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Victoria & Abdul, industrial villages & experimental horticulture

This is a transcript of episode 11 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett, Amanda Lamb and Shrabani Basu as we continue our journey through the history of homes and gardens in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast, sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Emma Barnett:
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A history of England in 100 Places. I'm Emma Barnett, and in this series we're exploring the amazing places which have helped make England the country it is today. You've been telling us the locations you think should be on the list.

We've had thousands of nominations already, you can go to HistoricEngland.org.uk/100places to nominate a place in one of our ten categories. Each judge gets to select ten places for their category, and in these programmes we're finding out why they've chosen their ten.

Today we'll explore three more of England's homes and gardens, to unveil the ten places judge George Clarke has picked from your nominations in this category. I'm joined in the studio by broadcaster and property expert, Amanda Lamb; journalist and historian, Shrabrani Basu; and Louise Brennan from Historic England. We've covered one royal residence so far in this category, but today let's turn our attention to the Victorians. Shrabrani, this next location, it's quite special to you, isn't it? Tell us what it is, and why?

Shrabani Basu:
Well, it's Osborne House, it's on the Isle of Wight, and it was Queen Victoria's holiday home. It was built by Albert, this is where she went with her children, this is where she spent quality time, because she could not be disturbed. And she would often entertain diplomats and other rulers over there.

But the reason it was very special for me is because I was researching my book, Victoria and Abdul, and this particular palace has a really Indian influence. Because in the later years of her life, for her Golden Jubilee, Queen Victoria was given an Indian servant as a present - just to stand behind her and look grand. But she took rather a shine to this young man, he was just 24 years old. He then became her very close friend and confidante, and she learned Urdu from him. And, well, it became quite a scandal in the court, he was like almost the replacement for John Brown. 

Emma Barnett:
Which had been her previous...?

Shrabani Basu:
Her previous... After Albert's death, she came out of mourning with John Brown, and then John Brown died, so she was depressed again. And then enter Abdul Karim, complete with turban and wonderful clothes - and he cooked her a curry. So, Queen Victoria loved her food, so there was Indian curries, she's learning the language, she was learning Urdu. And she was so influenced by him, that she then went on to recreate India, she was Empress of India, had never travelled to India, so Indian had to come to her - and it had to come to the Isle of Wight.

Emma Barnett:
And when you say "recreate India", what do you mean by that?

Shrabani Basu:
She built a durbar room. A durbar room is something Indian rulers used to always have, it's like an audience room. And she built this with Indian carvings, with Mughal architecture, Hindu architecture, and it was designed by Lockwood Kipling and his assistant, Bhai Ram Singh, he was an Indian architect - he came, he designed it. And she had this wonderful room with all the carvings - a peacock on the mantelpiece, and she lived her, sort of, Indian dream there. Served her curries, spoke in Urdu, and entertained Indian rulers and showed off.

Emma Barnett:
So, this is why when people go to the Isle of Wight - if they've never been to Osborne House - they would be surprised, possibly, by the Indian influence?

Shrabani Basu:
Absolutely. There's a whole Indian corridor there, and that's how I actually started my story. Because there's a portrait of Abdul Karim, and he was painted by Rudolf Swoboda and it is an amazing portrait, because he's painted in red, gold and cream, and he doesn't look like a servant at all, he's holding a book - so that aroused my curiosity.

Emma Barnett:
And it's quite a scandalous relationship, I mean, people wanted to cover this over, right?

Shrabani Basu:
Oh absolutely. Her son and heir burnt all the letters written by her to Abdul Karim, after her death.

Amanda Lamb:
How was he perceived by the other members of staff?

Shrabani Basu:

Oh they all hated him [laughs]. Absolutely, the household hated him, they went on strike, threatening to all, collectively, resign if she didn't stop her relationship with 'the Munshi'. They used to call it ‘Munshimania’. So, it was all a lot of fun, but it wasn't much fun for him after she died.

Emma Barnett:
And if Albert had designed it himself, he was advised by the architect, Thomas Cubitt on this, but if he designed it himself (and then obviously he died) and she lived a long life without him, did she do all these Indian additions afterwards?

Shrabani Basu:
Oh yes, yes. These all happened after Abdul Karim came in her life. I think it was about 1891 that she started designing this. So, it's there for everybody to see, and they actually filmed on location over there recently.

Emma Barnett:

And what have they been filming. Tell us about this.

Shrabani Basu:
Well, it's the film, based on my book, Victoria and Abdul, and it has Judi Dench (who else?) playing Queen Victoria.

Emma Barnett:
Of course, she's back in this role.

