EA Bowles' and Myddleton House gardener Charlie Smith dies

"Fountain of knowledge about E A Bowles" and "wonderful friend" remembered by fellow gardeners.

Charlie Smith spent 55 years as a professional gardener. Image: Myddleton House and Gardens
Charlie Smith spent 55 years as a professional gardener. Image: Myddleton House and Gardens

Former Myddelton House Gardens head gardener who worked for many years for the Victorian plantsman Edward Augustus Bowles, Charlie Smith, has died at the age 97.

Smith was one of the original ‘Bowles Boys’- employees of the well-known botanist, who created Myddelton House Gardens in Enfield, London. Bowles took him under his wing, helped him with his education and employed as a chauffeur, office worker and gardener following military service in North Africa and Sicily during World War Two in 1946.

It was the beginning of a successful 55-year gardening career.

He was with Bowles, who was the great, great uncle of Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, when the well-known botanist, illustrator and philanthropist, died in 1954, and knew him so well that he was able to help historian and Bowles’ biographer Bryan Hewitt with his book The Crocus King: E A Bowles of Myddelton House. Hewitt was a fellow gardener at Myddelton House and knew Smith for the last 34 years.

Bryan Hewitt and Charlie Smith in the gardens in 1983. Image: Myddleton House and Gardens

Smith had been the oldest surviving ‘Bowles Boy’ and lived in Enfield for most of his life. He spent his last days with his daughter Carole in Boston, Lincolnshire, before dying of a stroke.

E A Bowles, affectionately known as ‘Gussie’, lived at the gardens between 1865 and 1954 and is considered to be one of the 20th century’s greatest self-taught gardeners, artists, writers and botanists. In his will, he left Charlie the princely sum of £150 a year for the next 63 years. It was known as the Parker Bowles Annuity and Charlie became the last surviving recipient among the six other servants remembered and rewarded.

From 1954 onwards, Myddelton House Gardens were bought and run jointly by The Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine (RFH) and The London School of Pharmacy, who turned the kitchen garden into a Medicinal Garden. Smith’s work included highly secretive research into the benefits of drugs to relieve pain, including cannabis and opium poppies.

He became head gardener in 1970, a post he held until 1985 when he retired aged 65. He planted an Acer tree in the gardens to celebrate his 50th birthday and was presented with a long-service certificate by the Brigadier, who is president of the Bowles Society. A few weeks after retiring, he was persuaded to come back to the kitchen garden where he remained a further 15 years with an assistant until the School of Pharmacy and RFH sold the Medicinal Garden and sports fields at the rear of Myddelton House to Lee Valley Regional Park Authority in 2000.

Smith was invited back to Myddelton House one last time in 2011 as a special guest to meet the Duchess of Cornwall when she officially opened the newly restored gardens, the work for which was funded by the Heritage Lottery.

Current head gardener James Hall said: "Charlie was the last remaining direct link with the gardens’ famous ancestor and was a fountain of knowledge about E A Bowles. It is sad that all this fascinating knowledge and history is now gone, but his immense contribution to the gardens and to plant research over the half century that he was a gardener here will always be remembered."

Bowles’ biographer Hewitt said Smith was "the last living authority on EA Bowles".

"Charlie told me so many stories about the great man and the wonderful days of the gardens when I started work at Myddelton House Gardens as a gardener in 1983. I wrote everything he told me into a book and it was an immense help to me in 1997 when it came to writing my biography.

"Charlie knew so much and he was always so willing to share information about those times…and now there is no one left to ask. He was a wonderful friend." 

Charlie Smith’s funeral will be in Boston, Lincolnshire on Friday 2 June.

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