Captain Gurle

I came across the name of Captain Gurle (also spelled Garle and Garrle) in the excellent Economic History of the English Garden, by Sir Roderick Floud, a really cracking book, with eye-opening figures about the importance of gardening in the English economy since 1660 or thereabouts, but written in a way that an innumerate moron (i.e. me) can actually understand.

There is an entry for Gurle in the ODNB, revised by the garden historian Sandra Raphael, and an article from Garden History in JSTOR by the historian of English Gothic, John Harvey (1911–97), who also wrote Early Nurserymen. From these sources I have learned that Leonard Gurle (c. 1621–85) was one of the earliest large-scale nurserymen in London (though I have not been able to find whether he was entitle to be addressed as ‘Captain’).

It is guessed that Gurle was born about 1621. He was living in the parish of St Olave’s, Southwark, until the early 1640s, when he moved east. In 1656 he leased a 12-acre site in what is now the East End, and was then between the areas of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Shoreditch, outside the walls of London, near the present-day junction of Greatorex Street and Old Montague Street, close to Brick Lane. He also had more land further out, in Hackney, presumably for bringing on trees and plants before transferring them to his ‘selling’ site.

The range and variety of his products can be gathered from a list supplied in the hugely popular The English Gardener, or, A Sure Guide to Young Planters and Gardeners, in Three Parts, one of three ‘how-to’ books by Leonard Meager (c. 1624–c. 1704), which was first published in 1670 and went into eleven editions up to 1710.

The work is dedicated to Philip Hollman (c.1593–1669), who was a member of the Worshipful Company of Grocers and bought the manor house of Warkworth in Northamptonshire (now alas completely demolished) from the Chetwode family. He became High Sheriff of the county, and was also briefly a Member of Parliament in 1659, as well as being an alderman of London. Meager worked for him at Warkworth, and even allowing for the fulsomeness of such dedications, it sounds as thought they got on well.

After beginning with how to prepare the ground, how to raise plants from stocks, seeds and kernels, and planting out and grafting, Meager focuses in on fruit trees, vine, gooseberries, ‘currans’ and other soft fruit. But before getting on to vegetables (‘the Kitchin Garden’) and flowers, he stops, and on pages 60–5 lists a huge number of varieties of fruit-tree he has obtained from ‘my very Loving friend Captain Garrle, dwelling at the great Nursery between Spittle-fields and White Chapel, a very eminent and Ingenious Nursery-man, who can furnish any that desireth, with any of the sorts here after mentioned; as also with divers other rare and choice plants’.

The ‘Tradescant’ cherry.

The list is quite extraordinary, and includes 25 cherries (on which there is a very good article here), including ‘Tradeskants’ and the ‘English Ciliegiberrylin, as big as an indifferent Apple’; 42 plums (including several of which ‘two or three sorts’ are available); 6 apricots; 11 nectarines; 40 peaches; 11 grapes; 6 figs; 31 ‘pippin’ apples; 47 ‘royal-apples’; and 102 pears (including ‘Ladies-buttock’ and ‘Deadman-pear’).

The ‘Elruge’ nectarine, by the artist William Hooker (1779–1832). (No relation of Sir W.J. Hooker.)

Listed among the eleven nectarines is the hardy variety which Gurle himself raised in 1661. It is called ‘Garles Nectorin’ here, but apparently he also called it ‘Elruge’, his own name backwards, with an extra ‘e’ for euphony. Logic, and many of the names, suggest that large amounts of his stock were imported from Europe and  beyond: Early Flanders, Black Orleance and Spanish White cherries; Turkey, Pruneola and Verdecha plums; Alger, Roman and Great Turky [sic] apricots. Even the apple and pear lists include Holland or Dutch, Roman, Italian, Famagustion, Burgamots, and French and Spanish Warden, among the more homely-sounding Mrs Clint’s pear, Norwich, Sir Michael Stanups apple, Winsor and Old-wife.

Gurle was in the right place at the right time, as spending on gardens and on their estates was one of the major economic activities of the aristocratic and merchant classes after the Restoration – Floud’s conversion of late seventeenth-century prices to modern ones are seriously eye-watering. One document that has survived is a list of plants sold to Sir Roger Pratt, an aristocratic architect, for his house at Ryston, near Downham in Norfolk in 1672, which Harvey looks at in detail. The plants (sent in February) included (as well as fruit trees), lindens, laurustinus, spruces, cypress, honeysuckles, barberries and jasmine.

Dutch garden tools, 1699.