Shrabani Basu:
Absolutely. And for the first time, English Heritage allowed filming, so people could see the actual Durbar room. And she said that it was amazing, because she was actually sitting at Queen Victoria's desk, and all the drama that goes on in the house (whatever actually happened) in that same space.

Emma Barnett:
It's a fascinating place to go as well, Louise Brennan, isn't it? In the sense of, you get an idea of British empire from it?

Louise Brennan:
Yes, you do. The thing about it is, it's wonderfully well preserved, so not just the building, but all Victoria and Albert's possessions. So, when you walk into it, you can really, very easily imagine yourself there.

It's quite an eclectic collection, so you can see that Victoria has almost collected, acquired bits from across her empire, and it's all there, a big mix and mixture all together, all lots of bits and pieces. But the Indian influence is very strong, and I've been in that Durbar room, and it's a real statement that she really feels a great deal of affection for India, but also sees herself very much as the Empress of India.

Emma Barnett:
And you're in the Isle of Wight, Amanda. I mean, that's what's, kind of, mad about this, is that you get this sense of England across the whole of the world, in the Isle of Wight, via, way of India.

Amanda Lamb:
I think the Victorians were obsessed with taking in the sea air, weren't they? And I love the idea that this is her holiday home, built by her beloved Albert, that at the end of the day, yes, they were the King and Queen of England, but they were also a mother and father with children.

And I have a little, tiny little house, it's probably like the size of her downstairs loo, in Devon, and I take my children there. It's on the beach, we overlook the ocean, and it's enchanting. And it's almost like our children just go back, you know, 100 years, they play on the beach, there are no TVs, it's just a beautiful place to be.

And I get the feeling that that's, kind of, what Victoria wanted as well, somewhere to escape, somewhere that her children could just be children, that they could roll up there, dresses and get in the sea. And I think that that's a really, wonderful thing. And, like you say, the history of it, the fact that it was built, or designed by her husband, and then it just progressed throughout her life.

Emma Barnett:

Yes and, Shrabani, I think there is a cottage, isn't there, that her children used to use?

Shrabani:
It's the Swiss Cottage, it's really, really cute, it's like a perfect dolls’ house, playhouse to play in. And the walk to the beach, because there's just direct access to the beach - so, yes, I think it was a perfect place for her children. You know, Balmoral was much colder, if they ever went up to Scotland, so Isle of Wight was the perfect holiday. Christmas-time was always in Isle of Wight, in fact that is where the big Christmas tree would go up.

Emma Barnett:
Was it? Okay, that's where she used to do it. And how do you think Victoria's attitude influenced wider attitudes across the British Empire?

Shrabani:
Well, I think it did, because Abdul Karim was quite a prominent person, so there was a lot of writing about him in the local newspapers. Some of it not very nice, obviously, the gossip columnists calling him the brown John Brown, etc. But the fact is he was there, and they built the first purpose-built mosque in England was built around this time, it was built in Woking. So, there is very much this consciousness. And the people who went to Woking were actually English converts, so there was a lot of reading of Islamic literature and Islamic philosophy. So, there was this awareness which came about. And, of course, I think the biggest thing was the curry, because she loved the curry.

Emma Barnett:
I love the fact that Queen Victoria loved curry!

Shrabani Basu:
And we have the menus in Osborne House. Her favourites were chicken curry and dhal. And she actually ordered that curries would be cooked in the royal kitchens every day.

Emma Barnett:
Did she like popadums too? Do we know?

Shrabani Basu:
I didn't see the popadums on the menu, but there was always chicken curry. And I think that, when the monarch loved it, it did influence our habits.

Emma Barnett:

And thus, was born a nation of curry-lovers. Right, things I didn't think I'd say while we were in this podcast. Well, let's stay with the Victorian era, our next location takes us to Merseyside, and the Port Sunlight complex in The Wirral.

In 1888, a soap factory owner named William Hesketh Lever, coined a business model he termed 'prosperity sharing', meaning that his workers could benefit from the overall success of the business - inspiring loyalty and commitment. The Lever Brothers ran a successful soap factory in the area, producing Sunlight soap. They expanded from their original factory to the marshy bit of land on the River Mersey. He designed and built an entire model village, and Port Sunlight remains today, a testament to this huge shift in urban planning and attitudes to workers' living conditions.

Next, we take a walk around Port Sunlight, with Heather Alcock, a heritage conservation officer at the Port Sunlight Museum, and resident, John Spilletts.

Heather Alcock:
Hello, I'm Heather Alcock, Conservation Officer for the Port Sunlight Village Trust. Over the course of about 50 years, Port Sunlight developed into the village we have today, where we have over 900 Grade II listed houses, eight major commercial or community properties and two areas of historic parks.

