Most were discarded generations ago, but a remarkable collection of more than 4,000, gathered from boot sales and auctions around the country, sheds new light on the lost art of growing produce in the grounds of the country houses of the three ridings.
Robert Addyman’s hoard dates back to the 1760s, an age in which even pineapples and bananas took root in coal-heated greenhouses within vast walled gardens.
“You had to grow your own food and if you didn’t grow it, you didn’t eat,” said Mr Addyman, who is demonstrating items from his collection in the manicured grounds of the late medieval Norton Conyers manor house, near Ripon, where his ancestors once took tea.
Pineapples were a particular status symbol for past generations, with the master of each house keen to get the first one of the season on his dinner table before his neighbour - until the reality of how much the fuel was costing kicked in.
“There would be a big furnace in the back of the greenhouse, which would be stoked 24 hours a day,” Mr Addyman said. “You could pick strawberries in December.
“The skill was keep the right temperatures in the glasshouses. If you didn’t, that was your crop gone.”
Kitchen gardens were common at large country homes and small rectories. The Duke of Portland’s Welbeck Estate, south-east of Sheffield, extended over 30 acres, with 30ft high walls, each heated with coal brought in from the duke’s own pits.
The kitchen gardener’s kit was as varied as it was vast. Hand-held implements included a fork for cultivating each crop - 6in tines on the strawberry fork and two prongs on the parsnip picker - and another for straightening cucumbers. Mr Addyman’s collection also includes a riveted, leather hosepipe and a 5ft hedge cutter that it took two men to operate.
For unwelcome visitors, there are mole traps, double-headed mouse traps, and worse.
“In the fruit season, poachers would come over the wall,” Mr Addyman said.
“So there’s a man trap from the 19th century with 6in teeth which would have taken a man’s leg off beneath the knees.
“They were outlawed in the early 1900s, but this one would still work.”
He began amassing old tools when, as a boy of seven, 40 years ago, he was taken by his father to an auction at Coltsgate Hill in Ripon. More recently, he has combined running his garden equipment business from his home near Harrogate with travelling to auctions around the country, with colleague Jack Clegram, in search of more inventory. His collection is now deemed of national importance and may eventually go on display in its entirety.
His inspiration was the 1980s BBC2 series, The Victorian Kitchen Garden, in which the late horticulturist Harry Dodson reconstructed a kitchen plot from the Victorian era at Leverton, Berkshire.
“It was a whole industry,” Mr Addyman said. “You were trained as a journeyman and then you would look for a position as a head gardener with 10-25 staff.”
But in a competitive climate in which the best produce went on show, there was little job security.
“Your job was only as safe as your last results,” Mr Addyman said. “If you got a really good show and a gold medal, it secured your position as head gardener at your estate. But if you only got a silver, your job was in danger.”
The craftsman gardeners cultivated their crops 3ft 6in deep in pine top soil.
“It really is a lost art,” Mr Addyman said. “Today would be lucky to be lucky to get as deep as six inches.
“But you can’t beat the home grown produce. It tastes altogether different.”
• YORKSHIRE once boasted dozens of country house kitchen gardens, and the one at Norton Conyers is perhaps the best untouched example. It is maintained by a professional nurseryman and a team of volunteers.
Other significant walled gardens were at Newby Hall, Ripley Castle, Thirsk Hall and Castle Howard. In many cases, gardeners’ tunnels up to 30ft long were build to relieve the lord and lady from having to see the staff as they made their way to work by candlelight.