Posts Tagged ‘world war 1’

Lost Ecologists of the First World War

March 4, 2014

“Not only did the war bring to an end foreign excursions, but it ruptured the often close links with German scholars. It meant an inevitable dislocation of plans and careers …”

The British Ecological Society published a history on its 75th anniversary,  75 Years in Ecology: The British Ecological Society  by John Sheail (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987) that gives a few hints on how the First World War affected the lives and work of British and European ecologists.

Many of its founder British members covered sections of Britain from Cambridge to Scotland, Southern Ireland and Cornwall, Devon and the South in the company of German and European colleagues as part of the grandly titled International Phytogeographical Excursion around Britain in 1911.

On the eve of World War 1 at the end of the Edwardian period, British and European ecologists were pioneers of a discipline still in its early stages. The British Ecological Society had only formed in 1913 and is still going strong, having just celebrated its centenary – see also its Wikipedia entry.

The Cambridge University Botany School had mounted an ecological and botanic expedition to Provence and the fringes of the Mediterranean Alps when news of the Sarajevo assassination broke in June 1914. Two of that expedition were to die in the trenches of France and Flanders over the next 5 years.

Donald Macpherson 1886-1917

Only one of the two casualties was directly named in Shaeil’s book. The unnamed one was possibly Donald Macpherson (b. 1886) who “died in a French military hospital in 1917” (p.59). He had worked with William G. Smith, a colleague at the Edinburgh and East of Scotland Agricultural College (now the Scottish Rural University College) on Moor matgrass or nard grass (Nardus stricta) and the vegetation of the Moorfoot Hills. Smith went on publish the survey results as W.G. Smith, “The Distribution of Nardus stricta in relation to peat” in the Journal of Ecology, 6: 1-13, 1918.

Smith also wrote an obituary of MacPherson. After EDinburgh OTC and a Commission in the Scottish Horse, 2nd  Lieutenant D. MacPherson  transferred to the Royal Field Artillery in 1917 and was wounded in the back on his first action on the Menin Road. His CWGC record states that he  died on 11th November 1917 aged 31 years at Leith, probably in the Leith War Hospital (rather than France) and is buried in its associated Edinburgh (Warriston) Cemetery.

According to Smith, he abandoned field mapping as part of a Board of Agriculture survey begun in 1912, “the claims of the survey had to give place to a greater call, one which MacPherson felt strongly from the beginning of the war …” Smith described him as “ever pleasant. Best of all were the opportunities of joining him in the field. It was something of a task to keep up with the long striding place of a very tall companion.”

Captain Alfred Stanley Marsh (1892-1916)

The other ‘bright scholar’ was Captain Alfred Stanley Marsh (born 1892) of Crewkerne who was, according to the BES 75th Anniversary Book, “shot through the heart by a sniper’s bullet in the trenches of Armentieres in 1916” (p.41). He was the son of William Warren Marsh, a relieving officer and E. M. Marsh, of Blacknell, Crewkerne, Somerset.

In Sheail’s book he is called ‘Albert’  Stanley Marsh. Marsh’s  posthumous work was published by British ecologist and psychologist Arthur Tansley in 1917, who had been unfit for military service and worked as a clerk in munitions. Marsh’s experiments on competitve species of Bedstraw were finished by Tansley and published under Tansley’s name in 1917 as “On Competition between Galium saxatile and Galium sylvestre on different types of soil.” Journal of Ecology 5, 173-9, 1917. Tansley also wrote an obituary of Marsh in 1916, as Albert or Alfred Stanley Marsh, New Phytologist journal, 20, 132-6, 1916. S.R.Price also wrote an obituary on Captain A.S. Marsh in the Journal of Ecology 4, 119-120, 1916.

Based on his salt marsh and sand dune surveys and mappping work in summer 1913, Marsh was the author in 1915 of “The Maritime Ecology of Holme next the Sea, Norfolk” in the Journal of Ecology, 3: 63-73, 1915. His map reading and landscape survey  skills were to prove highly useful  as an infantry officer in wartime.

