There was a time, not so long ago, when many of us associated lavender with little old ladies and viewed it as being slightly old-fashioned…. How times have changed – now it appears we cannot get enough of it…. Whether it’s the current trend for French Shabby Chic or our love affair with English nostalgia – lavender certainly earns a place in either category….
A couple of weeks ago I found myself wandering through the fields of a lavender farm…. It was a thoroughly delightful way to spend an afternoon – with the sun blazing down, the gentle buzz of bees and the fluttering of butterflies….and oh that glorious scent.
It wasn’t hard to imagine being in Provence but it was in fact far from the sunny depths of Southern France…. To be precise this lavender farm is located just 15 miles from the heart of London; Mayfield Lavender is situated in the North Surrey Hills, not far from Carlshalton. When it was founded some 13 years ago it was one of only 15 commercial farms in the UK; now there are over 30, a number that is growing year by year…. But what may come as a surprise is that once upon a time this area of Surrey, particularly Mitcham, Carlshalton, Sutton, Merton and Wallington was the capital of English lavender….
The history of lavender use goes back at least 2,500 years – certainly the Egyptians used it in the mummification process. It is quite likely it first came to these shores with the Romans….lavender’s origins are believed to be from the Mediterranean, India and the Middle East. Today it is cultivated not only in its native regions but throughout much of the rest of the World – North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Japan, Europe….and of course, Britain….
The uses for lavender are endless…. It’s name derives from the Latin ‘lavare’ meaning ‘to wash’. We know the Romans used it to scent their clothing, bed linen (as it deters bed bugs and lice) and in their baths….
It was also the Romans who discovered the medicinal properties of lavender. The oil is used as an anti-inflammatory, an antiseptic and disinfectant. It can help soothe insect bites, stings, sunburn and minor burns, small grazes, cuts and acne. It helps with indigestion and heartburn and can ease headaches and migraines – it can even help travel sickness. Of course, lavender is also well-known as a relaxation aid, reducing stress levels and inducing sleep….
Recorded evidence of its use in Britain starts in the 12th Century…. Washerwomen in Northern England were called Lavenders, as they scented newly washed linen with it, as it was thought to keep moths and insects away…. It has been grown commercially in the UK since the 1500s; Queen Elizabeth I was an advocate of it – she had it scattered before her as she walked and carried posies of it….the belief being in the Renaissance period not only did it mask bad smells but actually protected against plague…. In fact she loved lavender so much that she even had a special jam made from the herb….
Such became the desire for lavender that commercial growing began; everybody was using it, from scattering it amongst the rushes strewn upon their floors, to it being the main ingredient of their nose gays…. People would of course grow the plant in their gardens – it was even cultivated in monasteries and convents – but the high demand meant growing it on a much larger scale was a viable proposition….
Surrey proved to be a particularly good region and it was Mitcham and the surrounding area that was to become the heart of lavender growth in the UK. Mitcham itself industrialised initially along the banks of the River Wandle, with varied industries including copper, iron, dye, flour and snuff. By 1750 Mitcham and nearby Merton Abbey had become the printing centre of calico cloth in England….1781 saw this expand to include silk printing…. William Morris opened a factory at Merton – ‘Merton Abbey Mills’ – and here the famous Liberty Silk printing works were based…. All this industrial activity led to the building of the Surrey Iron Railway, the World’s first public railway, in 1803….
But it was back in 1749 that the distillation of lavender water became a commercial venture on an industrial scale – led by two local physic (or medicinal herb) gardeners ~ Messrs Ephraim Potter and William Moore. Together they founded a company to produce toiletries and other products from locally grown lavender (and peppermint which was also grown in the area) – the company was called ‘Potter & Moore’….
The company set up a distillery to extract lavender oil in Eveline Road, Mitcham – overlooking what is now known as Figges Marsh. The business grew and flourished – and even more so when William Moore’s grandson James took over the helm…. An expert nurseryman with an excellent business head, he bought up surrounding land – by the end of the 1800s Potter & Moore owned 500 acres of land, on which they grew lavender, peppermint, chamomile, roses and pennyroyal….
The lavender was harvested in August; women would cut and bundle (referred to as ‘mats’) and these were then taken to the still room. Work in the fields was hard and poorly paid; in the peak of production during the 1800s the wage was just 10-15 shillings a day for a 14 hour shift – (this is actually good in comparison to what workers in lavender fields further south were paid – they could expect just 8 shillings a day – that’s 40p in today’s money!)….
