1 – James Pulham in Wales

James Pulham and Son are best remembered these days for the picturesque rock gardens, ferneries, follies and grottoes they constructed during the Victorian years.   This was the time when tourists returning home from their ‘Grand Tours’ of Europe sought to create natural habitats in their gardens for the ferns and Alpine plants they had collected during their travels.   Hence the fashion for rock gardens, and, if natural rocks were not economically available, the Pulham craftsmen would ‘make their own’ by building up heaps of rubble and old bricks, and coating them with their own proprietary brand of cement that soon became known as Pulhamite.   The craftsmanship of the ‘rock builders’ lay in their ability to sculpt the surfaces to simulate the colour and texture of natural rock.  

As garden fashions gradually evolved through the Edwardian years, the Pulhams extended their portfolio to include grand, formal balustraded terraces, and Italian and Japanese-styled gardens that were becoming so popular with the ‘travelling gentry’.   The full story of the lives and work of this fascinating firm is told in Rock Landscapes – The Pulham Legacy[i] – my book to be published by The Antique Collectors Club in early 2012, beautifully illustrated by many pictures taken by Jenny Lilly, the Professional Gardens Photographer – and all the latest updates can be found on my website at www.pulham.org.uk.   All visitors are welcome!

Suffice to say here that there were four generations of Pulhams, and all of those most directly involved in the family business were named James, so, in order to avoid confusion, I find it easier to refer to them individually as James 1, 2, 3 and 4.   The firm became established as James Pulham and Son when James 2 took his son, James 3, into the business in 1865.  

Most of the firm’s work was carried out in England, but they also had clients in Scotland, Wales, and even Denmark.   This article is concerned with their known gardens in Wales, discussed here in chronological sequence.

1866-67 – Bryn-y-Neuadd, Llanfairfechan, Conwy

Bryn-y-Neuadd was the home of John Platt, for whom James Pulham and Son constructed ‘Waterfalls, fernery and ponds’ in 1866-67, although nothing but a small part of the fernery now remains.   I have no personal knowledge of Pulhams’ work on this site, but John Platt’s story is told by Bettina Harden elsewhere in her article about Edward Milner.

1869 – Gorddinog, Conwy

The Pulham database records that James Pulham and Son constructed ‘Waterfalls, Rock Bridge, as if natural, Lake and Streams’ for Capt Henry Platt, eldest son of John Platt, in 1869, and is also discussed in the article by Bettina Harden.

1872-76 – St Fagans Castle, St Fagans, Cardiff

St Fagans Castle was the home of the Lewis family for more than 250 years before Elizabeth, daughter of the last male descendant, married Other Windsor, 3rd Earl of Plymouth in 1730.[ii]   The eventual heiress of this branch of the Windsor family married into the family of Clive of India, and they became known as Windsor-Clive.  Robert George Windsor-Clive was created Earl of Plymouth (the third creation of the title in 1905), and his grandson, the 3rd Earl of Plymouth, gave St Fagans Castle and its surrounding estate to the nation for a Museum for Wales, now called St Fagans: National History Museum in 1947.   The museum stands in the grounds of the castle, which, with its gardens, have been restored to something of their former glory at the end of 19th century reflecting the lives of the family in residence.   In the grounds, many buildings have been transferred from all over Wales to show what rural life was like in days gone by.  


 Fig 1  –  Below the rustic bridge and waterfall at St Fagans in 2004   (Photo by Juliet Hodgkiss)

Lady Mary Windsor-Clive engaged James 2 to construct a rock garden at St Fagans in 1872, but negotiations were long and protracted, with the result that the garden was not completed until 1876.   The full story is told in the book, but the eventual result was that the present rock gardens only represent part of James 2’s original plans.   It cannot be regarded as a large rock garden by Pulham’s normal standards, but, situated as it is in a small north-to-south valley, overlooked by the Castle to the southeast, and set into grounds of some 105 acres, it is nevertheless extremely pleasant and peaceful. 

