Aldbourne Heritage Centre
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Thomas Fairchild – Plant Hybridiser

By the time that this article is published, many readers have enjoyed the display of late summer flowers in the gardens of Aldbourne. Many of these plants will be the result of deliberate ‘hybridization’, that is, the crossing of one type of plant with another. We have to thank a ‘son of Aldbourne’ for the origin of this technique developed in the early C 18th.

Thomas Fairchild was born in Aldbourne to parents John and Ann Fairchild and, according to the Parish Register, was baptized on 9 June 1667. His father held copyhold farming rights to some land in Aldbourne but was by no means rich. It is believed that Thomas went to ‘school’ which at that time was held in the tiny room (no longer there) above the south entrance to St. Michael’s Church. Sadly his father died whilst Thomas was age just one and his mother re-married. Although via his father’s will, Thomas may have been entitled to continue with farming, for reasons unclear, he left the village in 1682 at age 15 and was apprenticed (for potential seven years) to a cloth maker in London. Thomas did not take to the indoor life and was soon working at a garden nursery in Hoxton, Shoreditch. It was here that his true vocation blossomed’. It seems possible that he used money inherited from his father’s copyhold land, to establish his own business by 1690. At that time ‘gardening’ was becoming extremely popular and his skills were in demand as one of the leading gardeners of his time but his skills went beyond just gardening. This was a time of great scientific investigation. Thomas helped by experiments to establish the existence of ‘sex’ in plants and hence fertilization. Based on that knowledge, he made the breakthrough for which he became famous. He was the first person to succeed in scientifically producing an artificial plant hybrid by crossing a Sweet William with a Carnation to produce Diantus Caryophyllus Barbatus which was commonly known as Fairchild’s Mule’, a mule being a cross between male donkey and a female horse. He went on to produce other novel hybrids. In 1722 he published a small book ‘The City Gardener’ in which he described the trees and plants which thrived best in the harsh conditions of smoky London at that time including (surprisingly) pears, grapes, figs and mulberries!

In 1724 he presented a paper to the illustrious Royal Society and had several other papers published and contributed to the ‘Catalogue of Trees and Shrubs…. ….for Sale in the Gardens near London’. In 1704 he had become both a Freeman of the Gardeners’ Company and the Clothworkers’ Company and so must also have completed his apprenticeship in that first occupation.
Thomas died on 10 October 1729. It is not clear whether he ever married, the bulk of his estate being left to his nephew John Bacon. Thomas’s gravestone (much neglected) can still be found in a Hackney Road Recreation Ground in London.
However his memory lingers on. There is the Thomas Fairchild Community School in Shoreditch. There is also a nice pink rose named after him and of course it is still possible to buy ‘Fairchild’s Mule’ which is one of a group of Dianthus known as ‘Mule Pinks’. In 2000, Michael Leapman published a fascinating 260 page biography ‘The Ingenious Mr Fairchild’.