Saturday, July 02, 2011

Peter Bowler | Memories of Shrubland Hall

An archived post from the (now-defunct) Shrubland Revisited website... 

My years at Shrubland Park
In late 1938 my father Sidney Bowler (a professional Wisley-trained gardener) secured a position as head gardener at Shrubland Park in Suffolk.

Although in later life he had equally prestigious positions at Luton Hoo, Castle Hill, and Winfield House in Regents Park, I think he always considered this his most rewarding job.

In the sometimes complex hierarchy of the large private estate the Head Gardener was considered equal to the Head Butler in status, but below him in actual prestige, and at the age of 36 my dad was still considered a trifle young for such a position.

I was aged four and a half when we moved into the garden house with dad, mum and two Sisters, Mary and Joan.

My dad headed a staff of (from memory) 10, there would have been a foreman-under –glass, a kitchen garden foreman and a pleasure ground foreman, and the remaining staff would move between departments as required.

Each morning it was my dad’s responsibility to take the day’s produce up to the “Big house”, vegetables, and fruit and, when the owners were in residence—flowers.

He and the cook would then discuss the next day’s menu and requirements.
It was his proud boast that he supplied new potatoes on Christmas day, (there were a few left for us as well!)

The kitchen gardens ran like a well oiled machine, there were hot-houses, warm ones, and cool ones, one had nothing but grapevines, another just melons, all warmed from large coke-fired boilers which never went out, summer or winter.

As the garden round the “Big house” was very formally landscaped I don’t recall that there were herbaceous borders as such, but the parkland being very extensive needed constant attention and tree management, I believe there was separate staff members for this.

In May 1939 I was five, so I started School at Barham, just at the end of a very long drive, almost opposite the Barham Lodge gate, my mother took me there every morning on the carrier of her bicycle, and collected me in the afternoon, people like us didn’t have cars then, but my dad bought an old BSA motor-cycle with a two seater sidecar, and managed to knock down a petrol pump at Rouse’s garage on the Norwich road on his first day out!.

Sometimes on summer evenings we would all walk down to the Sorrel Horse Inn, and us kids would sit outside on the wooden benches and eat the large biscuits that in those days were sold in pubs before bags of crisps replaced them.

Every summer before the war Lord and Lady de Saumarez organised a grand Fête,
The gardens were opened to the general public, and, on the enormous terrace at the rear of the house, from which the grand stone staircase descended, a highland pipe band would march up and down, wearing full ceremonial uniform despite the heat of the midsummer’s day.
In the evening there were fairy lights, music and dancing on the terrace, I remember my friend Frankie (Mayhew) and I thought it all a bit sissy, but then we were quite young!

In September 1939 my family went to Eastbourne for a holiday, and when we were at Eastbourne station to catch the train back to London we saw hundreds of evacuees disembarking from the train from London, war had been declared on the 3rd.

Back in Suffolk dad joined the home guard at Barham, every window in our house was taped up and blackout curtains installed, the “phoney war” had started.

In January 1940 a new sister arrived during a very cold night, named Margaret, we were now five.
Summer came at last and the battle of Britain was raging in the south-east, but we saw little of it where we were, except for a German bomber going over trailing smoke,
We watched it disappear over the treetops, but never knew what happened.

Lord and Lady de Saumarez often entertained groups of tired RAF pilots on short leave from the battle, a little rest, relaxation and a good meal, one of these groups included Douglas Bader, and probably other well known pilots as well, they all looked incredibly young.

Sometime during that year a light aircraft crashed into a tree right in front of the “Big house”, soon the place was swarming with RAF rescue vehicles, we boys were not allowed anywhere near, so again, to this day I don’t know what happened to the crew.

One morning we woke up to see hundreds of soldiers putting up tents in the parkland, The Border regiment had arrived (I think it was the Borders, but I may be wrong),
And we had to get used to sharing Shrubland Park with the army; they were mostly young men first time away from home.
A shooting and hand- grenade range was established in “The Dentlings”, and we lads used to go and pick up bits of shrapnel and cartridge cases when there was no firing.

That Christmas my mother baked a mince pie for every single soldier, and served tea and coffee as well, plus some extras provided by the men’s mess, in a long room in a building behind our house. (I don’t remember what the building was, but I remember that evening), my mother received a lovely letter of thanks from the C/O, I only wish it had survived. (google-earth shows the house and that building still there!)

Due to military call-up, staff levels diminished gradually, both in and out of “the big house”, and I think in the end just caretaking staff remained.

And so in early 1942 my dad’s job came to an end, and we were forced to leave this idyllic place and move to a rented house in Debden Green, where dad found a job at Castle Camps airfield, this was quite a low point in our lives, but things eventually got better!

Comments from the Shrubland Revisited website
Sandra Chapman - 2nd September 2008

Peters’ memories stirred up one or two of mine.I knew about the plane crash, someone gave my Father a ring made out of the perspex windscreen from the wreck. I don’t know what happened to it.
I remember too sitting outside the Sorrel Horse eating those big white biscuits and drinking Vimto. We had a dog which my Father used to shut in a shed opposite the bench we sat on whilst we were there, this dog had a tendency to bite the tyres of cars or bicycles, so was quite a menace. I too went to Barham school,there were about 20 pupils, aged from 5 to 11, and only one teacher. In spite of its limitations, I managed to pass my 11+ there.

I remember the walk to the lodge and main road.It was exactly a mile from our house. When I was about 14 my Father bought me a car that had broken down and been left at the pub (he paid £2.10s for it, it was a Morris 8, series E), he replaced the broken clutch, and I used to drive round the Estate on it, being private property I didn’t need a licence, and there wasn’t much other traffic to hit, so no insurance either. I eventually sold it to a friend for £10 – and they sold it onto an American serviceman based at Bentwaters, and it was eventually shipped to the U.S.A.


  1. Anonymous2:17 pm

    I would love to find out more about Sidney Bowler as he was briefly the Head Gardener on the Luton Hoo Estate. I am researching the Head Gardeners of the Luton Hoo Estate as part of a project to restore the 18th century walled garden. I would be delighted to find out more from Peter Bowler if he could contact Felicity at

  2. I would like to thank Andrew for rescuing this piece from the Shrubland site.
    I replied to "anonymous" and now my dad's time at Luton Hoo is on record, as is a description of what it was like there in the late forties.
    Keep up the good work! Muldoni (80 in May 2014).

  3. Sidney Bowler was my maternal grandfather, it was lovely to read this about part of my mum’s past.