W.C.D. Watson – Head Gardener 1929-1951

Portrait photograph of William Watson, Head Gardener from 1929-51
WCD Watson, Head Gardener at Morrab Gardens from 1929 to 1951. He was a founder member of the Cornish Gorsedd, taking the bardic name of Tirvab – son of the soil. Photo by courtesy of Sue Griffin.

William Charles Daniel Watson was Head Gardener at Morrab Gardens in Penzance from 1929 to 1951. He planted many of the ‘sub-tropical’ plants for which the Morrab became well known. He corresponded and exchanged plants and seeds with people in various countries. He was an extraordinary person, and during his long tenure in the post he played an important role in the development of the Gardens.

His grand-daughter, Sue Griffin, recalls “I remember visiting Granfer (and his second wife, Ruby) in his house in the gardens when I was a small child. They lived in the end of the range of buildings nearest to Morrab House. He was always surrounded by books.

William Watson, Head Gardener from 1929-51, photographed in about 1948/9 with his four eldest grandchildren outside his house in the Gardens.
Mr Watson, with his four eldest grandchildren, photographed in about 1948/9 outside his house in the Gardens. Photo courtesy of Sue Griffin.

Sue has kindly provided this brief account of Mr Watson’s life.

“Willie was born on 25 November 1886 in Mylor Bridge, and served his time as a gardener at Rosehill in Falmouth, the house of the Fox family. He later worked at Trevales House, Stithians but he quarreled with the owner (probably about voting) and lost his job and the family’s home, next working in smelting works in Penryn and living in Budock.

“In the 1911 census, he and his wife, Elizabeth Mary, were living at Trelill, Budock with their baby son (my uncle) John. His occupation was given as jobbing gardener. By 1915 when my father, Sid, was born, they were living at Trevarth, Lanner where the family lived until they moved to Morrab Gardens in 1929. On Sid’s birth certificate, Willie’s occupation was given as gardener domestic.

“Willie was an auto didact, with an enthusiasm for languages and genealogy. He spoke Cornish and was a founder of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1928, taking the name Tyrvab, meaning ‘son of the soil’. It was said that he would talk to the Breton-speaking fishermen who came in to Newlyn in Cornish.

“He played a part in ‘rescuing’ the St. Day carol, and his name appears in some hymn books; he had learned it from an old miner, Thomas Beard, when he was a labourer and vanner attendant at South Crofty mine, Carn Brea during World War 1, and sang it to Canon Doble who wrote down words and music.

“Willie died aged 72 on 5 October 1959 in West Cornwall Hospital, Penzance.”

William Watson, Head Gardener from 1929-51, pictured standing outside Morrab Library with a visitor to the gardens (probably one of the many gardeners and botanists from around the world with whom he kept up a correspondence).
William Watson maintained correspondence with horticulturalists around the world, and extended a welcome to any who were able to visit Morrab Gardens. He is pictured here with one of his guests, standing at the side of the Morrab Library. Photo courtesy of Sue Griffin

From the West Briton 15 October 1959 written by J.R.M.

William Charles Daniel Watson, of Penzance, was a gardener. He was also a scholar with a fund of lore not to be found in books, and amateur genealogist in a field where there are no professionals, and a Cornish patriot who worked eagerly for a Gorsedd when hardy anyone else in Cornwall knew what it meant.

Enthusiasm was moving towards a Gorsedd, but it was moving slowly …….. no one knows how long the Cornish enthusiasts might have gone on talking had it not been for Daniel Watson.

Mr. Watson did not read rather vague papers to sleepy institutions; instead he planned a gorsedd, drawing at times upon his knowledge of Freemasonry in suggesting the forms to be adopted. In 1928 all was ready and he set out for Treorchy with seven others……. received into the Gorsedd as Tirvab (Son of the Soil).’

For some years Tirvab was Herald Bard. The role suited him perfectly, for his accent was recognisable to those who knew not a word of the old language.

Mr. Watson collected dialect songs … He was also greatly interested in preserving the old carols of Cornwall. It is to him that the English-speaking world owes the St. Day Carol…………… Mr. Watson heard the carol sung by old Thomas Beard ….… appeared in the Oxford Book of Carols.’

