Saturday, 17 December 2016

Rock landscaping, the Pulham family company and London Zoo

The Victorians loved rockeries, grottos and ferneries in their gardens. It is known that in the early years of the 20th Century, the family firm of Pulham, which rose to prominence in the 19th Century and became based at Broxbourne, north of London, used its proprietary Pulhamite cement to create artificial rockwork for some of the enclosure at London Zoo. It is not clear to me what the extent of their work at the Zoo was. On closure of the firm all its records were destroyed. Sally Festing in her article in Garden History published in 1988 found the recollections of a member of the family in a newspaper published in 1966 which suggested Pulhams had been involved in construction of the Mappin Terraces. However, she then found that the zoo account books contained only two payments to Pulhams: one for work in 1910 for a Polar Bear enclosure (demolished about 1914) and another for work on coypu and beaver ponds. However, Frederick Hitching who worked for Pulhams from the late1880s to the 1930s recalled to his grandson, Claude Hitching, that he had worked at the Zoo on the 1905 Sea-Lion pond and a monkey enclosure. Was the latter Monkey Hill, opened in 1925 (misdated as 1913 in The Pulham Legacy website)?

It is difficult to dismiss the recollections of Pulham workers so is it possible that for relatively small jobs, Pulhams were contracted directly while for larger ones, they worked as a sub-contractor to a larger construction company? 

The point has been made that other individuals and firms adopted Pulham’s methods and materials. Indeed, we know that Pulhams, who worked with real as well as their artificial stone, were not involved in some projects that involved rockwork at the Zoo For example, that for the Antelope Paddock, which in the 1960s housed Blackbuck, designed, like that for Monkey Hill, by Joan Procter, was directed by Clarence Elliott of Stevenage ‘whose rock-work gardens have been a notable feature of recent flower-shows at Chelsea’ and built by ZSL’s own employees.

Pulhams were extremely successful and they worked throughout Britain in stately homes, private gardens and municipal parks building all sorts of features from grottos and rock gardens (including one for the Royal Horticultural Society) to ferneries and fountains. Indeed, twice a week I am within yards of the site of one of their rock and water gardens built in 1909 at Crosbie Towers, Troon. The company declined although the date of final closure is in doubt, but, in terms of construction, effectively by 1939 seems a reasonable estimate. 

Thanks to Claude Hitching many of the Pulham projects that remain standing have been documented, alongside the history of the firm, and beautifully photographed (by Jenny Lilly). The large book, Rock Landscapes. The Pulham Legacy appeared in 2012. 

Given the renown of Pulhams I raise the question of whether the firm did work for other zoos or private menageries. They certainly did work for the aviary as well as the rest of the gardens at Waddesdon Manor for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1881-1892 and included aviaries in other garden projects.

The book on the Pulhams is a fascinating account of the ingenuity that went into the underlying technology and the construction of Victorian and Edwardian gardens—the heyday of the rockery.

Further reading

Anon. New rockwork at the Zoo. The Times 14 June 1924
Festing S. 1988. Great credit upon the ingenuity and taste of Mr. Pulham. Garden History 16, 90-102
Hitching C. 2012. Rock Landscape. The Fulham Legacy. Garden Art Press