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Castlewellan Part 3: Thomas Ryan - a Head Gardener's Story

Thomas Ryan pictured next to a giant Wellingtonia planted in 1856 at Castlewellan. From a photograph by Hugh Annesley, the 5th Earl Annesley, 1900. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

Introduction: A Gardening Partnership

The third part of my Castlewellan story concentrates on Thomas Ryan, the 5th Earl Annesley of Castlewellan's Head Gardener. Described as "gardener, friend, and constant companion" to Hugh Annesley, Ryan worked with the Earl over the course of some 40 years transforming Castlewellan from Victorian pleasure ground to an arboretum of international importance, full of rare and often newly introduced species of hardy trees and shrubs. Many of those plants have continued to thrive over the decades – so much so that, in 2018, Castlewellan was described as having "the finest collection of trees and shrubs on the island of Ireland" [see Note 1].

Like many other Head Gardeners of grand estates or gardens of the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods, Thomas Ryan was intelligent and articulate – and articles written by him were regularly published in The Garden and The Gardeners' Chronicle. Ryan mostly wrote about his gardening activities at Castlewellan or particular plants, but sometimes the articles contain little snippets of information about Ryan which helps build a picture of the man himself. While articles written by others about Castlewellan, often mention Ryan and describe his abilities.

The likenesses of Head Gardeners from this period are often lost to posterity; fortunately, the 5th Earl was a keen photographer [see Part 1], and many of his photographs of the Castlewellan grounds feature Ryan as well as illustrate some of his articles. I'm grateful to both Alwyn Sinnamon, the current Head Gardener at Castlewellan, and the Ogilvie family, for permission to use many of them here.

Thomas Ryan (in his 30's) outside the glasshouse at Castlewellan known as 'The Turner House'. Photograph by Hugh Annesley c.1880's. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

The Head Gardener at Castlewellan

But before I tell you about Ryan, here's the little I've found out about his predecessor as Head Gardener. In the December 18th, 1880 issue of The Gardeners’ Chronicle, there appeared the following advert under the 'situations wanted' section: "Mr. S. Hill, eleven years Gardener and Forester in the Earl Annesley's Castlewellan Demesne, wants a similar situation". Hill adding that he had "satisfactory reasons for leaving”. This same ad appeared in the following 2 issues, the last being on January 8th, 1881. After this date presumably Mr. Hill found the “similar situation” he had been looking for, and left his position as Castlewellan's Head Gardener.

Wanted Ads, 'The Gardeners' Chronicle', December 18th 1880

The only other reference I've found to Hill is in an article published in The Gardeners’ Chronicle some years earlier in August 1872. Written by a Mr. William Heale of the Victoria and Paradise Nurseries in North London who visited Castlewellan, Heale described the gardens and made this comment: “The gardens at Castlewellan are under the charge of Mr. Hill, and it is gratifying to be able to say that everything is in fine order, the whole well kept, the plant and fruit houses scrupulously clean; and any horticultural visitor will find every attention shown him, and would therefore thoroughly enjoy himself”.

Thomas Denis Ryan (1851-1910): a Head Gardener's Career Path

Ryan was born in County Limerick in 1851 and, as far as is known, began his horticultural career working as an apprentice at Summerville, County Limerick, the home of a James FitzGerald Bannatyne (1833-1915). The only additional information I've found on this is a comment from Mabel, one of the Earl's elder daughters from his first marriage who wrote, in unpublished notes from her later autobiography, that the "delightful Jimmy Bannatyne" was her husband's uncle; Mabel marrying Gerald Sowerby [a naval man] in 1904. [All quotes from Mabel are from this document – see Note 2]

Interestingly, Bannatyne advertised for a Head Gardener through the pages of The Gardeners’ Chronicle in February 1883, some 3 years after Ryan had left for Castlewellan – and a brief note in the following April records the appointment of a Mr Dumper to the position. I've not found any adverts for the Head Gardener position at Castlewellan after Hill left.

From 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', February 10th 1883 – and, right, April 14th 1883

Ryan would have begun his gardening career as an apprentice – most starting off aged between 12 and 14. Usually from a rural, working-class background, like Ryan, and often with a father or brothers in the same trade. It's possible that Summerville was local to Ryan's family home, or perhaps he even had relatives working there (although Ryan's father was a farmer). Unfortunately, there are no complete census records for Ireland until 1901 [see Note 3] so details of Ryan's birth and his life before his move to Castlewellan are unclear.

Victorian apprentice gardeners at work

According to garden historian Toby Musgrave's excellent book, The Head Gardeners: Forgotten Heroes of Horticulture, in general an apprentice gardener was expected to have had a reasonable primary school education: the curriculum for primary schools in County Limerick at the time included reading, writing and arithmetic, in addition to history, geography, bookkeeping and surveying. Some Latin was taught, and occasionally Greek.

For the first year of his working life, an apprentice gardener undertook menial, unpleasant jobs such as washing pots and stoking boilers – or sometimes even downright dangerous ones like applying pesticides such as mercury, arsenic and other hazardous chemicals in use at the time – with the spraying of nicotine a favourite to kill aphids, but also used as a fertilizer. No health and safety regulations in those days!

Advert for 'Cross's Celebrated Garden [nicotine-based] Fertilizer' spray from ‘Irish Gardening’, vol.3, 1908

After this somewhat tough initiation, an apprentice spent a year or more working in each garden department (if at a larger establishment), gaining a basic grounding in the different areas – the ornamental garden, kitchen garden, glasshouses, etc. In addition to mastering a wide range of practical gardening skills (working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week), an apprentice would also be expected to spend his evening hours dedicated to his self-improvement by reading and study. And, after about 4 years of this “mental and physical slog”, an apprentice could rise to the position of ‘journey-man’ gardener.

When Ryan, aged about 20, moved to Castlewellan in the early 1870's, William, the 4th Earl (1838-1874) was still engaged in completing the pleasure gardens at Castlewellan Castle – and Hill was still in post as Head Gardener. Ryan probably left Summerville for the much larger Castlewellan estate to gain experience and improve his career prospects – in essence, getting his feet onto the next rung of the career ladder, most probably as a journey-man gardener.

'Wanted Ads' from 'The Gardeners' Chronicle', April 23rd, 1870 – a good place to start for an ambitious gardener

As the name implies, journey-men gardeners spent the next few years of their career changing jobs (and often moving around the country) in order to develop their horticultural skills and gain experience. For those that stayed the course, a talented journey-man with 2-3 years experience could then apply for a head gardener’s post in a small garden, or as a foreman in one of the garden departments of a larger establishment. The next step up was to become a general foreman or even a deputy head gardener.

And so, after 10 years or more as an apprentice, a journey-man gardener, foreman or a deputy head, an ambitious gardener was ready to apply for a Head Gardener's position. Although many gardeners were promoted internally – as in Ryan’s case.

