Was Your Ancestor a Kew Gardener? by Ellen Maki, Ph.D.

FMNHave you discovered a gardener in your family? Perhaps, like me, you have come across one or more ancestors noted in the census records as gardeners, horticulturalists, or nurserymen. Some, like Thomas Gee, learned their trade by serving as apprentices. Others, like my father’s cousin Frank Clarke, may have trained at a horticultural school such as that at Kew Gardens on the outskirts of London, England. If they studied at Kew, there are resources available to help you learn more about their training and later employment. In some cases, you will be able to fill in the gaps between census enumerations.

Some History

Kew Gardens, or more correctly the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has been training horticulturists for more than 150 years. Beginning in 1859, candidates accepted into the program worked in the gardens, and were paid for their work during the course of their studies. In 1898, for example, the students were paid 21s. per week, which in today’s market would be somewhere between £100 and £1,000 ($172-$1,720 in Canadian currency). In 1908, it was reported that there were more than 700 former Kew students working in diverse locations around the world. And of course, your ancestor may have been an instructor or staff at Kew, rather than a trainee.

Glass Houses at Kew from Bean 1908 cropped

Local Newspapers

Local newspapers can be a goldmine of information. With the rapidly increasing number of newspapers being made available online, this is a good starting place to look for your family member. Even with a common like Frank Clarke, I was able to locate small news items in a local newspaper concerning his horticultural education. The British Newspaper Archive and findmypast are two subscription websites with growing collections of British newspapers. Local archives and libraries may have other useful newspaper collections as well.

Kew Guild Journal

HeleniumThe Kew Guild Journal (KGJ) has been published since 1893. Staff (past and present), volunteers, trainees, alumni, and Kew scientists were/are eligible for membership. The KGJ is searchable online for free, and contains, among other things, obituaries, announcements of appointments, marriages, retirements, WWII garden girls, lists of women gardens, members who served in the wars, geographical lists of members, and photos.

To search the KGJ, follow these simple steps:

  • start at the Guild’s Search the Journal page, and click on Search the Journal.
  • you will be taken to a new page that contains a Google custom search box, where you can enter search terms as you would for any Google search.
  • when you click on any one of the results you will be taken to an Issuu® viewer, where you may be asked to create a free account.

In the case of Frank Clarke, I learned the year that he left Kew (1932), that he served in WWII, were he worked after leaving Kew (Surbiton, Roehampton, Bury St. Edmunds), when he retired (1970), and lastly, found his obituary (1991).

Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information and Kew Bulletin

The official journal of Kew was the Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, and this was superceded by the Kew Bulletin. Both are primarily scientific journals, but they do sometimes contain obituaries and notices of appointments. The issues for 1887 through to 1920 can be accessed for free at either the Biodiversity Heritage Library or the Internet Archive.

Take the Survey

During the course of my own family history research, I have so far found 24 U.K.-based gardeners. To the best of my knowledge, only one trained or worked at Kew. Take the survey to let me know about your gardening ancestors.

Do you have any gardeners, horticulturists, or nurserymen in your family tree?



  1. Kew Guild. (2016) The Journal of the Kew Guild. https://kewguild.org.uk/journal/ : accessed 5 September 2016.
  2. Bean, W.J. (1908) The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: Historical and Descriptive. London: Cassell and Company Limited. https://archive.org/details/royalbotanicgar00beangoog : accessed 5 September 2016.
  3. The Gardeners’ Chronicle: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Horticulture and Allied Subjects. (1898) Vol. 23, Third Series. 22 January. p. 56. https://archive.org/details/gardenerschronic323lond : accessed 5 September 2016.


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