Abercrombie, John (1726-1806) (DNB00)

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ABERCROMBIE, JOHN (1726–1806), a writer on horticulture, was the son of a market gardener at Prestonpans, near Edinburgh. Having received some education, he began at an early age to work under his father; and when about twenty-five, he found employment in the Royal Gardens at Kew, and Leicester House, and in the service of several noblemen and gentlemen. After a marriage which brought him a numerous family, he began business on his own account as a market gardener at Hackney. While he was thus occupied, his biographer Mean asserts that he was asked, about 1770, by Lockyer Davis, a well-known publisher, to write a work on practical gardening; he consented only on condition that his manuscript should be revised by Oliver Goldsmith; and it is said that the manuscript was sent back by Goldsmith unaltered, with the remark that Abercrombie's own style was that best suited to the subject. The story can hardly be true in relation to the first edition of Abercrombie's earliest work, since that was not published by Lockyer Davis, who was the publisher of some of his subsequent productions. It appeared in 1767, and was entitled ‘Every Man his own Gardener, being a new and more complete Gardener's Kalendar than any one hitherto published.’ ‘From a diffidence in the writer’ (this is Abercrombie's own statement), the volume was represented in the title-page as written ‘by Mr. Maw, gardener to the Duke of Leeds,’ who had not seen a line of it before publication, and who is said to have received 20l. for this use of his name. ‘Every Man his own Gardener’ soon attained a popularity which it has never wholly lost, a new edition of it having appeared in 1879. It supplied a want scarcely met by the chief work of the kind in vogue at the time of its publication, the ‘Gardener's Kalendar’ of Philip Miller, and gave for the first time detailed instructions which his practical experience enabled him to furnish. ‘Every Man his own Gardener’ had gone through seven editions, said to be of 2,000 each, when, in 1779, Abercrombie published under his own name, now well known, ‘The British Fruit Gardener and Art of Pruning.’ Abercrombie was then in business at Tottenham as a market-gardener and nurseryman. He afterwards seems to have devoted himself to the production of books on horticulture and to the revision and republication of his earlier works. A systematic work on general horticulture, in which the calendar form was discarded, with the title of ‘The Practical Gardener,’ appeared after his death. In spite of his industry and the great success of some of his manuals, he had, during his last years, to depend for support on the bounty of a friend. He died at or about the age of 80, in the spring of 1806, and left behind him the reputation of an upright man and a cheerful companion. A competent authority among his later editors or annotators, Mr. George Glenny, has called Abercrombie ‘the great teacher of gardening.’ Next to ‘Every Man his own Gardener,’ the most popular of his works has been the ‘Gardener's Pocket Journal and Daily Assistant,’ which in 1857 had reached a thirty-fifth edition. Among his treatises on special departments of horticulture are ‘The Complete Forcing Gardener’ (1781); ‘The Complete Wall Tree Pruner’ (1783); ‘The Propagation and Botanical Arrangement of Plants and Trees, useful and ornamental’ (1784); and ‘The Hot House Gardener on the general culture of the pineapple and method of pruning early grapes,’ &c. (1789); of which last work a German translation appeared at Vienna in 1792.

[Mean's Memoir in second edition of the Practical Gardener (1817); Biographical Sketch prefixed to the 35th edition of the Gardener's Pocket Journal (1857); Preface to Philip Miller's Gardener's Kalendar; Catalogue of the British Museum Library.]

F. E.