In 1874, after the premature death of unmarried William, his younger brother Hugh inherited the Castlewellan title and became the 5th Earl [see Part 1]. So, by the time Hill left Castlewellan in 1881, the 5th Earl had been in charge of the estate for some 7 years. We'll probably never know Hill's “satisfactory reasons for leaving” but early in 1881, aged 30, Ryan was promoted to Head Gardener – it being said at the time that the Earl saw his potential. [Perhaps the new Earl showed a preference for Ryan and it was this that prompted Hill to move on. Although if Hill left Castlewellan on good terms, he may even have recommended Ryan for the position. Another possibility is that the Annesley and Bannatyne families knew each other before Mabel's later marriage, and Ryan was recommended to the 4th Earl.]

And here, just a brief word about Ryan's working clothes. In all these photographs, he's pictured wearing the traditional head gardener's attire of waistcoat with a shirt and collar. The bowler hat and watchchain additionally both dignifying, and acknowledging, his status – with a straw hat for the summer, as shown in one of the photographs below.

Photograph of Thomas Ryan alongside the first Cupressus Lawsoniana lutia planted at Castlewellan in 1883. Photograph by Hugh Annesley. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

'Places Wanted' in 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', February 5th, 1870

Role of the Head Gardener

Before I get into detail about Ryan however, I think it's important to look at the status and importance that head gardeners enjoyed during this period that extended way beyond their own garden walls.

As Musgrave points out, the sort of men who made it to the top after a rather gruelling apprenticeship, needed “a natural horticultural talent, determination, open-mindedness and adaptability”. They also had to work very hard, have high levels of self-discipline, as well as having a personal and professional pride in their work. By the mid to late-19th century, a successful head gardener faced “a constant onslaught of challenges” in the garden – needing to continually improve his skills through reading and study, to keep up with the amazing array of exotic new plants arriving into the UK and Ireland to grace both Victorian gardens and their newer, sophisticated glasshouses.

Ryan would not only have needed a high level of horticultural skill, but also management skills. It was a head gardener’s responsibility to manage the garden staff which, on an estate like Castlewellan, could have been large, and something of a full time job in itself. The 'Rules and Regulations' listed below, even though from an earlier period, gives you some idea of some of the tasks, and challenges, at such a large establishment.

‘Rules and Regulations’ posted by the Head Gardener at Bicton Gardens in Devon in 1842 – still on display at the gardens today

The head gardener's duties involved not only dealing with wages and work rotas, but also managing finance for any works undertaken in the garden. In the 1880's, the Earl added various summerhouses around the estate, including one known as the Moorish Tower as shown below – perhaps one of the first large garden projects Ryan was involved in as Head Gardener.

Photograph by Hugh Annesley taken during the construction of the summerhouse at Castlewellan known as the 'Moorish Tower' in 1884. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

Speaking of money, while garden staff were paid a weekly wage (and therefore could be instantly dismissed), a head gardener was a salaried employee which gave him a little more security. According to Musgrave, in the 1870’s the going rate for a head gardener in the UK was around £100 per annum – and this was if he worked at a grand estate OR in a small suburban garden. However, a savvy head gardener could make-up for his notoriously poor pay, especially at a larger establishment. He and his family usually lived in a tied cottage on the estate [as Ryan and his family did], and were allowed to take produce from the estate to feed themselves.

Advertisement for 'Eucharis Amazonica' bulbs for sale from the front page of 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', May 26, 1888

Also, a lot of surplus garden produce could be traded – for example, with a local butcher or grocer. And it was an acceptable gardener's perk to sell some of the surplus propagated plants (and not always for the benefit of their employer’s purse). This advert from 1888 placed by Ryan being an example of how he may have supplemented his income.

The demands on a head gardener of Ryan’s status working on a large estate (and additionally for a member of the aristocracy) has been likened, in Musgrave's words, to being a CEO of a horticultural business, and Ryan had his own office located in one of the garden buildings, as shown in the photograph below.

The restored Head Gardener’s office at Castlewellan. Courtesy Alwyn Sinnamon

Musgrave describes the list of things that a head gardener had to manage, and it was an immense workload. The gardens always had to be at their peak whatever the season – or weather. They usually needed to reflect the latest fashions, a head gardener often working in co-operation with their employer on seasonal planting schemes, and the ornamental gardens had to be filled with the latest, rarest, and most expensive plants. The glasshouses had to be full, and those at Castlewellan included new waterlily hybrids from France [those bought by Claude Monet for his new water garden at Giverny], as well as exotic species of orchids and other hothouse plants – many requiring different temperatures and levels of care [see Part 2]. Incidentally, raising cut flowers and pot plants for the house was often another task for the head gardener – such displays usually changed on a weekly basis, and all having to be done before the family appeared for their breakfast.

Thomas Ryan and the Countess Annesley [the Earl's first wife] standing in front of the Nectarine House (on the left) and the Peach House (right). Photograph by Hugh Annesley c.1880's. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

As well as the gardens, peripheral activities also had to be managed such as carpentry shops, pot and washing sheds, coal deliveries [the Earl spent a lot of money on coal for the boilers heating his orchid houses for example], managing the technicalities of the glasshouses, cold and hot frames, as well as forcing houses, mushroom house, and potting sheds for blending composts [including the Earl's disgusting recipe for feeding new shrubs – see Ryan's Articles in the Horticultural Press: An unsurpassed plant food recipe].

In the Earl’s photograph below, Ryan can be seen standing by what Heale of the Victoria and Paradise Nurseries called the “conservative wall”. A 'conservative wall' being a garden wall against which glasshouses are built to enable plants to be grown. Heale described this wall as being “some 400 ft long, covered in fine specimens of Ivies, Magnolias, Clematis, etc.” [Castlewellan had some 20 glasshouses at one point – see Part 2.]

Thomas Ryan standing by the 'conservative wall'. Photograph by Hugh Annesley c.1880's. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

And, as if all that wasn’t enough, a head gardener also had to meet his employer’s high expectations. Fortunately, Ryan and the Earl seemed to have had a mutual respect for each other, working together on the development of Castlewellan’s gardens and arboretum.

Hugh Annesley, The 5th Earl, sitting in the Winter Garden full of bamboos and tree ferns – the large conservatory attached to the Castle, 1899. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

The Ryan Family: 1901 Census of Ireland

The 1901 Census of Ireland provides some information on Ryan (aged 49 at the time) and his family. It records Ryan, his wife Maria (noted as a local girl from County Down and a ‘Dressmaker, who he had married in 1877 just a few years after moving to Castlewellan), and 4 children: Mary (a school teacher), James (a gardener), and Samuel and Anna (both still at school). The family lived at Clarkhill in the parish of Kilmegan (Clarkill being the electoral division of Castlewellan and covering the Annesley's estate, including Ryan's estate cottage). The family are noted as being members of the Church of Ireland, and they could all read and write.

