Archive for the ‘grow your own’ Category

National Allotments Week August 2017

August 21, 2017


A little corner patch of our wartime zoo keeper’s allotment, Newquay Zoo, August 2017 

National Allotments Week 2017 has just come to an end  (14 to 20 August 2017) – some great historic images on this history of allotments website:


Homeland, Britain March 1917

March 22, 2017


Percy Izzard, Homeland: A Book of Country Days (1918)



As a follow up to yesterday’s post on Homeland, Percy Izzard’s book of nature writing on the British countryside during the First World War, here are several more daily entries. A book well worth tracking down second-hand.


Some deal with the changing agricultural landscape, such as noticing (March 28th 1917) that “It is interesting to see how quickly the birds have become accustomed  to the motor plough. The strange form and immense noise of the machine …” 



March 25th (1917) “And although the flowers were few when you think what this day has seen in other years, never did they open to a world readier to welcome them”


welcome to a world weary not only of the long winter, but also the war?







British farming and the countryside was facing difficulties by 1917 from poor harvests and the call up of male farm workers. Add to this the demands of feeding several armies overseas. From early  in the year, the unrestricted submarine warfare of the German U boat blockade of Britain increased the sinking of merchant shipping bound for  Britain with imported food from around the Empire and world.

These were pre-war cheap and plentiful food imports that we had come to rely on, much to the detriment of pre-war British farming.

Both rationing (1918) and a form of WW2 style Dig For Victory in 1917 were eventually organised  in Britain in WW1.

We will feature more from Homeland by Percy Izzard in late March / early April 2017, when the quiet world of nature in Britain that he works hard to convey  can be read 100 years on as (directly ? deliberately?) at odds  with events overseas, the Battle of Arras (9 April to 16 May 1917) in France.

This  battle would involve many of Izzard’s audience of  “soldier lads” who read his daily nature column in the Daily Mail in the trenches. Forming a valuable bit of escapism, these short daily columns would be adapted and edited to become his book Homeland: A Year Of Country Days in mid 1918.

The Battle of Arras would see the deaths on active service of several of the zoo staff, botanic gardens staff and  naturalists that we have been researching through the World War  Zoo Gardens project.

Blogposted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo.


Elsie Widdowson and WW2 rationing

August 18, 2016


World War Zoo Gardens sign, Newquay Zoo, Cornwall, UK

It’s August. The schools are on 2016 holiday break and Newquay Zoo is lovely and busy with families.

I am also lovely and busy, preparing, repairing and refreshing schools and college workshop materials for September.

For the new City and Guilds 2016 syllabus  on animal managment delivered at  Newquay Zoo and Cornwall College Newquay,  I have been preparing new sessions for my new 16-19 year old students on animal feeding and nutrition.

One of the challenging new elements is a bit of biochemistry (and it’s a long time since I did my O levels!)

In the course of finding simple enough ways for me to understand and explain the new nutrition bits such as the  chemical structure of amino acids, protein bonds and suchlike,  I came across this great BBC clip on Elsie Widdowson from CBBC’s Absolute Genius team Dick and Dom:

Dr. Elsie  Who?

I feel I should know the name, as I have been looking at wartime gardening and rationing since 2009 as part of the World War Zoo gardens project workshops for schools.



Reading the story brought back very vague memories of this story being noted in passing in histories of food in wartime, rationing and gardening.

So who was Elsie Widdowson?

A trip to the kitchens at King’s College Hospital, London, brought her into contact with Professor Robert McCance, who was carrying out research into the best diets for people with diabetes. The two bonded and started on a research partnership that was to span 60 years.

They studied the effect poor nutrition has in adulthood and their book The Chemical Composition of Foods, published in 1940, became the “bible” on which modern nutritional thinking is founded.

Soon after the war started, she and Prof McCance lived for weeks in the Lake District eating the diet which they thought the British should consume during World War II to maintain basic health.They also cycled round Cambridge to study the importance of energy expenditure on diet. (

There’s a new volume for the World War Zoo gardening bookshelf – The Chemical Composition of Foods, published in 1940 – and the 7th edition (2014 version) is still in print on Amazon from the Food Standards agency today.

World War Zoo Children evacuation suitcase & garden items Oct 09 018

Delabole Co-op and Camelford stores in Cornwall for meat, registered with Haddy’s for other rationed items, (is Haddy’s still going?) this well used (light brown adult RB1) Ration Book from Cornwall is part of our wartime life collection (copyright: World war Zoo gardens project, Newquay Zoo).

Widdowson and McCance headed the first mandated addition of vitamins and mineral to food. Their work began in the early 1940s, when calcium was added to bread.  They were also responsible for formulating the wartime rationing of Britain during World War II. (Elsie Widdowson’s Wikipedia entry)

Elsie Widdowson, wartime rationing star and Mother of the modern loaf as this BBC report named her – that’s one to chew on when you’re eating your lunchtime sarnies!

Elsie Widdowson and her scientific partner, Robert McCance, oversaw the first compulsory addition of a substance to food in the early 1940s, when calcium was introduced to bread. They were also responsible for formulating war-time rationing – some experts say that under their diet of mainly bread, vegetables and potatoes, that was when Britain was at its healthiest.(

A biography  of sorts exists – McCance and Widdowson: A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years, 1933-93  A Commemorative Volume about Robert McCance CBE, FRS and Elsie May Widdowson CBE, FRS   published / edited by  Margaret Ashwell in 1993.

Interesting medical history blog entry by Laura Dawes about early  wartime food security concerns in Britain with a brilliant wartime photograph of McCance and Widdowson:

A riot of vegetable colour in Newquay Zoo’s wartime garden

May 17, 2016

chard 2016

Just a few photographs to celebrate our World War Zoo wartime garden project here at Newquay Zoo, May 2016, entering its eighth summer.

A 1940s stirrup pump lies hidden amongst the colourful  Chard and Garlic, rusty but  still in fine working order.

The gardener’s  wartime steel helmet hangs on the garden gate, ready to grab in case the air raid siren sounds …

chard stirrup pump 2016

Bright Lights, a collection of colourful Chard overwintered and ready to cut as colourful edible bouquets for enriching our monkey diets. Delicious.

chard artichoke 2016

Another year of Globe Artichokes awaits, another monkey favourite, complete with earwigs.

The strange bird table affair is not mounting for an air raid siren but where we place our portable speakers for the 2.30 Lion  talk a few yards away.

Sparrows dustbathe between the Broad bean rows. The Meerkat section Robin follows the hoe or watering can. Pesky Peacocks nibble emerging shoots.

Rosemary, Curry Plant, Thyme, Mint, Lemon Balm, Nasturtiums,  Leeks and Broad Beans  are all waiting their turn, their moment and their edible or sensory enrichment use.

Dig for Victory, Dig For Plenty and  ‘Hasten slowly’ as Mr Middleton would say. Happy Gardening!

Posted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens Project, Newquay Zoo, 17 May 2016.


Mr. Middleton’s February and March Gardening Advice 1943

February 6, 2015

middleton calender cover

February and March gardening advice from Mr Middleton from the “Sow and Reap” 1943 calendar in our World War Zoo Gardens collection at Newquay Zoo. Happy Gardening!

middleton january week 3

All calendar words Mr Middleton’s own. Source Credit: Sow and Reap 1943 Calendar by Mr Middleton, from the World War Zoo Gardens collection, Newquay Zoo.



