Last year on holiday in Jersey the tour guide took us to a lavender farm and during the inevitable spiel about how the crop is processed the farm’s owner mentioned that London was once a huge producer of this aromatic herb.
Like many I had once heard that Lavender Hill in Battersea had a connection and assumed this was the only area that cultivated the crop.
A young Mr Yardley paid a grateful Charles I for the concession to manufacture soap for the entire city of London. This is now how most of us perceive the only use of lavender scent is for little old ladies. But in its time there was a huge market, once centred in South London.
Strewn on church floors during religious festivals, it was said to drive away evil spirits; as a laxative; Roman women used it to give lustre to their hair; used as a nosegay to prevent contagion during the plague; while wives would use it to ward off amorous advances ‘the panting and passion of the hart’ as it was euphemistically called.
It was regularly used to keep lice and flea infestations at bay and there was hardly a medical condition that lavender was said to be unable to relieve.
Strangely Battersea’s Lavender Hill and nearby Lavender Sweep does not appear to be an area ever used in the herb’s cultivation. The area known to be huge producers was Croydon, Beddington, Wallington, Cheam, Carshalton and Sutton. In fact Carshalton’s Banstead Road once had clauses written into their house deeds prohibiting them from planting lavender for commercial purposes.
Street sellers were forbidden under London by-laws to knock at doors selling their little posies and so would hawk their wares using the time honoured ditties to advertise. I can remember an old girl who up to the last decade sold lavender posies on Romford’s streets.
Now the only vestige in London of what was once a thriving horticulture trade is a small producer in Banstead in the area where the aforementioned growers were concentrated. Here 25 acres are grown which originally were helped by Yardley. After a promising start, in 2002 Mayfield Lavender which has had their fare share of knocks, Yardley withdrew their support. They still manage to produce a wide range of lavender products and offer tours during the summer.
Mayfield Lavender, Woodmansterne looking across to the pergola, with the lavender just about in full bloom Peter Trimming (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Lavender growing, Mayfield Lavender Farm by Christopher Hilton (CC BY-SA 2.0)