Additional information from The House and Building Return form from this census gives some information as to the house they lived in. Their landlord was the Earl of Annesley, and the class of house is described as “2nd”, due to the number of windows and rooms in the house (it having 5 rooms, and 4 windows at the front).

Census of Ireland from 1901 listing Thomas Ryan, his wife, Maria, and their 4 children.

Alwyn at Castlewellan has kindly sent me a copy of the marriage certificate showing that Thomas and Maria were married at St Paul's Church in Castlewellan on 5th November, 1877. [Although he was working at Castlewellan at the time, Ryan's residence is recorded as being in Dublin. This may have been another Annesley property at which Ryan was temporarily based, but it's not clear.] The certificate also confirms that Ryan's father was a farmer, and Maria was living at 'the Grange' at Castlewellan, the name of the farm and stable yards where Maria's father was Farmer and Steward.

Marriage Certificate recording Thomas Ryan's marriage to Maria M'Spadden on 5th November, 1877

Gardeners' Accommodation

A head gardener (and his family if he had one) at a large estate usually lived in a tied-cottage in the precincts of the garden (often set within the walls of the garden itself), and Ryan and his family were no exception. In the article by Heale in August 1871, he describes “the gardener’s residence” being located “immediately on entering the pleasure grounds”. This house is known as The Garden Cottage and would have been Ryan's home.

'The Garden Cottage', once the home of Ryan and his family The entrance to the 'pleasure grounds', as described by Heale, is to the right of the cottage. Courtesy Alwyn Sinnamon

As Musgrave writes, a head gardener effectively "lived above the shop" and apart from visiting family, other gardens, exhibiting or judging at horticultural shows [and presumably going to church on Sundays], was usually always on hand to oversee his empire. This allowed him to be the first each day to enter the gardens: unlocking the gates and making his rounds of the glasshouses, beds and borders “notebook in hand, monitoring and planningchecking on everything, and deciding the chores for the day.

Ryan was certainly a good example. Hugh Armytage-Moore (1873-1954) noting that Ryan's devotion to his work "meant he very rarely left Castlewellan and, to him, 'days off 'meant further days amongst the plants he loved, learning more about them while studying their habits and noting their requirements". And Armytage-Moore knew Ryan well. Brother to the Earl's 2nd wife, and owner of the famed Rowallane Estate in County Down between 1903-1954, he was also for a time Land Agent for the 5th Earl, and lived at Castlewellan for many years. Armytage-Moore wrote to a friend that he was “blooded” [using the hunting term I presume] into gardening at Castlewellan and "learnt many a good tip from old Ryan".

An article in The Gardeners' Chronicle in 1871 also provides some information on the other gardeners' accommodation. It describes "a nice residence for the foreman and under gardeners”, while Heale's article that same year notes that this house was well built "and supplied with every convenience requisite for the health and well-being of its inhabitants; a capital lavatory is placed in the interior, and is a nice addition not often thought of”. This would have been The Bothy House, located near the glasshouses in The Bothy Yard [as shown in the photograph below].

However, the quality of such bothies varied immensely some had their own cook, or even a maid, while some were described as being no better than uncomfortable, damp hovels. Whether the gardeners living in The Bothy House at Castlewellan would have agreed with Heale's assessment will probably remain forever unknown...

Hugh Annesley sitting in 'The Bothy Yard' next to the forcing pits c.1890. 'The Bothy House' (on the left) would have been basic accommodation for gardeners or other estate workers. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

Thomas Ryan supervising the planting of Portugal Laurels c.1890's. Photograph by Hugh Annesley. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

Mabel also writes about a group of around a dozen men "on the garden books" known as "His Lordship's Gang". These men apparently thought themselves a cut above the estate's farm hands against whom they played cricket on the Castle lawn.

Mabel described them as being "big, lean, hairy men who smoked clay pipes, wore broken 'billycocks' or squashed corbeens [sic] on unshorn locks". Presumably, some of these men are pictured here with Ryan. ['Billycock' is another name for a bowler, while a 'caubeen' is a type of beret once worn by Irish peasants.]

The Horticultural Press

During this period, both professional and amateur gardeners had many gardening papers and journals to choose from, and they were a convenient way of obtaining the latest information on an array of gardening subjects. The Gardeners' Chronicle was one of the best known, full of useful facts and figures, descriptions of new plants and hybrids, new design ideas, q&a's, book reviews, readers' letters, and even information on experimental research into such things as fertilisers and plant trials. And, importantly, the job ads, as well as adverts for all kinds of garden paraphernalia and the latest horticultural technology.

Numerous articles about Castlewellan published in the horticultural press of the day often specifically acknowledged Ryan's input. F.W. Burbidge (1847-1905), Curator of the Botanical Gardens of Trinity College Dublin at Glasnevin [who visited Castlewellan several times] writing in Flora and Sylva in 1904, described Ryan as a “past master in propagation and cultivation of choice shrubs and trees”. While another, by Armytage-Moore writing in The Gardeners’ Chronicle after Ryan’s death, describes his almost “magic touch” when it came to “the handling of seeds, in budding, layering or grafting”.

Armytage-Moore also wrote that Ryan was devoted to his work, and was a ”true gentleman” who had won for himself a position of trust and confidence with the family. This is borne out by the Earl's daughter, Mabel, who wrote that, of all the many people employed on the estate, by far the most outstanding character was Ryan. She also considered him "an absolute example of what the word trustworthy stands for".

Mabel also recognised Ryan's personal importance to her father, writing of him as being "gardener, friend, and constant companion", as together they "laboured over many little-known shrubs and trees, striving with all their skill to acclimatise any that gave promise of adding, by their use or beauty, to our gardens". Mabel adding that "Like window-dressers they spent long hours arranging the display of their wares in the most attractive and advantageous fashion”.

Thomas Ryan supervising the laying of the mountain paths on part of the Castlewellan estate. Photograph by Hugh Annesley c.1880's. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family. Mabel wrote of her father building such paths to open "vistas to mountains and seas"

An expected part of any head gardeners' duties was to show visitors, including garden writers, around the gardens and talk to them about such things as the planting, design, propagation, maintenance, etc. And several articles in the horticultural press describe Ryan doing just that. As Musgrave points out, many gardening correspondents who were invited to visit an establishment and assess the garden were often (or had been) head gardeners themselves. So they knew what they were talking (or writing) about.