After the harvest had been taken to the still room the process of distillation could begin. The cut plants would be put into a ‘retort’ – a large vessel partly filled with water; it was then sealed, either with a door or a lid. Next it was heated; as the water reached boiling point a mixture of steam and oil rises – which then passed through a pipe into a condenser. The steam and oil were combined back into a liquid and ran through another pipe to a ‘separator’ – a tank where the oil would float to the top and the water would be allowed to drain away, leaving behind the pure lavender oil…. 3/4 of a ton of lavender plant would produce 11 or 12 pounds of oil ~ but a little of which goes a long way….
James Moore died in 1851 and then the business passed to his illegitimate son, James Bridger. The success of the company continued under Bridger; after his death in 1885 it was bought by W.J.Bush. In 1968 it was merged with two other companies to form Bush Boake Allen – to become the World’s largest supplier of perfumes. The Potter & Moore section of the business was then sold on again – as is so often the case in business it changed hands and became associated with other names several times more…. But on doing a quick search it is soon evident that Potter & Moore is still very much alive today….
The peak of lavender’s popularity can perhaps be attributed to one formidable woman, Queen Victoria ~ she loved it…. This in turn encouraged most other English ladies to follow suit – from the wearing of lavender eau de cologne, to scenting their linen and making tussie-mussies….they couldn’t get enough. Lavender symbolised cleanliness and purity – an important quality in Victorian times…. It is often said that Queen Victoria even preferred lavender jelly to mint sauce with her lamb….
Oil from British lavender was far more desirable than that of plants from other countries such as France – arguably the scent of English lavender is by far the sweetest (and the most superior of this being from the Mitcham area) – and so lavender from England fetched a much higher price….
By the 1930s most of the lavender fields in the Mitcham area had gone. The land was needed to satisfy the demand for housing; another contributing factor to the industry’s demise was that English grown lavender’s prices were being heavily undercut by French growers…. But the third and final nail in the coffin for Surrey’s lavender presented itself in the form of disease….Lavender Shab Disease to be precise – a fungus that kills the stems of the plant, the first signs being that the shoots wilt suddenly, even when there is no shortage of water….
Potter & Moore took the necessary measures to protect their own business and by the 1930s had relocated their operation to East Anglia. So, it was to be that the English lavender industry was to fall into decline, with the only real exception being Norfolk lavender – and it was to stay this way until approximately 20 years ago….
However, the Mitcham area has always remained proud of its lavender heritage; the local football team – Tooting and Mitcham United FC – have it on their badge and Merton Council features in on their coat of arms…. It must have been a great delight to many when lavender returned on a commercial scale to the region…. The owner of Mayfield Lavender had connections with Yardley, an old and established perfumery….and now Mayfield Lavender is a flourishing business in its own right – producing a varied range of lavender products, from bath and beauty preparations, essential oils to scented sachets, lavender tea and even shortbread. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing from the onset; in the first year magpies and crows destroyed nearly 70,000 young lavender plugs – and planting had to start all over again the following year….
Maybe Mayfield Lavender happened to read the market correctly and recognised an opportunity as English lavender began to rise in popularity once again – or perhaps the likes of Mayfield are responsible for this resurgence …. Whichever reason it cannot be denied English lavender is once again very much in vogue…. In fact, it is now French lavender that is in decline….
Our revived love of lavender includes all the old traditional ways of using it: perfumes, cosmetics, room and laundry fresheners, dried flower arranging or even as a natural confetti at weddings ~ but we are also embracing its merits in the kitchen too…. Its culinary use doesn’t just stop at the lavender jelly Queen Victoria favoured…. Use it in salads, soups, meat and seafood dishes, desserts, confectionery – even cheese making! In baking it is especially popular – lavender cookies are a favourite…. Use the leaves as you would rosemary to flavour meat and vegetables and the flower buds for baking…. And of course, lavender produces abundant nectar, making a glorious high quality honey….
We can’t all grow lavender on a commercial scale but for those of us with a garden it makes a wonderful addition – both for its beauty and the wealth of uses its harvest can bring…. Lavender thrives best in dry, well-drained soil – either sandy or gravelly and it prefers full sun. It needs pruning once a year to prevent it from growing ‘leggy’ and becoming too woody – but apart from that it needs little care…. Grow it in the garden for fewer slugs, snails and aphids….but at the same time attract butterflies and bees….
“Lavender blue, dilly~dilly
If I were king, dilly~dilly, I’d need a queen”…
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