RHS Harlow Carr : British Prisoner Gardeners

Written by: Elmtree Press

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

• The 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.