For example, an unnamed writer from The Gardeners’ Chronicle visited Castlewellan in May 1891, specifically to see the Earl's (by now) famed collection of exotic plants and conifers. He was, he wrote, “much struck with the luxuriant health" of all the 900-odd distinct varieties of trees and shrubs grown at Castlewellan, adding that "Mr Ryan, the intelligent head gardener, who showed me round, has evidently his whole heart in his work”. A few years later, in 1896, another article in The Gardeners’ Chronicle described the Earl's "tireless and enthusiastic gardener", who had remodelled and in parts wholly laid out the gardens over "the course of the last 30 years...under his Lordship's unremitting superintendence". While in his 1904 article, Burbidge thought the Earl had created “one of the most wonderful collections of native and exotic trees and shrubs in the kingdomably assisted” by Ryan.

The horticultural press was not, however, just a source of information. It was also an important outlet for a motivated and skilled head gardener to get himself noticed, or to promote his garden. And in terms of reputation building, entering into debates, exchanging ideas, or passing comment on published articles got one's name into print.

Ryan, in front of the terrace glasshouses c.1880's. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

Ryan's Articles in the Horticultural Press

As already mentioned, Ryan regularly wrote articles for the English horticultural press. The first time he pops up [that I've found so far] is in September 1880, just 3 months before the current Head Gardener, Hill, began advertising in The Gardeners' Chronicle for a new position [see The Holly below]. There is, however, a very brief article in The Garden from October 1879 titled 'Eucalypti in Ireland' about several kinds of this plant which had survived the winter at Castlewellan. But, as it's only signed "R", I can't be sure it's from Ryan.

This was just the start as Ryan and the Earl also forged a strong alliance in the horticultural press, with Ryan's many and varied articles about the plants growing at Castlewellan often illustrated with the Earl's photographs. To give you an idea of numbers, between the years 1880 and 1907, 15 articles by Ryan were published in The Garden, 17 in The Gardeners' Chronicle, and 3 in Flora and Sylva. In addition, there are numerous notes in The Gardeners' Chronicle mentioning Ryan sending in samples of plant material, often with accompanying information which was an accepted practice by gardeners [see The Editor's Table below].

Ryan is also listed as one of a number of "authoritative" writers for the monthly journal, Irish Gardening [which began in 1906] as can be seen below. Volumes 1 and 2 are not online, so I don't know what his contributions relate to except an article about bamboos at Castlewellan published in November 1906 in volume 1. [I've found nothing written by him from volume 3 onwards.]

'Irish Gardening', vol. 3, 1908 – listing their "authoritative" writers. Ryan's name appears under 'Cultivation of Plants'

There are too many articles by Ryan in the horticultural press to detail them all, but I will mention some of the most interesting – or those which give us some insight into Ryan himself.

‘The Holly’, The Garden, September 11th, 1880

In this short article, someone signing themselves simply "T.R.", writes of very large hollies growing at Castlewellan, in "an indigenous Holly wood belonging to Earl Annesley". [I wonder if Ryan didn't use his name as Hill was still in post?] Below is a later photograph of Ryan standing beneath one of Castlewellan's tall hollies.

Thomas Ryan standing beneath one of the tall holly trees at Castlewellan. Photograph by Hugh Annesley, c.1900. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

Ryan [and I believe he's probably the author] is following-up on a long article titled The Holly and its Varieties published in The Garden in August that year by no-less a personage as Shirley Hibberd (1825-1890), famed garden writer and editor of Amateur Gardening. While Hibberd extols the virtues of the largest known holly being in England at some 11ft in girth, Ryan points out that the largest hollies growing at Castlewellan, in Ireland, are some 10 1/2ft, with many over 40ft in height – growing in “anything but [the] favourable ground as regards soil and moisture” advocated by Hibberd.

There’s no response in following issues from the usually rather techy Hibberd [following spats between Victorian gentlemen in horticultural journals can be great fun by the way. Hibberd, for example, is well-known for such an argument across the pages of a gardening magazine with William Robinson]. So, although not actually contradicting Hibberd, it shows Ryan’s confidence in his thinking, and in his writing, so early on in his career.

'Coniferae at Castlewellan', The Garden, October 2nd, 1880

In Ryan's next article, and this time he signs himself "T. Ryan", he writes proudly of various sizes of conifers growing at Castlewellan “all beautiful specimens, feathered to the ground, and in perfect health”, listing species of cypress, cedars, monkey puzzles and junipers. He also includes details of a Wellingtonia gigantia, measuring some 50 foot – and the photograph at the top of this blog shows Ryan standing beside one of these giant Wellingtonias [sequoia] some years later. [I have to say, it does seem that gardeners were obsessed by the size of trees at this time...]

The image below titled 'Evergreen trees in the north of Ireland. Scene in the Earl of Annelsey's Garden at Castlewellan, Co. Down' is from The Garden some 10 years later in December 1890. The article's author describing the photograph as showing "a rich and happy blending of Conifers together with deciduous trees… the Chilian Araucarias and the Californian Sequoia are quite luxuriant and happy in association with the native Florence Court Yew".

Note the same view, below from 2018

‘Coniferae at Castlewellan’, Woods and Forests, April 2nd, 1884 – An Unsurpassed Plant Food Recipe

In April 1884, Ryan wrote an article for a journal I've not come across before, Woods and Forests – probably because it's not available on-line, so thanks to Alwyn who sent it to me. In this journal, described as 'a weekly illustrated journal of forestry, ornamental planting and estate management', Ryan explains the great care and attention given to trees and shrubs at Castlewellan when first planted out, adding that giving them “rich food” would “amply repay the labour and expense of doing so”.

He then describes a rather unsavoury recipe which entailed burying the intestines of 4,000-odd rabbits, mixed with plenty of dead rats, into peaty soil, keeping it all under cover (this was the Earl's idea apparently). When the contents were well-rotted, a proportion of it would be mixed with bog soil and loam to create a feed. Ryan wrote that “plants of all sorts grow and flourish in a manner I have never seen surpassed”, adding that it was very “satisfactory” to enlist the services of rats “in the cause of trees” – the “rat being a noxious animal it is usually very difficult to get much out of”. [Think I’ll stick to Miracle-Gro...]

'Trees and Shrubs in Ireland', The Garden, June 8th, 1895

The horticultural press is a treasure trove of information about the actual species of plants grown in the gardens and arboretum at Castlewellan; and the article below gives a long list showing to what degree many were affected by the previous winter's severe weather. This being another subject which regularly exercised the gardening papers. However, "J. Ryan" must be a misprint as Thomas Ryan sent a similar, although shorter list, to The Gardener's Chronicle that same month and, at this time, his gardener son Jim was only 16.

'Vitis coignetiae', The Garden, December 5th,1896

This article by Burbidge of Glasnevin about Vitis coignetiae, or the Crimson Glory Vine (accompanied by the Earl's photograph below), prompted a follow-up article from Ryan [below] concerning his activities propagating plants for distribution (and, possibly, sale). Burbidge having pointed out in his article that the Earl "has long grown ...Vitis, and many plant lovers are deeply indebted to him for his liberality in sharing with them his choicest rarities”.

