I’m very fond of orchids. When I moved from California to Oxfordshire three years ago I had to leave my orchids behind, but I’ve already acquired quite a collection. I wasn’t sure how happy they would be in this cooler climate but I’m pleased to report that, thanks to some water and plant food, some have already re-flowered. However, I know very little about these varied and beautiful tropical flowers.
We can easily buy them from supermarkets these days, and Phalaenopsis (moth orchids) are now the UK’s most popular indoor flowering plant, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries they were rare and luxurious, and highly fashionable among the few who could afford them. Queen Victoria was a major collector, as was Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, who was described by Queen Victoria as ‘an excellent gardener and a good botanist.’ Rothschild came from an Austrian banking family, but he became a British subject and from 1874 he owned an estate near Aylesbury, known as Waddesdon Manor (now one of the National Trust‘s most visited properties). By 1885, Waddesdon Manor’s many glasshouses were filled with orchids. The majority of these plants came from ‘orchid King’ Frederick Sander.
Henry Frederick Conrad Sander was a German immigrant who came to England in 1865 aged 18, reputedly with just half a crown in his pocket. He found work as an assistant (garden) nurseryman in Kent, and married into a wealthy family. In 1875, he and his wife Elizabeth (nee Fearnley) purchased a seed merchant’s premises in St Albans, Hertfordshire – my home town. By the time they had set up business, Sander was a colleague and possibly friend of fellow German, Professor Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach. The leading orchidologist in Europe, Reichenbach was responsible for classifying specimens of orchid that had been ‘discovered’ by European collectors. Soon after opening his plant nursery, Sander began employing European plant hunters to find new species of orchid; if the delicate specimens survived the voyage to St Albans, Sander proved to have the considerable skill required to propagate them, and became a leading orchid supplier.
Ferdinand Rothschild, a politician and philanthropist, was one of Sander’s most prestigious patrons, buying large quantities of orchids for his glasshouses at Waddesdon as well as his London home, and even as decorations for weekend parties. Sander named more than one species of orchid after the Baron, including Paphiopedilum rothschildianum, or ‘Rothschild’s Slipper Orchid’, known (like Sander himself) as ‘the king of orchids’. This orchid, collected in 1887, came from Borneo, though Sander & Sons managed to keep its true origin a secret for 50 years!
In 1888, Sander published the first of four volumes of the Reichenbachia – named after Reichenbach – which featured 200 life-size illustrations of orchids. Vol. 1 was dedicated to Queen Victoria. In 1889, Sander was one of a handful of orchid experts at the inaugural meeting of the RHS Orchid Committee, which continues to this day (follow them on Twitter @orchidcommittee). On 19 Aug 1893, the Herts Advertiser published a delightful interview with Sander, ‘A Day Amongst the Orchids’, calling him ‘the celebrated, and, perhaps the greatest, grower of orchids in the whole world.’ ‘A visit to his establishment … is a perfect dream of delight. … One imagines oneself in the tropics, in the high woods of Trinidad, in the virgin forests of South America, or the weirdly beautiful, moss-grown, untrodden morasses of Sumatra or Java.’ I highly recommend a read of the full article if you have access to the British Newspaper Archive.
Around the turn of the century, my great grand-uncle, Alfred John Munday, a young gardener from a working class family, entered the tropical world of Sander & Sons.
Alfred was born in Aylesbury on 13 August 1883. He was the third of 13 children, and also had three older half-siblings. His father Joseph Munday, my 2x great grandfather, was a dealer and then beer house keeper, who also did some hawking on the side. When the 1891 census was taken, Alfred was 8 years old, and his family of eight shared their lodgings at the Half Moon, Castle St. with four men and four women, all described as ‘tramps.’ The Munday children were not described as ‘scholars’. However, Alfred did receive an education, at St Mary’s school – a ‘National School’ that provided elementary education, within a C of E framework, to poorer children. In 1901, Alfred, aged 17, was still living at the family pub & boarding house, but was now working as a ‘Gardener Domestic’.
