James Pulham & Son: Broxbourne's revolutionary garden designers
PUBLISHED: 10:59 24 April 2017 | UPDATED: 14:59 25 April 2017
James Pulham and Son revolutionised garden design in the Victorian era with an invention that brought Italian romance to England. Keri Jordan unearths the history of the Broxbourne company and a major project to preserve its legacy
If you’ve enjoyed spending a sunny afternoon wandering around the grounds of a stately home or public park in the county, chances are you’ve experienced the enchantment of a rock garden, grotto or folly designed by James Pulham and Son.
More than 170 sites around the UK and at least 30 prominent gardens in Hertfordshire, including High Leigh in Hoddesdon, Bedwell Park in Essendon, Danesbury in Welwyn and Poles Park near Ware, feature the distinctive man-made rock creations that the Pulhams became renowned for during almost a century of trading.
In 1810, James Pulham was working alongside his younger brother, Obadiah, as an apprentice stone modeller for the J&W Lockwood building company in Woodbridge, Suffolk. Then, when the organisation opened a London branch, he became the manager and began trading under the Pulham name in 1834 after William Lockwood retired.
Obadiah went to work in Hertford for Thomas Smith, the county architect and surveyor for Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. One of his projects involved building a vast Norman folly at Benington Lordship, near Stevenage, and James was commissioned to assist in the construction process. They applied their artistry and building skills to make the new brickwork look like medieval stone weathered by the elements.
James died in 1838, shortly after the project was completed, and his son, another James, took over the company. He moved the business premises to Hoddesdon, where he was able to take on more projects with Obadiah and Thomas Smith, as well as develop his own client base.
One of his first independent commissions was to build a rugged, picturesque rock garden, incorporating fountains, a fernery and an artificial lake at Woodlands in Hoddesdon (a former manor garden to the rear of today’s Lowewood Museum). Elaborate rock gardens were becoming increasingly popular with aristocrats returning from the Grand Tour of Europe who wanted to recreate the natural rocky environments and water features they had seen, especially in Italy, and accommodate Alpine plants they had collected. The challenge of sourcing geologically authentic rocks was time-consuming and expensive, and in an attempt to resolve this issue, James decided to create his own rocks. He took heaps of bricks and rubble and coated them with his own special cement mixture, then moulded and coloured the surface to uncannily simulate natural stone.
The artificial cement, known as Pulhamite, was effective and simple to produce and enabled large-scale landscaping projects to be carried out at significantly lower cost than with imported stone, allowing more funds to be spent on other design features and plants. The specialist Pulham craftsmen known as ‘rock builders’ could manufacture exactly what was wanted to order, freeing garden designers to create their most elaborate designs.
The Woodlands project launched the landscaping side of the business and James quickly built an extensive client base including notable figures such as the Prince of Wales – later King Edward VII. The company carried out projects at Sandringham and Buckingham Palace and was awarded a Royal Warrant for each assignment (in 1868 and 1903 respectively). It also produced gardens for the Chelsea Flower show in the early 1900s.
In 1845, just as his landscaping business was beginning to gather momentum, James decided to branch out. Seeing the demand for Italianate design, he moved into the production of terracotta ornamental items for gardens including vases, urns, balustrades and fountains. He built a ‘manufactory’ in Broxbourne to accommodate the expanding business and his younger brother, the fabulously-named Michael Angelo Pulham, joined him to help design and produce many of the items. In 1865, James brought his son, yet another James, into the business and renamed it James Pulham and Son. When James (the second) died in 1898, James was joined by his son, (yes, another James), to continue the business under the same name.
In the years after the First World War, the Pulhams saw a gradual decline in work from large estates.
‘Taking care of these ornate gardens was time and labour intensive,’ explains Claude Hitching, author of Rock Landscapes – The Pulham Legacy. Claude’s grandfather, Fred Hitching, worked for James Pulham and Son as a ‘rock builder’. During the course of his book research he discovered that five of his ancestors also worked for the firm in the same capacity. He continues, ‘A shortage of money and availability of manual labour after the war meant that the landscaping projects began to dry up. There was a rise in commissions from local councils looking to beautify their seaside resorts and public recreational spaces but sadly this wasn’t enough to sustain the company, and the Pulhams finally went out of business in 1939, at the start of the Second World War.’
Preserving the Pulham legacy
The manufactory site was left to fall into disrepair and was demolished in 1966 to make way for new housing and a larger car park for Broxbourne railway station. Today, all that remains of the factory is one of six original brick kilns and a horse-drawn ‘puddling’ wheel that was used for mixing terracotta. Both structures are Grade II listed.
As a result of research carried out by Claude and the subsequent publication of his book, public interest was ignited in the Pulhams’ story. This prompted Broxbourne Borough Council’s Lowewood Museum to work with the author to put together a bid for funding to commemorate the life and work of the Pulhams.
In 2015, the council, museum and local housing association B3Living, which now owns the former Pulham factory site, received £86,900 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore the kiln and puddling wheel. The grant also funded information boards for the site and the creation of a memorial garden. The restoration work and landscaping commenced in early 2016 and was completed in January. It was officially opened in February.
A programme of events including a travelling exhibition chronicling the Pulham legacy has also been funded by the lottery grant to enable more people to engage with this important piece of gardening history.
‘It’s wonderful that the Heritage Lottery Fund considers this part of our garden history important enough to be preserved,’ says Claude. ‘The team at Lowewood Museum have done a great job with the exhibition, and I’m particularly proud to have played a part in pulling together the pieces of the jigsaw to help preserve the Pulhams’ legacy.’
For more information about the lives and work of the Pulham family, visit pulham.org.uk
Rock Landscapes – The Pulham Legacy by Claude Hitching is available from Amazon or the above website.