A Pilgrimage to The Garden Museum by Hamish MacGillivray with Dora Stafford

Who is Dora?

I am standing under a row of trees, near Lambeth bridge, hiding from the hammering rain and waiting. Thanks to some amazing time travel technology I am going

to meet plant hunter Dora Stafford so we can visit the Garden Museum in central London. Never heard of Dora? During the 1930s she was Britain’s only female plant hunter, specialising in collecting bulbs and seeds high up in the mountains of Peru. In 1940 she disappeared. Dora is ignored by botanical and horticultural exhibitions and books.

Time Travel

I first found Dora’s name on a dusty index card when I was researching for Highdown Gardens. I was determined to find out what she was like. Thanks to some very powerful mobile phone App technology (powered by a cup of very strong tea) I was able to request her to jump forward in time and meet me in autumn 2022. You can find this app, on Android or iOS, under the Adams Time Machine © (or ATM, named after author Douglas Adams). This app is an update of the slower Wells Time Machine © (or WTM named after author H.G.Wells). If you scroll down to the Forgotten Very Important People, you can request an hour of your chosen subject who appears as a live hologram.

Flash of Purple

There is rumble of thunder above me, then I hear a low drone like a drunken bumble bee and the ‘ping ping’ of an old bicycle bell. I stare left down the road. Crack! A flash of purple lighting and suddenly a figure wobbling on a vintage bicycle appears on the Lambeth Palace Road surrounded by a blue halo. The bicycle skids to a halt next to my tree. Off jumps a tall woman who shouts through the din of the rain “OLA!” She strides towards me wearing an old leather aviator helmet, mountaineering sunglasses, fur coat, riding breeches and hob nailed boots. She has a broad grin and shakes my hand with vigour.

Boots

In a clipped English accent she exclaims,

“I say young man what a ride! I feel like Tessie Reynolds out in the elements! Did you ever meet Tessie? Bloody amazing woman, she once had the fastest time cycling between London to Brighton. Anyway, where is this Garden Museum? This road is full of padres…” pointing at Lambeth Palace behind us. “…and opposite lots of jaw-jaw politicos” pointing at Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament on the other side of the river Thames.

“It’s over there Ms Stafford on the right of Lambeth Palace in that former church.” I shout

“A former church you say? Well, if it’s not being used, why not as a museum?” she chuckles.

“I think the link is that Mr Tradescant is buried there.” I suggest.

“Oh, that fella, our first plant hunter and with his son collector of curios.” She smiles “So they now have a museum to themselves, eh?”

“Not exactly, it’s also a collection of garden history which is why I asked you to help me to review it. But can we get into the dry? I am starting to get soaked.”

“Oh, my dear fellow, so sorry. I don’t notice the weather, trick of the trade I suppose.” She looks at my raincoat and down to my feet. “I say, what type of boots are those?”

“Er, walking boots, I usually wear them if there is rain, even when visiting London.”

“Who is the name of your cobbler?”

“Cobbler? No, I bought these online” There was another low rumble of thunder.

“You mean, you bought them on a liner?’ She shouts “Was it one of the American ships? Never mind, you are soaking! Let’s get you inside! You can call me Dora and I’ll call you MacDuff!” And with a cheeky grin she marches into the road ignoring the hooting red bus and we enter the former St Mary’s churchyard.

The Residents

We pass by a couple of greenhouses, with plants inside, but the rain is coming down faster and we duck into the old church entrance. We are welcomed by a jolly front of house assistant who takes my wet coat and gives us a quick verbal tour. Dora takes off her leather cap and sunglasses to reveal short black hair with a streak of grey.

We are told the church dates to the 11th century with at least 20,000 former residents of St Mary’s parish buried inside and outside the church. The Ark Gallery about the Tradescants is closed today for refurbishment. There is a temporary display featuring plant portraits by Lucian Freud. Dora is not interested in this and rambles around the small bell tower area. The assistant explains on sunny days we could climb up the tower but, as it is heavy rain today, it is not safe to go up.

“More’s the pity, let us vamos MacDuff!” commands Dora as she marches into the former church her boots creating a sharp clicking noise across the marble floor. My plastic boots make a squeaking sound. She stops. Despite the concrete grey skies outside we are surrounded by colourful stained glass and the church arches highlighted by red lighting. Above us is a modern mezzanine floor accessed by stairs or lift.

Mezzanine

“I say! Let’s go exploring!” Dora strides up the stairs to the mezzanine while I try to catch up with her. I have so many questions to ask her. The other visitors don’t seem to mind Dora’s observations. “Did I tell you I usually go up 15,000 feet to find rare plants in Peru? Bloody marvellous. However, the rarefied atmosphere up there makes climbing exhausting. Now, what is this?”

We are at the start of the Garden permanent display. The first section is called Private Gardens. We have on one side a portrait of the new King Charles III and on the other a collection of stereoscopes with old Victorian images of gardens. Dora is delighted by this and is very interested to hear that King George VI ‘s grandson is now the King and Royal Patron of the Garden Museum. We both pause at a striking painting of a black gardener from 1905 by Harold Gilman. Dora’s attention then goes to some horticultural slapstick statues.

