Wilks Gardens, CR0

Place Name

The Reverend William Wilks (1843 – 1923) was Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society from 1888 – 1920 and vicar of St John the Evangelist’s, the parish church of Shirley, between 1879 – 1912. It was during his tenure at the church that he laid out the gardens and planted hundreds of plants. According to Croydon Council’s Local List of Historic Parks and Gardens: “Wilks experimented with wild field poppy and selectively bred the Shirley poppy; in an article of 1889 Wilks describes how he noticed in the wilderness corner of his garden among a patch of field poppies, one bloom with a narrow white edge, and it was from this that he developed the Shirley poppy. [He] had been in the habit of throwing open his garden to the public, and a description of a tour of the Vicarage garden and greenhouse in 1899 records the plants found en route and the western annexe that had a mixed flower border and apple trees. An article in 1904 refers to ‘a very fine collection of peonies, irises, phloxes, dahlias & roses… collection of 70,000 daffodils and 100 auratums’. In 1910, Wilks purchased the seven acre plot next to the vicarage, land that was formerly part of Shirley Common, and designed and built a house he called The Wilderness in 1912 (later renamed Hall Grange), which like the vicarage had verandas. Here Wilks designed an informal wilderness garden, which he called his ‘field’ where he introduced many native wild flowers as well as horticultural varieties. Narrow formal lawns surrounded the building and merged into an extensive heathland garden with large areas of woodland and sphagnum bog, the latter the last remnant in Croydon. In spring varieties of miniature daffodils and snakeshead fritillaries abounded. The garden had a large number of locally rare wild flowers. Wilks is recognised as being ahead of his time in adopting an ecological approach to gardening and his work attracted interest. An article in the RHS Journal in 1915 on ‘Informal & Wild Gardening’ features his wild garden. In 1920 The Gardener’s Chronicle describes the garden bordered all round with woodland with a small lawn in front of the house, ‘the ground rises gently to the wood and falls at intervals. A tree of Magnolia Delavayi has gone beyond the eaves of the house’. Other plants of interest at the time were Magnolia exoniensis, Vitis Thunbergii, Fig leaf Vine, Abelia blush, Clematis tangutica and Sambucus canadensia. Other plants mentioned were Glaux marita, lilium tigrinum, Bog myrtle, ericas, ferns, cyclamens, geranium Shirley blue and bulbs. The article also includes a photograph of Wilks with an old fashioned wheelbarrow by his side holding a muddy spade and wearing that insignia of the gardener, a large battered hat. While he was Secretary of the RHS, the Chelsea Flower Show and Wisley Garden were started, and the entrance gates to the latter commemorate Wilks. At his instigation a translation into English of Gregor Mendel’s work was commissioned; he was awarded the Victorian Medal of Honour by the RHS in 1912. The Wilderness was purchased in the mid 1920’s by George Lewin, a former mayor of Croydon.”

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