Until recently, Alfred’s whereabouts after 1901 were unknown to me. Some of his siblings emigrated to Ontario, and I wondered if he had also gone abroad. However, an obituary of 1947 revealed that Alfred had been in charge of the Orchid House at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for 36 years. Alfred was ‘an expert orchid grower, and well-known in horticultural circles in Edinburgh.’ This was a very surprising career for someone from Alfred’s background, and I was keen to find out more.
The obituary describes Alfred as having begun his career ‘as a horticulturalist at Baron Rothschild’s gardens, Eythrope’. The Eythrope estate, next door to Waddesdon Manor, was in fact owned by Alice de Rothschild, the unmarried sister and companion of Ferdinand. ‘Miss Alice’ built a house there in 1875 designed as a day pavilion (she still slept at Waddesdon Manor) and created a park and garden over the existing 18th century landscape park. The house and gardens are both separately Grade II listed. The Eythrope estate is still owned by the family and used as a private home, though tours of the walled garden have been offered since 2019.
Alfred’s obituary suggests that his family and home town was particularly proud of the Rothschild connection. However, an entry in the Dictionary Of British & Irish Botanists And Horticulturists (Edited by Ray Desmond, CRC Press, 1994) revealed that Alfred had also worked for Sander & Sons.
Since no employment records from Waddesdon/Eythrope have survived, and I have been unable to locate any archive for Sander & Sons, the timeline and responsibilities of his early career is unclear. However, Ellen Higgs, Assistant Archivist & Records Manager at Waddesdon Manor, has given me some insights into changes at Eythrope and Waddesdon that might have happened during his time there.
If Alfred began work at Eythrope in his early teens, he may have met Baron Ferdinand, but in 1898, when Alfred was 15, the Baron died suddenly ‘in his valet’s arms’. Alice then inherited Waddesdon estate. In developing the gardens at Eythrope, Alice worked in very close collaboration with Edward Gibbs (1853-1917), her head gardener & land steward, who would have been Alfred’s boss. Edward Hamilton, Gladstone’s secretary in 1898, described Eythrope as ‘the most magnificent horticultural toy seen anywhere. [Miss Alice] has consummate good taste and great knowledge of plants and flowers.’ Furthermore, Alice was not just giving out instructions; she was known to carry a weeding tool with her at all times, just in case she saw something out of place!
Eythrope’s gardens were extensively reviewed in The Journal of Horticulture, 26 Jun 1890 (reproduced in The Bucks Gardener, Issue 23, Spring 2006). Highlights included the natural river, which could be journeyed by boat from the garden steps to a little ‘old English’ tea house, Italian and Dutch gardens, a Mexican garden, and three glass houses – each 100 feet long – made by Messrs. Halliday and Company of Manchester, who also made the glass houses at Waddesdon. One of the three structures was devoted to orchids:
‘One is in three divisions for orchids, a grand genuine collection being grown, but a bank of Odontoglossum Verilliarium is wonderfully fine, about a hundred and fifty strong plants being in flower, some with ten racemes each, the flowers large, and varying from white to the deepest rose. Upon the other side of the house Epedendrum Vitellinum is flowering well, and contrasts markedly with the Odontoglossums.‘
However, she didn’t share Ferdinand’s fierce passion for orchids, and within three months of his death, had sold off the majority of his orchid collection. However, it seems plausible that Alfred worked with orchids at Eythrope, and that the connection between the Rothschilds and Frederick Sander was been the catalyst for him to move to St Albans to start working for Sander & Sons.
In late 1910, Alfred Munday married Elizabeth Kate Marshall. Though she was also from Aylesbury, she was employed as a servant in London, and they married in Kensington. Within a few weeks, the couple moved to Edinburgh, and Alfred took up a position in the Royal Botanic Garden’s Glass Department, starting on 2 Jan 1911. The vast majority of staff were Probationer Gardeners, but Alfred started work as a Gardener, and he must have already acquired extensive expertise in orchids, as he was immediately placed in charge of RBGE’s orchid collection.
Three months later, Alfred and Elizabeth were living at 11, Canon St, in Edinburgh’s Canonmills. A mere 5-minute walk across the Waters of Leith would take Alfred to the corner of the Botanic Garden.
Thanks to the very generous assistance of Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Archivist Leonie Paterson, I have been able to learn much more about Alfred’s responsibilities and contributions.