All calendar words Mr Middleton’s own. Source Credit: Sow and Reap 1943 Calendar by Mr Middleton, from the World War Zoo Gardens collection, Newquay Zoo.

Some bird-friendly advice about pest control.

Time to order your seeds now! Soon time to get sowing.


All calendar words Mr Middleton’s own. Source Credit: Sow and Reap 1943 Calendar by Mr Middleton, from the World War Zoo Gardens collection, Newquay Zoo.

Spinach, lettuce, broccoli, carrots – sow!


All calendar words Mr Middleton’s own. Source Credit: Sow and Reap 1943 Calendar by Mr Middleton, from the World War Zoo Gardens collection, Newquay Zoo.



All calendar words Mr Middleton’s own. Source Credit: Sow and Reap 1943 Calendar by Mr Middleton, from the World War Zoo Gardens collection, Newquay Zoo.

We’ll finish March with Mr Middleton’s late March advice, as he was a man who knew his onions …
You can read more about Mr. Middleton and his January 1943 advice in our previous post.
All calendar words Mr Middleton’s own. Source Credit: Sow and Reap 1943 Calendar by Mr Middleton, from the World War Zoo Gardens collection, Newquay Zoo.

Mr. Middleton’s January Gardening Advice 1943

January 16, 2015

Mr Middleton’s gardening calender “Sow and Reap” 1943 (images from my collection).

middleton calender cover
Middleton Jan week 1

middleton jan week 2
The pencil marks on the dates I think refer  to the original owner’s chicken breeding or egg production, judging by other strange pencil notes inside this calender.
middleton january week 3

This calender is put together from a mix of Mr. Middleton’s gardening advice from other sources and publications, recycled by an obviously busy Mr. Middleton. We will post the relevant section month by month throughout 2015, another useful guide for our wartime allotment project.

Wartime rationing 75 years on and Mr Middleton’s wartime gardening advice

2015 marks the 75th anniversary of rationing being introduced on 8th January 1940 and the 70th anniversary of Mr Middleton’s death on 19th September 1945.

How time flies! We marked this rationing date on the 70th anniversary in 2010, several years into the World War Zoo Gardens project, alongside the Imperial War Museum – see the legacy site for  2010 Ministry of Food Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, marking  70 years since rationing was introduced.

A Titchmarsh before his time ... C.H. Middleton, the radio gardener. This original wartime paperback has recently been reissued.

A Titchmarsh before his time … C.H. Middleton, the radio gardener. This original wartime paperback has recently been reissued.

2015 is also sadly the 70th anniversary of the death of Cecil Henry Middleton (b. 22 February 1886) on 18 September 1945.

On the Ministry of Food IWM site, there is also some great December 1945 gardening advice pages from this wartime celebrity gardener Mr. Middleton. The whole 1945 leaflet set has been reprinted recently as a book edited by Twigs Way (Sabrestorm Press, 2009). We will feature more about Mr. Middleton throughout 2015. As well as Pathe Newsreel footage of Mr. Middleton, there is an interesting Mr Middleton blog.

It’s a quiet time in the World War Zoo Garden allotment at Newquay Zoo, a time to plan rather than to plant and sow. “Hasten slowly”,  my favourite gardening advice from Mr. Middleton.
Happy gardening! Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo.

War and Peace Christmas Pudding Rationing Recipe WW1 / WW2

December 19, 2014

This “War and Peace Christmas Pudding” was made in Canada during the First World War. The recipe was published in the Second World War by the Ministry of Food Government “Food Facts” in newspapers and radio programmes as part of the “Kitchen Front” campaign in Britain. According to some, it makes a good wartime Christmas pudding. We decided at Newquay Zoo to put it to the staff taste test as part of our World War Zoo Gardens project.

Our trial War and Peace Christmas Pudding - before pretasting by keepers - at Newquay Zoo.

Our trial War and Peace Christmas Pudding – before pretasting by keepers – at Newquay Zoo. Trial quarter ingredients sized version on a side plate.

War and Peace Christmas Pudding Recipe WW1 / WW2


225 grams  (8 ounces / oz) flour

225 g (8 oz) breadcrumbs

100 g (4 oz) suet

100 g (4 oz) dried fruit

5 ml (1 teaspoon / tsp) mixed spice

225g (8 oz) grated raw potato

225g (8 oz) grated raw carrot

5 ml (1 tsp) bicarbonate of soda



Mix all the ingredients together and turn into a well-greased pudding bowl.

The bowl should not be more than two thirds full.

Boil or steam for at least 2 hours.

Imperial ounce measurements have been updated to equivalent grams.

Source: “Food Facts” Ministry of Food, Britain 1939-45

Setting it alight, as is traditional with a Christmas pudding, would require some alcohol or spirits, increasingly scarce in wartime.  Custard would have been rare too, though Bird’s Custard Powder (replacing eggs in the recipe since 1837, very useful in wartime) and other companies continued to advertise throughout the war.


Newquay Zoo’s brave Austerity Christmas Pudding tester Nick in suitably protective wartime headgear.








Taste testing the War and Peace Christmas Pudding

In pursuit of our World War Zoo Gardens project activities,  Newquay Zoo’s fabulous café team, headed up by ex-military chef Jeremy, have cooked up a trial one of these puddings to test out on Newquay Zoo staff. Apparently the test one that we served up to zoo staff was only a quarter of the recipe ingredients.

Zoo staff reaction was mixed. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so honest about the ingredients. Some of the cafe team politely said that they’d eat it again. Many reckoned it needed custard or a good soaking in spirits (we couldn’t set it alight), whilst others thought it ‘not very sweet’ and it made them appreciate a luxurious modern Christmas pudding.

Some keepers wondered whether any of the animals would eat it? Since the famous zoo ‘banana ban’ for monkeys of 2014 at Paignton, Newquay and other zoos, we have become increasingly used in our zoo animal diet sheets to replacing  rich sugary exotic fruit (selectively bred and grown for human palates) with more ‘sweet’ vegetables, albeit mixing the wartime standby sweeteners of carrot, parsnip with other more modern imports like sweet potato. I’m sure this substitution was also how wartime zoos scraped by feeding their animals without imports of exotic fruits.

I was surprised how close the War and Peace Christmas Pudding  was to one of the few wartime dishes that was popularly reckoned to have survived wartime into the postwar British menu  – carrot cake.

Thanks to all the Newquay Zoo cafe team and brave zoo volunteers for this interesting taste lesson about rationing!

Feed the Birds: The Final Taste Test – or Food Waste?

Being rich in suet and a bit crumbly, I tested the final scraps of wartime Christmas pudding on the bird table. Bullfinches, robins, blackbirds, sparrows, crows and pigeons all quickly came down for a crumb or morsel as it turns colder; they weren’t fussy about the strange ingredients in the recipe.

Wasting food like this on the bird table or on pet animals was of course illegal in wartime and liable to prosecution as pointed out in the Imperial War Museum Dig For Victory pdf and the excellent website points out about British Wartime Food.


