The following ad appeared in the newspaper Field on 5 December 1908.
Apart from an inaccurate spelling of Withdean, this was an intriguing advert.
At some time in the previous year or so, Major Campbell Fraser and his brother Captain Alexander Fraser J.P. (Mayor of Hove) had been bitten by the French Gardening bug. This form of cultivation was little more than intensive market gardening for smallholders but based on the market gardening system used in Paris, especially in le Marais (marshy) district. Consequently, the French for market gardener is un maraîcher. After the 1840s, rapid transport of fresh produce to Paris by train more or less put paid to the Paris gardens.
The main resources needed for French gardening were copious amounts of water, dung (not in short supply when the horse was the main form of transport) and the use of frames or cloches – a French term that all English gardeners will recognize even today.
In Brighton, the Fraser brothers were determined to carry on their French gardening in a genuinely French way. They were busy men. They were not going to get their hands too dirty. It would be Monsieur Lecoq (M. Lecoq being the “one of the best French experts” referred to in the advert) now appears on the scene in Brighton.
So successful was Pierre Lecoq in the Withdean garden that on 20 February 1909 His Majesty Edward VII popped in for an hour to see what it was all about. He was so impressed that he later sent his head gardener on a visit to learn more.
The King, being a well-educated man, may well have gleaned much information from Pierre Lecoq despite the fact that it was twice reported in local newspapers that M. Lecoq spoke no English. Indeed, when M. Lecoq was involved in a train accident in February 1910, Captain Fraser rushed to his side, reportedly saying:
“I hurried up to the Croydon Hospital where I found Lecoq in bed with his arm bandaged, but quite cool and collected. He was naturally very pleased to see me as he knows no English and nobody in the hospital could speak a word of French.”
Hélène Lecoq, his wife, and possibly his two teenage sons were probably also at Pierre Lecoq’a bedside, but perhaps they too were monoglot.
The fact that Lecoq spoke no English makes it very strange that he had agreed to give a talk on French Gardening to the Brighton and Sussex Horticultural Society to take place in September 1910. He did not give the talk. The Chair of the Society announced that M. Lecoq had been “called away to France”. Was the talk to have been given in French to a group of well-educated middle-class gardeners? Or had poor M. Lecoq had his arm twisted to give the talk in English? Had his nerve failed at the last moment?
Whatever the situation, Monsieur and Madame Lecoq no longer lived at The Chalet, one of the cottages associated with the Fraser’s home, Western Withdean.
By 1911, the house was occupied by Pierre Lecoq’s successor as “expert French gardener”, Armand Machefer. Armand was probably a younger man as he was living with his wife and baby son. How long they were there, it is hard to tell. By 1914, the war had broken out, the French garden moved to North London where it was tended by “A French Legion of the Women’s Land Army” (caption to an image in the Daily Mirror). French gardening did much to reduce the need to import foodstuffs into Britain between 1914 and 1918. What had been a “craze” had become a serious part of the war effort but, as with so many other things, by the end of the war, French gardening was again resumed the status of craze and gradually faded away.
One last question remains for Brightonians. Where was the French Garden? To find Western Withdean and The Chalet, you can do no better than take a trip along the London Road until your reach Peacock Lane. Walk about 10 yards up Peacock Lane. Turn around to face the London Road. This is what you will see. The two acres occupied by the French garden (as well as land belonging to Withdean Farm) are now the site of The Park Apartments. No trace remains of the gardens.
[Pierre Lecoq, aged 54 by the start of WW1, seems to have left Brighton to go first to Kent House School, in Fleet (Hampshire) before finishing his career at M. A. Phillip’s French garden near Tonbridge. It is likely he retired from horticulture in 1930 when Mr Phillip’s garden was sold. He applied for naturalization in 1923 but there is no evidence to show that the process was completed.]