Alfred’s day-to-day work would have involved the physical graft of any gardening job, but Alfred was working in breathtaking surroundings, including two early Victorian palm houses of record-breaking heights. He was also a specialised collector and horticulturalist, responsible for bringing new species to Edinburgh, and creating some of his own hybrids. In 1914 he raised the award-winning hybrid Aerio-Vanda Mundayi. According to an article on Orchid Hybrids, ‘Producing hybrid flowers from orchids is both relatively easy and relatively difficult. The plants themselves readily cross with other orchid species and genera (in many cases), making it especially easy to come up with wonderful new combinations. Yet as a rule, producing orchids from seed is a difficult and specialized task, whether you’re hybridizing or not. Orchid seeds are tiny, almost microscopic, and must be raised in sterile flasks on a sterile substrate. An orchid seed-raising operation looks far more like a pharmaceutical lab, with its rows of sealed flasks filled with tiny seedlings than a typical greenhouse.’
Because most gardeners at the RBGE were probationers who left after three years of training, a Guild was set up in 1913 to help staff and alumni stay in touch and to ‘promote social intercourse between its members.’ The Guild published regular journals, and Alfred is mentioned throughout in staff lists like this one from 1914:
In 1914, Alfred was about 30 years old and his work seemed to be literally flourishing. However, after only three years at RBGE, war broke out. Alfred enlisted as a Private with the 5th Royal Scots on 31 Aug 1914, just over three weeks after the first call for volunteers. As a Buckinghamshire man, he must have been a rarity in the regiment. According to theroyalscots.co.uk, the 1/5th battalion was mobilised in Edinburgh in August 1914 and initially employed on coastal defence duties in Scotland. They took part in the Gallipoli campaign from April to December 1915, moved to Egypt in January 1916 and then to France in March. They were amalgamated with the 1/6th Battalion in France in July 1916. Records on Alfred show that as well as serving in Egypt, he saw action in Flanders.
The RBGE website honours the men in its staff who fought in WW1. Of about 190 men, 73 joined the forces, and 1/4 of those didn’t return. During the four years of war, it must have been a difficult time for Alfred’s wife, Elizabeth, and I wonder if she returned to her family in Bucks, or perhaps, since she had no children, she took on work in Edinburgh as a servant, or helped in another way with the war effort at home. Finally, Alfred returned to Scotland, and returned to his work.
One of Alfred’s colleagues was Harry Bryce, and a collection of Harry’s photographs is in the RBGE Archives. Thanks to Harry’s legacy I was thrilled to see Alfred for the first time, in three photographs of him at work. In the first photo, Alfred is on the far right of the Horticultural Glass Department, 1920. They are clearly in their Sunday best! The second image shows the men in their work clothes the same year. Alfred is again on the far right, with Harry three to his left. The third image shows a group of staff in 1929, this time labelled with ‘Alf Munday’ standing the second from the left. All photos are reproduced here courtesy of the Archives, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
In 1921, Alfred and Elizabeth had a daughter, Ellen Kathleen, who was known as Kathleen. As far as I know, Kathleen was their only child. I was very touched to learn that Alfred named an orchid after his daughter; Cymbidium Kathleen Munday was registered with the Royal Horticultural Society in 1945.
Kathleen Munday has not been grown at RBGE for at least 50 years, but the RGBE’s orchid specialist, Bruce Robertson, pointed out that a number of orchids growing there now are more than 100 years old. A blog post about these centenarian orchids shows that a large number of them came from Sander & Sons between 1910-1914, and it seems very likely to me that they were introduced by my ancestor.
The RBGE holds an archival collection of glass plate negatives of plant portraits taken between 1900-1949 by Robert Moyes Adam. Among them are images of cymbidium hybrids that must have been grown by Alfred, or under his watch. Some photographs show plants in the orchid houses, while other images, like the first below, were staged studio shots; Adam would bury pot plants in a ‘pit’ to make them look like they were growing. There’s something rather dreamy about seeing orchids in sepia tones, don’t you think? The fourth image here shows a cymbidium orchid ‘family tree’. (I now have Kathleen Munday in my Ancestry tree AND I’ve found an online tree for the Kathleen Munday orchid; I’m thinking that combining my interests in genealogy and love of orchids might make orchid hybridisation a perfect new hobby (perhaps when I retire!))