There is more about Captain Alfred Stanley Marsh of the 8th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry, killed and buried in Armentieres on 5 January 1916 on the Somerset Remembers website with obituaries, a unit photograph and sections from the 8th Battalion war diary  5 January 1916 which reads:

That day Capt. Marsh was killed by a sniper about 3 P.M. at the junction of Trenches 69 & 70.

and the CWGC website entry for him.

Ecologist A.S. Marsh lies to the left rear of the block of back to back Allied headstones in Cite Bonjean Militray Cemetery, Armentieres, France. Image CWGC website

Ecologist A.S. Marsh lies to the left rear of the block of back to back Allied headstones in Cite Bonjean Militray Cemetery, Armentieres, France. Image CWGC website

The town and cemetery where Marsh is buried have an interesting, almost symbolic history. Armentieres is a town in Northern France, on the Belgian frontier. The town was occupied by the 4th Division on 17 October 1914 (giving rise to the soldiers’ marching song “Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parlay Vous?”). It remained within the Allied lines until its evacuation ahead of the German advance on 10 April 1918, recovered again in 3 October 1918.
Plot IX of Cite Bonjean Militray Cemetery, Armentieres,  where Marsh is buried (Plot IX, row D headstone 79) was begun in October 1914 and continued to be used by field ambulances and fighting units until April 1918. Plots V, VI, VII and X were then used by the Germans. Although the cemetery now contains 2,145 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, more than 500 German graves remain in the cemetery even after 455 German graves were re-interred or concentrated elsewhere in 1925.

So A.S. Marsh lies appropriately in a cemetery where Germans and Allied soldiers rest close together, united again in death as in life, except during a war which was greatly disruptive of international scholarship, especially among for scientists or naturalists forced onto opposing sides. John Sheail notes (p.41) in his 75th Anniversary history of the BES that:

“Not only did the war bring to an end foreign excursions, but it ruptured the often close links with German scholars. It meant an inevitable dislocation of plans and careers …”

This paragraph could stand as an epitaph for so many scientific and cultural groups including the botanists and zoologists, gardeners, zoo and botanic garden staff that I have been researching for the World War Zoo Gardens project.

Sydney Edward Brock (1883 – 1918)

Another one of the “deaths and dislocations caused by the First World War”  noted by Sheail (p. 84) was ecologist and bird watcher Sydney Edward Brock (1883 – 1918), a Scottish farmer and naturalist.

Crop of the unit photograph of Captain S.E. Brock, Royal Scots MC (Image source:  Evening Dispatch - December 3rd 1915, via website.

Crop of the unit photograph of Captain S.E. Brock, Royal Scots MC (Image source: Evening Dispatch – December 3rd 1915, via website.

“Farmer, Naturalist and Soldier” Sydney Brock was a Captain, 10th Cyclist Battalion, Royal Scots, MC (Military Cross) who died of wounds on Armistice Day 11 November 1918 in a UK military hospital and is buried in Kirkliston Burial Ground, Lothian, Scotland. He was the son of tenant farmer (of the Hopetoun House estates) James Easton Brock (d. 1903) and Harriet Brock of Overton Farm, Kirkliston, Linlithgowshire and left a sister Florence and brother Dr. Arthur John Brock M.D. to whom his medals were sent. His WW1 medal record card suggests that he entered France on active service on 21 May 1918. He also has a CWGC website record. He does not appaer to have been listed on the British Ecological Society membership list but is mentioned in Shaeil’s book.

Sydney Brock’s Obituary in British Birds:
For most of the material of the present notice we are indebted to an appreciative sketch by Mr. W. Evans in the Scottish Naturalist, 1919, pp. 27-8. Sydney Edward Brock, Captain 10th Battalion Royal Scots, was descended from a west Lothian family and was born on October 6th, 1883, at Overton, near Kirkliston. He was educated at Kirkliston and Edinburgh, and about 1904 succeeded his father as tenant of the farm where he was born. There is reason to believe that he had in his mind the preparation of a Fauna of Linlithgowshire, where the greater part of his life was spent.

