Oliver Lines: from glass polisher to distinguished orchidist

The Trust have little information on Joseph Chamberlain’s large gardening staff besides the head gardeners and his orchid growers. Now Philip Seaton (world renowned specialist on Orchids and friend of CHT) has drawn our attention to Oliver Lines who was a famous orchid grower in the United States and who was awarded the gold medal of the American Orchid Society, its highest honour, in 1948. However, Oliver Lines has a direct connection to Highbury because that is where his career began. He went to work in the Highbury glasshouses at the age of fourteen in 1898, initially as a glass polisher, a task made necessary by the 8-10 cwt of coke that was used weekly to heat the glasshouse range and the numerous coal fires of the mansion. He worked under Mr Smith who had taken charge of the glasshouses after Mr Burberry left in 1897. Oliver Lines must have been diligent as he was promoted to water boy and subsequently as an assistant gardener. Around 1901 he left Highbury with Mr Smith who had been appointed the orchid grower at the Woodlands, Streatham where Mr R H Measurers, a steel manufacturer, had one of the largest collections of orchids in England.

For Oliver Lines this meant leaving his family in King’s Heath. Information from the Censuses of 1891 and 1901 indicates that his father, John, was an agricultural labourer and his mother, Eliza, was a laundress. Oliver’s older sister was a factory girl and his brother, Ernest, worked in a screw factory. In 1891 the family were living at 8 Middleton Road, King’s Heath and in 1901 they lived in the next street at 51 Albert Street. This was within relatively easy walking distance of Highbury.

Oliver stayed five years at The Woodlands and then went to work for Sir George Holford at Westonbirt. An American visitor told him of the opportunities in the USA and he emigrated in 1910. There he was orchid grower for John Sloane of W and J Sloane home furnishing suppliers, and then worked for Arthur N Cooley. In 1947 Cooley gave him two glasshouses and he went into business on his own account and continued his work of hybridisation. It is not known whether he ever visited England again before his death in 1965.

Philip Seaton at Highbury as part of THE MR CHAMBERLAINS ORCHIDS exhibition

The Trust are anxious to build up information on Joseph Chamberlain’s gardeners many of whom, like Oliver Lines, lived in the vicinity of Highbury.

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