The story of Alderborough Nursery, Geashill is a must have for delightful summer reading. This book tells the story of Reamsbottom & Co., Alderborough and West Drayton, and the development of the Alderborough strain of the St Brigid Anemone which made it famous around the world. Geashill was for decades at the center of Irish horticulture with an international reputation for the quality of its plants. Alderborough Nursery competed with the best nurseries in the world, winning awards, medals and accolades from judges and gardening publications. From 1890 to the 1980’s Anemones and a wide range of plants were exported from Geashill. Archives of all the important horticultural shows in Ireland and Britain record that Reamsbottom & Co. exhibited their produce and won prizes, particularly for their St. Brigid Anemones. By 1907, Reamsbottom & Co., had won 33 medals for Alderborough St. Brigid Anemones, including four gold. [This is a beautiful book and adds to the growing Geashill library of attractive volumes reaching a wide and enthusiastic market.]
William Morley Reamsbottom and his wife Mary Enraght Moony founded Reamsbottom & Co. William, whose family lived at Ballycumber, was an expert and enthusiastic plantsman who shared his knowledge in the best publications of the time and advertised plants for sale regularly. Mary, who came from The Doon, Ballinahown, played a key role in the business, and catered for horticultural trainees at Alderborough House, while also looking after their children.
Through the lives of people involved in Alderborough Nursery we get an insight into the difficulties and challenges they faced at a time of great uncertainty and change in Ireland. The achievements of the nursery were in many ways extraordinary when viewed against the background of unrest caused by the Land War of the late 1800’s, World War 1, the 1916 Rising and the struggle for Irish independence. A feature of life at the time was the constant uncertainty. The nursery prospered at a time when there were no supports for businesses or individuals in the way we take for granted today.
Alderborough Nursery was the main employer in Geashill over many decades, beginning in 1890. In 1920, Reamsbottom & Co., set up a second branch in West Drayton, London, which continued to the 1960’s under various names but always including the Reamsbottom name. Through this nursery Geashill people developed strong links with West Drayton with many joining the workforce there. This nursery was managed by Randle North Kenyon who was one of William Reamsbottom’s first students at Alderborough.
Many nurserymen and gardeners trained at Alderborough. Frank Jeeves set up another nursery at Streamstown, County Westmeath, which was still trading in the 1960’s, while others worked in some of Ireland’s most famous gardens including The Japanese Gardens in Kildare and Garnish Island. The Montgomery family were gardeners and nurserymen over four generations. James was manager at Alderborough while his grandson, Seamus, was responsible for the development of the gardens of Belvedere House when Westmeath County Council took it over in the 1980’s. John Montgomery continues the family gardening tradition at Streamstown, County Westmeath.
The Alderborough strain of St. Brigid Anemone, developed in the nursery, was central to the success of the Reamsbottom & Co., business over many decades. Employment in the nursery helped sustain economic and social activity in Geashill and the surrounding areas. Up to 70 workers were employed full time with as many more added to the staff during the busiest seasons. At a time when self-sufficiency was a necessity, Geashill gardeners were able to apply their skills to their own gardens where they grew a wide range of flowers, fruit and vegetables for their own use. The workforce at Alderborough were comparatively well paid with good working conditions and secure employment. The love of growing plants, and the knowledge of commercial production, was passed from generation to generation.
The success of the Alderborough St. Brigid Anemones was the result of breeding and continued improvement over years and decades. The patience and skill of William Reamsbottom produced Anemones which could be grown on a commercial scale at a price that allowed more amateur gardeners to enjoy their beauty in their own gardens. Every year Anemone corms were sent around the world while cut flowers went to towns and cities in Britain and Ireland. Seed was harvested to produce the next crop.
Reamsbottom & Co., continued trading until 1932 when economic circumstances finally forced it to close. After the closure of Reamsbottom & Co., local men who had been employed in the company continued to make a living from growing and selling plants as late as the 1980s on the same land. The McHugh, Kelly and Flynn families continued to produce Alderborough St. Brigid Anemones for export and a range of plants and vegetables for the Irish market.
Anne O’Rourke’s great-uncle, Joe Flynn grew Anemones for export on his smallholding until the late 1950’s. She grew up hearing stories of how the nursery exhibited plants at important flower shows, including Chelsea, and the glorious colour of Alderborough St. Brigid Anemone beds that supplied florists in Covent Garden Market. The Anemones made excellent cut flowers, with a wide range of colours, large blooms, strong stems and the ability to provide a display for well over a week. Cut flowers were popular as table decorations and were used in wedding bouquets, church decoration or any space that needed brightening up. In a garden, St. Brigid Anemones were easy to grow, reliable in flowering and were capable of giving colour for most of the year.
Tim O’Rourke often bought plants from Dinny Kelly, the last full-time nurseryman in Geashill. Dinny was always available to give advice on plants and landscaping. He was immensely proud of his family’s association with the St. Brigid Anemones which brought such honour to Geashill. He loved to recall the great days of Reamsbottom & Co., when famous people came to visit. These included Ivor Novello and Gladys Cooper, both famous actors and performers of their time. Anemone Gladys Cooper was added to the Reamsbottom & Co., catalogue in 1927 while Pyrethrum King’s Rhapsody (named after Ivor Novello’s last musical) was sold from West Drayton in the early 1950’s.
Distribution of the plants and flowers exported by Reamsbottom & Co., was by rail and sea. Extra staff were added to Geashill Post Office and Geashill Station at Ard to cater for all the produce sent out by the nursery. In the 1920’s a tractor and trailer made daily deliveries of plants to Ard Station.
Alderborough House and its land played a very important part in the success of Reamsbottom & Co. Its history gives an insight into rural life in Offaly in the 1800s, and the precarious existence of Geashill tenants. Through the records of the Digby estate, digitised by Offaly County Council, the many occupants and their way of life is traced and recorded.
In writing the book the authors accessed digitised collections from a number of archives and libraries around the world. Records and information from Britain, America and Australia proved important. The Smithsonian Libraries and Archives provided a complete copy of the 1907 Reamsbottom catalogue with 57 pages of plants listed and described. In that year the company took a stand in the Main Hall of the Irish International Exhibition and received very favourable comments. All the garden publications of the time feature articles and records of the work of Reamsbottom & Co., in producing St. Brigid Anemones. In the same publications, William Reamsbottom expressed his views on gardening and shared his knowledge of plants.
The Reamsbottom family, now living in Canada were able to provide information and photographs relating to William and Mary Reamsbottom. Several members of the family have returned to Ireland to see Alderborough and other places associated with their ancestors.
Fortunately, the love of growing plants and pride in their village continues at Geashill where the Tidy Towns Committee keeps the tradition of growing Anemones alive. Seeing a bed of St. Brigid Anemones in summer, it is easy to understand why Geashill nurserymen and gardeners of the past were so fascinated by their form and colour and so appreciative of the opportunities that growing them gave to themselves and their families. Geashill Tidy Towns have also reproduced original advertising material using the same engraved copper plates used by Reamsbottom & Co. The hope now is that increased interest in the story will unearth more information and ensure that future generations get to experience the joy of growing and gazing at such beautiful flowers that will always be associated with Geashill and its people.
The authors acknowledge the professional presentation of the Alderborough Nursery story by Tullamore Company, Print Plus, and the generous support of Amanda Pedlow, Heritage Officer, Offaly County Council and Creative Ireland Programme in getting it to publication. The book is available from Offaly History online bookshop and at Bury Quay, Tullamore; Midland Books, Tullamore; Gorman’s shop, Killeigh; Byrne’s shop, Geashill and Birr Castle shop.
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