Plaque on Manor Cottage, Museum Gardens, Museum Street YO1 7FR

(YPS photo)

Henry Baines spent most of his life in the place that was to become, largely due to his lifetime’s work, York’s Museum Gardens. He was born on 15 May 1793 ‘in a small cottage over the cloisters of St Leonard’s Hospital, then occupied by Mr Suttle as a wine merchant’s vault’. Suttle’s garden, immediately outside the Multangular Tower, was the place that 12-year-old Henry first ‘put a spade in the ground’. As a young man, Henry moved to Halifax where he was employed as a gardener and married, in 1823, Rebecca Bartle. Between 1823 and 1836 they had five daughters. In Halifax, Henry became acquainted with a group of naturalists including Samuel Gibson, Abraham Stansfield, John Nowell and William Wilson among others. As a self-taught man, these early influences would be important for his future work with the Yorkshire Philosophical Society (YPS).

Yorkshire Museum

Around 1825, Henry returned to York and was employed in the nurseries of James and Thomas Backhouse, becoming the firm’s foreman by 1829. Thomas Backhouse was a member of the YPS which had been founded in 1822. At this time, the society was laying the foundations for the Yorkshire Museum and Henry Baines was appointed ‘gardener and sub-curator’ to the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, working with John Phillips, Keeper of the Museum. Fanny Baines recalls in her biography that the society considered themselves ‘fortunate in the person whom they engaged to take charge of the grounds, a person qualified by his skill and industry, not only to cultivate the gardens with scientific diligence, but to render essential service in the Museum’.

The Yorkshire Museum, with ruins of St Mary’s Abbey in the background

In 1830, the Yorkshire Museum opened and an initial three acres of Museum Gardens was landscaped and planted by Henry Baines. The society valued his services and provided three rooms in the museum as accommodation for his family as well as a salary of 52 guineas, later raised to £70, with a further £20 allocated to ‘Servant’s wages, Board & materials for cleaning the house’. The minutes of the society provide an insight into the varied activities of Henry, from being authorised to collect plants from other botanical gardens, purchase a watering machine and loads of manure, to being given permission to judge the East Riding Agricultural Show. The most unusual task was in 1831 when he accompanied the escaped bear from the YPS’s short-lived menagerie to the new London Zoological Gardens by stagecoach.

Museum Gardens in front of the Multangular Tower where Henry Baines first “put a spade into the ground.”

Plant collecting

In 1836, Henry Baines was awarded the Banksian medal of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), named after Sir Joseph Banks, one of the founders of the RHS, and first awarded in 1820, the year he died. This award was ‘exclusively confined to rewarding the exhibitors of objects transmitted or brought to the general meetings’. Henry was instrumental in acquiring and rearing plants for the gardens. Many of the plants in the gardens were donations. YPS annual reports, between 1829 and 1859, record donations of plants from 43 individuals, from nursery gardens – including the Backhouses – and from botanic gardens including those at Birmingham, Hull, Liverpool, Chiswick, Kew, Calcutta and Ceylon. This network of individual botanists and botanical gardens was cultivated and enriched by Henry who shared and exchanged many hundreds of plants over his long career. For example, Richard Spruce, who collected plants in South America, spent many Sunday afternoons with Henry Baines to their mutual benefit.

In 1840, at his own expense, Henry Baines published Flora of Yorkshire. This work was well received by fellow botanists but did not recoup Henry’s outlay and, in 1852, the YPS paid this publishing debt in gratitude for his ‘enterprise & great trouble’ in acquiring and nurturing the giant water lily Victoria amazonica from Joseph Paxton at Chatsworth. A star attraction in the gardens, the plant has leaves which grow to a diameter of 1.5m (5ft). It was accommodated in its own ‘Victoria House’: ‘the stove, which is being erected in the Museum Gardens, is 32 feet long by 26 wide. The water tank will be twenty-two feet by twenty feet [and] four or five feet deep’. Baines was ‘authorized to … issue one shilling tickets during a public week for Evening view of the flower in bloom; afterwards sixpence to be taken’.

