4 – The Versatility of James Pulham

It is now eight years since I wrote a series of articles for Hertfordshire Countryside about the work and craftsmanship of James Pulham and Son, the eminent Hertfordshire firm of Victorian and Edwardian landscape architects who specialised in the construction of picturesque rock gardens, grottoes, ferneries and follies etc.   They were based in Broxbourne, and also built a Manufactory there in which to produce a wide range of very high-quality fountains and garden ornaments with which they won several awards at the International Exhibitions of the 1850s and ‘60s.

The fashion for rock gardens began at 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.   If natural rocks were not economically available, the Pulhams would ‘make their own’ by building up heaps of rubble and old bricks, and coat them with their own proprietary brand of cement that soon became known as Pulhamite.   The craftsmanship of their ‘rock builders’ lay in their ability to sculpt the surfaces to simulate the colour and texture of natural rock, and my interest in this remarkable firm stems from the fact that no fewer than five of my ancestors – including my grandfather and great-grandfather – all worked for them in that capacity.  

What is not so generally known is that, 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 increasingly popular with the ‘travelling gentry’.   The full story of the lives and work of this remarkable firm is told in my forthcoming book, Rock Landscapes – The Pulham Legacy – to be published by The Antique Collectors Club in May or June, 2012.   It will contain many beautiful pictures taken by Jenny Lilly, the professional garden photographer for whose collaboration I am extremely grateful.

There is consequently no need to recount the whole story here – this article is merely intended as a brief indication of the incredible range of expertise for which the firm deserve to be recognised.   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 (1820-98) took his son, James 3 (1845-1920), into the business in 1865.   More details and updates can be found on my website at www.pulham.org.uk, where all visitors are welcome.  

Stone Modelling

James 1 (1793-1838) was the son of a very poor shoemaker who lived in Cumberland Street, Woodbridge, Suffolk.   He was born in 1793, and he and his younger brother, Obadiah, were apprenticed as stone modellers to J & W Lockwood, a local firm of builders.   There was a fashion in those days to surround the doors and windows of properties with modelled human and animal faces to fend off evil spirits, and several examples still survive in Woodbridge today – one of which is shown in the left-hand pictured of Fig 1.   Many of them are likely to be the work of the Pulham brothers, who were both extremely talented in their work.   In fact, these models are generally known as ‘Pulham faces’, because many similar faces can be found at other places where they are known to have worked.


Fig 1  –  An early Pulham face in Woodbridge (pictured by Simon Swann), and the Gateway of the Norman folly at Benington Lordship (1835-38)

Lockwood expanded his business to London in 1824, and put James and Obadiah in charge of the London operation.   In 1827, Obadiah moved to Hertford to work as Clerk of Works for Thomas Smith – the County Architect and Surveyor of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire – who built up an enviable reputation for his design and construction of churches, both in the UK and around Europe.   James 1 is known to have worked with Obadiah on some of these building projects, but he died in 1838, soon after they built the Norman folly at Benington Lordship, shown on the right in Fig 1.

Church Building and Restoration

James 2 was only 18 years old when he took over the business after his father’s untimely death.   He was also extremely talented in the skills of building and stone modelling – as was his younger brother, Michael Angelo Pulham – and, like their father, they also worked for Thomas Smith on a number of church-building projects.   One prime example was the Church of St Thomas of Canterbury, West Hyde, Hertfordshire (1844-45), the exterior and interior of which are shown in Fig 2.  


Fig 2  –  The exterior and interior of St Thomas of Canterbury Church in West Hyde, Hertfordshire (1844-45)   (Exterior photo by Elenora Johnson)

Careful inspection of the left-hand picture will show that there is a line of ‘Pulham faces’ around the top of the bell tower – 16 in all!   The external walls are built of knapped flint and red brick, with rendering and trimmings made from Roman Cement, finished with Pulhams’ Portland Stone Cement.   The quality of the knapped flint-work is considered to be among the very best in Hertfordshire, and the moulding of the Pulhamite ornamentation is still as crisp and detailed as it must have been when it was built nearly 170 years ago – an enduring example of their expertise and craftsmanship.   The right-hand picture shows the interior of this lovely church, and the points of interest here are the stone angel figureheads on the ends of the hammer beams in the roof. 

Whilst working for John Warner, in Hoddesdon, in 1842, James 2 was invited to assist with the construction of an artificial lake – with cascades and a fountain – in the grounds of his home at ‘Woodlands’.   He realised that he could adapt his stone modelling skills to the creation of ‘artificial rocks’, and grasped the opportunity with great enthusiasm.  