“Good grief MacDuff! Gnomes in a church! Better than gruesome relics of invaders. Did you know that in the Basilica Cathedral in Lima you can gawp at the remains of that frightful man Pizarro?”. She chuckles at the display of gnomes including one of an evil grinning former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Nearby is an eccentric collection of lawn mowers and old children’s garden toys in a mock green house.

Sussex Links

Around the corner is the second section The Gardener including portraits of head gardeners, old pamphlets and even a plus four type costume once worn by a hardy gardener.

“This is interesting do you see here? There was a ladies garden college set up in Sussex in 1902 by Frances Garnet Wolseley” Dora points at the slightly faded magazine. I want to ask her how she started her botanical career in north London but, before I can say anything she trots off to the third and fourth section about Cut Flowers and Plant Nurseries.

I become distracted by the display of low cabinets where you can pull out drawers and examine old garden adverts, seed packets and catalogues from Elphicks of Lewes, another Sussex link from my hometown. I have teenage memories of going into that huge shop full of gardeners hunting for veg or marigold seeds, with my dad chatting to Mr Elphick about the latest irrigation methods. That shop was always surrounded by a peaty smell that drifted from the huge basement stairs. I am suddenly brought to the present by a gasp from Dora who has found a text panel.

Hunter Shock

“Bloody dios mio! Who wrote this? Why am I not mentioned!?” demands Dora who seems to have lost her jovial attitude. Her eyes are flashing with anger.

I had anticipated this and there is an emergency button on the ATM when your subject gets a culture shock due to current interpretation of your subject’s past. I decided to explain rather than skip past this. We look at the text panel about plant hunters, all men and the usual suspects: Tradescants, David Douglas, Reginald Farrer, George Forrest, Robert Fortune.

History Bias Chat

“The thing is Dora, male plant hunters’ stories have dominated the horticultural and botanical history books, even in the 21st century, and…”

“I can bloody well see that! And why is there is not a mention of the local people who help us survive our expeditions! It’s just about these English fellas!”

“Yes, that is unforgivable and also there is no mention of the work you did..”

“Too bloody right! I collected for the British Museum, Kew, Edinburgh and Copenhagen botanical gardens! And for those private collectors! And what about my published photography of succulents from the Andes?”

“I think when this display was created the curators did not have access to the information about you, and others, and looks like they had limited space. Perhaps we can suggest they update this in the near future?”

“Good suggestion. We all make mistakes. And what’s this moving picture thing?” She points at the interactive game called Plant Quest (‘Have you got what it takes to be a plant hunter?’)

Screens and Syndicates

This is a touch screen interactive game that challenges you to be plant hunters Robin or Caroline. You have a limited budget of £100 to travel around the world to collect plants for Lord Greenfinger. I show Dora how to play it. She likes the animation and questions designed for children.

“However, young man there are some details missing, such as in my time no one individual can afford to fund an expedition. You are tracking rather wealthy collectors to assemble a syndicate before you can travel. And this does not reflect the team you need to recruit! In Peru I need a guide, a cook, a donkey, sometimes a pilot…” Dora wanders off down the walkway, while her voice carries above the gallery, “Although I did spend that time by myself in that disused railway station, near the Sierra, where I found, despite the hail, the fascinating yellow and scarlet Stenomesson humile. Did you know there is a Geranium named after me?”

Shrines and Sheds

Dora calms down in the fifth display space of Artists Gardens. In this space, with paintings of English gardens, we come to a dead end, with a great view looking down into the former church interior. We then backtrack past the plant hunters displays and go to the opposite side to the sixth section. This is a long display about Garden Design featuring a large plan of an early layout of the famous Eden project in Cornwall. Nearby, there is a large video wall of modern garden designers. Dora sits mesmerised, listening to plant guru Beth Chatto. Next to the video wall is a homage to Sir Frederick Gibbard, William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll with objects associated with them.

Interior of Garden Museum with mezzaine floor above and on top right.
PHOTOGRAPH BY H. MacGillivray

“I say MacDuff” murmurs Dora “This is more like that Basilica Cathedral I told you about, these garden hobnobs have become saints! Very proper thing for a church, amen and all that jazz!” Her humour is coming back.

The shed audio-visual display on mezzaine at Garden Museum.
PHOTOGRAPH BY H. MacGillivray

We go past the video wall and as we go into the final area Making Gardens. We are startled by the colour of the stained glass as sunlight pours through onto a shed! Dora collapses in laughter at this structure placed in the middle of the floor. She recovers and examines the interior to observe an audio-visual display with people describing their garden sheds. While she steps in, I go behind and discover, amongst the neat rows of garden tools and old slug pellets, simple wood blocks to create your own toy garden. Dora steps out, giggles and suggests I find refreshments.