Wartime rationing and gardening

2015 marks the 75th anniversary of rationing being introduced on 8th January 1940 and the 70th anniversary of Mr Middleton’s death on 19th September 1945.

How time flies – we marked this on the 70th anniversary in 2010, several years into the World War Zoo Gardens project, alongside the Imperial War Museum.

At the legacy site for  2010 Ministry of Food Exhibition at the Imperial War Musuem, marking  70 years since rationing was introduced, there is an interesting recipe for ‘plum and russet apple mincemeat‘ at

There is also some great December 1945 gardening advice pages from wartime celebrity gardener Mr. Middleton  The whole 1945 leaflet set has been reprinted recently as a book edited by Twigs Way (Sabrestorm Press. 2009). We will feature more about him in 2015. There is an interesting Mr Middleton blog to look at meanwhile.

An alternative Christmas pud recipe can be found on the interesting  Eat For Victory website and blog 

More simple wartime rationing recipes (pdfs) can be found at

You can find another wartime recipe that we use with visiting schools doing our wartime zoo workshops ; if its quiet enough in the café we knock up a  batch of savoury potato biscuits – see recipe below.

A Fruitful Happy Christmas and a Prosperous Gardening New Year from all involved in the World War Zoo Gardens Project at Newquay Zoo!

Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo


That Wartime Savoury Potato Biscuit recipe 

cooked up if time for World War Zoo Gardens workshop days 

Adapted from original Recipe  Potatoes: Ministry of Food wartime leaflet No. 17 

Makes about 24 approx 3 inch biscuits


2  ounces margarine

3  ounces plain flour

3 ounces cooked mashed potato

6 tablespoons grated cheese*

1.5 teaspoons table salt

Pinch of cayenne or black pepper

Cooking instructions

1. Rub margarine into flour

2. Add potato, salt, pepper (and cheese, if using this*)

3. Work to a stiff dough

4. Roll out thinly and cut into shapes  – festive shapes for Christmas if wanted!

5. Bake in a moderate oven, 15 to 20 minutes.

* N.B. Leave out cheese if you have dairy allergy, the pepper is enough to make the taste ‘interesting’.


Our Zoo: Chester Zoo and the drama of zoo history

September 5, 2014

I have been looking forward to watching this autumn BBC’s “Our Zoo” about the  early days of Chester Zoo, with some excellent links to past and future on the Chester Zoo website –

Researching zoo history is often a “Cinderella” subject, many people wondering why it’s worth it (outside of the zoo history enthusiasts of the Bartlett Society – see blogroll links) and rarely makes it to mainstream television!

Back in May 2011 I spent an interesting couple of days tracking down wartime concrete at Chester Zoo, during a zoo history conference. Here is an edited blog post I wrote at the time tracing an intriguing bit of Chester Zoo’s history and on the way discovered four wartime hippos in Budapest.

Mr. Mottershead, founder of Chester Zoo – memorial plaque near Oakfield House, Chester Zoo (Image: World War Zoo gardens project)

May 2011, Chester Zoo: We weren’t sure whether to called this post Zoo Do You Think You Are? (after the BBC TV Family history series), thanks to a quick quip from Richard Gibson at Chester Zoo or maybe  Zoo Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler? (to the theme tune of Dad’s Army) in view of the wartime concrete, Home Guard and Zoo family history connections I was tracking down.

Family history is big business now on the internet and on television, genealogy being the social or leisure side of genetics. Genetics is now the everyday business of zoo breeding programmes. Looking back at baby photos past for a glimpse of a familiar adult expression or looking at your children for a fleeting recognition of family faces, it’s something we all do over time. Like gardening, it’s probably age-related, primal and territorial. My family, my birth place, my tribe. So why should it be any different for zoos to look back at where they came from? Can we catch a glimpse of the future from a look at their past? This is partly what I’ve been researching through the World War Zoo Gardens project.

Chester Zoo history symposium 20 May 2011 from the SHNH website

What are zoos for? How should zoos work together? Why should zoos keep an archive of past events and what should they do with this material? These were some of the many questions raised by the May 2011 Symposium on Zoo history / Zoo future hosted at Chester Zoo “From Royal Menageries to Biodiversity Conservation” and and  a joint celebration of the work of several societies together. The Bartlett Society (, World Association of Zoos and Aquariums   (WAZA) , Linnaean Society and celebrating its 75th birthday, the Society for the History of Natural History (SHNH) The proceedings or symposium was recently published in 2014. It reflected the World of Zoos and Aquariums as it was attended by delegates from Britain, Ireland, Europe, North America and South East Asia / Australasia.

Only 91 animals remained amongst the ruins of wartime Berlin Zoo by 1945 from an old German / US archive press photo (World War Zoo gardens collection at Newquay Zoo)

Dr. Miklos Persenyi, Director General at Budapest Zoo in Hungary showed some beautiful slides of how the once war ravaged zoo in Hungary has been restored, even the 1960s buildings are being ‘restored’ to match the striking Hungarian Art Nouveau architecture of the early 20th Century. Miklos joked that he is employed by the Budapest Tourist Bureau, as the zoo, botanic garden and ‘cultural centre’ that it has become looks well worth a visit. After my short presentation on wartime zoos which mentioned Berlin Zoo being left with 91 animals after air raids and street fighting, Miklos quietly capped this with his story of the 15 animals left alive at Budapest zoo after the freezing winter months of 1944 when the Zoo and city of Budapest became a besieged town and battlefield between the Germans and the Russians. Amazingly, whilst the local people eat anything they could to survive, four or five of these surviving animals were Hippopotami (or Hippopotamuses). These plant eaters survived in the warm waters of the thermal springs there, alongside a handful of ‘singing birds’. The people of Budapest rebuilt their zoo after the war, whilst bombsites of local buildings and churches near the zoo were unofficially commandeered to grow crops for people and animals Miklos has been involved in the writing of an interesting and beautifully illustrated history of Budapest Zoo, with a version in English well worth tracking down.

This comment by Miklos about the last fifteen animals left in Budapest Zoo and the efforts to rebuild it by gave some important human detail to the broad sweep of zoo history, of different groups and associations which eventually became the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) in a reunified Europe after the Berlin Wall and collapse of Communism / end of the Cold War c. 1989  Equally moving was the long slow progression to today’s World Association of Zoos and Aquariums from its late Victorian beginning in Germany, through wartime disruptions, revolutions  to today’s worldwide organisation “United for Conservation” at last! It was long time coming.

One of the Symposium concerns was the lack of original zoo history research being done into the past life of zoos, as often what we read is simply a regurgitation of the same old sources. The published proceedings (available through Chester Zoo’s marketing department) are a good example of this new research.

Newquay Zoo’s wartime roaming ‘gnome gaurd-ener’ in front of some original wartime concrete pillars with a historic past, Chester Zoo May 2011 (Image: World War Zoo gardens project)

Chester Zoo the conference host is home itself to an interesting wartime story. As part of my World War Zoo gardens project at Newquay Zoo, I have been researching what happened in wartime zoos, with an eye to what lessons we can learn from surviving our wartime past for the management of zoos through future challenges. This work is often hamstrung by the lack of (accessible) archives in many zoos. Not so Chester Zoo which has an excellent and accessible archive, partly scanned and the Chester Zoo News (1930s-1980s) available to buy on CD-Rom from their library!