The stream meanders gently down the valley from north to south, and its banks and island were ‘rockified’ using mostly natural stones – occasionally ‘locked’ together with Pulhamite – quarried from the estate during the initial preparatory stage in 1872.   There was a major project to restore and clean the water gardens at St Fagans in 2003, and Fig 1 shows the charming Pulham bridge, waterfall and lower stream in 2004.

1878-98 – Insole Court, Llandaff, Cardiff

James Harvey Insole – a young colliery proprietor – built a small country house for himself in Llandaff – a leafy suburb of Cardiff – during the late 1850s.   It later became known as Insole Court, and had a terrace along the side with a beautiful stone balustrade and a pair of sleeping lion figures, all carved by the local sculptors, church furnishers and restoration specialists William Clarke and Son – a section of the arched balustrade is shown in Fig 2.   Clarke is also thought to have built the Summerhouse and a set of rock-bordered steps below a section of the balustrade at that time.[iii]


 Fig 2  –  Balustrading along the side of Insole Court   (Photo by Alun Salisbury)

During the late 1870s, Insole embarked upon an extensive expansion and refurbishment of the house, and also engaged James 2 to cast his spell by making further improvements to the gardens.   This took place between 1878 and 1898, although the exact dates are not known.   James 2 published a promotional booklet entitled Picturesque Ferneries and Rock Garden Scenery in1877, in which a list of all his ‘satisfied clients’ up to that date were listed, but all the firm’s records were destroyed when they eventually went out of business c1939, and the assignment of dates to some projects on which they are known to have worked after 1877 is not always easy.


 Fig 3  –  Side garden to Insole Court c1900, with Pulham ornaments   (Photo provided by Alun Salisbury) 

In fact, there is no known documentary evidence to prove that the Pulhams worked at Insole Court at all, although the circumstantial evidence is very strong.   The date of 1878 fits very well with the fact that it is only a couple of miles or so from St Fagans Castle, so it is quite probable that James Insole knew Lady Mary Windsor-Clive, and liked her new rock garden sufficiently well to invite James 2 to do some work for him.   The Gardeners’ Chronicle also published an article about the gardens at Insole Court sometime in 1882, [iv] in which it reported that:

‘The mansion is a handsome Gothic building, with a tower and observatory 85 feet high.   On the west, or entrance front, is a spacious lawn, with fountain etc, and bounded by banks planted with Rhododendrons, hardy Ericas and Azaleas, amongst which the growths are rapidly appearing of a varied collection of bulbs.    Beyond this rises a very effective piece of rockwork, which has been planned to hide a blank wall leading to the stables, and has been carried, partly by mounding and partly by large masses of natural rock brought from some distance, to a height of 30 feet. . . .

‘A terrace of gravel and grass commands a view of the lower garden on the east front; the beds being furnished with shrubs and bedding plants for spring effect which are not particularly interesting in January.   To the left of the flower garden a winding path is entered, with shrubbery borders and rockwork which has been skilfully blended with its surroundings and hidden from the lawn . . . and . . . a recent addition to its extent, taken from the park in front, and just converted into a rock garden, with a small streamlet gradually widening to a pool at the lower end, where it is terminated by a rocky grotto some 30 yards long.’

Figs 3 and 4 are pictures of the gardens dating back to c1900, with Fig 3 showing the formal gardens near the house – a typical Pulham layout, complete with vases from their manufactory – and Fig 4 showing the rockery by The Leat (or ditch).   There can be absolutely no doubt about its provenance!    Fig 5 shows the grotto following its ‘rediscovery’ in 2010, and shows that it was built from a combination of natural stone and Pulhamite.


 Fig 4  –  Rockery by The Leat at Insole Court c1900   (Photo provided by A Salisbury) 

The flight of steps shown in Fig 6 is also interesting.   This arched pattern of the balustrade is not illustrated in Pulhams’ Garden Ornament Catalogue, but was probably James 2’s attempt to create something that was as sympathetic as he could get to William Clarke’s original balustrade.   The pattern of the ‘dimpled’ section of the pillar is one that was used in some Pulham gardens elsewhere.