Today, this plant's beautiful autumnal colouring is well-known in our gardens, but at the time it was still a relatively new introduction. It didn't become available in the UK until 1892 when James Veitch of the famed Veitch nursery, and Professor Charles Sargent of the Boston Arnold Arboretum, collected seed while in Japan.

'The Japanese Vine (Vitis Coignetiae) in the gardens at Castlewellan, Co. Down [featuring Countess Annesley, the Earl's second wife]. From a photograph sent by Lord Annesley'. 'The Garden', December 5, 1896

'Propagating Vitis Coignetiae', The Garden, December 12th, 1896

Ryan's short article published a week later, included practical information about propagating the vine, and mentioned that the Earl asked him to keep a stock of young plants "as visitors invariably ask for plants of it, and his lordship has sent plants to nearly all parts of the United Kingdom”.

Whether this was just largesse on the Earl's part or whether the plants were sold, is not clear. However, as already mentioned, it is known that some seeds, bulbs, and plants were sold from Castlewellan. In 1892 for example, Ryan was advertising daffodil bulbs for sale in The Gardeners' Chronicle as shown below. The bulbs were the new Narcissus Countess of Annesley [to be discussed in the forthcoming Part 4], described by Ryan as “splendid large, cultivated bulbs” . The advert also mentions a List of Surplus Stock of "new and rare shrubs”. Whether the Earl benefitted from these sales, or it was head gardener's perks, is not known.

Front page of 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', August 27th, 1892

'Japanese Maples at Castlewellan. Co. Down', The Gardeners' Chronicle, January 18th,1902

In this article, Ryan also mentions annual visits to Castlewellan of a representative from "one of the largest English nurseries”. Although he doesn't mention the purpose of these visits, perhaps this unnamed nursery was either sourcing plants from Castlewellan for sale, or selling plants to the Earl and Ryan.

The Earl’s photograph of a ‘Japanese Maple at Castlewellan’. From ‘The Gardeners’ Chronicle’, January 18th, 1902

It also shows Ryan using non-botanical Latin terms. In writing about treasured plants obtained from Japan, Ryan thought Acer japonicum atro-purpureum (featured in the Earl's accompanying photograph) was perhaps one of the very best: “whether we admire its graceful foliage, its vigorous habit, or its lovely colouring, it is 'facile princeps' among ornamental trees..". This Latin phrase literally meaning 'easily first', or in this context, the 'acknowledged best', so Ryan's schoolboy Latin came in handy. [And yes, I had to look it up...]

The article also implies that Ryan may, at least on one occasion, have accompanied the Earl to London. The Earl (an active member of the Royal Horticultural Society) and his family spent most of every summer in London [see Part 1]. In relation to this particular plant’s monetary value, Ryan recalls that at one of the RHS’s Temple shows a few years previously, a Duke paid £20 for a plant “not to be compared with the one in the photograph”.

'The Season in the County of Down', The Gardeners’ Chronicle, January 3rd, 1903

Other regular contributions to the horticultural press by head gardeners from grand estates down, was reporting on the different seasons, weather conditions, and how it had affected plants. And in this, Ryan was no exception, as this clipping from January 1903 shows where he writes about the "abnormally mild" weather in County Down causing some shrubs to bloom early.

Eucryphia pinnatifolia, Flora and Sylva, June 1903

In a brief article published in Flora and Sylva in June 1903, Ryan described this shrub as flowering early in the autumn with pure white flowers, with a central tuft of yellow stamens. Growing to some 8ft high and over 30ft in circumference, Ryan wrote that they were grown from “home-saved” seed which took some 15 months to ripen, with seedlings appearing 2 months after sowing. The image is from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, t.7067, July 1st, 1889.

‘Plants in a Garden at Falmouth’, The Gardeners’ Chronicle, May 20th, 1905

I mentioned earlier the spats that sometimes took place across the pages of the horticultural press, as gardeners expressed their differing opinions (sometimes rather forcibly) – but there were also friendly exchanges. In 1905, Ryan had such an exchange with a S.W. Herbert, writing in The Gardeners' Chronicle about tender plants growing in Cornwall. This was Samuel Wyndham Fitzherbert (1854-1915), a regular contributor of articles and letters in the horticultural press, and author of The Book of the Wild Garden (1903) [see Note 4].

In Ryan's printed reply, he pointed out that many of the same species grew quite happily at Castlewellan, some 280 miles north of Cornwall, due to its favourable climate and position. Ryan also recommended the Earl’s book on rare trees and shrubs to Fitzherbert – a book which, he commented “no lover of choice trees and shrubs should be without” [see Note 5]. Ryan also asked Fitzherbert to visit, when he would be only too happy to show him round the gardens and arboretum. Fitzherbert duly replied through The Gardeners' Chronicle, writing that he had read the Earl’s book, and hoped that some day he could take-up Ryan’s offer to show him “the rare plants under his charge”. I wonder if he ever did…?

'Cordyline indivisa', The Gardeners’ Chronicle, October 6th, 1906

This article provides an insight into Ryan's attributes as a successful grower of some of the more challenging plants – this cordyline being a different species to the common-or-garden Torbay palm, or Cordyline australis, that many of us grow in our gardens. It's also accompanied by one of the Earl's photographs of this 8ft high plant which had 5 1/2ft dark-green leaves with orange stripes. It also features Ryan who, by this time, is in his mid-50's – and wearing a summer straw hat rather than his usual bowler.

'Cordyline indivisa Vera, grown from seed, in the gardens at Castlewellan. From a photograph kindly sent by the Earl of Annesley'. From 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', October 6th, 1906

This newly introduced cordyline was raised from seed sent to Burbidge at Glasnevin from New Zealand who, in turn, sent some to the Earl. The first plants failed, so Ryan planted out the remainder in the border of a cool orchard house with the roots covered with leaf-soil. He mentions receiving a letter from Burbidge at the time [so again, he's corresponding with horticultural heavyweights in his own right], advising that it was the first time "this plant had been grown from seed successfully in Europe since 1857". Ryan also adds, rather modestly, that he sent some of Castlewellan's plants to Burbidge, as his had failed to germinate.

The Earl also appreciated Ryan's efforts. A photograph of this particular plant [which was quite rare in gardens at the time] also appears in the Earl’s book, where he notes that “My gardener was clever enough to raise a good many plants from seed imported from New Zealand, its native place”.

'Lomatia ferruginea', The Gardeners’ Chronicle, September 28th, 1907

Many of Ryan’s short notes in the horticultural press offer advice for other gardeners. In this article, he writes about the handsome Chilean shrub, Lomata ferruginea, an early introduction from the Veitch nursery in the mid-1840’s, collected by the plant-hunter William Lobb. Castlewellan's specimen, at some 18 years old had, Ryan pointed out, withstood winter weather growing outside, contrary to most gardening books which described it as a plant “for the greenhouse or conservatory”.