Pulham’s Terracotta

He gradually developed his landscaping skills, and, in 1845 – as both he and his younger brother, Michael Angelo Pulham, were such talented artists – decided to build a Manufactory in Station Road, Broxbourne, in which to produce a range of classically designed terracotta garden ornaments to help fill the gap left by the recent demise of the Coade factory.   They gradually developed a wide range of fountains, vases, and other ornaments, some of which won them coveted awards at the International Exhibitions, and an edition of The Art Journal in 1859 contained an illustration of a selection from their range (Fig 3).   There is a chapter devoted to them in the book.


Fig 3  –  Pulhams’ ware illustrated in The Art Journal in 1859 in an article under the title of ‘The Terracotta Works of James Pulham, Broxbourne’

The fountain to the left of Fig 3 is derived from one in Naples designed by Niccolo Tribolo (1485-1550), and it depicts Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth, and cupbearer of the gods who served ambrosia at the heavenly feast.   James 2’s version appeared at the 1862 Exhibition, where it won an award, after which it was installed in the grounds of Dunorlan House – now Dunorlan Park – in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.   It disappeared (or was irrevocably damaged) during the Second World War, but was replaced by a new replica during a massive Heritage Lottery Restoration project in 2004-05.   The base is the restored original, and Fig 4 shows that it is once again in operation today, and gives some indication of its awesome size.

James Pulham and Son were awarded two special assignments in 1867 by the Science Department of the South Kensington Museum – now the V & A Museum.   One was to create a terracotta monument to the Irish painter, William Mulready – which now resides in the Kensal Green Cemetery – and the other was to provide the terracotta ornamentation for the Exhibition Road façade of the V & A Science School – now known as the Henry Cole Wing – shown in the left-hand picture of Fig 5.   Both items were produced to the design of Geoffrey Sykes.


Fig 4  –  Pulhams’ (remodelled) Hebe fountain in Dunorlan Park, Tunbridge Wells


Fig 5  –  Pulhams’ terracotta along the Exhibition Road façade of the V & A Museum (1867), and the entrance to the Walled Garden at Ponsbourne Park, Newgate Street

Pulham’s Walled Gardens and Rock Gardens

There are walled gardens at a number of sites on which the Pulhams are known to have worked, and, although there is no specific documentary confirmation of this, it is almost certain that they built (or rebuilt) the surrounding walls, because they all have similar basic characteristics.   The right-hand picture in Fig 5 shows the gateway to the Walled Garden at Ponsbourne Manor, Newgate Street, Hertfordshire.


Fig 6  –  The Boat Cave at Sandringham, Norfolk (1868) – photo by Martin Woods –  and the Rock Garden at Madresfield Court (1877-79), near Malvern, Worcestershire

James 2’s portfolio of ‘satisfied clients’ increased steadily to the point when he decided to bring his son, James 3 into the business in 1865 to form James Pulham and Son, and this is the point at which my great-grandfather, William Hitching, moved from Wallington, in North Hertfordshire, to join them in Hoddesdon.   Three years later, they remodelled the lakes at Sandringham, and built a massive rock boat cave, shown in Fig 6, for which they were later awarded a Royal Warrant.   The right-hand picture is of one of the gigantic archways in the rock garden at Madresfield Court, Worcestershire.   Other gardens for which James 2 was responsible included those at Audley End, Waddesdon Manor, Battersea Park, Sheffield Park, in Sussex, Bawdsey Manor, Suffolk and Belle Vue Park, Newport, Wales

Pulham’s Ferneries and Grottoes

Many of Pulham’s clients wanted ferneries and grottoes in which to house their newly acquired ferns and Alpine plants, which thrive in sheltered, quite dark, warm and moist environments.   These were generally constructed with a porous tufa ‘rock’ that is somewhat like pumice stone in character, and was obviously the product of a very special Pulham ‘recipe’.   The two illustrated here in Fig 7 are the ones at the Swiss Garden, Old Warden, Bedfordshire, and the underground ‘Lion Grotto’ at Dewstow, near Caerwent, in Wales.


Fig 7  –  Pulham Ferneries at Swiss Garden, Old Warden (1876) and Dewstow, Caerwent, Wales (1912)

Grottoes and boat caves were a popular feature of many Pulham gardens.   The boat cave at Sandringham (Fig 6) is an early example, and seemed to set the pattern for a number of similar boat caves around the country.   Some caves or grottoes were strictly ‘land-based’, however, and a number of the later ones incorporated flights of rustic steps that led up to a sunbathing plateau on top, thus providing the lucky owner with a choice of enjoying the cool of the cave or the warmth of the sun.

