During the nineteenth century the Thomas Rivers Nursery had an extent of more than 300 acres in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, and was the largest employer in the area, second only to the Malting industry. The horticultural beds, mainly fruit trees and roses, mingled with farmland and market crops of soft fruit. After the tax on glass was removed in 1846, other more exotic, tender fruits were grown: grapes in the extensive glass vinery and oranges in the orange house while peaches, nectarines, apricots and the like were listed in the early catalogues. Sales numbered in the thousands each year and plant material was sent all over the world.
Most notably, the third Thomas Rivers, 1798 -1877, had a genius for developing new strains of fruit – such as the still popular Early Rivers plum – and for examining and improving their cultivation. He had a ready pen and an appealing style of writing. Over the years he published three books including The Orchard House which ran to many reprintings, as well as many articles in the great horticultural journals of the day. In these his recommendations for improving root stocks, for providing shelter for tender species, for growing fruit trees in pots in an Orchard house, and more were offered not only for the great gardeners of landed gentry but for people with small gardens needing to grow their own fruit. His reputation was great and not only did Robert Hogg dedicate his comprehensive Fruit Manual of 1884 to him but a commemorative portrait was hung in the Royal Horticultural Society headquarters in Vincent Square. His son, Thomas Francis Rivers, carried on the successful business developing the Conference pear, while May Rivers at this time did watercolours to aid fruit identification published in The Fruit Grower’s Guide of 1892.
What is left now of that legacy is the Rivers Nursery Orchard, a living piece of history as well as a valuable green space. This significant five acre area is what remains of the show ground where Rivers’ customers could see growing those trees they might like to order from the catalogues. It has been restored from a bramble and hawthorn wilderness to a community orchard by volunteers working over more than ten years since the land was sold by the Rivers family to developers in the late 1980s. The Rivers Hospital was built on much of the land but East Herts District Council took on a twenty year stewardship for the remainder. With the help of organisations such as the East of England Apple and Orchards Project and fruit identification experts, the surviving trees have been identified and spaces filled with old Rivers varieties.
The stewardship period ends in 2009! What will happen to this living monument, this community green space? The Rivers Nursery Site and Orchard Group have been pressing the council to find a way to save this space, part of the existing green belt land. We are looking for ideas, partners with the authoritative knowledge to press the importance of the Rivers horticultural heritage, general support.
Can you help us?
Elizabeth Waugh, Archivist for the Rivers Nursery Site and Orchard Group