The origin of Pommeroy lies in the lovely character of Harry Dodson, retired head gardener and modest star of the highly popular BBC television series, The Victorian Kitchen Garden and its successors. His vast knowledge of horticulture, gained through a lifetime’s diligent service in his craft – a rather unfashionable notion in these days of instant gratification – led me to think of the lives of these men, head gardeners of the great houses on whose labour these intricate hierarchies depended. The garden staff were a strict hierarchy too, with garden or ‘pot’ boys at the bottom, working upwards through long apprenticeships to journeymen, senior journeymen or foremen until, after rigorous written examinations, a very few reached the apex of their career – the position of head gardener at a great house. The hours were very long, the work arduous, the knowledge required quite staggering by today’s standards, and the pay some of the lowest of all the servants above and below stairs at the big house. And as if this were not enough, employers often imposed fines on their garden staff for the slightest misdemeanour: 3d (3 old pennies) for coming to work with a dirty shirt on Monday morning, or with shoelaces untied, 4d for walking on a gravel path with dirty shoes, 6d for having to be told twice to do a particular job, not to mention larger sums for more heinous offences like failing to grease a wheelbarrow or using a swearword. It was a vocation, sure enough, and most of the men who worked there followed brothers and fathers for whom being taken into service at the earliest possible age was a goal to be aimed for, and something they would never have regarded as exploitation. Underpaid and overworked they certainly were, but we must be careful not to judge their lives from a modern standpoint, nor to forget that most of these men felt a fierce pride in the results of their ceaseless toil as well as in their own skill, knowledge and stamina.
Jack and Lily’s father in Pommeroy would have been such a man, but in 1903 the world was changing fast. The Great War with its unimaginable horrors was more than a decade away, but another war, the second Boer War, 1898-1902, had divided public opinion with a violence that had no precedent in British history. The same catastrophic bungling by military leaders that would have been familiar to those still able to remember the Crimean war was still in evidence, though not yet at the tragic levels it would reach in the lands around the Somme. But there was more information available about this one, and once news of the concentration camps became known – largely through the work of Emily Hobhouse – then you were either passionately pro or passionately anti, and emotions on both sides ran high.
And things were changing for women too, not just in the well-known battle for suffrage but in the growing desire for qualifications and professional recognition. Up until 1890 Lily could only have become an assistant or ‘uncertificated’ teacher, but in that year ‘day training colleges’ were established with a limit of 200 students. It’s a place at one of these that she craves. And what of the other female characters in the book, Louisa and Leonora, a world away from Lily in class and experience but encountering obstacles in their path every bit as difficult to negotiate? It’s been said that Edwardian aristocracy divided itself into two camps, the ‘King’s set’ and the ‘Souls’. The first was a racy, hedonistic group averse to any form of intellectualism or even moderately deep thought: pleasure and only pleasure was the order of the day. The Souls on the other hand gathered at each other’s houses for intense intellectual debate, literature, music and general aesthetic pursuits – it’s easy to caricature both groups in fact. But nothing is ever black and white, and I wondered what might happen if a mother decidedly in the King’s set with a husband uncomfortable there but under her thumb had children – the girls unmarried and therefore powerless – whose rightful place was in the opposing camp though caught firmly in their mother’s …. But let the characters of Pommeroy speak for themselves.