These magazines must have refreshed memories and dates with lots of detail in June Mottershead’s vividly remembered account Reared in Chester Zoo (written with Janice Madden, Ark Books, 2009) of growing up at Chester Zoo, helping out as it was built by her father and as it struggled to survived through the slump and wartime shortages of the 1930s and 1940s to her marriage to Keeper Fred Williams.

Chester Zoo history timeline banners, Chester Zoo, 2011

This story of George Mottershead and family is well told in banner panels for each decade of the zoo’s 80 years, over near the ‘new’ 1950s Aquarium and the modern Cedar House which houses the library and archive.

My guide for that day in 2011, the then Head of Discovery and Learning archivist Stephen McKeown told me that the concrete pillars of the aquarium were hand-cast by June and Fred, often working into the night by lamplight. So like George Mottershead, they literally did build their zoo by hand. Sadly the original Chester Zoo Aquarist, Yorkshireman Peter Falwasser died of wounds on active service in North Africa, 1942. Before his death, Peter wrote excitedly to Chester Zoo colleagues of all the wildlife and especially fish he was seeing in the Middle East and wondered how to get them back to Chester Zoo. So this new aquarium  in the 1950s was maybe a quiet sort of memorial to ‘gentle’ Peter Falwasser, as June describes him.

In 2013 I received scans from the Chester Zoo archive of letters from and to Peter Falwassser, which I turned into the following blog post, Last Wartime Letters:

Sometimes research does a little back-flip of name recognition in an unexpected place, a little cross-over between themes. Strangely following another wartime gardening lead into 1940s and 50s garden  books linked to Theo Stephens’ little garden magazine, My Garden, I havecome across  a late 1940s garden article that may well have been written by Peter’s older sister Christine Rosetta ( b. 1905, Cawthorne, Yorkshire). She may have been the  C.R. Falwasser, a gardener and writer,  who wrote the article in My Garden’s Bedside Book (1951?)  called “I Swept the Leaves” mentioning “But when you hire yourself during wartime and become part of a staff …” by the 1950s she pops up in the phone book in horticulture at Alltnacree, Connell, Argyll.  Strange coincidence.  I wonder if she would have got on with the Mottershead family of Market Gardeners, including Grandad Albert, Chester Zoo’s first Head Gardener, who fed the animals and people of Chester Zoo in wartime.

Inside June’s Pavilion, Chester Zoo May 2011

A quick trip downstairs to the public toilets in Oakfield House today takes you to the site of the ‘old’ or first wartime Aquarium and air raid shelters for staff,  based in the cellars and former kitchens of Oakfield House. This listed red brick building was the big house or mansion of the estate that became Chester Zoo in the 1930s. It was in poor condition after serving as a VAD convalescent home for officers in the First World War as many such houses did around Europe. This must have had strong associations for Private George Mottershead, who  apparently spent several years recovering after the war in a wheelchair.

Looking at the 1930s map by George Williams inside June’s book, it is still possible to glimpse a little of the original zoo, especially starting from the red brick house and stables block, used extensively for temporary animal houses in the first decade or so. Lion scratches and a small plaque by the stables archway give a clue to what once happened here, the nucleus of what has today grown to become Chester Zoo.

The roar of big cats can still be heard across the path from the old temporary ‘pen’, the site of George Mottershead’s lion enclosure that he started to hand-build in 1937 but was delayed by wartime, only finished in 1947. Scratch marks in the brickwork of the stable block, reputedly made by lions, are marked by a simple plaque.

A link to the Chester Zoo lions of the wartime past – within roar of the present. Chester Zoo Stables and Courtyard gateway, May 2011

The stables and courtyard of the big house of another era are closed to the public but very visible from public walkways, the stables now house the works depot and offices.

History in the Chester area is never far away – usually just inches under your feet. The Romans had a garrison town (Deva) here, into whose near-complete buried amphitheatre in town were dug the air-raid shelters for June’s school. Behind Oakfield House, recreated Roman Gardens and new glasshouses now lie where food was once grown in the kitchen gardens and conservatory area by June’s  ‘ Grandfather’ Albert, George Mottershead’s father.

This glasshouse like those in many zoos was a victim of wartime shrapnel, in this case probably anti-aircraft or ack-ack ‘flak’ from nearby AA guns firing at enemy raiders heading for the towns and ports of the Northwest. Friendly fire like this also killed a Coypu, one of the only direct wartime casualties amongst the animals from enemy action (many other zoo animals like penguins slowly declined from wartime substitute feeding). Here in these vanished glasshouses and kitchen gardens, food was once grown for the mansion and for the early zoo. The Mottersheads were nurserymen and market gardeners, originally in the Sale area. ‘Grandad’ Mottershead working well into old age and through wartime to provide food for his son’s zoo animals.

Three of June’s Mottershead uncles and step-uncles from this gardening family were killed in the First World War, two others on her mother’s side, whilst her father George was so badly wounded on the Somme that it took him years to teach himself to walk again. Albert and Stanley Mottershead’s  names are on the Sale War Memorial, recently researched by George Cogswell and pictured here. This could so easily have been George Mottershead. no George, no Chester Zoo.

George Mottershead in uniform with wife Elizabeth, World War One, one of mnay family photos in the new June’s Pavilion, Chester Zoo

Family photographs of these friendly ghosts can be found in June’s book but also mounted on the walls of the newly opened June’s Pavilion catering area near Oakfield House, next to the Growzone conservatories for today’s Chester Zoo gardeners. Zoos, like armies, march on their stomachs and good food is very important to the human and other animals at the zoo. It is often the make or break of a zoo visit and probably one of the harder things to get right for everyone. I learnt this lesson on day one of zoo management at Newquay Zoo, the afternoon spent with sleeves rolled up and rubber gloves in the sink partly alongside Pete the Ops Manager washing up and KP-ing in the Newquay Zoo café during an afternoon rush and shortage of café staff. So I understand how important June, her sister Muriel, her mother Elizabeth and Grandmother Lucy like all the women in her family were in feeding zoo staff, evacuees and zoo visitors as well as zoo animals before and during the war. [Note: 2014, This is something that comes across strongly in the BBC series Our Zoo broadcast in Autumn 2014 and I interviews with June Williams.]

It is very fitting to have ‘June’s Pavilion’ as not a museum or a memorial but something practical, and fun – a family eating place with family photographs on the wall. George Mottershead in First World war uniform with Elizabeth and baby Muriel, Grandad Mottershead, June and Fred, all look down, alongside many other of the army of Chester Zoo staff of the past, over another generation of zoo visitors tucking in to food before heading off to look and learn about more animals.

Having read June’s account in hindsight and the detailed newsletters month by month during uncertain times gives you chance to relive the early years, month by month, almost to glimpse through the windows of Oakfield House and spot familiar ghosts on the lawn.

Next to Oakfield House beside the lawn in its own small garden stands a small simple memorial plaque to George Mottershead, erected by the zoo members and staff after he died in 1978. George looks out of the photo back towards the stables and the windows of Oakfield House which must have seen so many stories, from the gentry and hunting at the big house to wounded soldiers of his own war, wartime evacuees in the next war, refugee elephants and their mahouts, a place of family weddings and still a venue for an excellent quiet lunch in the panelled dining room.