Tirvab taught himself Breton by listening to the fishermen from Brittany. ‘In these days of scholarship,’ said the Grand Bard this week, ‘he would have been able to take up languages at some University and would have been lost to Cornish culture.’

West Briton 15 November 1951

‘… served his time with Mr. W. Jenkin at Rosehill Gardens, Falmouth, owned by Mr. Howard Fox, a member of one of the leading Quaker families of the county.

From Rosehill, Mr. Watson went to Tresco Abbey gardens, in the Isles of Scilly, and from there to Carclew. He came to Penzance in the spring of 1929 as head gardener, after some years with Mr. A.P. Jenkin, of Trewirgie, Redruth. Since he has been there he has made friends with people from all parts of the world …. He is particularly proud of …. a momento from the late President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Dr. Benes.

In 1941 Mr. Watson received the distinction of being one of the first men in Britain selected by Sir Arthur Hill, the late director of Kew Gardens, to grow some South American plants which were being tested in various parts of the country with a view to relieving the sugar shortage.’

Sue has also listed a number of papers, letters and articles that tell a great deal about her grandfather. Some of these documents are currently held by the Morrab Library:

  • Copy of letter in German and French from WCDW to ? 1 January 1931, asking to exchange seeds and plants. Copy of letter from Jardin des Plantes, Nantes 30 March 1931.
  • Copy of letter from Secretary of Royal Horticultural Society 18 December 1931 re application for Fellowship.
  • Newspaper cutting: WCDW as guest of London Cornish Association at their annual banquet in 1932. ‘one of the greatest authorities in England on Cornish flora and the ancient Cornish language.’
  • Copy of letter from New Zealand High Commission 3 January 1935 – thanks for gift of New Zealand flowers.
  • Copy of letter from deputy superintendent of gardens in Bournemouth 15 December 1938 re cuttings.
  • Copy of notice of joint meeting of Penzance Natural History & Antiquarian Society and Penzance Old Cornwall Society 18 December 1939 – a paper by W.D. Watson on ‘Some interesting flower names’.
  • Copy of letter from Chancellery of Czechoslovak Republic 12 August 1942 – thanks for giving flower name of Czechoslovak village of Lidice.
  • Letter from ‘Menhyryon’ 29 August 1942 seeking help with an event of the Cornish Breton Committee. Draft of reply from WCDW saying that he could not assist because of additional work and being short-handed, and ‘there has been criticism by some councillors of my Old Cornwall activities. As you know I lead a very busy life and …. I find that the long days and continual fire watching by night are enough.’
  • Copies of newspaper cuttings re ‘naked oats’/avena nuda (?1934). Copy of letter in French from WCDW to Vilmorin-Andrieux of Paris ordering a catalogue and enquiring about purchase of ‘avoine nue’ seeds, etc. 4 June 1945 just after end of war in Europe). Copy of reply from Vilmorin-Andrieux 11 June 1945 (no longer supply avoine nue and need permits to send seeds).
  • Copy of letter from Mead Makers Ltd., Gulval 5 December 1947 – thanks for advice on laying out gardens and arranging to collect cuttings.
  • Copy of letter from Charles Simpson, Alverton 7 December 1948 congratulating on Penlee Gardens.
  • Copy of cutting from The Gardeners’ Chronicle 8 October 1949 re Morrab Gardens which ‘have, for the past sixty years, been the pride and delight of the townsfolk’. Purchase of the gardens of Morrab House of ‘not much over £3000’ was considered ‘very extravagant and ill advised, and there was much discontent displayed’. Opening ceremony on 1889. Gardens ‘greatly developed and improved, especially in the last 20 years, since Mr. WD Watson, an enthusiast for all things Cornish, and especially for the Morrab Gardens, has been in charge’.
  • Handwritten copy of letter to J. H. Bright Esq 6 September 1949 re terms of retirement: ‘I might mention that in 21 years I have never had a public holiday and I have had no annual holiday since January 1937. In the summer the garden is open for 97 hours per week and for the whole of that time I may be called upon for duty.’