My copy of The Gardener’s Perpetual Almanack, subtitled A Book of Days, assures me that Robert Fortune was born on 16 September 1812 at Edrom in Berwickshire, which is part of Scotland.
So, presumably, does every copy of Martin Hoyles book. But my copy of Miles Hadfield’s Pioneers in Gardening states that Robert Fortune was born on 16 September 1812 at Kelloe … and there is a Kelloe in County Durham, which is, of course, in England. And Ann Lindsay, the authoress of Seeds of Blood and Beauty, places an each-way bet, writing that he was born “in Kelloe, Edrom, a backwater in the Scottish Borders.” And all three authors are correct in their statements, Ann Lindsay being the clearest, for there is a hamlet named Kelloe close to the village of Edrom, some three miles north-east of Duns in Berwickshire; and Kelloe, Edrom, was where Robert Fortune came into this world.
But who was Robert Fortune that the date of his birth merits a mention in The Gardener’s Perpetual Almanack and his life merits being described in some detail in a number of illustrious horticultural tomes? The Dunse Historical Society’s website tells me that, ‘Robert was one of nine children born to Thomas Fortune, hedger, Kelloe, and Agnes Ridpath. Their entry of marriage in the Old Parish Records for Edrom simply reads; “24th. June 1812 Thomas Fortune and Agnes Ridpath both of this Parish were married.”’
He was, presumably, the first-born of their nine children … and he was conceived, as people used to whisper, out of wedlock … for the Dunse Historical Society’s account continues: ‘Robert was born on the 16th of September in the same year, his birth entry reading; “Blackaddertoun 16th. September 1812 Thomas Fortune, hedger and Agnes Ridpath, his wife, had a son born named Robert and baptized 10th December before the Relief Congregation in Dunse.”’
His early life was certainly unspectacular for, on leaving school, he became an apprentice gardener, a common enough occupation in his home area where there was a number of very significant country houses with their attendant grounds and estates. But he was an ambitious and bright lad who was soon a gardener in Moredun, quite near Edinburgh, whence he moved to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE); and, after only two-and-a-half years at the RBGE, he was appointed superintendent of the hothouse department in the Horticultural Society’s … now the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) … garden in London at the age of 28. A mere two years later, the Horticultural Society sent him off to collect plants in China, an appointment which Fortune accepted with alacrity and in which he showed remarkable courage, persistence, adaptability, daring and, at times, duplicity. (Both Miles Hadfield and Ann Lindsay include accounts of his adventures in their books; and Fortune’s own books can be found on the web.) He also made himself a lot of money.
But, although Robert Fortune collected and sent to this country the yellow jasmine, the Japanese primula and kerria, the camellia and dicentra, the tree peony, the Japanese mahonia and many other plants with which gardeners are familiar, it is for a different plant altogether that he should best be remembered – and a plant that does not grow in the UK. For Robert Fortune succeeded in exporting tea plants and expertise from China to Assam despite determined attempts by the Chinese authorities to prevent this, thereby establishing the Indian tea trade. The Chinese monopoly was broken; and the Empire of India became the principal supplier of affordable tea to the British Isles. So let’s say, “Happy Birthday!” with a cuppa!