Hero of the suburban garden: Shirley Hibberd

Our first editor Shirley Hibberd was the first to champion town gardening and launched Amateur Gardening to carry his message to the masses, as Garry Coward-Williams explains

Shirley Hibberd Main
Shirley Hibberd main image credit Alamy
Shirley Hibberd Main

Shirley Hibberd, who made gardening accessible to everyone. Credit: Alamy

Hero of the suburban garden: Shirley Hibberd

The morning of the 3rd May 1884 was one of those dreary, bitter-cold days when everything seemed black, grey and miserable. Dense smoke spiralled skywards, floating from a sea of chimney stacks, reaching up like hundreds of blackened fingers trying to poke the foggy sky.

London was the most important city in the world and the most polluted. The air was clammy-wet with a drizzling cocktail of rain mingled, with smoke and soot. This noxious mixture endowed a patina of wet, sticky black dirt onto everything – trees, flowers, and even the matted hair and ragged clothes of the news vendor standing on the corner of Aldersgate Street and Little Britain.

The vendor was plying his trade selling the London Illustrated News. His cries of “Gordon besieged in Khartoum!” echoed through that cold, foggy air as he proffered the sixpenny weekly to passers-by.


Shirley Hibberd AG First Issue

The first-ever page of Amateur Gardening, 1884. Credit: TI Media


Amateur Gardening arrives

However patriotic Shirley Hibberd was, the fate of General Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon was probably not at the forefront of his thoughts. For the first edition of his latest venture, a new weekly magazine titled Amateur Gardening, was making its debut that very day.

Hibberd left the Aldersgate offices of his publisher W.H. and L. Collingridge and strode across the busy street to see if his new creation was on display at the newsstand. And there it was, sitting amongst its competitors: Gardener’s Chronicle, The Garden, Floral World and Garden Guide (which Hibberd had edited from 1857 to 1873), The Journal of Horticulture, Gardener’s Magazine (which Hibberd was also currently editing) and Gardening Illustrated. It was clearly a crowded market — so why add another magazine to the pile?

It was the arrival four years earlier of William Robinson’s Gardening Illustrated in 1879 that led to the subsequent launch of Amateur Gardening. Robinson had taken up many of Hibberd’s ideas and philosophy from his books and magazines, but presented them in a more modern format. And it was becoming very successful. It didn’t help that there had been a long-running public feud between the pair that erupted over Hibberd’s report of an asparagus competition.


Robinson’s recent rise to prominence had also coincided with a devastating personal tragedy in Hibberd’s life. Four years on, Hibberd’s personal circumstances had dramatically improved and the tables were about to turn. It was time to put the upstart in his place and claim the audience that Hibberd had virtually created nearly 30 years previously.

The prize was to be the leading magazine for a completely new breed of gardener — the burgeoning ‘middle-income classes’, the ‘amateur gardeners’ who wanted practical advice for their suburban home gardens. So how did Hibberd, an orphan from Stepney, become the editor of three gardening magazines, the author of 33 books (15 on gardening), and ascend to the highest points of horticulture without any formal horticultural or journalistic training? And why in 2019 is he relatively unknown?


Shirley Hibberd Poet's Daffodil

Poet’s daffodil (Narcissus poeticus) from 10 May 1884 issue. Credit: TI Media


Nature and new ideas

Shirley Hibberd was born in London’s East End, the son of a sea captain. He took an early interest in nature and the garden as a child and was bright and inquisitive, but his dreams to join the medical profession were dashed when his father passed away in 1839, leaving Hibberd aged 14 without financial support. He had to make his own way in the world, starting as a bookbinder and then moving on to becoming an ‘operative chemist’.

It was in the mid-1840s that he developed his skill as a writer, and with his inquisitive mind and penchant for hard work he was soon writing articles on subjects as diverse as natural science and chemistry to supporting women’s rights. Hibberd was very much a Victorian innovator and actively sought self-enlightenment. Part of this journey involved hashish, which he tried before going for a stroll through the streets of London. The experiment ended with him dazed and confused in Clerkenwell.

