Fruit Forum

The Rivers Nursery of Sawbridgeworth

Photo - see caption

The name Thomas Rivers immediately brings to mind the great Victorian nurseryman of Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, although in fact he was the third Thomas Rivers. His grandfather had founded the business in 1725; he took up the reins in probably 1837 and steered it to national and international renown by the time of his death in 1877. This was a period of enormous opportunity for nurserymen with a vast increase in demand for all kinds of plants, fostered by a revolution in glass house technology as large panes of cheap glass became available and glass houses went up by the mile, while the railway network transformed the movement of goods and people and the birth of the gardening press opened up avenues of communication and advertisement. Rivers forged ahead raising many new fruit varieties that remained stalwarts of our gardens and markets up to recent time: Czar plum, for example, Early Rivers cherry and his peaches and nectarines were planted from California to South Africa.

 Rivers popularised the techniques of dwarfing rootstocks and cordon training that underpinned successful fruit growing on estate gardens across the country and his invention, the large airy orchard house in which fruit trees were grown in pots, provided the shelter and warmth to produce perfect specimens for the dining and exhibition table of everything from apricots and apples to pears and peaches. Through his books and numerous articles he publicised their advantages and hoped also to influence market growers in taking up dwarfing rootstocks and small trees, but this was a much slower process and not achieved in his life time. The Nursery reached its peak probably under his son T. Francis Rivers, who raised the Conference pear, now the main commercial variety not only of England but of Northern Europe. His granddaughter May Rivers gained distinction too through her water-colours which illustrated the fruit bible of the turn of the century, John Wright’s Fruit Grower’s Guide, which continued to be published up to the 1920s.

 The Nursery had competitors, of course, and there were very many more nurseries than there are today with, for instance, Bunyard’s of Maidstone, Laxton’s of Bedford, Pearson’s of Nottingham, Seabrooke’s of Chelmsford, Cheal’s of Crawley and Cranston’s in Hereford all battling for their share of the fruit tree market. Rivers’ lasted longer than most and outlived its greatest rivals Laxton’s and Bunyard’s, closing only in the 1980s after over 250 years of trading. Its history is charted by Elizabeth Waugh in Rivers Nursery of Sawbridgeworth, in which she takes us from beginning to end in a fascinating account of the business, the Rivers family, their employees and the community they formed. At the Nursery’s maximum extent of around 300 acres it employed some 100 people propagating fruit trees and ornamental plants and working in the glasshouses and packing sheds. Roses were almost as important as fruit trees up to the 1850s and citrus trees became a speciality which the Nursery always exhibited at Chelsea Flower Shows in the 1920s and 1930s together with blossoming peaches and nectarines in pots.

 Many of its employees lived in houses owned by the business and conveniently located, both within easy reach of the glass houses should boilers needed checking during cold nights and sufficiently close to hear the Rivers’ Bell calling them to work in the morning. The Rivers family were kindly employers, it seems, caring for their workers by creating a ‘Sick Fund’ Society to which the directors contributed and they celebrated this benevolence at an annual dinner when all the staff and their families sat down to a feast held in one of the forcing houses at which, in 1883, a sixty four pound joint of beef formed the centrepiece.

 Rivers Nursery of Sawbridgeworth also brings together oral histories collected from the last generation of Rivers’ employees and includes written contributions from a number of them as well as illustrations from archival sources. There are evocative memories of peach houses, many photographs of which a vinery laden with grapes is particularly splendid and a delightful account of the recent restoration of an orchard house at Audley End. And this book has an additional role in that it forms part of a campaign to gain recognition and lasting security for what little now remains of the Nursery. Most of the land was sold for building, but the East Hertfordshire District Council took a 20 year lease on 40 acres. A large part of this area became open meadow land used by the local community and in one section there was an old orchard, which it now seems clear functioned as a ‘mother’ orchard supplying propagation material for the Nursery’s stocks during the last phase of its existence. This became the focus of attention for local people in 1996 when a support group was formed and a rescue operation commenced. Undergrowth was cleared, the trees brought back into cropping and identities of the varieties resolved, while archival material and artefacts were collected and oral histories recorded.

It is now a green space and local amenity in the midst of encroaching urbanisation, but in a wider context a collection of varieties of apples, pears, plums and cherries, a memorial to one of the giants of British horticulture and an English treasure. Yet it faces an uncertain future with the Council’s lease at an end. Evelyn Waugh’s book is not only an engaging history of the remarkable Rivers’ enterprise but brings to our attention the significance of the present Rivers Orchard and why it should be conserved and given a secure future.

Joan Morgan

Rivers Nursery of Sawbridgeworth; The Art of Practical Pomology by Elizabeth Waugh; pp 204; many black and white illustrations; paperback; published 2009 by Rivers Nursery Site and Orchard Group in association with Rockingham Press; now reprinted 2018.  It has been out of print for a while and we are pleased to tell visitors to this website that Rivers Nursery of Sawbridgeworth: the Art of Practical Pomology has been reprinted and is now available. To purchase this book for £15 plus p&p, email

 A list of the fruit varieties identified in the Rivers Orchard is published on then go to ‘Articles’. See Rivers Heritage Site and Orchard:

See also the Fruit Forum Blog - ‘The Rescued Orchard and the Rivers Heritage’ by Paul Read: