Tag Archives: history

Banbury’s Historic Wisteria sinensis in White Lion Walk

White Lion Walk Wisteria 3_edited-1
The White Lion Walk Wisteria, May 2014 © Sam Barnes

Wildly differing claims have been made on blog posts and photo sharing sites about the age of our magnificent wisteria in Banbury. There is no disputing its magnificence; it is a beautiful specimen with a vast trunk. From the end of April and into the first few weeks of May it becomes Banbury’s top tourist attraction. Right from the moment the glorious long flowers burst into lilac-coloured bloom, visitors start coming up the walk, drawn by the colour and the heady wisteria scent. Cameras, phones and tablets start snapping into action, all trying to capture the wonder of nature climbing up the side of what was once the White Lion Hotel.

Claims about the age of the wisteria have ranged from ‘one hundred years old’ and ‘over two hundred years old’ to, impressively, ‘our five hundred year old wisteria’, as well as just ‘ancient wisteria’. I have been on a quest for the truth to see if I could discover just exactly how old our lovely wisteria really is.

First, a little history of the White Lion. Now no longer a pub or hotel, the White Lion was one of Banbury’s earliest inns, with the first innkeeper being recorded in 1554.1 This makes it older in origin than Banbury’s oldest surviving public house, the Reindeer on Parsons Street. With its large courtyard and outbuildings, together with its position on the High Street, the White Lion was well placed to become one of the main coaching inns in the town. In 1796 the Post Office was recorded as being within the White Lion. William Potts reports that … ‘the post came in every morning about 10 o’clock and the office closed every afternoon at 4 o’clock, the Mail Coach leaving the White Lion daily at 4.30pm through Woodstock and Oxford to the Bull and Mouth, London.’2 By 1836 most of the coach services had been moved to the White Lion3 and the White Lion remained Banbury’s chief coaching inn until rail and motoring developments gradually signalled the end of the coaching era.

HT2434 white lion 1887
Photograph of the White Lion Hotel, High Street, Banbury, taken by Henry W. Taunt, 1887. From Historic England, ‘ViewFinder’, Reference No. HT02434 http://viewfinder.historicengland.org.uk/search/detail.aspx?uid=56880 (retrieved 26 April 2017).

Fuller’s Griffin Brewery in Chiswick claim to have the country’s oldest Wisteria. It is said to have been planted in 1816; one of a pair of saplings brought over from China. One was planted outside what was at the time the Head Brewer’s cottage at the Brewery, while the other was planted at Kew Gardens. The Kew sapling reportedly didn’t take, so the gardeners at Kew returned to the brewery for a cutting, leaving the brewery Wisteria with the acclaim of oldest in the country.4

There is another, better documented, history which deviates from this version though the two versions are not necessarily incompatible.5 It would be interesting to research further the Fuller’s Griffin Brewery account to see where the source of information above has come from.

The other account of the introduction of Wisteria sinensis to the British Isles references the exact same date. Joseph Banks, the then President of the newly founded Royal Horticultural Society6 in London commissioned an East India Company Inspector of Tea, John Reeves, to acquire plants for the society and ship them back to London. Reeves was a natural history enthusiast and collector and during his years in Canton (1812-1831) he collected specimens, commissioned artists’ drawings, documented animals and plants and sent living plant specimens back home.7 Interestingly, in 1821 (and until c. 1903) the RHS rented some land on the Duke of Devonshire’s Chiswick estate to start an experimental specimen garden (hence the possible Chiswick connection with Fuller’s Griffin Brewery).

Reeves sent two plants back to England on two separate ships; one on HCS Cuffnells with Captain Welbank in late 1815 and one a few weeks later, which he accompanied, on HCS Warren Hastings with Captain Rawes. Captain Welbank arrived in England on 4 May 1816 and Captain Rawes and John Reeves arrived with the other plant on 11 May 1816. The plants were transferred to two garden enthusiasts; one to Charles Hampden Turner at Wood Lodge (Eltham) and the other to Thomas Carey Palmer at Vale Cottage (Bromley).8 Charles Hampden Turner’s plant was painted by John Curtis for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1819.9 It had been badly mistreated while Turner and his gardener tried to work out what conditions it would favour but it survived the extreme conditions it was subjected to and must have put out some flowers quite early for it to have been painted in 1819. Palmer gave a propagated plant from his Wisteria to a Hammersmith nurseryman, James Lee, in around 1818 and a flowering specimen was collected from that plant, by Sir James Edward Smith, on 28 May 1821.10 The Wikipedia entry of Charles Hampden Turner claims that Reeves sent another specimen of the same plant to Kew Gardens in 1818 but no citation is provided.11

curtis illustration 1819
John Curtis’s illustration of Wisteria sinensis for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, see footnote 9.

So, how does this help us with ageing our White Lion Walk Wisteria? It seems highly unlikely that the White Lion would have had an earlier specimen than the ones documented here so we can, with an element of likelihood, say that our Wisteria is no more than 200 years old in 2017. However we cannot ascertain this as a certainty as Vera Wood claimed in 1998 in her book, The Licencees of the Inns, Taverns and Beerhouses of Banbury, that … ‘the wisteria was mentioned well over 240 years ago.’12 Unfortunately, she does not provide a reference for this statement and I have been unable to find any relevant documentation.

IMG_2162_two wisteria postcards
Two early twentieth century postcards of White Lion Walk, Banbury. The top postcard is postally used (1912). The bottom postcard is a slightly later image.

If we assume that our Wisteria is younger than the specimens brought over from China in 1816, then our next difficulty is to try and narrow down the age further. Our Banbury Wisteria has a large trunk and was depicted on postcards in the early twentieth century claiming it as the longest Wisteria in the country. Furthermore, the White Lion was a prestigious coaching inn in the early nineteenth century, with regular links to London and is likely to have attracted some of the more wealthy travelling clientele. The Wisteria could quite feasibly have come from someone travelling through Banbury from the capital; whether an acquaintance, a business association, customer, even ordered up from a nursery due to the reputation of the plant having become established, or given in part payment or thanks for some assistance rendered to a visitor. The size of the Wisteria and the status of the White Lion would suggest that the Banbury plant was an early descendant from one of the 1816 plants. The Wisteria in general became a popular plant across the country quite quickly and by 1854 John Claudius Loudon wrote that … ‘Plants that were originally sold at six guineas, now cost, in the London nurseries, from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. each’.13 This would have been an easily affordable sum for an established coaching inn; therefore with some confidence we can date our Wisteria from c. 1820-1850 at the very latest.

IMG_2163_white lion booklet cover
Front cover of a c. 1920s advertising booklet and price list for the White Lion Hotel, Banbury – depicts the stable block with Wisteria in flower.

A 1920s advertising booklet for the White Lion Hotel depicts a painting of the Wisteria, by G. P. Hobson [or Hudson?], on the front cover and on page 5 of the booklet it reports snippets from a review of the hotel by The Tatler. In relation to the Wisteria, the article says:

… ‘The tree intrigued me! A wistaria14, it has stuck right down to its job these two hundred odd years, and its branches cover just precisely 68 yards of wall. And the dear old thing has got so old that it has to be looked after by a plumber, who nails chunks of zinc over the spots where it is showing signs of senile decay…’

IMG_2164_white lion hotel page
Photo of paragraph mentioning the Wisteria from p. 5 of the c. 1920s White Lion Hotel promotional booklet.

I’m pleased to report that the Wisteria is now protected by a Tree Preservation Order and is looked after by a firm of arboriculturalists, keeping it trimmed and contained to the one row of buildings along the side of White Lion Walk. Having been shrouded in scaffolding and netting for the latter 8 months of 2016 and having had some utilities-related digging and excavating done around its root system, we are all very relieved to see it uncovered and flowering again with plenty of blooms this spring.

If any readers can provide any further citations or information regarding the White Lion Walk Wisteria I will be very grateful to receive them so please do get in touch if you can help.

Otherwise, do come and visit our Wisteria. White Lion Walk is a gated courtyard so you may find it locked up in the evenings and sometimes on Sundays as well. Best time to visit is during bookshop opening hours!! The fragrance seems to be strongest when the sun warms the blooms, so best time to visit for the fragrance is on a sunny afternoon.

white lion walk wisteria 2_edited-1
White Lion Walk Wisteria, Banbury, May 2009 © Sam Barnes

1. Vera Wood, The Licensees of the Inns, Taverns and Beerhouses of Banbury, Oxfordshire (Oxfordshire Family History Society, 1998), p. 128.
2. William Potts, revised and ed. by Edward T. Clark, A History of Banbury (Gulliver Press, Banbury, 2nd ed. 1978), pp. 225-226.
3. Vera Wood, The Licensees of the Inns, Taverns and Beerhouses, p. 130.
4. Fullers Brewery, ‘The Oldest Wisteria in England, 06 May 2015’ https://www.fullers.co.uk/blog/brewery-articles/wisteria (retrieved 25 April 2017).
5. Chiswick connects the Fuller’s Griffin Brewery location and the location of the Royal Horticultural Society garden in London at the same time; neither of which are far from Kew Gardens as well.
6. Wikipedia, ‘The Royal Horticultural Society’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Horticultural_Society (retrieved 25 April 2017).
7. Natural History Museum, ‘John Reeves 1774-1856) https://web.archive.org/web/20070322084232/http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/online-ex/art-themes/drawingconclusions/more/fish_more_info.htm (retrieved 25 April 2017).
8. Culham Research Group, ‘The first Wisteria sinensis in Europe’, March 10 2015 by Alastair Culham; https://blogs.reading.ac.uk/crg/the-first-wisteria-sinensis-in-europe/ ; see also John Claudius Loudon, Arboretum et fructicetum britannicum, or The Trees and Shrubs of Britain, Volume 2’ (Second Edition, Henry Bohn, London, 1854) p. 648, viewed on Google Books https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=IMknAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA648&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false (retrieved 25 April 2017).
9. John Sims, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine; or, Flower-Garden Displayed, Volume XLVI (London, 1819), p. 2083, viewed on Biodiversity Heritage Library http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/14330#page/162/mode/1up (retrieved 25 April 2017).
10. Culham Research Group, ‘The first Wisteria sinensis in Europe’.
11. Wikipedia, ‘Charles Turner (merchant)’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Turner_(merchant) (retrieved 25 April 2017).
12. Vera Wood, The Licensees of the Inns, Taverns and Beerhouses, p. 130
13. John Sims, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, p. 2083
14. alternative spelling, used on both White Lion courtyard postcards shown in this article but now no longer commonly used.

Sam Barnes
Books & Ink Bookshop
28 April 2017


All About Ladybird Books

‘…here is Peter
here is Jane’.

Very few books are as evocative of childhood to me as Ladybird books. In fact, there must be very few people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s who don’t remember a Ladybird book.

I learned to read in the early 1980s, mostly from books in the local library and second hand and jumble sale finds but I did have just a few new Ladybird books and they are the ones which became my very firm favourites. I LOVED Dennis the Dragon, Mervyn Town Mouse, Thumbelina, Cinderella, The Elves and the Shoemaker, The Princess and the Frog and Rapunzel. They were my treasured new ones and the ones I loved most of all.

Others might remember best the factual Ladybird books, such as Transistor Radios, Exploring Space, The Ladybird Book of Motor Cars and so on, but for me it was the fairy tales and other fiction stories that captured my imagination.

Wills & Hepworth, the publisher of Ladybird books, began this infamous series way back in 1914 but it wasn’t until 1940, when wartime paper shortages prompted Wills & Hepworth to look at a new and more economical way of printing, that the Ladybird book in its slim pocket-sized format, was born. Essentially each book was printed on one single sheet of paper (40” x 30” in size) including pages, endpapers and dust jacket; thus an efficient and economical way of producing a book for children.

Single printing sheet showing a whole Ladybird book

The first Ladybird book to be made in this format was Bunnikin’s Picnic Party, written and illustrated by Angusine Macgregor, with a delightful gentle story told in rhyming verse. Two more books were published in this series, Series 401, in 1940 and three more, though with a different author, were published the following year. These proved to be successful for Wills & Hepworth and they followed these in 1941 with the first three books in The Adventures of Wonk series and their first book for series 413, The Ladybird Book of Nursery Rhymes.

A c. 1981 edition of Bunnikin’s Picnic Party, matt cover Ladybird book.

These ten books, plus a 1944 edition of Cinderella (Series 413) were the only books to be published during the Second World War, though they were popular and most of them stretched to a number of reprints during those years.

A note on series numbering: The first two digits of the series number indicate the year of publication of the first title in the series, i.e. Bunnikin’s Picnic Party being the first book published in 1940 begins Series 401; the first Tasseltip story, A Little Silk Apron, was published in 1947 and so begins Series 474. Nobody knows where the last digit in the series number comes from; no documentation survives and perhaps it was simply a random number choice.

From 1945 onwards the Ladybird offering really started to grow, first with the introduction of their non-fiction Uncle Mac titles – the first one, In Green Pastures, published in 1945 – and with more books added to series 401 and 413 and then series 474 (Tasseltip tales) from 1947 and series 497 (Animal tales) from 1949. The 1950s then saw an expansion of their non-fiction offerings, with the nature, history, travel adventure, and bible stories series all taking off.

The look of the boards of the books underwent various different changes over the years but up until 1965 all books were first published with printed dust jackets. After 1965 the books were given a printed pictorial front board with a matt finish. At first these colourful designs were the same as the dust jackets which had preceded them but illustrations evolved for some of the series to change with the times. The matt-finish pictorial boards were changed to laminated (or glossy) boards in around 1983.