Although chiefly interested in bird-life he had acquired considerable knowledge of some of the lesser worked groups of insects, and of late years had devoted special attention to ecological problems. Most of his contributions to science appeared in the Annals of Scottish Natural History from 1906 onward, but he also wrote for the Zoologist, and the volume for 1910 contains some original observations on the fledging periods of birds (p. 117), and a very careful paper on “The Willow-Wrens of a Lothian Wood ” (pp. 401-417).

His most important contribution to British Birds was a thoughtful and suggestive paper on “Ecological Relations of Bird-Distribution” in British Birds, VIII., pp. 30-44, [1914]. There was every reason to expect much good work in the future from such a careful and good observer, but with the outbreak of the war came a break in his activities in this field.

While on active service in France [Brock] made notes on the bird-life of the Peronne district, which are still [1919] in MS., but on October 16th, 1918, he was severely wounded in action at Courtrai, and died in a military hospital at Aberdeen, from the effects of his wounds, on November 11th, the day on which hostilities ceased. His early death is a serious loss to British ornithology, especially in the department of Ecology and the study of the fauna of the Scottish lowlands. F.C.R.J.”

Brock’s second paper “Bird-associations in Scotland” was published posthumously in 1921 in Scottish Naturalists 11-21 and 49-58.

Brock is pictured centre mid row, a tall man, in 1915 with his fellow officers of the 2nd / 10th Cyclist Battalion, Royal Scots. He appears to have already enlisted by 1914, as a Territorial soldier for an S.E. Brock was gazetted a Lieutenant  in the 8th Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment) on 24.12.1902 (London Gazette, p. 8846, 23 Dec 1902).

Brock appears to have served for two years in defence of the UK:

“After the sanction of the War Office for the raising of second-line units was received, Lieut.-Colonel E. Peterkin, V.D., raised the 2/10th Royal Scots by the 24th September 1914, after a recruiting campaign of less than a week. The battalion was accordingly mobilised at Bathgate on the 13th October, 1914 but it was not till the 11th January 1915 that uniforms and the necessary military equipment began to arrive. With Berwick as their centre, the 2/10th Royal Scots, a cyclist battalion, became responsible for a share in the defence of the East coast, and from May 1916 furnished drafts for overseas service. The battalion went into camp at Coldingham in June 1916, and its chief thrills were caused by air raids and by reports of hostile landings …” from p. 739, Chapter 39, History of the 2/10th Royal Scots by Major John Ewing MC

By 1916, on the Armadale website, it quotes that 90% of this Territorial Force were serving overseas with other units such as Brock with the 12th Battalion,Royal Scots.

The Supplement to the London Gazette 4 October 1919 gives details of Brock’s gallantry award of the Military Cross:

Captain Sydney Edward Brock, 10th Bn., R. Scots. T.F. (attd. 12 Bn.).
For most conspicuous gallantry at the bridgehead at Cuerne on 17th Oct., 1918. He led part of his company over the bridge,under very heavy enemy fire, in an entirely exposed position, displaying great coolness and disregard of danger, and setting a most inspiring example to his men.

A family gravestone at Kirkliston can be seen online at the Brock genealogy website and the churchyard on Find A Grave website. There is more about the Brock family (some of whom emigrated) and Kirkliston area

Sheail notes that ecologists and botanists lamented the lack of use of their skills made by the authorities during the First World War, a situation slightly different in WW2, which has its own interesting section Part 3 which begins  (p 121 “Anniversaries are necessarily arbitrary affairs” in Sheail’s excellent book (out of print copies available on Amazon, Abe Books etc). Arthur Tansley notes the period in British ecology following the First World War as one of “quiescence”, after the energetic formation of the Society in 1913, despite the birth of techniques such as aerial photography for surveying and vegetation mapping.

There is more about soldier naturalists in Richard Van Emden’s Tommy’s Ark: Soldiers and their Animals in the Great War which we previously  reveiwed / blog posted about in 2012.

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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