Pulham’s Balustrades and Bridges

James 2 died in 1898, and, if anything, James 3 was even more imaginative and adventurous in his designs than his father.   The Victorian era was drawing to a close, and the firm’s clients wanted to demonstrate their wealth by extending and refurbishing their houses, and surrounding them with grand, balustraded terraces and Italian and Japanese-styled gardens.

The Pulham Garden Ornament Catalogue [i] included illustrations of several balustrade patterns that were provided at the manufactory, one of which was the ‘Milton’ balustrade, used around the terrace of ‘The Node’, in Codicote.   An archive picture of the terrace and sunken garden – still in excellent condition – is shown in the left-hand picture of Fig 8, while the right-hand picture shows the Japanese garden, which is now in separate hands and very overgrown.


Fig 8  – Archive pictures of the balustraded terrace and sunken garden, and the Japanese garden at ‘The Node’, Codicote (1911-12)

The Pulhams never really got the credit for building Japanese gardens, because most people who own those that remain today claim that teams of gardeners were brought over especially from Japan to construct them.   That all sounds very impressive, but it is interesting to note how often these gardens happen to have been created on sites at which the firm is known to have worked on other features – just at the time when these gardens were created.   It therefore seems likely that, although specialist Japanese gardeners may well have been involved, the rock-building expertise of the Pulham workmen was also utilised.


Fig 9  –  The terracotta-balustraded bridge at High Leigh, Hoddesdon (1871) and the rustic bridge at Buckingham Palace (1903-04)

As one explores and examines the work that James Pulham and Son did over the years, one becomes increasingly aware of how versatile they were – that they were extremely good engineers, as well as talented artists and skilled stone-modelling craftsmen.   The massive ‘rock’ archway at Madresfield – shown on the right of Fig 6 – is one such example, and one marvels at the way in which the ‘rocks’ at the top have managed to stay in place so safely and securely for more than 130 years!   Other major sites for which James 3 was responsible include those at Heatherden Hall – now Pinewood Film Studios – Danesfield House, near Medmenham, Warren House, Kingston upon Thames, Dewstow, Friar Park, Henley-on-Thames and Buckingham Palace, for which the firm were awarded a second Royal Warrant.

They also built a number of bridges across the waterways on which they worked.   These seem to have fallen into three main categories, i.e., ‘formal’, ‘rustic’ and ‘ornamental’.   The bridge across the stream between Cock Lane and the South Lodge of High Leigh, in Hoddesdon – shown on the left of Fig 9 – is an elegant, beautifully constructed ‘formal’ bridge, while that on the right – one of the two bridges at Buckingham Palace – is typical of their ‘rustic’ bridges, which were stone built, with ‘ashlar’-type inscribed cement facing.

Pulham at the Seaside

After the First World War, and during the subsequent recession, the supply of manpower and money declined, and the Pulham order book gradually dried up.   James 3 died in 1920, so James 4 (1873-1957) had the unenviable job of overseeing the firm’s eventual decline and closure.   Most of its final commissions came from coastal resorts, such as Blackpool, Lytham St Anne’s, Ramsgate and Folkestone, who wanted to beautify their seafronts in order to attract visitors arriving for their days out at the seaside on the newly opened railways.   This work also served another purpose, because Pulhams were able to recruit some of the local unemployed to help with the heavy construction work involved.   One of their final jobs was the Zigzag Path on ‘The Leas’ at Folkestone, for which my grandfather, Fred Hitching, was the foreman.   

Sadly, there is insufficient room to individually discuss either this or any other individual Pulham sites here, but more than forty of their most prestigious ones are described and illustrated in Rock Landscapes – The Pulham Legacy, which also contains the stories of some incredible coincidences that came my way via the internet during my research.

Things did not stop when the book was finished, either.   Plans are being made for a special Pulham Exhibition at the Lowewood Museum in Hoddesdon in November, and for the small site in Broxbourne – on which the firm’s old grinding wheel and one of their kilns still stand – to be converted into a proper Pulham Memorial Site.   Details will be announced on www.pulham.org.uk as and when they become available.

©   Claude Hitching 2011

[i]    Pulham’s Garden Ornament Catalogue, published by James Pulham and Son c.1925

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