After the war, things did not become easier straight away. There was still food rationing and materials for building were in short supply.

Round the back of the Europe on the Edge aviary, once the 1940s polar bear enclosure can be seen wartime surplus concrete tank traps built into pillars, a clever bit of wartime / austerity salvage, Chester Zoo, May 2011 (Image: World War Zoo gardens project)

Britain had to feed itself, the displaced millions of Europeand repair huge numbers of bombed factories, schools and houses around the country. A short walk away from Oakfield House, you can still glimpse one of George’s practical bits of post-war salvage. Fred Williams, June’s husband, as Clerk of Works carried on this salvage tradition.

At the rear of what was once built as the Polar Bear enclosure can be seen some at first rather plain and ugly concrete pillars. Ironically now part of the Europe on the Edge Aviary, these pillars started life for a very different purpose – heavy concrete road blocks and tank traps from the desperate days of improvisation by the Army and Home Guard against invasion by the armies of Hitler’s Germany after softening up by Goering’s eagles of the Luftwaffe.

The round shapes of these concrete blocks can be seen clearly in Frith picture postcards featured in a recent zoo postcards book by  Alan Ashby ( These pillars  are an unlikely memorial to a past generation, though thankfully June is still (2011/2014very much with us, still interested in the zoo they built and the recently opened June’s new Pavilion.

Stephen McKeown spoke in 2011 about further ideas for developing family history on the way to our Chester Zoo members talk at the Russell Allen lecture theatre at Chester zoo (named after Maud Russell Allen, an early council member or benefactor in the 1930s and 1940s). Chester are thinking about developing the guided or self-guided history tour – so watch the Chester Zoo website for details [including on the Our Zoo BBC related events].

BBC clip about June at wartime Chester Zoo:

Since 2011, I have been sent by Chester Zoo Archive  the scans of many letters to and from George Mottershead to (the late) ex Cheter Zoo staff member Peter Lowe, who became the first curator and designer of my home zoo, Newquay Zoo, something worth a blog post in future. So George Mottershead surviving the Somme to open his own zoo helped indirectly in the early history of my own zoo at Newquay Zoo.  You can read more about our wartime garden project at Newquay Zoo on our blog, contact me via the comments page or check out our zoo website pages about World War Zoo on

The new World War Zoo gardens sign at Newquay Zoo, 2011

National Allotment Week 4 – 10 August 2014 in the World War Zoo Garden at Newquay Zoo

July 30, 2014

WW1 soldiers gardening

WW1 soldiers gardening

As an unlikely part of the National Allotment Society NSALG, we at Newquay Zoo like to mark the National Allotment Week in some way on our recreated wartime zoo keepers allotment.

Although the focus of our recreated wartime zoo keeper’s allotment is WW2’s Dig For Victory campaign, we have increasingly been asked about zoos, allotments and gardens in World War 1. part of the focus of Allotment Week this year is the WW1 heritage being commemorated around Britain

“The week is also an opportune time to highlight the need to strengthen the protection for our remaining allotment sites and emphasise the benefits allotments bring to people and the environment. The 4 August 1914 saw Britain declare war on Germany and although allotments had existed in the UK from the 18th century, the ensuing food shortages lead to the creation of the local authority allotments that we recognise today. Their numbers have waned considerably but 100 years later working an allotment plot remains a popular pastime. This contribution that allotments make to the health and well-being of people and the quality of the environment is generally acknowledged and has been endorsed by many studies but there is much competition for land in our crowded urban environments and, although protected by legislation, allotments are vulnerable …” (NSALG website)

Allotments on the railway side, South West, WW1 (unnamed magazine photo in author's collection)

Allotments on the railway side, South West, WW1 (unnamed magazine photo in author’s collection)


Over the next week, I’ll be changing our small permanent display case in the Tropical House at Newquay Zoo, adding some WW1 material amongst the WW2 Dig for Victory material (such as WW1 ration books, recipe books and postcards). Along with WW1 medals and stories of Keepers in WW1, this will show how the experiences of WW1 prepared zoo and gardens staff for surviving WW2 – what was similar and what was very different?

Display case of wartime memorabilia, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo

More on zoos, gardeners and gardens and WW1 commemoration

We have previously written about the WW1 losses at ZSL London Zoo Regent’s Park, who are planning their own WW1 exhibition. For example one of their zoo gardeners Robert Jones was killed, alongside many keepers and other staff:

and at the now closed  Belle Vue Zoo in Manchester:


Spades as Trumps - allotments and an early version of Dig For Victory WW1, The War Budget, 1917

Spades as Trumps – allotments and an early version of Dig For Victory WW1, The War Budget, 1917


As we begin the WW1 centenary, many historic houses and gardens are marking their WW1 contribution. Some of these houses eventually became or diversified into becoming zoos and safari parks with the decline, demolition or diversification of the country house postwar after WW1 / WW2. Port Lympne was one such estate, Woburn, Knowsley and Longleat amongst others. Along with Heligan, other places such as Woburn Abbey are celebrating their contribution.

I wrote an article about this last year for the BGEN botanic gardens website on their free resources, all about using your garden or site heritage.

You can also read more about Kew Gardens in WW1 and garden editor Herbert Cowley’s wartime career on our past blog posts.

The UK National Inventory of War Memorials has an excellent project blog post by Frances Casey on Lost Gardeners of World War 1 with many interesting links to zoo and gardens staff memorials.

Exhibitions  on Gardeners in WW1 and at Kew Gardens with wartime garden tours and exhibitions. I look forward to talking on 20th October at Kew Gardens about our wartime gardens research at the KMIS talks – see and for its events and 2014/15 talks list.

I’ve also been researching a local Cornish village war memorial and writing recently about food and farming in WW1 Britain.

Celebration bunting, cabbages and mascot Blitz Bear out in the World War Zoo gardens at Newquay Zoo, Summer 2011

Celebration bunting, cabbages and mascot Blitz Bear out in the World War Zoo gardens at Newquay Zoo, Summer 2011

The lights will be going out all over Europe on the evening of the 4th August as part of wider 1914 centenary activities, see events.

Happy gardening, and happy National Allotment Week 4 to 10 August!

More pictures of our allotment in summer soon, resplendent with artichokes and broad beans before the animals get to eat them!

Mark Norris, World War Zoo

Dig for Victory 1917 (World War 1 style), the lost gardeners of Kew and the fortunate Herbert Cowley (1885 – 1967)

March 22, 2013

There is still a great deal of labour employed for example, in pleasure grounds and bedding out which in the present circumstances should be put to better account

(The Garden, editorial No. 2359, 3/2/17)

Herbert Cowley (1885-1967) from his Kew Guild journal obituary 1968

Herbert Cowley (1885-1967) from his Kew Guild journal obituary 1968

Corporal Herbert Cowley returned from the trenches in 1915 to his editing desk at The Garden magazine, walking with a stick from a shrapnel wound to his knee cap. In this he was somewhat lucky as 37 of his former Kew Gardens colleagues were killed (see  blog post on the Lost Gardeners of Kew WW1 ).

