Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: GARDENERS AND GARDENING. LONDON, JUNE 14, 1852.

[The Ninth Anniversary Dinner of the Gardeners’ Benevolent Institution was held on the above date at the London Tavern. The company numbered more than 150. The dessert was worthy of the occasion, and an admirable effect was produced by a profuse display of natural flowers upon the tables and in the decoration of the room. The chair was taken by Mr. Charles Dickens, who, in proposing the toast of the evening, spoke as follows:-]

For three times three years the Gardeners’ Benevolent Institution has been stimulated and encouraged by meetings such as this, and by three times three cheers we will urge it onward in its prosperous career. [The cheers were warmly given.]

Occupying the post I now do, I feel something like a counsel for the plaintiff with nobody on the other side; but even if I had been placed in that position ninety times nine, it would still be my duty to state a few facts from the very short brief with which I have been provided.

This Institution was founded in the year 1838. During the first five years of its existence, it was not particularly robust, and seemed to have been placed in rather a shaded position, receiving somewhat more than its needful allowance of cold water. In 1843 it was removed into a more favourable position, and grafted on a nobler stock, and it has now borne fruit, and become such a vigorous tree that at present thirty-five old people daily sit within the shelter of its branches, and all the pensioners upon the list have been veritable gardeners, or the wives of gardeners. It is managed by gardeners, and it has upon its books the excellent rule that any gardener who has subscribed to it for fifteen years, and conformed to the rules, may, if he will, be placed upon the pensioners’ list without election, without canvass, without solicitation, and as his independent right. I lay very great stress upon that honourable characteristic of the charity, because the main principle of any such institution should be to help those who help themselves. That the Society’s pensioners do not become such so long as they are able to support themselves, is evinced by the significant fact that the average age of those now upon the list is seventy-seven; that they are not wasteful is proved by the fact that the whole sum expended on their relief is but 500 pounds a-year; that the Institution does not restrict itself to any narrow confines, is shown by the circumstance, that the pensioners come from all parts of England, whilst all the expenses are paid from the annual income and interest on stock, and therefore are not disproportionate to its means.

Such is the Institution which appeals to you through me, as a most unworthy advocate, for sympathy and support, an Institution which has for its President a nobleman 8 whose whole possessions are remarkable for taste and beauty, and whose gardener’s laurels are famous throughout the world. In the list of its vice-presidents there are the names of many noblemen and gentlemen of great influence and station, and I have been struck in glancing through the list of its supporters, with the sums written against the names of the numerous nurserymen and seedsmen therein comprised. I hope the day will come when every gardener in England will be a member of the charity.

8 The Duke of Devonshire.

The gardener particularly needs such a provision as this Institution affords. His gains are not great; he knows gold and silver more as being of the colour of fruits and flowers than by its presence in his pockets; he is subjected to that kind of labour which renders him peculiarly liable to infirmity; and when old age comes upon him, the gardener is of all men perhaps best able to appreciate the merits of such an institution.

To all indeed, present and absent, who are descended from the first

“gardener Adam and his wife,”

the benefits of such a society are obvious. In the culture of flowers there cannot, by their very nature, be anything, solitary or exclusive. The wind that blows over the cottager’s porch, sweeps also over the grounds of the nobleman; and as the rain descends on the just and on the unjust, so it communicates to all gardeners, both rich and poor, an interchange of pleasure and enjoyment; and the gardener of the rich man, in developing and enhancing a fruitful flavour or a delightful scent, is, in some sort, the gardener of everybody else.

The love of gardening is associated with all conditions of men, and all periods of time. The scholar and the statesman, men of peace and men of war, have agreed in all ages to delight in gardens. The most ancient people of the earth had gardens where there is now nothing but solitary heaps of earth. The poor man in crowded cities gardens still in jugs and basins and bottles: in factories and workshops people garden; and even the prisoner is found gardening in his lonely cell, after years and years of solitary confinement. Surely, then, the gardener who produces shapes and objects so lovely and so comforting, should have some hold upon the world’s remembrance when he himself becomes in need of comfort.

I will call upon you to drink “Prosperity to the Gardeners’ Benevolent Institution,” and I beg to couple with that toast the name of its noble President, the Duke of Devonshire, whose worth is written in all his deeds, and who has communicated to his title and his riches a lustre which no title and no riches could confer.

[Later in the evening, Mr. Dickens said:-]

My office has compelled me to burst into bloom so often that I could wish there were a closer parallel between myself and the American aloe. It is particularly agreeable and appropriate to know that the parents of this Institution are to be found in the seed and nursery trade; and the seed having yielded such good fruit, and the nursery having produced such a healthy child, I have the greatest pleasure in proposing the health of the parents of the Institution.

[In proposing the health of the Treasurers, Mr. Dickens said:-]

My observation of the signboards of this country has taught me that its conventional gardeners are always jolly, and always three in number. Whether that conventionality has reference to the Three Graces, or to those very significant letters, L., S., D., I do not know. Those mystic letters are, however, most important, and no society can have officers of more importance than its Treasurers, nor can it possibly give them too much to do.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30