|Hall Grange and The Old Vicarage||Croydon|
The gardens of Hall Grange and The Old Vicarage, now the site of a home for the elderly, the current vicarage and other houses, are important for their connection with Revd William Wilks. He was vicar of St John’s Church Shirley, Secretary of the RHS and a well-respected horticulturalist, ahead of his time in his ecological approach to gardening. The habitats he developed here contained numerous plant experiments and introductions, such as his selective breeding of the Shirley Poppy. Wilks' house, The Wilderness, was renamed Hall Grange after 1958 when it became a home for the elderly; a bungalow, also called The Wilderness, was built in its grounds. The garden remained one unit, the part belonging to the bungalow occupants demarcated by a short row of azalea bushes.
The information shown above was correct at the time of the last update 01/12/2008
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Shirley was previously a hamlet of Croydon Parish, made into a separate parish in 1846. The gardens of Hall Grange and The Old Vicarage, now the site of the current vicarage and other houses, are important for their connection with Revd William Wilks, who was Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society from 1888-1920 and vicar of the St John’s, the parish church of Shirley (q.v.) between 1879 - 1912. The Old Vicarage has a plaque dedicated to Revd Wilks. St John's Vicarage was built c.1840 on land that had belonged to Lord Eldon of Shirley Park House, marked on the tithe map as two plots, Gillettfield Plantation (3106) and Thistly Close (3127). While Revd Wilks lived in the Vicarage he added arched timber and glass verandas to look out over his gardens: the walled garden consisted of extensive lawns edged by large variety of trees and the orchard included 6 to 8 apple trees of a variety named after him, Revd. W Wilks, first recorded in 1904 and raised by Messrs Veitch and Sons, now in the National Fruit Collection. He also had a collection of some 700 roses. Wilks experimented with wild field poppy and selectively bred the Shirley poppy; in an article of 1889 Wilks describes how he noticed in the wilderness corner of his garden, among a patch of field poppies, one bloom with a narrow white edge, and it was from this that he developed the Shirley poppy. Revd. Wilks had been in the habit of throwing open his garden to the public, and a description of a tour of the Vicarage garden and greenhouse in 1899 records the plants found en route and the western annexe that had a mixed flower border and apple trees. An article in 1904 refers to 'a very fine collection of peonies, irises, phloxes, dahlias & roses. . . collection of 70,000 daffodils. 100 auratums'.
In 1910 Wilks had purchased the 7 acre plot next to the vicarage, land that was formerly part of Shirley Common, and designed and built a house he called The Wilderness in 1912, which like the vicarage had verandas. Here Wilks designed an informal wilderness garden, which he called his 'field' where he introduced many native wild flowers as well as horticultural varieties. Narrow formal lawns surrounded the building and merged into an extensive heathland garden with large areas of woodland and sphagnum bog, the latter the last remnant in Croydon. In spring varieties of miniature daffodils and snakeshead fritillaries abounded. The garden had a large number of locally rare wild flowers. Wilks is recognised as being ahead of his time in adopting an ecological approach to gardening and his work attracted interest. An article in the RHS Journal in 1915 on 'Informal & Wild Gardening' features his wild garden. In 1920 The Gardener's Chronicle describes the garden bordered all round with woodland with a small lawn in front of the house, 'the ground rises gently to the wood and falls at intervals. A tree of Magnolia Delavayi has gone beyond the eaves of the house'. Other plants of interest at the time were Magnolia exoniensis, Vitis Thunbergii, Fig leaf Vine, Abelia blush, Clematis tangutica and Samucus canadensia. Other plants mentioned were Glaux marita, lilium tigrinum, Bog myrtle, ericas, ferns, cyclamens, geranium Shirley blue and bulbs. The article also includes a photograph of Wilks with an old-fashioned wheelbarrow by his side holding a muddy spade and wearing that insignia of the gardener a large battered hat.
While he was Secretary of the RHS, the Chelsea Flower Show and Wisley Garden were started, and the entrance gates to the latter commemorate Wilks. At his instigation a translation into English of Gregor Mendel's work was commissioned; he was awarded the Victorian Medal of Honour by the RHS in 1912.
The Wilderness was purchased in the mid 1920s by George Lewin, a former mayor of Croydon who built a bungalow to the east of the main house, which he also named The Wilderness. In 1958 Lewin gave the original house of that name and the garden to the Methodist Home for the Aged in honour of his friendship with Revd Walter Hall, Methodist Minister for Shirley and founder of MHA. The house was renamed Hall Grange in his memory; the building was enlarged in 1986 but the garden remain an important part of the environment for the elderly residents, where commemorative trees and shrubs have been planted. While the garden remained one unit, the part belonging to the bungalow occupants was demarcated by a short row of azalea bushes.
In 1984 the Church Commissioners applied to build 11 detached houses on the Vicarage garden but permission was refused by LB Croydon. However, following appeal, a more limited scheme was later permitted by the DoE, as a result of which the Church Commissioners built a number of detached houses on the garden, including Ardingly Close to the west. To the east of the Old Vicarage, a new vicarage was built on what was part of the kitchen garden and its garden is a remnant of the old garden plot. It has a few small fruit trees within the lawn and a mulberry tree, all probably mid C20th or later in date, more recent ornamental shrubs. Large rhododendrons on the south boundary and a fine Cupressus species probably date from the original garden. The Old Vicarage itself was sold with a narrow plot that includes a fine Cedar, but retains none of the original garden design.
Site Recommendation made to Survey of Parks and Gardens, University of York in November 1985 by Deidre Clenet - articles cited from Gardener's Chronicle, Horticultural Trade Journal, Surrey Life and paper from London Naturalist (all no dates). For information on Wilks see Miles Hadfield and Robert Harling, 'British Gardeners, A Biographical Dictionary'. Patricia Birch bibliography: Revd W Wilks, 'The Shirley poppy: its history' The Gardener's Chronicle, 9/3/1889; 'The Vicarage Shirley', Gardener's Chronicle, 30/8/1890; 'An hour at Shirley', Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener, 18/5/1899; 'Shirley Vicarage near Croydon', Country Life Illustrated, 21/5/1898; Revd Wilks, 'On the Construction of a Verandah', RHS Journal, XXXVI, 1901-2; 'Shirley Church and its Vicar', Croydon and County Pictorial, August 1904; 'Mr Wilks and his new residence', The Gardener's Chronicle, 18/1/1913; James Hudson, 'Informal and Wild Gardening' RHS Journal, XL 1915 part III; 'The Revd Wilks's Garden', The Gardener's Chronicle, 18/9/1920; M Hadfield, 'Gardening in Britain', Hutchinson, 1960; Deirdre Clenet: 'Wilks's Wilderness and the Shirley Poppy', The London Naturalist, 1985, 'In the wilderness', Landscape, April 1985, 'The Vicar who moved into the Wilderness', Surrey Life, July 1985. Hall Grange Booklet with map of garden (nd); David Nicholson-Lord, 'Campaign to save historic wild garden', The Times, 30/3/1985; Piers Dudgeon, 'The English Vicarage Garden', Mermaid Books, 1988; Ursula Buchan 'By the Grace of God', The Garden, 12/20/2005; LB Croydon, 'Local List of Historic Parks & Gardens', December 2008.
LPGT Volunteer Research by Patricia Birch, 2007