'Lomatia Ferruginea, A Flowering Shrub from Chile, Growing in Earl Annesley's Garden, at Castlewellan County Down' from 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', September 28th, 1907. Photograph by Hugh Annesley

There's also a colour image of Castlewellan's specimen of this plant published in Curtis's Botanical Magazine in January 1907. Curtis's tells us that, as the specimen growing in the Temperate House at Kew had not flowered, the plant illustrated was drawn from "a fine specimen growing in the beautiful gardens of the Earl Annesley at Castlewellan... sent by Mr. T. Ryan in July, 1906".

'Lomatia Ferruginea', t.8112 from 'Curtis’s Botanical Magazine', January 1st, 1907 – illustrated from a specimen growing at Castlewellan some 9 ft high with a circumference of 27 ft at the widest part

Regular Contributions

As Head Gardener, it was also Ryan's responsibility to ensure that the kitchen garden produced enough fruit and veg – both in and out of season, for the Castlewellan estate. It was also usual for a head gardener to supply any town house his employer may have had. However, as the Earl and his family usually spent their summers in London, it's unclear whether this was the case [although I believe the Annesleys did have their own London property]. However, one thing that Ryan did do was contribute regularly to The Gardeners’ Chronicle feature on the condition of fruit crops around the country. See an example below of his report for County Down from the summer of 1897.

'Report on the Condition of the Fruit Crops (From our own Correspondents)'. From 'The Gardeners' Chronicle', July 31st, 1897

The Editor's Table

Another way for senior, or head gardeners to show off their gardens – and their own skills, was to send in specimens of interesting or rare plants to the horticultural press, and the magazines would then publish a comment. Editors welcomed such contributions as a way not only to create interest for their readers, but also to initiate discussion and comment.

Both The Garden and The Gardeners’ Chronicle had columns devoted to this under sections such as Enquiries, Questions from, or Answers to, Correspondents and, in April 1881, The Garden formalised such contributions with ‘The Editors Table’ column. Gardeners and garden owners, including Ryan, were keen to participate – other regular contributors to The Editors Table included horticultural luminaries such as Gertrude Jekyll, Burbidge of Glasnevin, Lynch, Curator of the Cambridge Botanic Garden, various famed nurserymen of the time, as well as owners of suburban and country gardens and, of course, their gardeners.

'The Garden', April 8, 1882, 'Rhododendron Thomsoni' – Editor’s Table

Between 1880 and 1909, Ryan sent many contributions to both magazines. His earliest being in May 1880, not long after taking up the position of Head Gardener at Castlewellan, when he sent some sprigs of Pernettya mucronata to The Garden. The one above, from April 1882, details Rhododendron Thomsonii, one of many rhododendron species collected by Joseph Hooker during his 1849 expedition to the Himalayas.

A further interesting example is from June 1890, when The Garden's readers were informed that "the finest flowers" they had ever seen of Edwardsia grandiflora, a particularly rare shrub growing at Castlewellan, had been sent to them by Ryan. Adding that, although introduced from "New Zealand as far back as 1772", the plant was still very difficult to obtain. The coloured drawing of this plant [see below] had appeared in The Garden some years earlier.

'Edwardsia grandiflora' [now Sophora tetraptera] from 'The Garden', August 1877. Referred to by the Earl as the 'New Zealand Laburnum'

Just a year before his death, Ryan sent in a “number of sprays of interesting flowering shrubs” to The Gardeners' Chronicle. The magazine lists 19 different species in all, including lomatia, hydrangea, escallonia, olearia, weigela and cornus many having developed into large specimens, some over 20ft high.


As well as his contributions to the horticultural press, on at least one occasion Ryan wrote an article for a botanical journal, The Irish Naturalist: A Monthly Journal of General Irish Natural History. This was the official journal of various botanical societies in Ireland including The Royal Zoological Society of Ireland and the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club. His brief article, published in 1896, informed the journal’s readers of finding the common toothwort, Lathrea squamaria, in a number of locations in the Castlewellan woodlands. [As this was a rather common plant, as one of the Journal's readers later commented, I'm not sure why it was noteworthy unless it was rare at Castlewellan.]

A Visit from The Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club

There’s also an interesting report in the journal of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club about a visit to Castlewellan in September 1901 where their members were “personally conducted” around the Castle grounds and gardens by the “very capable” Ryan.

Ryan showed them round for several hours, pointing out many rare and special plants and trees growing in the “greatest profusion”. Many members, with their own small gardens and greenhouses, asked Ryan lots of questions about plants and methods of culture, all answered “in the fullest manner” and they all took lots of notes! They were also introduced to some of the plants growing at Castlewellan from Japan, Australia, California, and 'Chili' with Ryan pointing out many of the plants he wrote of in his press articles, including Pittosporum, Eucryphia pinnatifolia, Lomatia and Eucalyptus. After the gardens, the group visited the glasshouses – full of bananas and oranges, vineries with many bunches of fruit, ‘stove’ houses containing orchids, and the winter garden. A plant ‘nursery’ is also mentioned. Their Journal reports on another visit to Castlewellan in May 1906, but no detail is given.

Begonia Rex Thomas Ryan

While there were a few plants named for both the Earl and the Countess [see Part 2], I've only come across one named for Ryan. A dazzling array of plant hybrids were produced by both professional growers and nurseries as well as amateurs during this period – many of which never made it into commercial production or, if they did, haven't survived. Begonias, a particular glasshouse favourite at the time, were considered an exotic plant and, in an article published in December 1896, a correspondent from The Gardeners' Chronicle noted Begonia Rex Thomas Ryan in one of the glasshouses at Castlewellan.

I can find nothing further on this plant, but Begonia Rex Lady Annesley was shown by Messrs F. Sander & Co. (the famed orchid nursery) at the RHS Temple Show in May 1895 where it achieved an Award of Merit. However, according to The Irish Plant Society, it originated from Rodger, M’Clelland & Co. Nurseries of Newry in County Down. Just a year later, Begonia Rex Pride of Castlewellan was shown, again at the RHS Temple Show by Sander & Co. It's possible therefore that Begonia Rex Thomas Ryan was from the same source. However, as far as I'm aware, none of the plants named for the Annesleys or Ryan still exist commercially, and are probably lost forever.

Horticultural Shows

According to Musgrave, it was one thing for a head gardener to have glowing reports of his establishment published in the horticultural press and journals, but quite another to go head-to-head with his peers and exhibit his skills at gardening and horticultural shows. By the second half of the 19th century, shows at all levels, from the local village show through to county, national or even international shows, became increasingly popular. Men who were, or aspired to be, head gardeners were keen to show off their skills to their peers and also to employers/or potential employers. Through local newspapers of the time, as well as material from the Ryan family, there's evidence of his involvement in the annual Ulster Horticultural Society’s Chrysanthemum Show held in Belfast – a highlight of the Irish horticultural calendar.

