Lavender in London (Sutton)
It may surprise you to learn that Sutton
was once the lavender capital of the world!
With its chalky soil and mild weather, the North Downs provides the perfect conditions for growing lavender, a tradition that dates back to the 18th century. By the 19th century, lavender production was thriving, and the area became world famous for its crop. But, as London’s population continued to grow, demand for land to build houses and the import of cheap French lavender saw the industry all but wiped out by the 1930s.
Since 1996, however, the borough has revived its heritage and Sutton is now home to two spectacular lavender fields, both of which are open to the public when the lavender is in season
Lavender has been grown in London for hundreds of years.
Carshalton Lavender works to keep the heritage of local lavender alive for current and future generations.
The early years
The growing and distilling of lavender (Lavandula vera) was an important industry for many years. The area around Mitcham was well known for lavender from the 1500s. In its heyday during the 19th century the area around Mitcham, Wallington, Carshalton and Sutton must have been a sea of blue in the summer. This idyllic image was not reflected in the working conditions of the harvesters, many of whom were paid very little to work 14 hours a day; ten to fifteen shillings (50p to 75p) a week near London, and as little as 8s (40p) further south. Many only survived because of the charity of some of the wealthier landowners of the community.
The name that comes to mind in association with Mitcham Lavender is Potter & Moore. The company was founded in 1749 by Ephraim Potter and William Moore. They set up a distillery to extract lavender oil in Eveline Road overlooking the green now called Figges Marsh. The business grew and flourished especially under James Moore, grandson of William. James was a shrewd businessman and an expert nurseryman. He bought up surrounding land and by the end of the 19th century he had more than 500 acres of land growing lavender and peppermint, which at that time was the larger crop. He also grew other herbs such as chamomile, spearmint, roses and pennyroyal.
The lavender was harvested in August when the oil was at its best. The women would cut the lavender and bundle it loosely in ‘mats’ which were carried to the still-room. Where the lavender was distilled, the resulting oil was used as the basis for the lavender perfume. Moore paid one guinea (£1.10) an acre for cutting and sold the oil at forty shillings (£2.00) a pound.
When James Moore died in 1851, the business went to James Bridger, James Moore’s illegitimate son, who ran the business very successfully until his death in 1885. The business was bought by W.J. Bush, who was pleased to take over the goodwill earned by Potter & Moore. In 1968, Bush’s company merged with two other companies to form Bush Boake Allen, the world’s largest supplier of flavours and perfumes.
In 1968 the Potter & Moore section of the business was sold to E.C. De Witt & Co Ltd, part of the De Witt International Organization. However, it hasn’t disappeared, for the company’s headed writing paper proudly bears witness to the fact that they have incorporated a firm established in 1749.
The lavender seller, keen to divest him or herself of a bunch of fragrant lavenders for pecuniary remuneration, would ask the pedestrians strolling, walking (from a dawdle to a brisk pace), or rushing along the streets: ‘Will you buy my sweet blooming lavender, three bunches a penny?’ And the people, so invited, could decide to take up the lavender-seller on such offer, or to politely decline and carry on their way.
The sale of green lavender in the streets is carried on by the same class as the sale of flowers, and is, as often as flowers, used for immoral purposes, when an evening or night sale is carried on.
The lavender is sold at the markets in bundles, each containing a dozen branches. It is sold principally to ladies in the suburbs, who purchase it to deposit in drawers and wardrobes; the odour communicated to linen from lavender being, perhaps, more agreeable and more communicable than that from any other flower. Nearly a tenth of the market sale may be disposed of in this way. Some costers sell it cheap to recommend themselves to ladies who are customers, that they may have the better chance for a continuance of those ladies’ custom.
The number of lavender-sellers can hardly be given as distinct from that of flower-sellers, because any flower-girl will sell lavender, “when it is in season.” The season continues from the beginning of July to the end of September. In the winter months, generally after day-fall, dried lavender is offered for sale; it is bought at the herb-shops. There is, however, an addition to the number of the flower-girls of a few old women, perhaps from twenty to thirty, who vary their street-selling avocations by going from door to door in the suburbs with lavender for sale, but do not stand to offer it in the street.
The street-seller’s profit on lavender is now somewhat more than cent. per cent., as the bundle, costing 2½d., brings when tied up in sprigs, at least, 6d. The profit, I am told, was, six or seven years ago, 200 per cent; “but people will have better penn’orths now.” I was informed, by a person long familiar with the trade in flowers, that, from twenty to twenty-five years ago, the sale was the best. It was a fashionable amusement for ladies to tie the sprigs of lavender together, compressing the stems very tightly with narrow ribbon of any favourite colour, the heads being less tightly bound, or remaining unbound; the largest stems were in demand for this work. The lavender bundle, when its manufacture was complete, was placed in drawers, or behind books in the shelves of a glazed book-case, so that a most pleasant atmosphere was diffused when the book-case was opened.
Won’t you buy my sweet blooming lavender, Sixteen branches one penny, Ladies fair make no delay, I have your lavender fresh today, Buy it once, you’ll buy it twice, It makes your clothes smell sweet and nice. It will scent your pocket handkerchiefs, Sixteen branches for one penny, As I walk through London streets I have your lavender nice and sweet, Sixteen branches for a penny.
The 1881 census records 230 Travellers living in vans and tents on Mitcham Common and to this day the area still has a high Romany population. This is also in part due to Mitcham Fair which was traditionally an important gathering for Travellers, just as the horse fairs in other parts of the country still are today at Appleby in Cumbria and Stow in the Wold in Gloucestershire. These fairs were fixed points in place and time at which Travelling people from all traditions would meet up, a coming together of fairground people, horse dealers, travelling salespeople, hawkers and dealers, Romany Gypsies and showman.
Mitcham was also a centre of herb production, particularly lavender which required a large temporary workforce to cut the flowers when they bloomed ready for distilling into lavender oil. As well as working on the harvest, the Gypsy Travellers would also buy bunches of lavender to sell on the streets of London advertising their wares with the traditional cry:
Will you buy my sweet lavender Sweet blooming lavender Oh buy my pretty lavender Sixteen bunches a penny.