 Fig 5  –  The grotto at Insole Court.   Some rocks are natural – probably from the Radyr quarry – and others are artificial   (Photo by A Salisbury)


 Fig 6  –  Balustraded Steps to what used to be the Bowling Green   (Photo by Alun Salisbury)

1893 – Belle Vue Park, Newport, Monmouthshire

Belle Vue Park, in Newport, was the first public park designed by the eminent landscape architect, Thomas Mawson.   Here again, the full story is told in the book, but it is my belief that James Pulham and Son were involved in the complete project.   They are known to have worked with Mawson on a number of occasions, and Fig 7 demonstrates that the rock and water feature that runs down through the centre of this steeply sloping park is quite definitely their work – in fact, Mawson acknowledges the fact in his autobiography. [v]

There was originally a Pulham fountain in the park, although that has long since gone, and, right at the top, there is a small Pavilion, with glass conservatories on either side.   It has a commanding view, overlooking a grand, balustraded terrace – complete with bandstand – and thence over the park itself.   The balustrading is definitely Pulham’s, and, although the buildings and terrace are built to Mawson’s designs, they all seem to convey the message that ‘Pulham was here’ – even to the terracotta Newport coat of arms that is mounted above the door of the Pavilion.   The park was the subject of a massive Heritage Lottery Fund grant in 2004, and the restoration work extended through to 2007, so that visitors can now savour the pleasures experienced by their forebears more than 100 years ago.


 Fig 7  –  The cascade in Belle Vue Park   (Photo by David Morris)

1893 – ‘The Hendre’, Monmouth, Monmouthshire

‘The Hendre’ is a rambling, picturesque brick mansion that was begun c1830 by John Rolls (1776–1837), with a second stage carried out for John Etherington Welch Rolls (1807-70).  The final stage of the work began in 1872 for John Allan Rolls, 1st Baron Llangattock (1837-1912), whose third son, Charles, became the co-founder of Rolls Royce, the car manufacturer of world renown.   The original house on the site was a small house that was used by the Rolls family as a shooting lodge during the 18th century.   John Allan Rolls extended the parkland to about 1,000 acres, and enclosed it in 1892.   He engaged H. E. Milner – the celebrated landscape architect with whose family the Pulhams worked on a number of occasions – to landscape the 3-mile long drive that winds through the park, and ends up curving through the arboretum to the west of the house.   The CADW Register of Landscapes explains that:[vi]


 Fig 8  –  The lake and rockwork at ‘The Hendre’ c1900  (Picture provided by Tony Hoggett, of Capita Property Consultancy Ltd)

‘It was carefully planned to take maximum advantage of the rolling ground, and was landscaped all the way, with tree and shrub planting. Views cut through the woods, stone bridges and rockwork (some artificial, or Pulhamite).   The drive passed an existing small lake, made 1837-50, which was ornamented with a rockwork cascade.’

Fig 8 is a picture of a portion of this rockwork by the lake c1900, with what would normally be regarded as a boat cave, although it is difficult to see how it could be used as such with the stepping-stones across the stream that leads to the lake.

‘The Hendre’ is the one site to which I was not allowed access during my travels.   It is now used as a golf club, and my request for admission to search for whatever might remain of the Pulhams’ work was refused on the grounds that the club was ‘not insured against the possibility of a non-member being hit on the back of the head with a golf ball’.   However, one of my spies was able to take some pictures for me during a round of golf, when he eventually found the remains of a ‘waterfall on the edge of quite a large pond’ alongside one of the fairways.   One of his pictures is reproduced here as Fig 9, and it is quite clear that most of the main lake has now been filled in, and that this structure is all that now remains of the old ‘boat cave’.


 Fig 9  –  Remains of the Pulhamite cave at ‘The Hendre’ in 2002   (Photo by John Harris)

1895-1912 – Dewstow House, Caerwent, Monmouthshire

Whatever Wales may lack in the number of sites that James Pulham and Son constructed in their lovely country, it can certainly claim to make up for it in quality.   The gardens at Dewstow, near Caerwent, Monmouthshire, are a sparkling jewel in the Pulham crown, and should be explored by everyone interested in our garden heritage.   They include beautiful surface gardens in many styles, with artificial pools, cascades and rock-lined streams; a Pulhamite tunnel, and a collection of extraordinary underground fernery grottoes that are totally breathtaking.

