Creating an amazing feature that really rocks at attraction

Volunteer Daphne Sidwell has delved into the history of Burnby Hall's rock garden.
Volunteer Daphne Sidwell has delved into the history of Burnby Hall's rock garden.

Since December 2016 work has been underway on the rock garden at Burnby Hall Gardens, as part of their three year project, funded thanks to support from National Lottery Players through the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

The rock garden is a key element of the Burnby Hall Gardens Restoration Project and Daphne Sidwell has been researching into the history of the area and shares her research into it’s fascinating heritage with you below:

The rock garden in the 1920s, showing Burnby Hall in the background.

The rock garden in the 1920s, showing Burnby Hall in the background.

Last Autumn I joined the HLF Volunteer Research Team at Burnby Hall Gardens and was given the task of researching the history of the rock garden, which was designed by The Backhouse Nurseries of York in 1910 for the owners of Burnby Hall, Percy and Katharine Stewart. A rock garden was a fashionable garden possession in the Edwardian period.

As a keen gardener I was enthusiastic to begin, imagining that I would be able to discover original planting schemes, invoices, the number of men working on the project and perhaps photographs of Katharine and Percy inspecting the new work.

Alas this was not the case as I discovered the Backhouse planting schemes for their specific projects have sadly been lost during the period when the Backhouse Nursery stopped operating in the late 1950s.

We do have their original plant catalogues, which they used to show clients during the design process and these documents are what Burnby Hall Gardens have access to recreate the rock garden as part of the Heritage Lottery Project.

Burnby Hall Gardens.

Burnby Hall Gardens.

However, I did discover that the garden was constructed by James Backhouse Nurseries of Acomb, York using 300 tonnes of sandstone brought from Bramley Quarry near Leeds.

The rocks were brought by train as the railway line passed so close to the gardens and then hauled into place in the gardens using horses, ropes, pullies and chains. One question I had was, did Backhouse use his own labourers or recruit locally? We do not know and we may never know the answer to this question.

One theory is that the Backhouse Nurseries provided the blueprints and a foreman to lead on the design work for each of the clients across the country.

My research then led me to investigate the Backhouse Nurserymen and during this I uncovered an interesting family history.

James Backhouse was born in Darlington in 1794 the fourth child to a Quaker family. His father died when he was only eight years old and he was a sickly child.

His family decided his health would benefit from cleaner air so sent him to live in the country where he developed a life-long love of flora and fauna.

After being an apprentice to a nurseryman in Norwich, he and his brother looked to buy a nursery of their own. The father and uncles of the Backhouse brothers had been in the banking business, and so perhaps this is where the initial funding originated for their nursery.

The bothers settled on a nursery in Toft Green, York, beginning to make a name for themselves as nurserymen.

James married in 1822 and had three children.

Unfortunately, the youngest child and his wife died whilst the remaining children were still young. James was a devout Quaker and preached throughout the North of England.

He had an overwhelming urge to travel to Tasmania and Australia to investigate the welfare of the natives and transported prisoners.

Making his decision to follow his calling, he left his children in the care of his mother and the business in the hands of his brother Thomas. Whilst awaiting passage, he worked with Elizabeth Fry, the famous social reformed and Quaker in Newgate Prison.

His travelling companion was George Washington Walker, another social reformer. On board were Chelsea Pensioners who had commuted pensions in exchange for a lump sum and land in Tasmania.

Unfortunately they spent everything on alcohol and fought all the way to South Africa where they were put off the ship.

This behaviour was probably frowned upon by James and his Social Reformers friends, who may have been part of the temperance movement as many Quakers were during this period.

James remained on the boat and continued his journey onwards to Tasmania. (Inserted) James spent six years in Tasmania where he collected plants and seed samples to send back to Kew Gardens.

He wrote a book which included his own illustrations entitled ‘Narrative of a visit to the Australian Colonies’ and sent numerous letters to his family.

He walked everywhere visiting penal colonies and settlements, preaching and doing what he could to improve conditions. James was well respected in Tasmania and is still honoured.

In all James was away ten years and it is hard for us to imagine leaving your young family for that length of time only to return to find your son, now sixteen, helping in the business.

Re-establishing father/son relationship, they travelled together on geology trips and plant collecting expeditions to Teesdale and mountainous areas of Northern Europe.

In 1843 due to the success of the business the nursery moved to Holgate, York in 1843 to a considerably larger site covering 100 acres with 40 glasshouses, and a Gothic mansion in which son James and his wife lived. They employed over 100 people and constructed a two acre rock garden in sandstone ten metres in height and also an underground fernery.

People travelled many miles to visit Backhouse of York and commission gardens designed by them.

One project the Backhouse helped create was an extensive Rock Garden that included a mini Matterhorn for the owners of a garden in Henley-on-Thames later owned by Beatle George Harrison.

On conducting research into the Backhouse Nursery Projects it became clear that the Rock Garden was a must have possession for the wealthier classes, to show ones status and impress their peers.

One particular masterpiece is the Rock Garden in Aysgarth village. Backhouse sent his foreman to oversee the work at the princely sum of £1 per day.

The garden received grants and was renovated early this century.

Ellen Wilmott, a prominent horticulturist, was allowed by her father to commission a Backhouse garden for her 21 st birthday.

She went on to design the rock garden at Newby Hall for Backhouse to construct. Scampston Hall and Homestead in York are fine examples worth a visit as is our own rock garden.

Perhaps Percy and Katharine also commissioned the rock garden at Burnby Hall to impress during social occasions at the house and gardens, we can imagine a sort of ‘keeping up with the Jones’.

In Autumn 2019 the rock garden at Burnby Hall Gardens will be replanted using original Backhouse catalogues, with this stage of the project being complete in Spring 2019.

On completion the Rock Garden will be transformed back into its former glory to how Percy and Katharine would have envisaged it. The rock garden is currently in a fallow state to allow for the removal of deep rooted weeds, such as Mares Tale and Ground Elder.

During this fallow period visitors can see the original foundations of the Rock Garden, allowing for an alternative perspective of this fascinating historic feature at the gardens.

If anyone can help our team with memories, photographs or names of anyone who worked on the Burnby Hall Gardens Rock Garden or the Backhouse Nursery in Acomb, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

The rock garden can be seen when visiting the Gardens, to find out our autumn/winter opening times and admission prices, please visit the Burnby Hall Garden website: