York’s early nurserymen /2

October 2011

… continues from page 1

The Rigg nursery, Fishergate

In the churchyard of St Lawrence, outside Walmgate Bar, there’s a large and once grand monument, commemorating six children of John and Ann Rigg, drowned in an accident on the River Ouse in 1830. John Rigg was one of a family of nurserymen in business in York at the same time as the Backhouses (the 1818 directory lists only three businesses under ‘Nurserymen and Seedsmen’ – Matthew Clarkson on Walmgate being the other). The Riggs’ nursery grounds covered 30 acres.


Tradescantia virginica – New Flora Britannica, 1812

John Rigg died only a few years after the accident which had taken six of his children. His widow Ann and his father Thomas kept the nursery business going, until Thomas died, aged 89.

The Backhouses had to move from their Tanner Row nursery, to allow for the creation of York’s first railway station, and took over the Riggs’ nursery grounds.

The Floriculture Magazine of 1839 recorded the change of ownership, and the fact that James Backhouse was still sending the nursery interesting seeds from far away:

York. – Backhouse’s Nursery. – The site of what was formerly the home ground, occupied with greenhouses, pits, stool, ground, &c, is now the terminus to the North Midland Railway, Mr. Backhouse having removed the whole of his establishment, to what was formerly Mr. Rigg’s nursery, on the Selby road, a short distance from York. Here we noticed several new and interesting plants raised from Australian seeds, sent home by Mr. Jas. Backhouse.

Backhouse nursery site on Fishergate, marked with green overlay. Site as shown on 1852 plan of York
View in a larger map

The Backhouse nursery on Fishergate is shown on the 1852 plan (see links below) occupying a large area between Fishergate and Cemetery Road. Other Rigg land across the other side of Cemetery Road (known in 1852 as ‘East Riding Parade’, according to the city plan) was sold to the newly-formed York Public Cemetery Company, and since 1837 has been part of York Cemetery.

And later …

The Backhouse nursery moved again, in 1853, to a site in Holgate, where it remained until the mid-20th century.

All these nursery businesses are long gone. The Tanner Row site and the Fishergate nursery have been built on. At least there’s still some greenery to be found on the old Holgate site – or at least the small part bought by the council, which remains in use as the well-known West Bank Park.

For more information on the development of the Backhouse Nursery at Holgate see The Backhouse Nursery of York 1815 – 1955 at Parks and Gardens UK.

A footnote … ‘the cabbage became celebrated’

During my research, I discovered many publications repeating an assertion which may or may not be related to our own Telfords on Tanner Row – it appears to be. Perhaps someone else will want to follow up:

The varieties of cabbage now in cultivation are too numerous to mention; but a few of the most esteemed sorts for garden cultivation will be described. The following are the best for early crops: 1. Early York. This cabbage was introduced more than a hundred years ago, by a private soldier named Telford, who brought it with him from Flanders. On his return to this country he settled as a seedsman in Yorkshire, where the cabbage became celebrated, and received the name of the county in which it was first grown. It is of small growth, so that a great many can be planted in a moderate compass. It is still esteemed on account of its delicate flavour.

The Saturday magazine, Volume 24, (1844), p47

Another account I’ve read suggests it was the Rigg nursery in York which was renowned for its Early York Cabbage seed. Maybe they were in direct and fierce competition in their cabbage-growing, and had ‘cabbage wars’.


Recent planning applications to develop the land behind the art gallery have repeatedly stated that the Telford nursery was based there.

These documents seem to have taken their background info from a report produced in 2005 for York Museums Trust. St Marys Abbey Precinct, York – Conservation Management Plan (PDF).

If anyone out there has found any sources at all that suggest the Telford/Backhouse nursery was trading from the St Mary’s abbey site – apart from that 2005 report – please let me know, as I couldn’t find any.


Parks & Gardens UK, based at King’s Manor in York, are very knowledgeable, and were very helpful. Thanks to Rachael and her colleagues.


‘The Family of Telford, Nurserymen of York’, John H Harvey, in Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol 42 (1967)

Early Nurserymen: with reprints of documents and lists, John Harvey (Phillimore, 1974)

The Backhouse Nursery of York 1815 – 1955 on the Parks & Gardens UK website

‘The sites and remains of the religious houses’, A History of the County of York: the City of York (1961), pp 357-365 – on www.british-history.ac.uk. Relevant section is highlighted.

York through the Eyes of the Artist, Hugh Murray, S Riddick and R Green (York City Art Gallery, 1990), p136

This Garden of Death: the history of York Cemetery, Hugh Murray (York: Sessions, 1988)

Botanical illustrations: New Flora Britannica, vol 2 (1812)

Map – 1852 large scale plan of York

Memoir of James Backhouse – 2nd edn, Sarah Backhouse (York: Sessions, 1877), p14-15

Eboracum: or, the history and antiquities of the City of York, Francis Drake (London: Bowyer, 1736), p274

‘Extracts from the House Books of the Corporation of York’, Robert H Skaife, in Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol 14 (1897)

The Annual Register (London: J Dodsley, 1771)

Letter from Henry Bains, in The Gardener’s Magazine and Register of Rural & Domestic Improvement, vol 4, ed J C Loudon (London: Longman, 1828), p20

A new guide for strangers and residents in the city of York (York: Hargrove, 1844), p26

The Floriculture Magazine, and miscellany of gardening, Vol 3, Ed R Marnock (1839), p107

One comment

  1. Peter Hogarth

    I’m writing a history of the Museum Gardens for the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, and recently came across your (2011!) comments on the Nursery formerly at the Bootham end of the Gardens. You were quite correct that it was never Backhouse. It was run by the Bearpark family from (I think) 18th Century until YPS acquired it in 1862.

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