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Trade card of James Shiells, Nurseryman, Lambeth (and Parliament Street)

James Shiells took over the nursery gardens of Richard North in Lambeth in the autumn of 1763. Lambeth was ideal for nurserymen as it had suitable land for growing stock and was close enough to wealthy patrons north of the river Thames. By 1770 Shiells had expanded the business in many directions, as shown by this interesting trade card. The design offers an imaginary bird's-eye view of his nursery, and encapsulates in visual form a written advertisement which appeared in London newspapers in 1765:

Shiells... sells all Sorts of Forest and Fruit-Trees, Ever Greens, and Flowering Shrubs, ... also all Sorts of Garden and Grass-Seeds, Flower Roots, Garden-Tools, Matts, &c. in large or small Quantities: he continues to lay out Grounds as usual, either in Park, Pleasure, or Kitchen-Gardens; makes River and other Pieces of Water, in the most natural, elegant, and modern Taste: likewise builds Hot and Green Houses...
(Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 25 January 1765)

Town gardens were quite common among affluent households in London. There was growing interest in the benefits of urban gardening not to mention an element of status in the ownership of a private garden. Squares built in the early eighteenth century for wealthy residents all had kitchen gardens situated behind them, providing fruits and vegetables for the household. The growing demand for seeds and trees for wealthy estates outside London meant the number of nurseries and seed shops multiplied extremely quickly. London accommodated around 30-40 nurserymen and seedsmen halfway through the century and the number had almost doubled by 1786 (when a list of shops was published). Competition engendered lower prices and an impulse to import or breed new varieties of flowers.

John Abercrombie Everyman his own Gardener, 3rd edition, 1769, London, W. Griffin (first published in 1767. Abercrombie's name did not appear as author until the 7th edition in 1776). Frontispiece by Isaac Taylor, showing two gardeners in a town garden, with two well-dressed figures entering a greenhouse at the rear of the house.
Botanic Garden, University of Cambridge Museums

In January 1772 Shiells went into business with a man called John Cowie and opened up a seed shop on Parliament Street, Westminster. The two men took advantage of the classifieds in the newspapers, placing ads to let potential customers know what stock was in bloom and pleading for custom, desirous to join the fabled rank of tradesmen who 'rise from obscurity and penury, to affluence'. The partnership with Cowie was dissolved on 11 November 1778 but Shiells went on to achieve his life's ambition. He retired from the seeds business in 1782 and took on the more prestigious title of 'surveyor'.

In 1782 Shiells became treasurer of the 'Society of Guardians for the protection of Trade against Swindlers and Sharpers', an early example of a Trade Protection Society (founded in 1776). Somewhat ironically, a year later he was involved in a public dispute with someone calling themselves a friend of the late Lancelot Brown, gardener to the king. This anonymous writer cast aspersions on Shiells' claim to have been on friendly terms with Brown, accusing him of profiting from the lie.

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