This was a generation of gardeners for whom ‘digging trenches’  had a deadly double meaning. Active in the Kew Guild for Old Kewite staff as its secretary, he also edited the Kew Guild Journal, recently placed online. After four years as journal editor from 1909 to 1914 and time off for military service, he became editor of The Garden in 1915/16 and carried on as a gardening writer until the late 1930s.

Unlike his fallen Kew colleagues, Herbert Cowley lived to the grand age of 82, dying in Newton Abbott in Devon in November 1967. There is a lovely description of him at Dartington as:

“that eighty-year-old gentleman with the vivid blue eyes, who retired from the world of horticultural journalism in 1936, yet who still remembered everyone and everything from those days”

recalled a researcher who had tracked him down to talk about his friendship with Gertrude Jekyll (quoted on pg. 79, Beatrix Jones (1872-1959):Fifty Years of Landscape by Diane K. McGuire)

The Garden 1917, edited by Herbert Cowley.

The Garden 1917, edited by Herbert Cowley.

In my collection of wartime gardening books at Newquay Zoo as part of the World War Zoo Gardens project,  I have a slightly musty bound year’s copy of The Garden magazine from 1917, an edition  that Cowley edited. This is one of the wartime volumes I’ve bought whilst researching  the wartime history of zoos and associated botanic gardens.  Leafing through its yellowing pages, it is sometimes hard to believe at first that there is a war on. Only when you begin to read between the lines or look at the adverts do you begin to pick up glimpses of the upheavals caused by war on an Empire of pioneer plant hunters, foresters, farmers and botanists called back from around the world to defend their mother country.

I will feature more in detail from this random 1917 edition in a future blog post. The Garden magazine can be read online for free at – search by year – and other sites.

Herbert Cowley as Editor at The Garden magazine was no desk gardener. As a career gardener he had risen through the ranks. His father Henry was a ‘domestic gardener’. Herbert studied at Swanley College for two years, one of the last eight men students before it became a female horticultural college around 1902. Swanley then trained many lady gardeners who dug for victory in both world wars. He worked at Lockinge Gardens in Berkshire before studying at Swanley, at some point for the royal garden at Frogmore and after Swanley for the famous nursery family of Veitch’s at Feltham. One of that same family, Major John Leonard Veitch MC (Military Cross) of the Devon Regiment would be killed on 21 May 1918, one of Cowley’s Old Kewite & Veitch’s nursery family.

cowley 007Cowley joined Kew Gardens and appears always to have been a popular colleague. The Kew Guild Journal describes him in 1915/16 as having been much sought after by different departments, eventually settling in the Orchid department in 1905, probably from his experience with Orchids at one of the Veitch’s nurseries’ specialities. Veitch’s employed several famous plant hunters to collect exotic plants from around the world for the conservatories and gardens of Victorian and Edwardian Britain in one of the ‘golden ages’ of British estates, big houses and impressive gardening schemes. It was the Downton Abbey age. All this would go into decline after the war as it poignantly did at Heligan Gardens in Cornwall and many places elsewhere as a result of rising costs, loss of labour, fortunes or heirs. By the time of Herbert Cowley’s death in 1967, many of these country houses, their gardens  and their gardeners would have vanished into memories and yellowing  pages of his gardening magazines and Country Life in bound volumes in archives.

From early on Herbert Cowley was active in learning, sharing and passing on information, a quality that any good gardening writer needs, through Kew’s Mutual Improvement Lectures in 1906/7 season. Sadly the prewar lecture lists contain the names of some of the Kew staff including C.F. Ball who would soon be killed on active service. Cowley left Kew around 1907 to join The Gardener magazine as a subeditor (later called Popular Gardening).

Herbert Cowley  became Assistant Editor at a different title, The Garden in 1910. This was the magazine he was to return to as Editor in 1915/6 until 1926; this is the magazine that I have a 1917 edition in my collection. Cowley then edited Gardening Illustrated from 1923-26, another success in a long career as a gardening journalist and writer.  At some point he worked for Wallace & Co of Tunbridge Wells, nursery-men and landscape architects. He wrote his final (?)  book The Garden Year from Tunbridge Wells in 1936;  March & April excerpts of his advice are included at the end of this blog post:

“In my capacity as editor of gardening journals I have many times been asked for a practical book containing reminders for garden work all the year round. This book is specially written to supply that want – it is in fact a modern gardening calendar in book form … 

Reminders for each department – utilitarian as well as ornamental – from the kitchen garden to the orchid house – will be found in these pages.  

It is hoped that this book will be given a place in the front row of the gardener’s bookshelf and that it will prove useful all the year round.

The information given is based on generally accepted practice and the season for doing things in any well-ordered garden” (Preface, The Garden Year, 1936)

Frontispiece to The Garden Year 1936, written by Herbert Cowley.

Frontispiece to The Garden Year 1936, written by Herbert Cowley.

“Well-ordered”,  “practical”, “each department” of the garden, this is the voice of the Kew-trained gardener from the Edwardian age . Cowley writes in a clear, no-nonsense advice style about gardening. At first sight there is very little personal material, so it is hard to glimpse from his writing what he made of his wartime experiences as a temporary warrior. Like many of his generation, he got on with life after the war and probably didn’t talk or write about it much.

His army records (available on genealogy sites like reveal that he enlisted early in the war on 7th September 1914 as No. 2477 in the 12th County of London Regiment (the London Rangers). He very quickly embarked for France by 25 December 1914, just after the famous Christmas Truce and football matches in No Man’s Land. He may well have been a Territorial Army soldier to have enlisted and embarked so swiftly. His brother Charles Cowley  (b. 1890, Wantage, Berks – d. 1973, New Zealand) served in the same regiment from 1915 and became a Sergeant, invalided out with trench foot to become a musketry instructor in devon.

In one of Herbert Cowley’s  postwar letters in his  National Archives British Army Service records, he complains to the Army authorities in 1920 from his residence at Curley Croft, Lightwater, near Bagshot :

I have received so far no medals whatsover for services rendered at the Front in 1914/15. I was in the 12th London Regiment and went to Belgium with the 1st Battalion on Christmas Eve.”

He would eventually be awarded the ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’ trio of medals for soldiers who served so early in the war. He was also awarded the War Badge by 1916, a useful public symbol which showed others that he had been injured and demobilised, protecting him from the comments and white feathers of the ignorant or unknowing. Cowley had got what was known as a ‘Blighty’ wound, serious enough to get him invalided out of the army but one that allowed him to live an active life. He was to suffer other family tragedies though.

Ever the gardener, he wrote for The Garden a letter on March 28 1915 about plants in France whilst overseas with the BEF, published 10 April, 1915 about a need for a  “seeds for soldiers” scheme,

“The suggestion re. quick-growing seeds is excellent. Delightful instances are now to be seen of dug-outs, covered with verdant green turf, garden plots divided by red brick and clinker paths suggestive of an Italian Garden design. Some plots are now bright with Cowslips, Lesser Celandine and fresh green leaves of the Cuckoo-Pint, wild flowers obviously lifted from meadows and ditches nearby. Yet the roar of heavy guns and the roll of rifle fire is incessant. Verily the Briton is a born gardener.”   The Garden, 10.04.1915

This is an area extensively  covered in Kenneth Helphand’s Defiant Gardens chapter on Trench Gardens.

