Roses are a major part of our horticultural heritage. Fashions in horticulture change: roses that once enjoyed huge popularity in Britain have disappeared from commerce.
The Historic Roses Group of the Royal National Rose Society* is seeking to ensure that this heritage is not lost forever. It has compiled a list of all the roses bred in Britain before 1950 and now lost to cultivation in the UK. Many still linger in gardens overseas – for example, in France, Germany and Italy.
The Group has begun to reintroduce those no longer grown in this country. Some of these ‘near-extinct’ cultivars have already been planted among the historical collections at the Royal National Rose Society’s new gardens at St. Albans.
The Group is also involved with a display bed at the City of London West Ham Park in East London, illustrating the history of rose breeding in Britain. This display starts with roses grown before 1550, and shows advances in breeding with selected roses bred in Britain up to 1950.
West Ham Park has provided the space for the demonstration bed and looks after it. Many of the roses have been donated by David Austin Roses, Peter Beales Roses and Bill Le Grice Roses. The rest come from the Group’s own re-introductions.
In 2006, the Historic Roses Group asked the Royal Horticultural Society to help fund the rose bed in West Ham Park. That support has not been forthcoming, but the Group and the Park both felt that the project was too good to drop. The Park Garden Manager therefore made available a site next to the existing rose garden which would be inexpensive to prepare, and planting began in autumn 2007.
The roses have been arranged in rough chronological order, starting with the 16th-century Damask rose ‘York and Lancaster’, and ending with the Hybrid Tea ‘Dusky Maiden’ (1947).
The display also includes historic roses that had become extinct in Britain. The Group has had these propagated from rose plants still existing in the great collections at Sangerhausen in Germany and Cavriglia in Italy.
The display bed opens in summer 2008.
History of West Ham Park
Documents relating to the park date back to 1566. It was originally part of the Upton House estate, before being acquired in 1762 by philanthropist Dr John Fothergill. Encouraged to build a botanical garden, Dr Fothergill would often waive his fees and accept payment in rare plants instead.
After Dr Fothergill’s death, the park passed into the hands of the Gurney family. When the Gurney family wished to sell the estate during the 1860s, local residents worked with the City of London and the family to raise funds to purchase the site and enable it to be preserved as open space.
West Ham Park was officially opened on 20 July 1874. The ceremony was performed by the Lord Mayor of London and, as a band played in the background, deeds of title were presented declaring the park “open public grounds and garden for adults, children and youth” and that the City of London should maintain the park forever at its own expense.
This rich and diverse history has recently been recognised by the park being designated a Grade II listed site on the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Specific Historic Interest in England.
*The Royal National Rose Society subsequently closed down in 2017.