James Lye – Champion Fuchsia Grower of the West of England

With this issue of The Gardening World we are able to give you a portrait of a Wiltshire gardener who has for many years past and very deservedly held to the title of the champion fuchsia grower of the West of England. At the exhibitions held at Bath, Trowbridge, Calne, Chippenham, Bradford-on-Avon, in the Keevil district, &c, the Fuchsias of James Lye are always one of the leading features; and their high value as exhibition specimens can best be appreciated by those privilege it is to see them. We have seen his specimens for the past ten or twelve years; plants 7 ft. and 8 ft. in height, and 5 ft. through, the branches feathered down and covering the pots, the foliage robust and healthy in the extreme, and overlaying all a raiment of admirable blossoms. They ar circular pyramids, perfect in form, and truly marvellous to look upon. Outside of Wiltshire we have never seen anything in the way of the Fuchsia exhibited there, and in the Trowbridge district we have seen cottagers exhibiting specimen Fuchsias that would put to shame the productions of gardeners in many other parts of the kingdom, whose conveniences for producing plants are ten times greater than those of Wiltshire labourers and artisans.

James Lye was born about the year 1830, at or near Clyffe Hall, Market Lavington, and the whole of his gardening career has been spent in the gardens of which he has the oversight. Clyffe Hall is a small estate,the residence of the Hon. Mrs. Hay, a member of the Bouverie family, and sister of one of the Earls of Radnor. Mr Lye is both gardener and steward, and a grower and exhibitor of agricultural roots he has for many years past been highly successful. What he takes in had he does thoroughly; the work his hands find him to do he does with all his might. He is the trusted confidential servant of his employer; he is so courteous, considerate, and unassuming, that it can scarcely be imagined he has a single enemy. It need scarcely be stated he is much respected in his immediate neighbourhood.

At twelve years of age he went into the gardens of Clyffe Hall at four shillings per week, assisting in the sweeping, &c. At that time the gardener was one Richard Smith, a good man with trees and vegetables. From the first James Lye showed a great fondness for gardening, and Mr. Smith noticing that the lad was apt at learning and quick at turning his hand to any work, seems to have been actuated by a kind of jealous feeling, and retarded rather than helped the progress of his young assistant, but he held on, qualifying himself in every possible way, and at the age of twenty-three succeeded to the post of head gardener.

It was about 1857 that he commenced to grow fuchsias for exhibition. The Trowbridge Horticultural Society has held an annual exhibition for many years past, and it was while visiting one of the shows in the busy manufacturing town that he was fired with the idea of growing fuchsias. The specimens then grown were from 3 ft. to 4 ft. high and he was so struck by them that he was filled with the desire to grow plants as good, and he made his mind to try. He managed pretty well, but it was four or five years before he made his mark, and since then, to quote his words “I appear to see a way to improve up the plant year after year.” He has taken more first prizes for Fuchsias than any other grower in Wiltshire, the number of such awards is very great.

And yet, if any one interested in these plants were to pay a visit to Clyffe Hall gardens, they would see how it is the plants are brought to such marvellous state of perfection. There is a remarkable deficiency of glass; he has one house in which he winters and starts his specimens into growth, but the completion of, and final touches given to the cultural process, are done out in the open air; and, whether the summer be hot and dry, or wet, cold, and retarding, the cultivator’s skill appears to rise superior to all difficulties, and the victor’s crown is invariably, or with very few exceptions won. It would occupy too much space on this occasion to to give an outline of Mr. Lye’s cultural progress, but it shall be furnished in the course of a week or two.

As an exhibitor of Fuchsias, Mr Lye early in his career became practically acquainted with the shortcomings of the leading varieties recommended for the purpose. He then set to work to raise seedling varieties, with the result that he has been able to put into cultivation varieties characterised by admirable habit of growth and free-flowering propensities, invaluable alike for show and decorative purposes. Of light varieties, i.e. the tupe and sepals white, cream or blush, he has raised, Beauty of Wilts, Blushing Bride, Delicata, Letty Lye, Mrs. Huntley, Miss Lye, Beauty of the West, Lye’s Favourite, Mrs. Wills, Arabella Improved, Ellen Lye, Duchess of Albany, Glory of the Day, White Souvenir de Chiswick, Beauty of Swanley, Mrs. James Lye, Pink Perfection, Mrs. Hooper Taylor, Mrs Grant, Miss Welch, Star of Wilts, Beauty of Clyffe Hall, Harriett Lye, Mr. Bright, and Mrs. King. Of dark varieties: Charming, Elegance, James Lye, Gem of the West, Royal Standard, Hon. Mrs. Hay, Henry Brooks, Aurora, Final, Mr. Hooper Taylor, Spitfire, Lye’s Rival, Thomas King, Duke of Albany, and Crimson Globe.

During the last four years, Mr. Lye has adopted the plan of sending out his new Fuchsias himself, and he is now distributing the following new varieties for 1886, – dark: Mr. F. Glass, Emperor, James Welch, and Mr. F. Bright. Light: Lye’s Perfection, Mr. F. Glass, Diadem, Beauty of Lavington, Emily Bright, Lye’s Excelsior, and Nellie. We saw several of these in the seedling state, and were struck with their fine quality. Mr. Lye has also raised some very useful bedding Zonal Pelargoniums; a pink variety, named Climax, being an excellent type for flower garden decoration.

But it is not only as an exhibitor of Fuchsias that Mr. Lye has made a reputation. At the exhibitions at Trowbridge, Bath, Calne, &c., he also exhibits some very fine specimens of Verbenas, Petunias, and variegated Zonal Pelargoniums in pots; and almost invariably taking 1st prizes in their respective classes. Like his fuchsias, the two first named especially are wonderful examples of high class culture. Though visiting a good many flower shows, we see nothing in the way of Verbenas and Petunias like those shown in the Trowbridge district.

Here then is a record of floricultural works of a high order of merit; floriculture is ennobled by such specimens of cultural skill as Mr. Lye produces. His work is by no means done; of late years he has added the Potato to his other subjects, and has raised a few very useful varieties. Well done! James Lye! and to this the readers of The Gardening World we are sure, add their grateful amen1.

  1. Transcription from ‘The Gardening World Illustrated’, 23 January 1886. p.329. ↩︎