Moving on, Hibberd became one of the early recruits to the Vegetarian Society a year after it was founded in 1848, and was soon editing their journal The Vegetarian Advocate as well becoming a powerful, engaging public speaker at their events. Hibberd was also an animal rights campaigner and wrote pamphlets arguing against the way animals were being treated at London’s Smithfield Market.



Shirley Hubbard Amateurs Rose Princess Louise Victoria

Hibberd’s Amateur’s Rose Book published in 1864; the climbing rose illustrated is ‘Princess Louise Victoria’. Credit: TI Media


City folk didn’t garden

Hibberd married in 1850 and was living with his wife Sarah in Pentonville Road, North London, and it was here that he reignited his interest in gardening. In the early 1850s, the idea of creating a home garden for ornamentals and vegetables in London would have genuinely been laughed at.

The soot caused by coal fires and the general dirt and pollution at that time was so bad, it made it extremely difficult. Then there was the fog and smog in winter, which would virtually obliterate the sun. The fact is home gardening in towns and cities was something few people did, because they had no idea how to go about it and had little or no means to learn.

Gardening was the preserve of the rich and upper middle classes, who didn’t actually do it themselves, but employed gardeners. It became Hibberd’s life-long cause to break this barrier of knowledge for enthusiasts like himself.


Shirley Hibberd Incomparable Daffodil

Incomparable daffodil (Queltia incomparabilis) from the 10 May 1884 issue. Credit: TI Media


Pioneer of town gardening

So Hibberd went about learning how to cultivate a city garden for pleasure and food, and with his natural zeal the subject devoured him. He also discovered on his travels around London that having a modest city garden wasn’t impossible, if you knew how.

Determined gardeners learned how to clean the soot off leaves and add to the soil to help fertility. Hibberd read voraciously, but discovered that there were no books about home gardening, and the gardening books available were for professionals and not forthcoming with practical information. After a few years of trial, error and hard work Hibberd had a blossoming town garden and he aimed to enlighten others on they could do it, too.

Hibberd was soon working on his first book, the provocatively titled Town Garden, published in 1855 — five years before Charles Dickens published Great Expectations. This would be the first of 15 books on gardening and plants. Hibberd had found his niche and was soon noticed by the gardening establishment, some of whom took umbrage at an untrained ‘amateur’ giving away what they considered to be trade secrets. However, they were outnumbered by enthusiastic town gardeners who welcomed his help.


Shirley Hibberd Auricula Frame

A special outdoor frame created by Dr Horner to display auriculas in the 10 September 1884 issue. Credit: TI Media


Catching the zeitgeist

A year later, having moved from Pentonville to the bucolic delights of what was then leafy Tottenham, Hibberd wrote his second and most famous book — Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste. This was to be a turning point, as his taste and interests were coinciding with the zeitgeist of the times.

This was a boom period of house building around the main cities of Britain, as industry had created a rise and expansion of the middle classes. In this rising new class, status in society could be improved by the way one presented their indoor and outdoor space. Rustic Adornments showed them how, in a practical, easy-to-digest way.

Whilst half the book focused on the garden, the rest advised on creating indoor nature interest with aquariums, aviaries, bee-houses and, for indoor plants, Wardian cases. The childless Shirley and Sarah had turned their home into a menagerie of birds, fish and plants, with a great many species from the native to the very exotic.


In 1857, the Hibberds had moved to Stoke Newington, and a year later he became the editor of a new monthly gardening magazine called Floral World and Garden Guide. This was followed in 1862 with another editorship, that of the Gardener’s (Weekly) Magazine. This latter magazine came from the ashes of the Floricultural Cabinet, which had been published since 1833 and up to that point had been the oldest gardening title.

He now had monthly and weekly magazines to promote his modern ideas about town gardening and indoor nature, and he continued to write books as well. Most of his articles were based on his garden in Stoke Newington, which he used to trial plants and equipment. (This is very much the way AG works to this day, with Gardening Editor Ruth Hayes using her garden in a similar fashion.)