By the latter part of the 19th century, chrysanthemums had become one of the most popular flowers to grow for competition – and a favourite with head gardeners. However, whether Ryan grew them for competition, or pleasure, is unknown. I've been unable to find any images of these Belfast shows.

Victorian gardener with display of chrysanthemums in a glasshouse. Courtesy The Garden Museum, London

The first of these shows was held in November 1889. As reported in The Northern Whig newspaper, this was also the first such show ever held in Belfast. It was the idea of some local gardeners who enlisted “patrons of horticulture among the suburban and the provincial gentry", as well as "the most eminent practical men in the profession", to both celebrate the "cult" of the chrysanthemum, and advance the cause of horticulture in Ulster. They succeeded, but whether the Earl was a patron, or Ryan was one of the "practical men in the profession" that were persuaded to participate, is unknown.

Advertisement for the November 1909 Ulster Horticultural Society’s Chrysanthemum Show. From 'Irish Gardening', vol.4, 1909

By 1898, such was the importance of this show that Queen Victoria sent a “decorative table of fruit” from the Royal Gardens at Windsor – this exhibit, perhaps not unsurprisingly, being awarded a Gold Medal.

Report on the first Chrysanthemum Show organised by the Ulster Horticultural Society. From 'The Gardeners' Chronicle', December 14th, 1889

Although named as a chrysanthemum show, there were also classes for “stove and greenhouse plants and for fruit”. Two of the largest horticultural firms in the area were represented (although not named), and The Gardeners’ Chronicle praised the first show highly, noting that exhibitors included some of “the most famous Chrysanthemum growers in the three kingdoms”. The full article can be seen here, and includes mentions of the various categories and prize winners.

The Earl, who was active in the RHS's London shows, was not above being involved in the local Irish horticultural scene. According to The Gardeners’ Chronicle, he exhibited at the Society’s November 1895 show – being “a leading exhibitor in the vegetable classes.” Exhibits from Castlewellan included “enormous Leeks and heads of Celery in great quantities, and good Cauliflowers... [which] were the finest in quality”.

More likely, of course, is that Ryan was responsible for the exhibits, or at least supervised a kitchen garden foreman. Interestingly, a couple of years earlier, in a report of the November 1893 show, The Gardeners’ Chronicle actually mentions this point writing that, in “the matter of awards”, they thought it wrong that the employer’s name was prominently shown with the gardener’s less so. The award being, in their opinion “for culture, not for possession”.

I was somewhat surprised to find that there's no record of Ryan entering into any categories at this show, or any other shows – even those where the gardeners are mentioned. However, there is a record of him sending "a fine bunch of his seedling [narcissus] Countess of Annesley, a showy early flowerer" to the RHS daffodil show which took place during a 4-day Daffodil Conference held at their Chiswick gardens in April 1890 – although they were not shown in competition. This was probably to get this new cultivar noticed by the daffodil world.

However, as Musgrave points out, winning a first prize at a show was one thing, but being invited to judge was the supreme accolade. And in 1903, Ryan is listed amongst the judges for "plants" at the Ulster show. And he was in good company; other judges listed include Frederick Moore (1857-1949), President of the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland, and Keeper of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Dublin from 1879-1922. Ryan again acted as a judge for plants in November 1908, while a year later he was invited to the Opening Ceremony for the November 1909 show

(opened by Countess Annesley). The Ryan family still have his invitation cards shown below.

Invitation to the Opening Ceremony of the Ulster Horticultural Society's Grand Chrysanthemum Show of November 1909 addressed to Thomas Ryan. Courtesy the Ryan Family

After the shows, the judges who had officiated were entertained to dinner at a local restaurant. 'The Judges' Dinners', as they were referred to, appear to have been rather grand affairs. According to press reports, well-known restaurants were used with “every attention” shown to the guests, with a report after the 1903 show adding that it was “a large and influential gathering”.

Invitation from the Committee of the Ulster Horticultural Society to attend the Judge's Dinner of November 1909 addressed to Thomas Ryan. Courtesy the Ryan Family

The End of a Partnership

Together, the 5th Earl, Hugh Annesley, and Thomas Ryan certainly seem to have been a horticultural force to be reckoned with – creating a garden described at the time as probably "unrivalled in Great Britain or Ireland”. But all things come to an end.

Obituary – Thomas Ryan by Hugh Armytage-Moore. 'The Gardeners' Chronicle', April 9th, 1910

The Earl died first in December 1908. Mabel writing that a few days after her father's death "a heavy fall of snow broke down many of the most precious things in the garden". When her brother Francis, now the 6th Earl, went out to speak to Ryan "the wrecked garden seemed not to matter to him, and in little over a year another grave was made in the churchyard". Ryan died suddenly in March 1910 while superintending tree-planting operations in Castlewellan’s Deer Park, just 15 months after the Earl.

The Next Generation

After Ryan's death, it was up to the next generation to carry on the work at Castlewellan. Francis, the 6th Earl (1884-1914), did do some horticultural work on the estate: an article in The New York Tribune newspaper of September 2nd, 1912, reporting on a visit to New York by him, mentions that “Castle Wellam” (as they refer to it throughout), had “for the last quarter of a century been familiar to every American expert in forestry and curious shrubs”, and that the present Earl had continued his father’s practice of never allowing a year to pass “without planting thousands of them”.

Meanwhile, Thomas' gardener son Jim took over as Head Gardener after his father's death. From a letter written by Ryan in 1898 shown below [presumably as a 'to whom it may concern' recommendation], it appears that after serving his apprenticeship and one year as a journeyman gardener at Castlewellan, he was ready to move on.

“The Gardens Castlewellan

Co. Down

Feb 7, 1898

James Ryan served an apprenticeship of three years, and was employed for one year as journeyman gardener in the gardens of Castlewellan during which time he conducted himself entirely to my satisfaction. He was mostly employed in the plant and fruit houses, and has a good knowledge of the routine work in vineries, peach houses, stove and greenhouse plants, and he is a smart active, painstaking workman sober, honest, and most attentive to his work. He leaves here at his own request.

Thomas Ryan

Gardener to the Earl Annesley”

A rather severe looking Thomas James Ryan (c.1880-1921), photographed c.1910 after he had returned to Castlewellan to succeed his father as Head Gardener

I have no information as to where Jim went after leaving Castlewellan, but it's recorded that in 1904 he established the Donard Nursery on land at Newcastle, County Down, leased from the Earl. According to a history of the Donard Nursery by Dr. E. Charles Nelson, its first deed was dated 30 December, 1904 [it was later renamed The Slieve Donard]. Nelson suggests that the nursery was established with the support of Thomas and the 5th Earl to provide an occupation and income for Jim, while the nursery would ensure that the outstanding collection of Castlewellan’s plants were propagated to provide an income for the estate. It's known that Jim grew a range of ornamental shrubs and issued a nursery catalogue.

