Fairchild, Thomas (DNB01)

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FAIRCHILD, THOMAS (1667?–1729), gardener, born probably in 1667, established himself about 1690 as a nurseryman and florist at Hoxton in the parish of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, where he carried on a prosperous trade, and was one of the latest cultivators of a vineyard in England. His gardens are said to have extended from the west end of Ivy Lane to the New North Road ; they were known as 'the City Gardens,' and 'were greatly resorted to, as well for the delectable situation as for the curious plants therein contained.' Richard Bradley, F.R.S., frequently speaks of him in the highest terms. In one passage (Philosophical Account of the Works of Nature, 1721) he mentions 'that curious garden of Mr. Thomas Fairchild at Hoxton, where I find the greatest collection of fruits that I have yet seen,' and adds that 'no one in Europe excels him in the choice of curiosities, such as a universal correspondence can procure.' Pulteney classed him with Knowlton, Gordon, and Miller, as one of the leading gardeners of his time.

Fairchild united practical knowledge of his business with acute powers of observation and a love of scientific research. He corresponded with Linnæus, and it may fairly be claimed for him that he was one of those who prepared the way for the theory of evolution; he helped by his experiments materially to establish the existence of sex in plants, and he was the first person, in this country or any other, who succeeded in scientifically producing an artificial hybrid. This was Dianthus Caryophyllus barbatus, a cross between a sweet william and a carnation pink. He introduced Pavia rubra, Cornus florida, and other plants.

In 1722 he published a little book called 'The City Gardener,' which may still be read with pleasure. It is devoted to a description of the trees, plants, shrubs, and flowers which would thrive best in London. We learn that pear trees still bore excellent fruit about Barbican, Aldersgate, and Bishopsgate, that in 'Leicester Fields' there was a vine producing good grapes every year, and that figs and mulberries throve very well in the city. The highest whitethorn in England is, we are told, 'now growing in a close alley leading from Whitecross Street towards Bunhill Fields.'

In 1724 Fairchild added to his reputation by a paper read before the Royal Society and afterwards printed (Philosophical Transactions, xxxiii. 127) on 'Some new Experiments relating to the different and sometimes contrary Motion of the Sap in Plants and Trees.' Besides these publications and several letters which appeared in Bradley's works, Johnson, in his 'History of English Gardening' (1829), ascribes to him 'A Treatise on the Manner of Fallowing Ground, Raising of Grass Seeds, and Training Lint and Hemp,' which was printed anonymously. About 1725 a society of gardeners residing in the neighbourhood of London was established, and Fairchild joined it. Meeting every month at Newhall's coffee-house in Chelsea or some similar place, they showed to each other plants of their own growing, which were examined and compared, the names and descriptions being afterwards entered in a register. After a time they decided to make known the results of their labours, and accordingly a volume was produced called 'A Catalogue of Trees and Shrubs both Exotic and Domestic which are propagated for Sale in the Gardens near London.' It is copiously illustrated by Jacob Van Huysum, brother of the well-known Dutch painter, and would have been followed by other volumes if it had received sufficient encouragement. The 'Catalogue' has been attributed to Philip Miller [q. v.], who was at one time secretary of the society; there is, however, no internal evidence of this. The preface is signed by various members; it was not published until 1730, some months after Fairchild's death, but his name stands first on the list of signatories, and the topographical notes interspersed have a strong likeness to those which one finds in 'The City Gardener.' The book is indexed under his name at the British Museum. Fairchild specially bequeathed to a nephew his 'right and title to a subscription of a booke belonging to the Society of Gardeners, subscribed thereto.'

Fairchild died on 10 Oct. 1729. He had taken up the freedom of the Clothworkers' Company in 1704, and in his will he is described as citizen and clothworker. In accordance with his direction he was buried 'in some corner of the furthest church yard belonging to the parish of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, where the poore people are usually buried.' The burial-ground, now laid out as a garden, is in the Hackney Road. On his monument, which has been more than once renewed, he is said to have died in the sixty-third year of his age.

Fairchild bequeathed 25l. to the trustees of the charity school and the churchwardens of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, to be by them placed out to interest for the payment of 20s. annually for ever, for a sermon at that church on Whit Tuesday in the afternoon, on the 'Wonderful Works of God in the Creation,' or on the 'Certainty of the Resurrection of the Dead, proved by the certain changes of the animal and vegetable parts of the Creation.' In the event of his wishes not being carried out at the church of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, the sum was to be transferred for a like purpose to St. Giles's, Cripplegate a clause which suggests that he may have been born in that parish. The provisions of the will were duly carried out, the first 'Flower' sermon or lecture being preached in 1730 by Dr. John Denne, vicar of St. Leonard's. In 1746, partly through subscriptions, partly out of the money which Dr. Denne had received during fifteen years for preaching the sermon, the fund was increased to 96l., with which 100l. of South Sea stock was purchased and afterwards transferred to the president and fellows of the Royal Society, the proceeds to be applied as a recompense to the preachers of this sermon. They are now annually appointed by the bishop of London, and from the pulpit in St. Leonard's church still express the founder's views.

In Fairchild's will he bequeathed 30l. to his 'daughter-in-law, Mary Price, the wife of James Price,' but no direct allusion to his wife or child has come to light. He left the bulk of his property to his nephew, John Bacon of Hoxton, who was a member of the Society of Gardeners, and died on 20 Feb. 1737, aged 25.

[R.Bradley, besides the passage quoted in the text, and many other allusions, makes reference to Fairchild's vines in A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening, 1726, ii. 52; R. Pulteney's Historical and Biographical Sketches of the Progress of Botany in England, 1790, ii. 238; H. Ellis's History and Antiquities of the Parish of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, 1798, p. 283; G. W. Johnson's History of English Gardening, 1829, p. 191; Hon. Alicia Amherst's History of Gardening in England, 1895; Britten and Boulger's Biographical Dictionary of Botanists; Fairchild's will; speech by Dr. Maxwell Masters, Times report, 12 July 1899; information supplied by the Rev. Septimus Buss, late vicar of St. Leonard, Shoreditch.]

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