We are standing behind some of the early terraced houses in Port Sunlight. There were 30 different architects that contributed designs to the houses, and two different landscape designers, who worked on the overall arrangement of the site. We had our own fire station, our own fire engines and our own fire officers who lived in the village. We had our own post office, our own shops, our own schools and church. So, Lever really created a community out of what was once marshland.

We are now in the heart of the original village, overlooking a space known as 'The Dell'. And the Dell is the remains of one of the tidal inlets that originally cut through the village, and shaped its early development. The houses were built around central courtyards that were allotments, so residents could grow their own food. Hello John, how are you?

John Spilletts:
I'm fine, thank you.

Heather Alcock:
We're here now, standing in the heart of the second phase of development for Port Sunlight Village. I'm looking at the Port Sunlight Museum, and Number 22 (which is the workers' cottage) where you can see how it might have looked in 1913 when it was opened. And then behind me is the Sea Piece Fountain, and the Lady Lever Art Gallery. And I'm very pleased to introduce you to John Spilletts, who is a lifetime resident of Port Sunlight, and an excellent volunteer for the Port Sunlight Village Trust.

John Spilletts:
I grew up here in the 50s and 60s. In those days everyone of these cottages was tied, so your parent or parents had to work at the factory to be able to rent one of the houses, yes. While they paid rent to Lever Brothers, which then became Unilever, everything was done for them - the gardens, the front gardens, anyway, anything that needed repairing in the house, even painting and decorating. The structure of this village has not changed since the 50s and 60s when I grew up here.

Socially it has, it had to, because now a lot of the houses are privately owned. So, there is a different feel about the village, but certainly the beautiful architecture, I always say to people I think they must have thought they'd died and gone to heaven, because the comparison between the outlying areas of The Wirral and here; it really is an oasis, if you like, in the middle of a very built-up and, at times, deprived area in Birkenhead.

Heather Alcock:
Port Sunlight might not have been the very first industrial village (Saltaire and Newland Arch have those credits) but we are, perhaps, best at capturing the architectural distinction, the craftsmanship and the landscape, and then tying it all together on a pretty large scale.

John Spilletts:
I couldn't imagine myself living anywhere else, I'm proud of it. It speaks for itself. Just behind you was an actual cottage hospital, it's now a boutique hotel. Greenery everywhere you look, trees everywhere you look, it's just amazing, yeah.

Emma Barnett:
Louise Brennan, it's quite an extraordinary idea this, a socially-conscious attitude from the businessmen (mainly men) going and working at this time.

Louise Brennan:
Yes, and the interesting thing, I think, about Port Sunlight is, it's kind of the ultimate expression of that ideal, that had been developed by industrialists before then. So, from the late 18th century onwards, industrialists were... normally mill-owners, were building specific housing for their workers and then they start to, maybe, provide a school, and then maybe you'd get a church. But in Port Sunlight, you get everything coming together, and boy, in what style! If you look at the architecture, it's stunning architecture, so it's not just utilitarian architecture. Someone's spent a lot of money on this - it's beautiful.

Emma Barnett:
Which you don't think of today as something that is in any way normal. This still seems extraordinary.

Louise Brennan:
I know. When you look at the images of Port Sunlight, it is just exuberant, you've got all sorts of different architectural revival styles. So, you've got a Queen Anne revival style building next to a Tudorbethan building, next to a classical building. So, it's a real investment by Lever in his workers. There's a contract there, isn't there, that I will really invest in you, and I will really look after you, and in return you’ll work really hard for me.

Emma Barnett:
And the idea of this influencing the garden city movement, which comes about afterwards... I mean, this idea, again, we've talked a bit about it when making mention of parks, but just the idea of the importance of green space and people not living on top of each other.

Amanda Lamb:
Well, no. And the importance of keeping people happy, and I think that he was a real visionary. And it's a very clever, quite ingenious way of doing business, that you're not just looking after the top tier, because the top tier can look after themselves. You're focusing on the bottom tier, and making them feel important.

Emma Barnett:
And also the idea of, again, trying in some way to perhaps equal out the experience of what it is to live and work in this country, Shrabrani?

Shrabani Basu:
I think it's daring capitalism at a very early stage, this is probably where the concept started, that you look after your workers, and they will. There is a reason they're doing that, of course, but it does work, it does help the workers, and it does help the industry as well.

Emma Barnett:
And Port Sunlight today, Louise, I mean, is it still important, do you think, to remember this?

Louise Brennan:
Yeah, I think it's still incredibly important, I mean, garden cities are on the Government's agenda now, are they? We're facing a housing crisis, and the Government is very much looking to places like Port Sunlight, and the garden city movement that it bore, and...