However, on the death of his father in 1910, Jim returned to Castlewellan – Armytage-Moore noting in The Gardeners’ Chronicle in March 1911 that the gardens at Castlewellan were now under the management of Mr T.J. Ryan “who is successfully carrying on the work so ably begun by his father, and the enviable reputation of the place promises to be well maintained in his hands”.

Donard Nursery card, date unknown. Courtesy the Ryan Family

Jim did indeed seem intent on carrying on his father's work, Not just in the gardens, but also in the horticultural press. There are 2 brief articles written by him: one in The Gardeners' Chronicle in October 1913 about a flowering shrub, Eucryphia pinnatifolia, raised from seed 12 years before [probably by his father]; the other, in Irish Gardening in September 1914, reports on the flowering of the reed-like plant, Restio subverticillatus. Ryan is also recorded as having sent seeds or plant material to the US Department of Agriculture, as shown below in their 1911 Bulletin [see my blog The Fruits of America Part 2: The US Department of Agriculture's 'Agricultural Explorers'].

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry Bulletin no.233: Seeds and Plants Imported from January to March 1911

The only other information I've found on Jim is from the 1911 Irish Census which records him, aged 31, living at Clarkill [in The Garden Cottage presumably] with his wife, Mary Anna, a baby, and a 14 year old servant.

Sadly, neither Jim nor the 5th Earl's only son, Francis, lived long enough to really stamp their own mark on Castlewellan. The 6th Earl died in the early days of the 1st world war in a plane crash in 1914 and Jim died in 1921 – Mabel writing that "In Castlewellan garden two sons walked in their father’s footsteps, a short lived partnership dissolved by the cruel fate of war". It's not known whether Jim's early death was war-related in any way. However, what is recorded is that Thomas's younger son, Samuel (born in 1886), became a motor mechanic and joined up at the outbreak of the war with Francis, and served as his driver until Francis' death.

Ryan family memorial


Thomas Ryan was a man of his time and, even before he died, the way of life on grand estates like Castlewellan was already generally on the decline – Mabel noting that "year by year" fewer men were employed on the estate, and that "even while my father was alive increased taxation was beginning to be felt". After the 1st world war the situation only worsened, as the world changed forever. Memories of the men employed in such gardens have often been eroded or lost completely, and many of the gardens they worked in have long disappeared or been altered radically.

The once grand houses and gardens that do survive, managed by such institutions as the National Trust or, like Castlewellan, a local authority, have to get by with hugely reduced staff numbers helped by teams of volunteers. And their head gardeners, who once looked out from their cottages surveying their domain, are largely forgotten.

However, in Thomas Ryan's case we have his articles, comments about him in the horticultural press and, of course the Earl's photographs in which he featured. There are also the writings of the Earl's daughter, Mabel, and those of Hugh Armytage-Moore who knew him well for many years. In fact, just a few years after both the Earl and Ryan died, Armytage-Moore wrote in Irish Gardening that "by happy chance [Castlewellan's] permanent adornment fell to the lot of two men mostly singularly fitted for the task, the late Hugh, 5th Earl Annesley, and his gardener, Thomas Ryan. Neither, alas, is here today to view the hillside where for more than 30 years they co-operated so untiringly in an achievement which now stands as a fitting memorial to their united skill and good taste".

Despite Mabel describing Ryan as her father's "gardener, friend, and constant companion", he was still a servant subject to the whims of his employer. And while we may not entirely understand this kind of master and servant relationship today, according to written sources it does seem to have been a relationship built on trust and mutual respect. However, I wonder what Thomas Ryan would have to say?

If you haven't already read Parts 1 and 2, they will tell you something about Castlewellan's story after the deaths of Ryan and the Earl – and it's promising future.


1. In 2018, Castlewellan became the first Irish garden to receive a plaque from the International Dendrology Society presented to gardens or dendrological collections of exceptional merit. An IDS spokeswoman described the arboretum and gardens at Castlewellan as having “the finest collection of trees and shrubs on the island of Ireland”.

2. Hugh Annesley's daughter, Mabel, is quoted from unpublished notes about the history of Castlewellan written in 1931, from her unfinished autobiography, The Sight is Bent, published after her death

3. Census of Ireland: Unfortunately, the Irish census for 1851 (the year of Ryan’s birth) is only fragmentary, so I’ve been unable to find information on his family. Those for 1861 and 1871 were destroyed shortly after the census was actually taken, and those for 1881 and 1891 were pulped during the 1st world war, probably due to the paper shortage. The 1901 and 1911 census are the only complete surviving census records for the pre-Independence period

4. For an article about the interesting Mr. Fitzherbert, see 'A Magician with Tender Plants' by Carolyn Keep, Devon Gardens Trust, Journal 4, 2016. Link below:

5. The Earl's one and only book, Beautiful and Rare Trees & Plants published in1903 is available online. Link below:


Castlewellan Arboretum and Annesley Garden Brochure, 2015

Castlewellan House and Demesne: An Outline History by Terence Reeves Smyth, Northern Ireland Heritage Committee Conference, 1997

Article The Victorian Kitchen Gardeners by Paul Balen of the Radlett Horticultural Society, 2009

Fiona Davison, The Hidden Horticulturists, 2019

Toby Musgrave, The Head Gardeners: Forgotten Heroes of Horticulture, 2007

Anne Wilkinson, The Victorian Gardener, 2006

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Nov 19, 2023

Thomas's father was Denis Ryan and they probably lived in Ballyculleen Townland County Limerick. He died in 1899, aged 80.

Thomas Junior Died from Sarcoma of the Spine his brother Samuel was the informant.

Samuel Ryan. Kilcoo & Kilmegan Proprietor of station garage, Newcastle; formerly Lord Annesley's chauffeur; volunteer for 1st World War & given rank of petty officer in the flying corps; survived the sinking of 'Ben-my- Chree' in Jan 1917; postmaster in Castlewellan; appointed superindendent of Castlewellan Agricultural Assn. 5 Apr 1935; show official 13 Jul 1938; RAF instructor during 2nd World War 10 / 14 Oct 1939; died 5 Apr 1951; buried St. Paul's Church of Ireland, Castlewellan.


John Cannell
John Cannell
Sep 29, 2023

Your three Castlewellan articles make fascinating reading. I so wish I could have read them when I lived in NI and visited the gardens in the 1970's, I'd have got so much more from them. Just writing them must have taken an age, and as for unearthing all that information, the mind boggles! Brilliant.

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