Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Sweet Peas in Worcestershire: Horticulturalist Hilda Hemus

By Judith Taylor

This is a story about a family. Their name was Hemus. The action took place near the River Severn and the time was the turn of the twentieth century. Upton was a quiet town, surrounded by farms and it followed the country rhythms of its forebears. Thomas and Harriette Hemus had six children, four girls and two boys but it is with the second eldest daughter, Hilda, we are concerned.

Hilda Hemus

Unlike so many fathers of the time Thomas decided his daughters should be properly educated, not just taught by a simpering governess. The end of the nineteenth century was punctuated by scientific advances which challenged and excited the imagination. Perhaps nothing caused as much interest as genetics and the tantalizing new view of heredity.

Thomas had bought a much larger farm to accommodate his growing family and every summer needed temporary help to bring in the harvest.  One summer in 1899 Rowland Biffen rode his bicycle from his home in Cheltenham to Upton. He was a student at Emanuel College, Cambridge but needed some extra money. His father, Rowland Biffen Sr, was a school master and very intellectual but not very well paid. It was up to young Rowland to seize every opportunity. Science was his passion and the idea of working on a farm with its crops was just the thing.

Thomas Hemus approved of the lad and allowed him to try a few experiments in the corner of a field. Rowland was able to see which type of wheat did best in the circumstances. Rowland also observed the charming young women about him. Hilda had a striking personality and was really handsome. Two summers later he asked her to marry him, based on his success at Cambridge and high probability of becoming a don. (The possibility of a prosperous father in law contributed mightily to his passions.)

Hilda did not feel like marrying anyone and turned him down. Rowland was unfazed. He turned round and proposed to her elder sister Mary who was delighted with the offer. Exit Rowland and Mary for now.

Hilda had bigger ideas. The most fashionable flower of that epoch was the sweet pea. Grown for its fragrance since it first arrived in 1699 from Sicily no one paid much attention to its appearance.  That changed in the last part of the 19th century. Slowly and painstakingly James Carter developed new forms and colours and in 1865 received a first class certificate for them at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea show. The world took notice.


She now knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to grow sweet peas as a crop and also try her hand at breeding new kinds. By this time her brother in law at Cambridge was a prominent agricultural geneticist. Both he and her sister used Mendelian methods to improve the sweet pea. Indeed Lady Mary Biffen won the Royal Horticultural Society’s medal for Mendelian studies, submitting a set of new and improved sweet peas.

Hilda’s father had bought a large fertile field, “Paradise,” adjacent to the farm and gave her free rein. The name “Miss Hemus of Upton, Worcs” started to appear in the records of the National Sweet Pea Society and she won prizes at many regional flower shows in the north of England during the first decade of the twentieth century. There was a very long list of new cultivars of sweet pea with the prefix ‘Paradise’, meaning they came from Miss Hemus.

Then she won a first class certificate at the Chelsea flower show. That was very special, an exceptional achievement and it is now we have to introduce her younger sister Evelyn.

The sisters worked together in the sweet pea fields and Evelyn held the fort when Hilda had to go Harrogate or London for a show. Neither of the other two sisters contributed very much to the enterprise because they now had their own families. Their brothers were also involved with other matters.

Evelyn Hemus

Evelyn lacked Hilda’s beauty and began to feel very resentful. On the one hand she was jealous of her sister Mary who now had a title and on the other had she believed her efforts were what kept the business going and that Hilda scooped up all the glittering baubles as if she had done everything herself. Things came to a head with this particular flower show.

By then Queen Victoria had died and Edward VII was king.  He awarded the prizes and shook Hilda’s hand, maybe holding it just a shade longer than was considered proper. Everyone knew that Edward VII had an eye for pretty women.

Sweet peas may be exquisitely pretty and fragrant but growing them on a large scale is every bit as hard labour as any other farm job. Soil had to be turned and fertilized, seeds planted, weeds pulled and then finally the crop harvested. The sisters needed men and horses for the heavy labour but the women were in charge. That in itself was hard on Hilda and Evelyn. Early twentieth century Englishmen were not happy to take orders from women.

Evelyn’s resentment boiled over. She stopped talking to Hilda and quit. They never spoke again. She wanted to be married and needed a larger pool of men than were available jn a small provincial town to overcome her lack of looks. India was the place, full of lonely civil servants and soldiers just dying to marry an English woman. Evelyn found her husband on the ship going to India. The price of the passage paid off. When she had children she never told them she had a sister Hilda. Exit Evelyn.

Hilda was a very good businesswoman. She had met Sir Samuel Ryder at the Harrogate flower show and signed a contract to supply his seed company with sweet pea seed. Every amateur gardener in the British Isles worth his or her wellies grew sweet peas. Sir Samuel was a farsighted man. He put a few seeds into a pretty envelope and sold them for tuppence at unexpected shops like Woolworths. The tuppences added up over the years and Sir Samuel was able to endow the famous Ryder Cup for golf with the proceeds.

When World War One started things changed radically in Upton as in all the other English towns. Growing food was a priority. No one was allowed to use men and horses for mere flowers and anyhow, the men were called up and horses requisitioned. Hilda showed her mettle in this situation as in every other. She put all her fields into wheat and when German prisoners were billeted nearby was one of the first farmers to use these gangs of prisoners. Raised eyebrows did not bother her.

She too married, a Major Ashworth, formerly of the quartermaster service and thus quite unscathed by the horrors of war. The conventions of time dictated that a married woman had no independent identity. Whatever she had built up or accomplished was now attributed to the major. Miss Hemus of Upton vanished.


The Ashworths had one daughter, Jean. The whole family emigrated to New Zealand to enjoy a warmer climate a few years after the end of the war and settled in Napier. Jean married a surgeon who died while still quite young. She survived into her nineties and kept all her mother’s records. She never heard from her Aunt Evelyn though her Aunt Mary sent her clothes and other gifts when she was still a little girl.

The Ashworths thus did not know that Aunt Evelyn, now Mrs Fyfe, had also emigrated to New Zealand but to Wellington on the west coast. Hilda’s daughter did not know she had cousins across the country. Evelyn’s children did not know of their relatives in the eastern part.

Things might have stayed that way were it not for a busybody (the author) trying to learn more about the sweet peas. Enough of the family remained in Upton and were dimly aware of this ancient history to be a starting point. With a great deal of help and assistance from the Upton historian Simon Wilkinson this busybody made the connection and the two wings of the divided family came together in the third generation.

All hail to busybodies.

~~~~~~~~~~

Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject. 
        Dr Taylor’s  books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and “An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past” (Ohio University Press  2018).
         In 2019 she published “A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989”.
        Dr Taylor’s web site is: www.horthistoria.com


1 comment:

  1. It's unfortunate that Hilda's accomplishments were attributed to her husband, but this is how it was back then. Thanks for a delightful article.

    ReplyDelete

Comments with opposing viewpoints are allowed if they are not written in an unnecessarily confrontational or arrogant manner.