Ladybird Books came to be well-used by schools. They were well-written, often beautifully illustrated, appealing to children and in the case of the factual titles, very well-researched. The Key Words Reading Scheme, featuring Peter and Jane, came to be the series that thousands of children learned to read with from the mid-1960s through to the 1980s and beyond. The first book, 1a Play with Us, was published in 1964 and the last one, 12c The Open Door to Reading, was published in 1967, so they managed to complete the publication of the series in quite a short space of time. Spin off Picture Dictionaries (Series 642) and Easy Readers followed in the 1960s and 70s and a range of supporting educational resources were also created for use in schools – workbooks, flash cards, puzzles, audio tapes.

Children of the late 1980s might have developed their reading instead with the Puddle Lane Reading Programme, another very popular reading scheme published by Ladybird.

The popularity of Ladybird Books wasn’t just confined to the British Isles. By 1970 a number of Ladybird books had been translated and were being sold overseas and it is estimated that Ladybird Books have been translated into around 70 different languages. The most unusual I have come across is a Fijiian edition of a religious title. I have also seen a few copies of the rather bizarre Esperanto edition of London. More commonly seen are Welsh, German, Scandinavian and Arabic editions.

Foreign Ladybird books – London in Esperanto and The Child of the Temple in Fijian

In 1996 Ladybird Books became a subsidiary of the Penguin Books Group and in 1998 Penguin took over the management of the company, closing the iconic Loughborough printing works later that same year. A notice at the town’s railway station welcoming visitors to ‘The Home of Ladybird Books’ was taken down but in 2015 a green plaque was unveiled at Angel Yard in Loughborough, the original home of Ladybird Books, recognising the company’s importance in the town’s history.

Ladybird Books green plaque at Angel Yard, Loughborough


Collecting Ladybird Books

Collectors come in all types, ages and budget sizes! If you’re thinking of getting started as a collector, you can start your own collection for very little cost at all. Prices in our bookshop start at just £1, with many matt edition standard Ladybird Books being around the £3-4 mark. You can browse charity shops, antiquarian bookshops, bring and buy sales and the internet and pick up many lovely Ladybird books for the price of a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. Best of all, as book collections go these little books take up such little space on your bookshelf that they’re not going to take over your living space… unless you go really crazy…

Some series and titles are more sought after by collectors and that makes them more difficult to find and more expensive when you do find them. Some collectors focus on the early standard format Ladybirds from the 1940s and 50s; some collect only Ladybirds with dust jackets; some only books in a particular series; the 606C Well-Loved Tales series are currently quite sought after by collectors of my generation who grew up with these; some collectors seek out the early Ladybird books from the pre-1940s, some collect books with illustrations by well-known illustrators and some collect foreign language editions. Some series like the ‘Wonk’ books will have prices which vary considerably – it’s not too difficult to find an inexpensive tatty Wonk without its dust jacket (readable but with considerable flaws) but once you go looking for really tidy copies with very good condition spines and good condition dust jackets, you might have to weigh up the weekly shop vs a nice Wonk book in really good condition!

In general first editions will usually command a higher price than later editions and the condition of the books is also something to look out for – if you are only after near pristine copies in excellent dust jackets they are clearly going to be harder to find and more expensive than a ‘reading’ copy which may have creased pages, thumbing marks and previous owner’s names inside.

Dating the books is done with a mixture of methods – from endpaper and Ladybird logo design, to more obvious points such as the presence of a dust jacket (pre-1965), the price and the lists of other titles in the series (initially on the last few pages of the book, then the dust jacket flaps and later on the back covers of the post-1965 matt board editions). You will also see mention of so-called tally numbers in books that have been offered for sale online with good descriptions. This relates to the number of Ladybird books in publication at a particular time and this figure was often mentioned on the last few pages, rear dust jacket flap and then on the rear board of the book as well. Tally numbers started in 1963 and increased every year with new titles published; they ceased being mentioned in about 1974. The following indications might help you to loosely identify the age of your Ladybird Books*:

Tally of 100 titles 1963-4
120-140 1965
150-180 1966
190-200 1967-8
210-225 1968
230-260 1969
270-280 1970
290 1971
300 1972
320-340 1973
350-370 1974

Good luck with building up your collections and enjoy re-reading your old favourite Ladybird stories and discovering new ones you never knew existed!

To view our current range of Ladybird books online at Books & Ink Bookshop please click here. We have many more in the shop so contact us with your requests, or pop in and see us.

This article can be found both on our website as a static page article and on our wordpress blog.
*Johnson, Lorraine; Alderson, Brian, ‘The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone’ (The British Library, 2014; p. 165).