At our opening meeting of the new session Victoria Diggle, Assistant County Organiser, gave us a fascinating and well-presented account of the National Gardens Scheme. Most people with an interest in gardening will know about the Scheme and will have visited gardens listed in the Yellow Book but we learned a great deal more from Victoria’s talk.
Over 3,700 gardens are opened each year, varying hugely in size and type. The Scheme’s purpose is to raise funds for nursing charities and in the course of its history it has done a great deal to promote interest in gardens. It is run mainly by volunteers with a Head Office team of only nine people. Last year the Scheme raised £2.5 million and over the last fifteen years it has raised £25 million. The main beneficiaries currently are Macmillan Cancer Support and Marie Curie Cancer Care plus a number of smaller charities including the Scheme’s original beneficiary, the Queen’s Nursing Institute. Some garden owners arrange to give part of their proceeds to a local charity of their choice.
Victoria left the gardening world to talk about the history of District Nursing which has always been so closely connected with the NGS. District Nursing originated in mid-19th century Liverpool. Huge numbers of people emigrated from Ireland to Liverpool to escape the Potato Famine. There was great distress in the city’s slums and many died from disease and starvation. William Rathbone, a wealthy Liverpool merchant and philanthropist, saw the need to start giving nursing care to the city’s poor. Taking advice from Florence Nightingale, he set up a training hospital for nurses and subsequently Liverpool was provided with 18 nursing districts. The example was soon copied by other large towns and in 1897, in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the Queen’s Institute of District Nursing was set up. Over time, national fundraising was started to support the needs of retired District Nurses. The First World War did a great deal to promote the role of women and to raise the profile of nursing.
Following the death of Queen Alexandra a memorial fund for District Nurses was set up and Elsie Wragg suggested that private gardens should be opened to raise funds. The first openings took place in 1927 with 600 gardens. The entry fee was set at one shilling and £8,000 was raised in the first year. Among the earliest gardens to take part were stately homes such as Sandringham, Hatfield House and Chatsworth, together with the gardens of well-known gardening figures such as William Robinson at Gravetye, Vita Sackville West at Sissinghurst and Nathaniel Lloyd at Great Dixter.
After the Second World War District Nursing was assimilated into the National Health Service set up in 1948, although District Nurses continued to be supported by the NGS. The scheme still concentrates on nursing needs, however, by supporting the two major charities concerned with cancer nursing care. After the War, interest in ornamental gardening became much more widespread. Open gardens flourished and many smaller gardens became involved. Around 1970 co-operation with the National Trust began; many National Trust gardens are opened for the NGS and the NGS gives financial support to the National Trust’s training scheme for gardeners.
Victoria then showed us pictures of some of the 27 gardens which are opened for the NGS in Bedfordshire including her own garden, Orchard Grange at Old Warden. These range in size from the stately Southill Park to a small garden in Sandy. There are very often the additional attractions of home-made teas and plant sales offering some good bargains. For anyone interested in opening their own garden under the NGS a basic requirement is that it should offer at least forty-five minutes of interest. For the diary, Old Warden Gardens will be open on 29th June next year.
Our next meeting will be on 15th October when David Fowler will talk about “Two Bedfordshire heroes Thomas Laxton and Sir Joseph Paxton”.