- 1/1CV20, Lycaste edinensis (hybrid- Lycaste macrophylla alba x L. cruenta), 20 June 1932, by Robert Moyes Adam
- 1/1EG42, collection of Cymbidium hybrids in flower, Orchid House, RBGE, 19 February, 1940 by Robert Moyes Adam
- 1/2FC48, Cymbidiums in flower, Orchid House, 17 March 1942, Robert Moyes Adam
- 1/1EH07, Cymbidium hybrids, parents and offspring, 22 March 1940, Robert Moyes Adam
- All photos courtesy of the Archives, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
By the 1920s, Alfred was a member of the RBGE Guild’s Committee. The Garden’s international connections are demonstrated by the presence of overseas committee members in almost every continent.
Alfred John Munday died of heart failure on 4 April 1947, at 63 years of age. Researching Alfred has been my first foray into Scottish civil documents, and I must say that I am impressed by the amount of detail included in his death certificate, which includes his wife’s name and maiden name and his parents’ names and occupations. I’m rather jealous of people with Scots ancestry!
The Journal of the RBGE Guild printed a full page obituary, written by RBGE Curator Roland Edgar Cooper, which detailed Alfred Munday’s many achievements. Cooper remarked of the garden’s orchid collection that the ‘extensive range of rare species and their magnificent condition bears testimony to his great ability’ and he noted that ‘Mr Munday also indulged in a certain amount of hybridising.’
Cooper ended with this stirring eulogy: ‘The generations of student gardeners who passed through the garden during his thirty-six years’ service will join his more recent colleagues in mourning his departure, and everyone who knows the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh – and they are in every corner of the world – will endorse his fine and enduring contribution to it.’
At RBGE today, orchids share space with cycads in a glasshouse that post-dates Alfred’s time. The glasshouse is open to the public in normal times. A 2005 article from the RBGE website describes orchids as ‘one of the most sophisticated and diverse groups of flowering plants, with around 35,000 species. If you look around this glasshouse you will see some of the range of diversity displayed by this group, flowers can be almost any colour, size and shape. The interactions between some orchids and their pollinator can be very complex, with some mimicking their insect pollinator in shape, colour and scent. Most orchids are epiphytes (they grow on trees and other plants) and this makes them vulnerable as the forests they live in are destroyed.’ I do hope to visit in the future.
Alfred’s family are, so far, my only Scottish relations. Alf’s wife Elizabeth passed away in Edinburgh in 1971. Their daughter Kathleen married Francis Cooper Macpherson in 1951, but sadly Francis died in 1965. Kathleen lived another 50 years; she died at the age of 96 in 2017, and her funeral service was held just a few minutes’ walk from the Botanic Garden. It is a shame I was not able to meet my grandmother’s cousin and ask her if she ever the saw the orchid that was named after her.
The same year that Kathleen passed away, a local history group in St Albans restored the grave of Alfred’s employer Frederick Sander, who died in 1920. Just ten days after Kathleen was laid to rest in Edinburgh, a commemorative event in St Albans attended by Sander’s descendants “was a unique opportunity to celebrate the life, legacy and extraordinary achievements of Fredrick Sander, who, for many decades, turned St Albans into the centre of the orchid world.” As part of the celebrations, an excellent online exhibition was created about Sander and the Victorian obsession for orchids.
It’s been a pleasure to learn more about my great grand-uncle Alfred Munday, who like Sander came from humble beginnings and established himself as a highly respected expert on orchids. I’ve also enjoyed learning how the plants that bring a touch of the exotic to my English window sills first came to the UK. Orchids were once internationally prized treasures that fuelled remote expeditions, were an expensive passion of the upper classes, and turned an immigrant into a ‘king’.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like James Benwell – a Humble Man of Science. Benwell worked as a gardener at the Oxford Botanic Garden for nearly 40 years during the Regency period. He was, ‘although uneducated, a very intelligent man, and his accurate knowledge of British Plants, and of their localities in the vicinity of Oxford, and a singular talent for observation in every branch of Natural History, rendered his services highly valuable.’