Create your own mini garden with wood blocks at Garden Museum.
PHOTOGRAPH BY H. MacGillivray

Grave Walking

As we step down into the shop area, we are aware of many large gravestones embedded into the floor. Next to this we find a panel about Shadows of the Past, a nod to the previous use of this building. Seven voices from people who are buried around us are recorded and activated as audio loops when you pass by. We listen to 18th century soprano singer Nancy Storace tell her story.

“We could play hop-scotch with gravestones!” suggests a mischievous Dora, then she sees something ahead that catches her attention. “I say – a courtyard, how exquisite!” she exclaims. Suddenly, after the gloomy shop, we are outside in the small Sackler Garden surrounded by a square of glass. One side is an education room and the other is the café. There are plants from around the world and two curious old tomb structures. When we examine them, we are shocked. One is for Vice Admiral William Bligh (remember Mutiny on the Bounty movie?). The other tomb is a masterclass in Gothic art, dedicated to John Tradescant with writhing snake figures, skeletons and other mythical creatures.

Sackler Garden designed by Dan Pearson. Bligh's grave in centre with John Tradescant's tomb on right.
PHOTOGRAPH BY H. MacGillivray

Dora drums her figures on Bligh’s elaborate tomb.

“Mmmm, that Bligh chap was a rum one if I recall my history books. Collected bread fruit trees for slaves. And I wonder what these 16th century fellas were drinking when they made this tomb for Tradescant? Talking of drink, let us vamos to that café.”

Pirates and Origins Chat

We sit down to a bustling café with an open plan kitchen. The prices look a bit expensive, so I go for a rather good cappuccino and crunchy leek fritters. Dora is fascinated with my mobile phone, especially the live news coverage. She discovers our second female Prime Minister has just resigned. After this political surprise I challenge Dora about the 21st century view of her generation of plant hunters as eco-pirates.

She frowns and says, “Look here, I am supplying a demand. I am a lone woman trying to make a business of my botanical passion. I collect Peruvian plants, sell some seeds to British collectors. At the same time, I am propagating from my new additions, with my business partner Amos Perry, at his wonderful plant farm in Enfield. But it’s a bloody hard life. Sometimes my new treasures don’t survive the journey over the Atlantic seas or the bitter English frosts.”

Dora stretches out her legs with the clink of the boots and continues, “You know, I spend 6 months in England, what the Yankees would call ‘hustling’ collectors’ syndicates. Then I spend up to 6 months in Peru collecting. In fact, I have strong family links in Peru. Did you know my father help set up the railway there? So, I regard myself as a bit of a Peruvian. Anyway, less of myself and more about this Garden Museum?”

“Well, it is a strange mixture” I reply.

“Yes – just like horticulture!” Dora laughs.

“There does seem to be something uniting it, but I can’t quite figure out what.” I say finishing my drink.

“I know what it is young man! This building is a curiosity collection: shrines to past residents and garden hobnobs! With bizarre ephemera and a delightful café!”

“But you were not happy about the plant hunter section?” I ask

“They need a rogue’s gallery of plant hunters and plant collectors. Show people the financial facts and networks involved with plant collecting. They should start by telling the story of local guides and cooks, bloody useful fellahs. And indeed, they should show that the origins of the quaint English garden is in fact from all parts of the British Empire!” I notice that a pulsating blue halo now surrounds her. This is the ATM warning we have only 5 minutes remaining before Dora goes back to her original timeline.

Adios

We say goodbye next to Lambeth bridge. The rain has been replaced with a strong sunlight.

“Adios, MacDuff! Thanks awfully for the invite to this curious museum and your peculiar 21st century.” Dora shakes my hand hard again while holding her bicycle. I wave as she rides into the cycle lane on the bridge and becomes a silhouette disappearing into the sun rays with the sound of that rumbling bee (or is it the traffic?) and then the faint ‘ping ping’ repeat of a bicycle bell.

FACTS about the GARDEN MUSEUM

The Garden Museum was founded by Rosemary and John Nicholson in 1977 to preserve St Mary’s Church which was under threat of demolition. It had a big refurbishment from 2015 to 2017. To get there you can take the tube to Westminster or Vauxhall or Lambeth North and walk towards Lambeth Palace.

Admission prices: adults: £14, children over age of 7: £8

https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/the-museum/

FACTS about DORA STAFFORD

Dora Stafford had intensive collecting expeditions in Peru during the 1930s. Hamish has found evidence of her adventures in newspapers (including The Sphere, The Scotsman, Daily Herald) and botanical magazines (the Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society, the Cactus Journal and the Linnean Society). Most of Dora’s comments in this review are based on quotes from these various publications.

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Hamish MacGillivray

Hamish has worked for over 30 years in museum exhibitions and interpretation. He is now evolving into a freelance story guide, helping volunteers discover forgotten stories in archives and museums. He is fascinated with the crossover of horticultural and social history since working for projects at the National Trust and Highdown Gardens. He visited the Garden Museum in October 2022.

www.acmemuseumservices.co.uk