Harlow Carr Tells Story of British Prisoners Who Gardened Through the Great War

Wednesday 14 December 2016

• Discover how gardening helped prisoners endure internment during WWI • Learn how internees grew fruit and veg and held flower shows at the Ruhleben prison camp in Germany, deep behind enemy lines • Grandfather of Harlow Carr’s Librarian was one of more than 5,000 British men and boys interned at Ruhleben


A new exhibition charting the remarkable story of how gardening helped British prisoners endure internment during the First World War will be told at RHS Garden Harlow Carr in the New Year.

The most northerly RHS Garden, in Harrogate, is hosting Gardens Behind Barbed Wire in its historic Bath House from 7 January to 26 February 2017. The exhibition – on loan from the RHS Lindley Library in London – tells the story of an intrepid group of British men who set up a horticultural society in the bleak surroundings of the Ruhleben Internment Camp in Germany, and helped to feed their fellow prisoners throughout the First World War.

Librarian at Harlow Carr, Sue Padgham, has a personal connection with the new exhibition. She explains: “My grandfather, Thomas Thomas, was detained at Ruhleben because he was working in Hamburg for the Southern Cotton Oil Company on the day war broke out.

“He was detained at the camp for two years, then unexpectedly released in January 1916 along with 69 other men – many from fishing vessels captured in the North Sea – plus children and 10 members of the Royal Army Medical Corps. I know he travelled home to England by merchant ship from Flushing but I’m not sure why he and the others were chosen to be released – perhaps because of ill health or because they no longer posed a security risk.”

Thomas Thomas was one of more than 5,000 British men and boys interned at Ruhleben, an old racecourse outside Berlin, which was described when it opened as “scandalously inadequate” and “not fit to keep pigs in.” Working together they transformed the camp, overcoming terrible conditions to create a self-governing society within its fences. The Ruhleben Horticultural Society was a huge part of this.

Sue said: “What started with a handful of green-fingered internees growing pansies and violets in biscuit tins to disguise their bleak surroundings soon developed into a fully–fledged horticultural society, its members eventually numbering more than 900.

“Gardening offered a rare opportunity to shape an environment that was largely out of their control. The plants did not just disguise barbed-wire fences; they helped prisoners to forget the fences as they lost themselves in the simple but absorbing task of growing things.”

The society managed to feed the camp’s inmates and organise RHS-standard flower shows to boost morale. A potting shed and glasshouse were built and a steam heating system was rigged up from the camp’s boiler, allowing inmates to grow “a wonderful crop of melons and tomatoes”. At their flower shows, prizes were awarded for vegetables, cut flowers, sweet peas, table decorations, buttonholes, windowboxes and gardens. Promenade beds were planted alongside the barbed-wire fences and some of the barrack gardens were very elaborate with arches, frames and other supports. Members grew a total of 52 different sweet pea and proudly sent photographs of their gardens back to the RHS.

The RHS sent seeds, bulbs and advice to the Ruhleben prison, deep behind enemy lines. The two societies corresponded throughout the war, with internees sending back the photographs, letters, drawings and reports which make up most of the exhibition at RHS Garden Harlow Carr. The exhibition also features information and material gathered as a result of a public appeal that the RHS Lindley Library ran in 2014 when the exhibition was first displayed to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

Fiona Davison, Head of Libraries and Exhibitions at the RHS, said: “The story of the Ruhleben Horticultural Society is completely unique, a vivid example of the way that gardening can promote health and happiness, even in the most challenging circumstances.”

Gardens Behind Barbed Wire runs from 7 January to 26 February 2017 in Harlow Carr’s Bath House. A complementary Second World War Dig for Victory exhibition will be on display in the Harlow Carr Library, offering visitors a chance to find out more about the role of gardening throughout both World Wars.
Normal garden admission applies. Visit www.rhs.org.uk/harlowcarrwhatson or call 01423 565418 for more details.

Please contact Ali Aston, Marketing & PR Executive with any press queries on 01423 724693, email aliaston@rhs.org.uk or Sasha Jackson-Brown on 01423 724651, email sashajacksonbrown@rhs.org.uk.



Notes to editors

RHS Garden Harlow Carr
Crag Lane, Beckwithshaw, Harrogate, North Yorkshire HG3 1QB

Opening times
Harlow Carr is open every day except for Christmas Day
9.30am – 4pm November to February inclusive
9.30am – 6pm March to October inclusive
Last admission is one hour before closing time

2016 Admission prices
RHS members enjoy free entry with a family guest (entitlements may vary according to membership type)

Non-members (excluding Gift Aid)
Adult £10.00
Family (2 plus 2) £25.50
Children 5 – 16yrs £5.00
Children under 5 years Free
Groups £9.00

About the RHS
The Royal Horticultural Society was founded in 1804 by Sir Joseph Banks and John Wedgwood to inspire passion and excellence in the science, art and practice of horticulture. Our vision is to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener, healthier, happier and more beautiful place. We believe everyone in every village, town and city should benefit from growing plants to enhance lives, build stronger, healthier, happier communities and create better places to live.

We held our first flower shows in 1820, were granted a Royal Charter in 1861 and acquired RHS Garden Wisley, our flagship garden, in 1903. From our first meetings in a small room off London’s Piccadilly, we have grown to become the world’s largest gardening charity. At our gardens and shows and through our scientific research, publications, libraries and our education and community programmes we inspire a passion for gardening and growing plants, promote the value of gardens, demonstrate how gardening is good for us and explain the vital roles that plants undertake.

The RHS is committed to bring the joy of gardening to millions more people, inspire the next generation of gardeners and invest in the future to safeguard a £10.4 billion industry employing more than 300,000 people. We are entirely funded by our members, visitors and supporters. RHS membership is for anyone with an interest in gardening. Support the RHS and help us secure a healthy future for gardening. For more information call: 020 3176 5820, or visit www.rhs.org.uk/join

RHS Registered Charity No. 222879/SC038262

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About the RHS

The RHS believes that gardening improves the quality of life and that everyone should have access to great garden experiences. As a charity we help to bring gardening into people's lives and support gardeners of all levels and abilities; whether they are expert horticulturists or children who are planting seeds for the very first time.

RHS membership is for anyone with an interest in gardening. Support the RHS and secure a healthy future for gardening. For more information call: 0845 130 4646, or visit www.rhs.org.uk

RHS Registered Charity No. 222879/SC038262