A Gurle apple tree cost 1 shilling, a peach tree, 5s., but the Elruge nectarine 8s., while the decorative plants were equally expensive, the lindens being 3s., the honeysuckle 9d. and white jasmine 8d. each. In another delivery for Sir Roger, a total of 834 various forest trees cost about 4d. each, but it is likely that there was a discount for large orders. According to Floud’s conversion, the 5s. peach tree would cost £400 in 2019 terms.

Horseheath Hall in 1725, by which time it had been sold to the Bromley family. It was demolished in the late 1700s.

Pratt also designed Horseheath Hall, in Cambridgeshire, for William Alington, third Baron Alington, and Gurle also provided plants to the value of £8.3s. for this project. John Evelyn, who visited the finished building and dined there, estimating that Alington’s costs for the whole had been about £20,000 – in 2019 terms, £33 million – so the cost of the plants (about £13,000) will have been relatively small …

Gurle was himself a very wealthy man. In 1677 he succeeded John Rose (1619–77), famous for presenting a pineapple to Charles II) as gardener to the king at St James’s Palace, with a total salary of £560 per annum, as well as an official residence at St James’s.

John Rose with Charles II. (Credit: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

(Admittedly, at the time of his death, the Crown owed him £2,500 in unpaid salary, and his widow Joyce was still chasing it at her own death in 1688… ) Harvey gives in detail the fascinating inventory of Gurle’s possessions, at Whitechapel, Hackney and St James’s (where apparently he was able to use the glass-houses for his own business).

Seventeenth-century flowerpots, from Leiden.

At Whitechapel, as well as glass panes and flowerpots, hooks, pickaxes, sieves, etc., there were ‘295 beds of sparragrasse and several beds of Lickquorish’ (the latter for medicinal purposes), and, among very many other trees, 11,600 plum, cherry and pear trees, as well as ‘55 young horse chesnutts trees’, hugely popular since their introduction by the elder Tradescant in the 1620s.

At the Hackney site, as well as 1,111 walnuts, limes [lindens] and elms, and 43 ‘Plattanest’ trees (presumably London planes?), there was ‘other rubbish and overgrone trees’, valued at £4 (= £6,400).

The gardener’s work is never done …

But at St James’s were the exotics: ‘8 orange trees in boxes, of ye biggest sort’ (£24, = £38,400) and ‘17 of the next [presumably smaller?] sort, at about the same value, plus hollies, myrtles, Spanish jasmine and yuccas, along with equipment including 540 flower pots, wheelbarrows, dung forks, and ‘300 paines of glass at 6d. per foote’, worth £26.5s.

Gurle’s total estate (including the debts, and also rental income from six houses which he had built at Whitechapel) came to £3,825.16s.2½ (approximately £6,120,000) – a remarkable sum. It’s such a shame that we don’t have an image of him or his gardens: but Greatorex Street in Whitechapel used to be called Great Garden Street.


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7 Responses to Captain Gurle

  1. Thanks Professor that was fascinating but at the same time gggggrrrrr…. because Leonard was on my list for a post soon! BTW Have you read the reviews of Roderick Floud’s book? His basic argument is v interesting but isn’t quite as clear as he suggests.
    Sorry that wasnt meant to be a stroppy/argumentative response Please continue the great work…and send me some seeds of Erigeron karvinskianus because, depsite trying hard I cant get it to grow at my place in France! Honest



    • Oh, I’m sorry, but I’m sure there’s plenty of room for more than one! I’ve had several pieces half-finshed for a long time (I think it’s a lockdown thing?) and I’m trying to discipline myself to get them finished off …


    • Sorry, I made the fatal mistake of reading your comment on my phone last night, and only saw about a third of it before responding. I take your point about the problems of conversion (and indeed a friend who is writing a biography of a gentleman of precisely this period has queried that a sixpenny loaf he sent to his wife couldn’t really equate to about £40). I have seen reviews of Floud, but I think that his earnings-based argument about gardening (and also building) may be valid simply because so much of the implicit cost of any plant or tree is in labour of one sort or another. But it’s (as my friend said, and I agree) a complete minefield. I’ll do my best re E. karvinskianus, but summer here (and especially my sweet peas, which were hugely promising last week) seems to have gone into retreat … Do you want to DM me on Twitter (@Prof_hedgehog) with an address to send them to?


  2. Caroline. That was an excellent post. It was good to read of Gurles’s work in Norfolk. Do excuse my weak Molesworth pun on Twitter.


  3. Pingback: London nurseries in the 1690s | The Gardens Trust

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