Alongside part of an RHS lecture from the RHS journal April 1915 by James Hudson on the “Informal and Wild Garden”,  The Garden’ s Editor F.W. Harvey has printed an evocative article by Herbert Cowley on “A Garden in the War Desert”  about a war damaged village and famous chateau garden at Zonnebeke near Ypres in Belgium.

“Our Sub-Editor at the Front”, Cowley is recorded in the 1916 Kew  Guild Journal as being “wounded twice” in the spring battles of Ypres in 1915. He was slightly wounded in late April 1915, reported in The Garden of 8 May 1915:

” For the past eight days we have been in severe battle. I am slightly wounded by shell – only a bruised rib and am in hospital. Dreadful warfare is still raging … we must win!” 

Looking through his army and pension records, he was more seriously wounded on May 4 1915, as GSW Right Knee (either Gun Shot Wound or shrapnel wound?). His medical  entry is hard to read on the ‘burnt documents’ as these Blitz damaged records are known. The circumstances are reported in The Garden on 15 May 2015:

“Rifleman H. Cowley … has again been wounded in action and is now in hospital at Oxford … wounded in the knee whilst bandaging another soldier in the trenches … Rifleman H. Cowley 2477, Surgical 7, 3rd Southern General Hospital , Oxford”  

Over the next few days of fighting on the Frezenberg Ridge in the Second Battle Of Ypres, it is recorded at website entries about the 1st Battalion, that the fighting “brought about the end of the original battalion.” The battalion had also been involved in the first German poison gas attack on 22 April 1915.

Cowley was lucky to be alive, if injured; only 53 of his original battalion comrades survived unscathed  after this action at Ypres, an area soon to become as sadly well known as the Somme. The Kew Guild Journal 1916 notes his absence from the 1915 Kew Guild dinner speeches as “Our Secretary Rifleman H. Cowley (cheers) in hospital at Oxford, wounded at the knee.” Obviously a popular man as the ‘cheers’ shows. In an uncanny or eerie coincidence, the 1911 census lists his sister Annie (b. 1887) as being a nurse in domestic service to the Prentice family of the oddly named Ypres House, Rye in Sussex.

By the end of the 1915,  Herbert Cowley would be invalided out of the Army, be recovering from wounds and married to Elsie Mabel Hurst on 8th December 1915 in Kingston. By the end of this same year, several more of his Kewite gardening colleagues would be dead. Herbert Cowley went on to have at least one son. Many of his Kew colleagues who died in the First World War left many children fatherless.

A walk in the trench cemeteries in my early twenties past rows of teenage soldiers’ graves  made me feel both prematurely old and also fortunate to have a life ahead of me. Searching through book auction websites reveals Cowley to have made good use of his extra lease of life, a life  denied to so many of his generation.  Cowley very quickly returned his gardening and writing talents  to produce many books of practical, no-nonsense advice for the gardening enthusiast, in his own way helping the war effort in the First World War’s version of Dig for Victory.

In the 1917 journal,  his own book Vegetable Growing in Wartime is reviewed. His  article on this topic appears soon after, amidst many articles on vegetable allotments for the novice gardener, some written by women. Cowley’s book quickly went into a second edition as the First World War Home Front food situation in Britain appeared more and more worrying.  Bad  harvests and the increasing German submarine attacks on merchant shipping was causing shortages, price rises  and uncertainty over future supply. Rationing was introduced in Britain in the last years of the First World War. In Germany the Allied blockade was to have even greater effects on the wartime population and eventually its fighting ability.

Herbert Cowley continued to practical small pamphlets on Storing Vegetables and Fruit (1918), Cultivation with Movable Frames (1920) and a short book on The Modern Rock Garden (a book still available as print on demand online). His largest book The Garden Year appeared in 1936, when some sources suggest his garden journalism career came to an end.

He had not given up plants though in 1936. For a well-known gardener  with a dodgy knee in his fifties, a new element to his career was beginning, away from the deadlines of editing  and publishing. In Theo A. Stephen’s My Garden magazine, a 1936 volume lists Cowley as leading:

“Garden Tours – starting from London on the evening of Saturday 20th, Mr. Herbert Cowley will conduct a party to the Swiss Alps. The tour will take fifteen days,returning on Sunday July 5th to London …”

So Cowley was still energetically going abroad in his fifties, despite his shrapnel wounds. Alpine plants were to remain a passion of Herbert Cowley to the end of his life in 1968. He was an honorary life  member of the British Alpine Society and his Modern Rock Garden remains in print to this day.

His Kew Guild Journal obituary in 1968 mentions other plant hunting trips to the Dolomites and a notable visit to Bulgaria as a guest of King Ferdinand in the company of Kew contemporary C.F.Ball of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin in Dublin. (Ball was killed as a Private in the Royal Dublin Fusilers on 13 September 1915 as part of the Gallipoli campaign).

Cowley wrote interesting accounts early in his editorship of the Garden in late 1915, around the time his obituary appeared for Charles Ball  about their shared Bulgaria trip in the special “Rose issue” of The Garden, 23 October 1915 and in the The Garden November 6 , 1915 

In a future blog post, I will look at the gardening and writing career of Theo Stephens in war and peace. Owned and edited by Stephens from 1934 to 1951, My Garden  was an unusual survivor amongst small magazines throughout the paper shortages of World War 2.

Cowley had a long  working relationship with Gertrude Jekyll, to whom she records her thanks in A Gardening Companion:

and lastly to her devoted friend and colleague, Mr. Herbert Cowley, editor of The Gardening Illustrated during the period of her contribution to it, for many of the photographs which materially enhance such value as this book may possess.”

The Fate of The South Border, Gertrude Jekyll, January 20, 1917, The Garden magazine

The Fate of The South Border, Gertrude Jekyll, January 20, 1917, The Garden magazine

An entry in the 1917 The Garden  magazine describes how Miss Jekyll dug up the South Border, one of her flower beds at Munstead to plant potatoes (photograph by Cowley?). Many of the famous postwar photographs of Jekyll’s Munstead Wood and Miss Jekyll are attributed to Cowley. Judith Tankard in a recent beautifully illustrated Country Life article launching her Gertrude Jekyll book (27 April  2011 pdf reprinted at

in her articles published before the First World War she supplied most of the pictures herself, but after that, she relied on photographs taken by Herbert Cowley, who became Country Life‘s Gardens Editor after the departure of E.T. Cook in 1911“.

Many of Cowley’s early booklets were published by the Country Life magazine publishers / George Newnes. They produced small and useful booklets throughout the Great War well into the Second World War as part of  the ‘dig for Victory’ efforts.

Cowley, according to Tankard, “was a frequent guest at Munstead Wood [and] snapped the famous picture of Jekyll strolling in her Spring Garden in 1918.” He is remembered as a prolific photographer in his Kew Guild Journal 1968 obituary by A.G.L Hellyer, a noted editor of Amateur Gardening and garden writer (1902-1993) in the Second World War period:

throughout the 1920s he was always a prominent figure at shows – with close-cropped hair and always a large wooden camera and stand. He seemed to do all his own photography as well as being editor.”

