Associated Newspapers. His relationship with Lord Northcliffe was stormy. In 1922 he and Sir Andrew Caird, vice-chairman of Associated Newspapers, started proceedings to sue Northcliffe for libel but tempers were soothed and Fish did not retire until January 1930, while still retaining his directorship. During the Second World War he was an honorary adviser to the Press and Censorship Bureau and the Ministry of Information. He died at East Lambrook Manor on 21 December 1947.

Sources

  • M. Fish, We made a garden (1956)
  • S. Chivers and S. Woloszynska, The cottage garden: Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor (1990)
  • T. Clark, ‘Cottage garden pioneer’, Country Life (7 Feb 1985), 314–15
  • A. Hellyer, ‘The Margery Fish Plant Nursery’, The Garden, 117 (1992), 514–17
  • WWW, 1941–50
  • New York Times (16 June 1922)
  • private information (2008)
  • Register of Parks and Gardens, English Heritage [East Lambrook Manor, Somerset, 55168]
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • b. cert. [W. Fish]
  • m. cert. [W. Fish]
  • d. cert. [W. Fish]

Likenesses

  • V. Finnis, cibachrome print, 1960–69, NPG
  • V. Finnis, cibachrome print, 1960–69, NPG [see illus.]
  • V. Finnis, photographs, 1960–69, Royal Horticultural Society, Lindley Library

Wealth at Death

£80,959: probate, 29 May 1969, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£54,844 15s.—Walter Fish: probate, 30 April 1948, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

(1920–)