Dewstow was the home of Henry Oakley, a Director of the Great Western Railway who worked in Newport, so he must have seen the Pulhams at work in Belle Vue Park, and it is believed that he was so impressed with them that he invited James 2 to beautify the gardens around his own house.   As far as can be ascertained, this was done in two stages – the first c1895, when the lawns to the South of the house were laid out, and the second c1912, when they created the Alpine Garden and the stunning grottoes in the North Garden.   As one might expect, this story is told in full in the book, but the extraordinary thing about it is that the gardens were totally buried in topsoil during the Second World War, and only came to light again when they were ‘rediscovered’ by the present owners in 2000.  


 Fig 10  –  Cascade in the streamof the South Gardens at Dewstow


 Fig 11  –  The Lion Grotto at Dewstow

Luckily for us, the Harris family have invested a tremendous amount of time, money and dedication in bringing them back to life in their full glory, and opening them up to the public.   Any opportunity to view them must not be missed.   Figs 10 and 11 show just two examples of the many features to be enjoyed – Fig 10 shows the cascade in the rocky stream that flows through the South Gardens, and Fig 11 is a picture taken in the Lion Grotto.   Now where have you ever seen anything quite like that before?

c1910s – Bodnant Gardens, Tal-y-Cafn, Conwy

Bodnant Gardens, in Conwy, is a National Trust property, and has some spectacular gardens to which, according to the English Heritage database, Pulhams are noted as having made some contribution.   Sadly, I have not yet had an opportunity to visit these gardens, but extensive research has failed to establish what they are reputed to have done, or when they are supposed to have done it.

There will almost certainly be someone out there who knows the answer to these questions – if so, I would be most interested to hear from them at claude@hitching.com.   Alternatively, if this article has whetted your appetite for more knowledge or information about this remarkable firm, don’t forget to look out for Rock Landscapes – The Pulham Legacy, which should be available from April 2012, or check out www.pulham.org.uk for further details.

©   Claude Hitching 2011


Editor’s Note   The late Patricia Moore, the WHGT’s first Archivist, was a great fan of Pulham’s work in Wales and contributed several relevant articles to The Bulletin.   Her first was in the Spring issue of 1993 announcing the discovery of an ink and watercolour plan for St Fagans in the Glamorgan Record Office, together with an account for the work from James Pulham & Son and a delightful poem addressed to Lady Mary Windsor-Clive.  Patricia’s article on Insole Court appeared in Spring 2001, following Hilary Thomas’s article on the ‘Work Diaries of Joseph Martin Farley, Foreman Gardener at Insole Court’ in Summer 2000.   Patricia’s first article asked “Did Pulham carry out work in other Welsh gardens?”    She would have been thrilled to read Claude Hitching’s fascinating piece nearly twenty years later.

[i]    Several working titles were considered for the book, starting with Pulham’s Rock Gardens, Ferneries, Follies, Grottoes, Fountains and Terracotta Garden Ornaments – The Pulham Legacy.   That was very long, but the idea was to cover the wide range of features constructed by this remarkable firm, and also to catch as many keywords as possible on internet search engines and bookshop computer systems etc.   These keywords have now been incorporated into the sub-title.

[ii]    Historical notes provided by Christine Stevens, Curator at the Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagans

[iii]    The Story of a Victorian Manor by Matthew Williams, published by the Friends of Insole Court 1998, and printed by: Keith Brown & Sons Ltd, Cowbridge 01446 774490

[iv]    Gardeners’ Chronicle 1882 (actual date unknown)

[v]    The Life and Work of an English Landscape Architect by Thomas Mawson, published 1927 by Percy Brothers

[vi]    Cadw / ICOMOS Register of Landscapes, Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in Wales. Part I: Parks and Gardens. Gwent volume (1994), pp. 44-46















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