By Spring 1918 when he had snapped these famous photographs, Cowley would have undertaken a more unpleasant task.  As oldest surviving Cowley brother, he was busy of sorting out the probate or estate on 12 March 1918  of his older brother Henry William Cowley. Brother Henry had died whilst training on military service on 14 September 1917. Lance Corporal Henry W. Cowley TR9/76191 (his trainee / regimental number) 26th Reserve Training Battalion died in a comatose state of a cerebral haemorrhage at Napsbury Hospital St Albans. Cowley’s brother is buried near Heathrow airport at Heston (St. Leonard) Churchyard as the family lived in Isleworth, Middlesex.
Brother Henry’s service and pension records still contain the urgent  telegrams from medical staff to his wife that Henry was dangerously ill in hospital. Among other records are a list of his surviving possessions to be returned, poignant personal items such as pipes, tobacco, whistle, cigars. A schoolteacher, Henry W. Cowley attested on 22 November 1915 and was mobilised for training on 16 July 1917, called up in the 34/35 year old age range. His wife Olive was awarded a pension of 26/3 a week for herself and her three children Henry F G Cowley (born 23/08/1906, d. 1986 Newton Abbott, Devon), Ivy Cowley (b. 6/01/1908)  and Eric Jack Cowley (b. 24/2/1911, . 1984), all born at Heston, Middlesex. Later Herbert Cowley would again be listed professionally as ‘editor’ when he sorted his father Henry’s will or probate after his father died on 3 April 1930 at Easton, Portland, Dorsetshire.

Richard van Emden’s recent 2011 book The Quick and The Dead gives a much fuller account of how the burials, search for the missing and impact on the surviving families affected the now passing generation of surviving children and their own families right up to the present day. Some of the long-serving Kew staff such as C.P. Raffill, A.B. Melles and others worked in the Graves Registration Unit and for the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission; in this way Kew was involved in planning the planting of these cemeteries with suitable plants for the climate.

Herbert Cowley’s side of the family was not the only one to lose a relative. Two years earlier on the first day of Battle of the Somme, his wife Elsie Mabel (nee Hurst) lost her 30 year old brother Percy, a clerk. Rifleman 4278 Percy Haslewood (or Hazlewood) Hurst of the 1st /16th Battalion, London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles) was
killed on the 1st July 1916, during his battalion’s diversionary attack on Gommecourt. Percy left a wife Geraldine of 18 Teddington Park, Middlesex. His widowed clerk / accountant father Samuel and typist sister Elsie Mabel was left grieving for his loss. Like Herbert’s Kewite colleagues Rifleman John Divers and Corporal Herbert Martin Woolley, Percy H. Hurst is listed on the Thiepval memorial to the Missing of The Somme (Pier / face 13C). Several other Kew Gardens staff are listed in the Kew Guild magazine ‘Roll of Honour’ section as serving in Percy Hurst’s local London Regiment but thankfully survived.

The Kew Guild journal obituary ends with an unusual coda to Herbert Cowley’s gardening career. According to an (obituary?) article it quotes from the Western Guardian on November 9th 1967, Cowley left journalism to move to Withypool on Exmoor to run a riding school for 20 years throughout what must have been the wartime period 1940s up to the late 1950s. I wonder what this old soldier, who had seen the widespread call up and loss of horses, their grooms and riders  in the Great War, made of Exmoor’s famous mounted Home Guard patrols in a very different
war, a war that would cause him more family grief.

Cowley and his wife made a final move to the Brixham area in the early 1960s, growing camellias, nerines and alpine plants. (His Western Guardian obituary notes him as an honorary life member of the Alpine Garden Society). This is where he was encountered at Dartington in his eightieth year, with his “vivid blue eyes” and excellent recall.

Herbert’s unexpected move to the West Country and retirement from journalism may be explained by a sad wartime event in 1940. His Kew Guild Journal 1968 obituary concludes that he is survived by his wife Elsie (b. 1893?  d. 1969) and a son (name as yet undiscovered). However it seems one possible son is likely to have been killed in World War Two.  RAF Sergeant Observer Robert Hurst Cowley, 580643, died aged only 22 on the 2nd September 1940. His 57 Squadron was flying Blenheim bombers on anti-shipping patrols over the North Sea from its base in Elgin in Scotland at the time before converting to Wellington bombers in November 1940. Robert is listed on the CWGC site as the son of Herbert & Elsie Mabel Cowley of East Grinstead, Sussex. Like many of his father’s Kew Gardens colleagues from the previous war, Robert Hurst Cowley has no known grave and is commemorated on panel 13 of the Runnymede Memorial to missing aircrew, one amongst 20327 names. Robert is also listed on the St. Thomas a Becket church, Framfield on the War Memorial as ‘of this parish’. Kew Gardens itself would lose several of its 1940s staff as aircrew during the Second World War (see future blog post), recorded on their war memorial.

I will end with some of Herbert Cowley’s March vegetable gardening advice from The  Garden Year (1936). The advice in some areas would soon be out of fashion or obsolete as rationing and Dig For Victory took hold again in Cowley’s lifetime. No doubt his 1917 Vegetable Gardening in Wartime booklet would be found on the shelves or second hand bookstall, dusted off and referred to many times again.

We’ve just started planting some 1930s / 1940s varieties of veg that Cowley would be familiar with in the World War Zoo Gardens project allotment at Newquay Zoo, despite the rain, frost and soggy ground. Heritage varieties such as The Sutton broad bean  seedlings, Early Onward peas and Ailsa Craig onions are all in, planted on the odd dry warm March  day.  By late summer they will be ready as fresh unsprayed  food for our zoo animals, especially our monkeys.


from The Garden Year 1936 by Herbert Cowley

Fruit & Vegetables

Wall fruit will require protection from frost.

Gooseberries are best pruned now and sprayed to keep birds at bay.*

Fruit tree planting must be completed.

Gaps in the Strawberry beds should be filled and Strawberry plants in pots for forcing should be taken inside.

Autumn-fruiting Raspberries need cutting down

Black Currants infected with ‘big bud’ require spraying.*

Grape Vines, Peaches, Nectarines and Figs require attention.

Main crop potatoes should be planted, also Jerusalem Artichokes, Shallots and Asparagus.

The main sowings of all vegetable crops are necessary this month.

The Garden Year, illustrationTomatoes will require potting on.

Celery must be sown in gentle heat.

Herbs can be planted.

A seed bed can be sown for the cabbage tribe.


from The Garden Year 1936 by Herbert Cowley

Fruit & Vegetables

Apples and Pears should be sprayed with lime-sulphur and lead arsenate*,  and bark ringed if necessary.*

Gooseberries should be sprayed with  derris.*

Raspberries and Loganberries need mulching.

Melon beds should be made and seed sown.

Peaches and Nectarines should be disbudded.

Grape Vine flowers should be pollinated.

Onions should be planted out.

Carrot and Beet   main crops should be sown.

Celery trenches should be prepared.

Mushroom beds can be made this month.

Vegetable Marrows and Ridge Cucumbers should be sown in the greenhouse.

Peas, Beans, Spinach, Lettuce should be sown.

* Many of these sprays are now wisely banned (2013).

March 1936 tasks The Garen Year

March 1936 tasks
The Garden Year

April 1936 tasks, The Garen Year

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