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date: 20 October 2019

Barnes, Jamesfree

(bap. 1806, d. 1877)
  • Toby Musgrave

James Barnes (bap. 1806, d. 1877)

by Elliott & Fry

Royal Horticultural Society, Lindley Library

Barnes, James (bap. 1806, d. 1877), gardener, was born at Farnham, Surrey, where he was baptized on 6 July 1806, the son of Stephen Barnes and his wife, Susanna. His father was head gardener at Willey House, near Farnham, and subsequently all four of James Barnes's younger brothers also entered the family profession, his younger brother William Barnes (1809–1869) becoming a leading nurseryman at Camberwell. Barnes experienced no formal education and his working life began early: aged five he was put to work 'chiefly employed in weeding walks and nursery seed-beds, and in bird scaring' (Gardeners' Chronicle, 24 Nov 1874, 655).

From 1814 Barnes served an apprenticeship under his father at Eashing House in Godalming until in 1818 he went to London, where he continued his apprenticeship under Mr Moore, of the King's Road. At this time the land from Sloane Square to Fulham was occupied by market gardeners who supplied Covent Garden. After four years he moved to Mr Stone of Peckham, where he was employed as a ‘framer’ in charge of '1000 lights of framing, 2600 hand and bell glasses for growing Cucumbers, Melons, early Potatoes, &c., forcing Asparagus and Sea-kale' (Gardeners' Chronicle, 24 Nov 1874, 655). His next position was as superintendent of the forcing department for a market gardener at Bermondsey, 'a very extensive grower of grapes, peaches, pines, strawberries, mushrooms, and all kinds of salads, fruits, and vegetables'. Two years later he became superintendent in charge of 40 acres of market garden at Greenwich, a post he also held for two years. The cucumber was particularly fashionable and he regularly harvested 8 tons a day. He became so skilled at forcing cucumbers that he could harvest as early as mid-January, and regularly took first prize at the meetings held by various cucumber clubs. He also bred new varieties of cucumbers, his greatest success being ‘Man of Kent’, which was named by the (Royal) Horticultural Society, from whom he also received a medal.

In his early twenties and master of growing all manner of edible crops, Barnes now learned a new set of skills, developing the extensive pleasure grounds to complement Decimus Burton's buildings at Beulah Spa at Norwood in Surrey. In 1831 he secured his first head gardenership, at Cranford House in Essex. There followed five years at Chislehurst in Kent before, in 1839 and aged thirty-three, he was engaged by Lord Rolle of Bicton, near Budleigh Salterton in Devon.

Barnes's headship at Bicton lasted nearly three decades and brought head gardener, garden, and employer great repute, but ended in acrimony and dispute. Within three years John Claudius Loudon was effusive about Barnes's skills and achievements:

we do not think we ever before saw culture, order, and neatness carried to such a high degree of perfection, in so many departments, and on so large a scale, and all by the care and superintendence of one man. From the commonest kitchen crop in the open garden, and the mushrooms in the sheds, up to the pine-apples, the heaths, and the Orchidaceae, every thing seemed to be alike healthy and vigorous. We could not help noticing the evenness of the crops of cabbages, cauliflowers, savoys, &c. in the kitchen-garden; and the extraordinary vigour and beauty of the pines, heaths, hothouse plants, chrysanthemums, &c., in the houses; and nothing could exceed the neatness of the lawn, the walks, and the flower-beds.

Gardener's Magazine, 18, 1842, 554–5

Barnes of Bicton, as he became affectionately and respectfully known within the horticultural profession, possessed phenomenal skills as a cultivator and as a manager. Examples of his successes included a queen pineapple, which he grew to 814 pounds; although not keen on shows and exhibitions, declaring that they had degenerated 'into something like horse-racing' (Gardener's Magazine, 19, 1843, 45–6) he did, in May 1866, exhibit at the International Horticultural Exhibition and Congress, and took first prize for his smooth cayenne pineapples. He bred a new and very popular white strawberry called Bicton Pine, and raised the shrub named by John Lindley as Colletia bictonensis (now C. paradoxa, syn. C. cruciata), which was a matter of great debate between Charles Darwin, Charles James Fox Bunbury, and Lindley in 1856 (The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, ed. F. Burkhardt and S. Smith, 16 vols., 1985–, 6.36–7). Barnes was also the first in the country to produce viable seed of the dioecious monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucana). The cones weighed up to 8 pounds. The famous avenue at Bicton was planted in 1842, and so successful was Barnes's conifer cultivation that on one occasion he was able to exhibit at a Royal Botanic Society show in Regent's Park a collection of about 100 species and varieties of conifer then coning in the Bicton arboretum. So respected a head gardener was Barnes that to have been an apprentice or journeyman gardener at Bicton carried a great cachet when applying for later positions. Many of the most successful and capable of the next generation of head gardeners learned their trade under him, including J. Taplin, who succeeded Sir Joseph Paxton at Chatsworth in 1858.

However, in 1869 things turned sour. The widow Lady Rolle (Lord Rolle had died in 1842) was forcing the 62-year-old Barnes to work 18 to 20 hours a day. Not surprisingly he suffered a 'severe affliction, brought on by over-exertion and unremitting labour' (Gardeners' Chronicle, 24 Nov 1874, 655) and, receiving no concession from his employer, in May of that year he left. Lady Rolle subsequently wrote, in two letters to third parties, that her former employee had left the gardens in disarray. Barnes, who prided himself on maintaining the most exacting standards—he had even implemented an extensive set of rules for his staff, misconducts punishable by fine—considered his impeccable reputation impeached. He sued for libel, and when the case was heard in December 1869 he was awarded £200 in damages (the equivalent of two years' salary), a decision that was seen as reaffirming the status of head gardeners.

Barnes was also known for his interests as a naturalist, carefully noting the wildlife in his gardens, and contributing articles on the subject to The Field. An obituarist commented that 'he was in early life blessed with a fine physique, and the story of his intelligence and energy was written in a fine face, like that of the stoutest type of Saxon, but lit up with a clear eye and the brightest intelligence' (The Garden, 26 May 1877, 437). He was married to Mary Ann (b. 1809/10) and had a son born about 1848, but his wife seems to have predeceased him. He died at Exmouth, Devon, on 23 May 1877.


  • T. Musgrave, The head gardeners (2007)
  • Gardeners' Chronicle (24 Nov 1874), 655
  • The Garden (26 May 1877), 437
  • The Florist, 10 (1857), 144–7, 173–4
  • B. Elliott, Victorian gardens (1986)
  • census returns, 1851, 1861


  • Elliott & Fry, photograph, Royal Horticultural Society, London; repro. in The glory of the garden: a loan exhibition in association with the Royal Horticultural Society (1987), 211 [see illus.]
  • portrait, repro. in Gardeners' Chronicle (24 Nov 1874), 655

Wealth at Death

under £1500: probate, 10 July 1877, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latterday Saints