Shirley Hibberd Rustic Adornments

Hibberd’s Rustic Adornments showed the new middle classes how to bring nature into their suburban home and garden. Credit: TI Media


Golden period

This was Hibberd’s golden period, and for the next 18 years he continued to write at least one book a year and edit two magazines. As the years moved on, he became one of the brightest lights in horticulture, and certainly the most accessible and devoted to the cause of the non-professional enthusiast gardener.

This is a genre or movement that Hibberd had created from scratch, purely through a desire to grow and nurture plants in the city, and to have a home life at one with nature – and his drive and ambition to preach this sermon of how pleasant city and suburban life could be, with knowledge and a little work, to an audience that welcomed his ideas with open arms.

This success did not go unnoticed. William Robinson, an upcoming gardening writer/publisher, decided he wanted a share of this new audience – and in 1871, he launched The Garden and then in 1879, followed it with Gardening Illustrated. He now had two gardening magazines, and the latest one was actively targeting the audience that was now officially identified as the ‘amateur gardener’. It appeared that Robinson was after Hibberd’s readers.

Tragedy strikes

The following year, in 1880, tragedy struck and Hibberd’s wife of 30 years, Sarah, died of a long-standing illness. The couple were childless, possibly as a result of her illness, and Hibberd was now alone. He left the family home and moved into lodgings. He had given up editing Floral World in 1873, but still edited Gardener’s Magazine and continued to write and edit books, but clearly a huge part of his life had been lost.

After a period of mourning for his lost love, around three years later at the beginning of 1884, Hibberd was moving on. He had been asked by the RHS to be involved in the re-working of their then-extensive gardens in Chiswick, and in March of that year he married Ellen, 30 years younger and formerly his cook. The newlyweds moved into a large property in Kew to be close to his new RHS project. And the reinvigorated Hibberd decided to see off his old rival Robinson by agreeing to edit a new weekly paper on behalf of Collingridge to be called Amateur Gardening.



Shirley Hibberd Window Gardening Clip

AG’s layout was ahead of its time, using stylish subject headers for content. This made it more accessible than other mags of the time. Credit: TI Media


Amateur Gardening grows

The launch of Amateur Gardening was made all the sweeter when Hibberd discovered that Ellen was pregnant, and the child was duly born in January 1885. Tragically, Ellen died soon after the birth. Hibberd carried on editing AG for another 18 months or so, but the strain of editing two magazines – plus, his involvement with many plant societies and RHS committees – and bringing up a young child must have been difficult.

So in 1887, he relinquished AG to his assistant TW Sanders, who would edit it for the next 40 years, finally retiring in 1926. Hibberd continued to edit Gardener’s Magazine and conduct his many lectures and work with the RHS.


Hibberd’s legacy

In 1890, less than three years after leaving AG, Shirley Hibberd passed away. All the gardening magazines and associations paid tribute to his work and its importance, including his arch-rival William Robinson. And the RHS commissioned a portrait to be hung in their Vincent Square offices. However, by the mid- 20th century, his influence was largely forgotten; his books were fascinating curios, but very much out of step with modern thinking.

Of those six other magazines that sat alongside the first issue of AG on the newsstand in Aldersgate Street on 3 May 1884, none was in existence by 1919. Hibberd had seen Robinson and the other rivals off, though he did not live to see it.

Unlike his later contemporaries, Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, Hibberd left no beautiful gardens that showcase his philosophy. However, he did leave a weekly magazine that continues his mission to educate, encourage and indeed amuse amateur gardeners, just as he had intended when he wrote his first book on town gardening in 1855. AG is Hibberd’s lasting legacy.


• For further reading, Anne Wilkinson’s ‘Shirley Hibberd, The Father of Amateur Gardening’ (ISBN-10: 0-9568096-1-8) is highly recommended. Also, many of his original books can be bought on eBay. 


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Featured Image Credit: Alamy