John Cree was an important gardener and nurseryman of his day, and founded a successful nursery business in Addlestone. He was trained by Mr Aiton, the head gardener at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, who worked under Sir Joseph Banks to develop the Kew estate into a famous botanic garden during the reign of George III. John Cree is also known to have travelled with botanists to Carolina in America, bringing back many specimens. Some of these are preserved at the Natural History Museum. The Botanists’ Repository (book II, 1799) contains an in-depth description of a familiar plant brought back by Cree. It is the Vaccinium Amoenum, or American blueberry. It is from the same family as our native Scottish blueberry, but grows to a greater height, giving it better accessibility when picked. Despite this potential benefit, attempts to grow it as a commercial crop in Scotland failed as the plants are very difficult to establish and take seven years to produce a crop. The blueberries that grow wild in some areas of Surrey are the smaller native variety.
‘John Cree from Kew’ set up his nursery in Addlestone in 1765. Early records link him to Woburn. This suggests that he was employed by Philip Southcote in his acclaimed ‘Ferme Ornée’ at Woburn Park in Addlestone. Cree may also have selected Addlestone for its transport links – the Wey Navigation would have solved potential problems with moving larger specimens. The status of the nursery was such that it is recorded as supplying newly imported plants to the Dowager Princess of Wales, Princess Augusta, mother of George III. The plants included a ‘toothache tree’. An infusion of the bark of this tree was used by the Native American Indians as a cure for the toothache, although its effect is said to be more of counter-irritation, the stinging sensation taking one’s mind off the pain of the toothache. A specimen of this tree can be found at Saville Gardens, Windsor Great Park, Virginia Water.
The nursery took up quite a number of plots in Addlestone. The main site was located near modern-day Station Road, Crouch Oak Lane and the High Street. Land opposite Victory Park was also used and further plots were in the possession of William Keddie, a business partner and his brother William Cree.
Cree owned six copyhold cottages in Addlestone at the time of his death in 1816, and John Cree House at 24 – 26 High Street, Addlestone, now rebuilt as an office block, was the family home. He married three times and his third wife, Ann, was the mother of his only child, a son, John, who was born in 1799. He attended the Alwyn’s Lane nonconformist church in Chertsey and is described in the church records as one of the Trustees of this church, sometimes referred to as the Scots Church. He was also one of the ten committee members of the Chertsey and Egham Branch Bible Society during 1815.
At his death in 1816 he left his widow Ann and his son John who was 16 years of age. When John reached the age of 21 he inherited the business which he continued with some success. Evidence of this is shown in the production of two very comprehensive plant catalogues, one in 1829 and another in 1837. Called ‘Hortus Addlestonensis’, a copy of the first page of the 1829 catalogue is illustrated here. A complete copy is held in the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society. It consists of a listing of over five thousand different plants with details of their growth and how to cultivate them. The following small selection gives some idea of the huge variety of plants kept by the nursery:
• 30 primulas, including 10 varieties of the common primrose, nine of them double forms.
• Over 100 named hyacinths
• 58 azaleas
• 111 varieties of apple, 27 of plums and 18 of strawberries
He is said to have grown all the plants he sold. Loudon’s ‘Gardeners’ Magazine’ gives the nursery a very favourable write-up in 1830. It reads:
‘We were much gratified in looking over this nursery, which contains more rare herbaceous plants than any of the country nurseries, with the exception of that of Messrs. Young at Epsom, and is inferior to none in general arrangement. Mr Cree, his seed-shop, his hot-houses, his dwelling house, and all that is about him, are just what we should expect or wish to surround the author of such an excellent catalogue as the ‘Hortus Addlestonensis’’.
They also give a description of the nursery:
‘A very neat green-house and propagating stove, with stone shelves, span roof etc., heated by hot water by Cottam; numerous well-constructed pits; and numerous small compartments, enclosed with hedges, for the rarer plants, are also to be found here. There is an extensive nursery for fruit and forest trees at some distance’.
The nursery continued through the 1830s. A second catalogue, ‘of Herbaceous Plants cultivated and sold by John Cree, Addlestone Nursery’, was produced in 1837. Amongst many other things, it listed a new apple variety – ‘Addlestone Pippen’. A variety of Mallow plant was named after Cree himself: the ‘Malva Creeana’, produced and named in his honour by fellow nurseryman George Penny of Milford. However, from as early as 1828, Cree was mortgaging or selling his land. In 1838 he sold his last piece of copyhold land, and it is likely that the nursery closed in the same year. By 1839 he is listed as an Auctioneer. He was also a surveyor and tax collector, a post held by his father before him, and passed on to his son when he died in 1858. It is not known why the nursery business failed so soon after producing such detailed and well-received catalogues, though one explanation is that that there was competition from other local nurseries.
Reference: ‘The Cree Nursery at Addlestone’ by Beryl Mackenzie, Addlestone Historical Society, published in Surrey History.