When John Mackenzie, an experienced gardener, bought a patch of land in the Grange, Edinburgh in 1852 he was choosing an area which would soon fill with potential customers. Mr. Mackenzie planned to cultivate seedlings and flowers, so he put glasshouses on his south-sloping plot. Here he could grow bedding plants for the bright displays that were part of Victorian garden style. All around the neighbourhood new villas with gardens were being built. These houses were bigger than John Mackenzie’s, and their occupants could afford his services.
Born into a Stirlingshire weaver’s family in 1805, John Mackenzie worked as gardener at Drylaw House, a mansion-house with extensive grounds on the fringes of Edinburgh, owned by Mrs. Agnes Baillie. 1 In his thirties he was living in the gardener’s cottage on the Drylaw estate with his wife Margaret and two babies. 2 He had probably started his career as a boy apprentice, as most gardeners then did, and it is likely he was at Drylaw well before his marriage in 1838.
Two most superb and tastefully arranged bouquets of cut flowers ornamented the smaller tent on the lawn. Premiums were awarded for both; the highest for one which included a vast profusion of the blossoms of rare exotics, from the never failing garden of Balcarres; the other to Mr John Mackenzie, gardener to Mrs Baillie, Drylaw. (Horticultural Society Show, Inverleith, June 1838.) 3
By the time he set up independently in the Grange, as a man approaching 50, John Mackenzie must have had many years of gardening experience. 4 He also had £20 left to him in Mrs. Baillie’s will of 1842, which would have been helpful in buying his “176 decimal parts of an acre” ten years later. The purchase went through in 1852, while the family were living in Causewayside. A few weeks later Mr. Mackenzie borrowed £275 which presumably funded the modest cottage built on his plot. 5
By 1854 he had his own house, Rose Cottage, at the corner of Grange Loan and Findhorn Place. 6 His name was in the Post Office Directory: “John Mackenzie, gardener and florist”. Forget current ideas of a florist who designs wedding bouquets and Mother’s Day arrangements using flowers grown far away. At that time ‘florist’ meant an expert grower who sold bedding plants and flowers he had cultivated. As a gardener, Mackenzie could do the planting out in customers’ flower-beds himself. Garden owners who followed the advice in 19th century magazines would have wanted three different displays of flowers in the same bed between spring and autumn.
Florist – One who cultivates flowers; one skilled in knowledge of flowering plants; also, one who raises flowers for sale, or who deals in flowers. [1897 Oxford English Dictionary definition]
John Mackenzie’s small business was not the kind that leaves many written records behind, but an executors’ inventory gives an impression of his customers. The majority lived very close by. Of those customers whose bills were unsettled at the time of Mackenzie’s death, nineteen lived in Findhorn Place alone. Most of the others lived within half a mile of Rose Cottage and owed one or two pounds. 7
The 1861 census shows the single-storey Mackenzie cottage crammed full by today’s standards. Living with John and Margaret Mackenzie were their four dressmaker daughters, three schoolboy sons and Margaret’s 76-year-old father, a retired bootmaker. At least one of the sons took over some of John’s work as he aged. His will spelled out in great detail exactly how the business and home were to be passed on after his death in 1884. Overall he left nearly £1000 in savings, furnishings etc. as well as the houses, garden and business. In the end it was Gordon, the youngest child, who continued trading from the Grange Loan garden, but he went bankrupt in 1890. 8
Prize for a Petunia
After acquiring a brand-new cottage and garden, and building up his own business, in his seventies John Mackenzie achieved something more. He won an award from the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society for cultivating a unique new variety of petunia, along with a prize for his “much-admired” display table of “hand-bouquets and seedling petunias”at their show. 9 The new petunia was white and named Countess of Rosebery. If he wanted public recognition for his skills, here it was, with his success reported in print. 10
The record of John’s baptism looks odd at first. None of the other newborns on that page had the words “Burgher Stirling” squashed into the narrow column where their names were written. It suggests his family belonged to one of the secessionist Presbyterian church groups using the name burgher.
This is not the only sign of a family interest in non-conformist religion. Margaret, John’s wife, was christened in the “independent” St Paul’s Chapel, Wigan. Their daughter Charlotte was married “according to the forms of the U.S. Church” – United Secession Church – and her wedding was celebrated in the St. Andrew’s Temperance (no alcohol) Hotel, Edinburgh. One of John Mackenzie’s friends was a City Missionary, James Gray, who lived a few minutes walk away. 11 Mr. Gray’s mission job was explicitly about getting people to stop drinking and live a sober, god-fearing life.
John Mackenzie seems to have been a very capable man who worked and saved until he was independent of landlords and employers. He had brothers who started out as gardeners too. One left Edinburgh for New Zealand: his son Thomas Noble Mackenzie, John’s nephew, went on to become Prime Minister there.
References and Pictures
- Censuses, birth, marriage and death certificates, street directories, from websites on ‘About’ Page.
- John Mackenzie’s will and inventories of 1885.
- Instrument of sasine in favour of John Mackenzie, 24 November 1852
- Bond – John McKenzie to the Trustees of the Scottish Property Investment Company, 12 January 1853
- Will of Agnes Baillie, 17 February 1842
- Drylaw House by Stephen C. Dickson, CC licence
- White petunias by Dennis Jarvis, CC licence.
- Caledonian Mercury, Scotsman newspapers etc.
- Mrs. Baillie was born Agnes Ramsay, daughter of William Ramsay of Barnton. Matthew Baillie (later lieutenant-general) and Agnes married in 1792, but were divorced in 1802. (See Appendix to The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie, 1637-1662 and the National Records of Scotland catalogue.) She took an interest in many good causes to which she gave money. ↩
- 1841 census ↩
- Caledonian Mercury ↩
- He spent a few years in Ayrshire in the 1840s, but there are hardly any written traces of this period. ↩
- Lot number 46 on the Grange feuing plan, says the legal record in the Register of Sasines. ↩
- This appears in the 1855 valuation rolls as Pennywell Cottage. ↩
- Another, smaller group of customers had debts “considered doubtful”. Their debts were bigger and several of them lived further away. ↩
- Dundee Advertiser, 15 November 1890 ↩
- Edinburgh Evening News, 7 July 1880 ↩
- Scotsman, 8 July 1880, and Journal of Horticulture and Practical Gardening, 1881. ↩
- He was one of his executors. ↩