Harlow Carr tells the story of gardening behind enemy lines

A new exhibition at a Yorkshire garden will tell the story of how horticulture helped British prisoners survive wartime internment.

Harlow Carr’s head librarian Sue Padgham has a personal connection to the story of Ruhleben in Berlin, where her grandfather was among the World War One detainees who set up an RHS-standard flower club in the inhospitable surroundings of the camp.

She has now helped to display material for Gardens Behind Barbed Wire, which will run at the Harrogate attraction’s historic Bath House from January 7 until February 26.

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The intrepid group, which included her relative Thomas Thomas, were mainly British men working in Germany when war broke out in 1914, and who were interned by the government to prevent them joining their home country’s armed forces.

Thomas, who was employed by the Southern Cotton Oil Company in Hamburg, was one of the green-fingered prisoners who decided to grow food at Ruhleben, a former racecourse on the outskirts of the German capital, to feed fellow inmates enduring tough conditions.

“He was detained at the camp for two years, then unexpectedly released in January 1916 along with 69 other men – many from fishing vessels captured in the North Sea – plus children and 10 members of the Royal Army Medical Corps. I know he travelled home to England by merchant ship from Flushing but I’m not sure why he and the others were chosen to be released – perhaps because of ill health or because they no longer posed a security risk,” said Sue.

More than 5,000 British men and boys were held at the camp, which was described as ‘not fit to keep pigs in.’ They created a self-governing society, which included the Ruhleben Horticultural Society.

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“What started with a handful of green-fingered internees growing pansies and violets in biscuit tins to disguise their bleak surroundings soon developed into a fully–fledged horticultural society, its members eventually numbering more than 900.

Gardening offered a rare opportunity to shape an environment that was largely out of their control. The plants did not just disguise barbed-wire fences; they helped prisoners to forget the fences as they lost themselves in the simple but absorbing task of growing things.”

The society managed to feed the camp’s inmates and organise RHS-standard flower shows to boost morale. A potting shed and glasshouse were built and a steam heating system was rigged up from the camp’s boiler, allowing inmates to grow melons and tomatoes. At their flower shows, prizes were awarded for vegetables, cut flowers, sweet peas, table decorations, buttonholes, windowboxes and gardens. Promenade beds were planted alongside the barbed-wire fences and some of the barrack gardens were very elaborate with arches, frames and other supports. Members grew a total of 52 different sweet pea and proudly sent photographs of their gardens back to the RHS.

The RHS in return sent seeds, bulbs and advice to the Ruhleben prison, deep behind enemy lines. The two societies corresponded throughout the war, with internees sending back the photographs, letters, drawings and reports which make up most of the exhibition at Harlow Carr.

RHS head of exhibitions Fiona Davison said:

“The story of the Ruhleben Horticultural Society is completely unique, a vivid example of the way that gardening can promote health and happiness, even in the most challenging circumstances.”