A man whose name will live for ever

Posted by Tory Historian Tuesday, December 29, 2009 ,

On Christmas Day Tory Historian went for a walk through Holland Park and Kensington Gardens, both of which looked splendid in the winter sunshine. Near the Italian Gardens at the Lancaster Gate end of Kensington Gardens there was a memorial tablet just inside the flower beds that TH had not noted before.

The tablet was to William Forsyth, quondam Head Gardener of the Royal Park of Kensington Palace (when it was still a royal palace and park) after whom the genus Forsythia, examples of which surrounded the tablet and will be flowering in a couple of months, was named.

A man like that needs some attention, thought Tory Historian. The Concise Dictionary of National Biography had a short entry:

FORSYTH, WILLIAM (1737 – 1804) gardener; succeeded Philip Miller in the Apothecaries’ Garden, Chelsea, 1771; superintendent of the royal gardens at St James’ and Kensington, 1784; published ‘Observations on the Diseases &c of Forest and Fruit Trees’, 1791, and ‘ Treatise on the Culture of Fruit Trees’, 1802; thanked by parliament for tree-plaister.
Well, well. A good deal there and much more lurking behind those few lines.

Wikipedia tells us that he was from Aberdeenshire and a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society as well as the great grandfather of another gardener and landscape architect, Joseph Forsyth Johnson, who in turn, was the great grandfather of our own Brucie Forsyth. One wonders what that line of serious botanists might think of a popinjay entertainer.

An Overview in the Gazetteer for Scotland tells us a little more:
Horticulturist. Born in Old Meldrum (Aberdeenshire), Forsyth moved to London in 1763 to work from the Earl of Northumberland at Syon Park, at the time the parkland was being paid out by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. Thereafter he moved to the Physic Garden in Chelsea, becoming its Curator in 1771. He brought about considerable development of the garden, with much replanting and the exchange of plants and seeds internationally. In 1774, Forsyth created what is thought to be the first ever rock garden in Britain, using lava brought from Iceland by Sir Joseph Banks and unwanted stone from the Tower of London. In 1779, he was appointed Superintendent of the Royal Gardens at Kensington Palace and St. James' Palace. In this position he did much to cultivate fruit and vegetables, restoring many old fruit trees to health. This he achieved with his 'plaister' (plaster), which consisted of a mixture of cow dung, urine, powdered lime, wood ashes and sand used to seal the wounds on trees after branches or cankerous growths were removed. Forsyth promoted this mixture as a complete remedy, promoting new growth, and was awarded the great sum of £1500 by the Government for his formula in an attempt to improve the quality of the oak trees in the royal forests, which was required for building ships. He published a number of early works on horticulture, including the very successful Treatise on the Culture and Management of Fruit-Trees (1802), which ran to numerous editions.

He was a founder of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1804 and the genus Forsythia is named in his honour.
In other words, a very distinguished man and one of whom both Scotland and England may be justly proud. One wonders why it was that a flowering shrub that was named after him as his main achievements seem to have been with trees, particularly fruit trees. One also wonders whether his plaister is still in use anywhere, say the Prince of Wales’s estate.


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