Emma Barnett:
And yet came from private individuals, rather than...

Louise Brennan:
...Yes it came from private individuals, rather than government, as is often the way.

Shrabani Basu:
Especially as we talk of low cost housing, housing for everybody, I think this is definitely a model to be looked at.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, well, I do usually interview politicians, you are a break (a welcome break from that, shall I say?) - so I'll remember that for my other discussions. But let's go on to our last location for this episode: RHS Wisley, belonging to the RHS.

In 1903, the Royal Horticultural Society (which had started out nearly a hundred years earlier as the Horticultural Society of London) was gifted what is today its oldest garden. What had started as a fairly humble collection of horticultural enthusiasts, shows and fêtes, was then on its path to becoming the world's largest garden charity. Louise Brennan, tell us about RHS Wisley in Surrey then?

Louise Brennan:
Okay. So, it was gifted to the RHS in 1903 by Sir Thomas Hanbury, who was a wealthy Quaker, who had a passion for gardening. I think possibly we don't think of the two going hand in hand, but he definitely had a passion for gardening. And his aim in giving it to the RHS was not just to give them a lovely space to use the garden in, but it was very much about scientific research, and trying to grow plants that were really hard to grow and also to look at things like pests and resilience to pests in all sorts of plants, including, obviously, crops. So, it was not an indulgent thing, it had a very much scientific bent to it, and certainly something as he saw, for the good of humanity as a whole.

Emma Barnett:
It's fascinating, again, this history of thinking about people who were doing things for the good of humanity, Amanda.

Amanda Lamb:
I know, it really is, it makes me feel quite good in my soul. RHS Wisley isn't very far from me, and so I take my children there a lot. And, again, it goes back to the green spaces, I love the fact that they were there from a scientific point of view, but it's also just a glorious place to go and let the kids run wild and just be feral for a few hours, and come back covered in mud and straw and goodness knows what. It's just a wonderful space for everybody to enjoy. 

Emma Barnett:
And it’s very important, isn't it, this particular garden, for its role in the growth of the Royal Horticultural Society? And also experimenting?

Amanda Lamb:
Yes, and I think there's an interesting story here about the RHS, because they couldn't afford this kind of space. So, without Sir Thomas Hanbury, the RHS probably would not have grown to the institution that it is now, because he gifted them this amount of space, outside London, which they just couldn't afford before he intervened. So, it is one person making a real difference, and creating an institution which now we all think of the RHS as doing really important work.

Emma Barnett:
And the idea of trialling flowers, vegetables and fruit. I mean, trialling flowers! You, again, perhaps forget that these things had to be done.

Amanda Lamb:
I know. When we go to the garden centre now and just grab a load of whatever off the shelf, and go home and pot it up, actually this was groundbreaking work, you couldn't do that. You would have nurseries, which were actually really expensive to access. So, if you were wealthy you could get a nursery man to plant up your garden. But this is, again, about bringing gardening and making it accessible to all of society. So, they were trialling and developing, and growing all the plants that are now much more hardy in the garden, that we take for granted.

Emma Barnett:
I was only reading about this the other day, Shrabani, it was actually a part of empire as well, isn't it, the idea that you'd have plant hunters? They'd go round the world and, as part of whatever else they were trying to bring back to England, they'd also bring back seeds, saplings and cuttings, wouldn't they?

Shrabani Basu:
Absolutely. I mean, the rhododendrons we see all over, they are from the eastern Himalayas, so that's where...

Emma Barnett:
We shouldn't have them really!

Shrabani Basu:
I'm so glad we do!

Emma Barnett:
It was a big thing, and it would be to the wealthy, to the aristocracy, they would have it first, and then nurseries would come along and make them more accessible.

Shrabani Basu:
Exactly. And as people could access these, they would go and see these fabulous plants. And I guess soon the cuttings would start. I mean, I don't know how roses arrived here, but they probably arrived from somewhere else.

Emma Barnett:
Let's not go into things I definitely don't know! Well, world-changing work and research borne out of a community of gardeners. In this episode we've seen how rapid industrialisation in the Victorian era encouraged an important shift in changing how people lived. Thank you very much to my guests here in the studio - Amanda Lamb, Shrabrani Basu and Louise Brennan.

Next time join us as we explore innovations in communities and spaces in the 20th century. And you can still be involved - don't forget there's still time to vote in our upcoming categories for England's 100 most irreplaceable locations. Join the conversation by using the hashtag 100places, that's the number 100, on Twitter, to tell us what these places mean to you.

And also if you can, do rate, review and subscribe to this podcast on your podcast player, so you don't miss an episode. I'm Emma Barnett, and see you next time on Irreplaceable, A History of England in 100 Places.

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