Desirable residence

The Baines family was living in the basement of the Yorkshire Museum which, with five daughters and a servant, must have been rather crowded. A report from the family’s medical attendant led the YPS to note that ‘it is extremely desirable that another Residence should be provided for Mr Baines and his family … on the Scite (sic) of the present Greenhouse and Stove’, that is between the museum and the city wall adjoining the Multangular Tower. However, nothing further happened until, in 1843, the society received the ‘Princely Legacy’ of £10,000 from a vice-president of the society, Stephen Beckwith, who may have been the family’s medical attendant. The house was built at a cost of £346 6s and the YPS noted that ‘this … improvement has been so successfully executed, that while the desired accommodation has been obtained at a moderate cost, the style of the building, harmonizing with the architecture of the adjoining adjacent palace, will it is hoped, be considered as adding an appropriate embellishment to the site’. Now known as Manor Cottage, the house currently serves as offices for Yorkshire Museum staff.

For many years, exhibitions of the Horticultural Society were held in the Museum Gardens but, in 1853, a major initiative by Henry Baines was a ‘Grand Exhibition’ billed as a display ‘of an entirely novel kind’, an exhibition only of ‘Plants, remarkable for variety, beauty … and curious in structure’, but also of plants ‘most instructive in physiology, or most valuable in food, medicine and the Arts’. This exhibition contained more than 100 species from around the world as well as ‘82 different varieties of wheat, 22 of barley, 23 of oats, 4 of rye and upwards of two hundred sorts of grasses in a living state. The lecture hall of the Museum was fitted up for the reception of some gigantic plants, whose stems and foliage reached in many instances the roof of the building.’ Fanny Barnes later recorded that it ‘was visited by over 6000 persons … and afforded pleasure and instruction to the visitors who attended.’

Testimonial for long service

In 1859, after he had served the YPS for 30 years, it was resolved that the society would offer Henry Baines a testimonial, deciding that this should be a cash gift – ‘a neat box of minster oak was made by Mr Graves in which was deposited 200 guineas’ – subscribed by members. The presentation was made in the presence of the Lord Mayor of York and reported in the York Herald. After thanking Baines for his work with the museum, the testimonial continued, ‘but there is one department in which you have been pre-eminently useful. We all know to whom we are indebted for these beautiful gardens … and it is your care and the quiet management of these gardens … that they are preserved in that beautiful order while they are there for ornament, it should be remembered that they are there for a useful purpose, and while you have taken care that they are useful, their ornamental character has been preserved.’

In his speech of acceptance, Henry said that a ‘wonderful change has taken place in these grounds since the society obtained possession of the Manor Shore, and many things yet remain to be done for the improvement of the gardens. While … I retain health and strength, it will be my endeavor always to deserve the continuance of that favourable opinion to which I owe this testimonial.’

Henry Baines retired in 1870 but continued to live in Manor Cottage until his death on 1 April 1878. His daughter Fanny and his wife Rebecca moved to the Lodge where Fanny became gatekeeper, retiring in 1914 and remaining at the Lodge with a pension from the society until her death on 22 May 1916. The Baines family life had spanned three centuries in the Museum Gardens.

While researching The most fortunate situation, The Story of York’s Museum Gardens, Peter Hogarth was excited to discover that the Yorkshire Museum has the ‘neat box of Minster oak’ in its store; inside it is an envelope containing Fanny Baines’ handwritten account of her father’s life. There was also a press cutting from the York Herald for 3 December 1859 with an account of the ceremony in the lecture theatre of the Yorkshire Museum when Henry Baines was presented with this testimonial, which included the words that summarise his lifetime achievement: ‘we all know to whom we are indebted for those beautiful gardens’.



Peter J. Hogarth and Ewan W. Anderson, The most fortunate situation: The Story of York’s Museum Gardens (York: Yorkshire Philosophical Society, 2018)

Yorkshire Philosophical Society,



© Catherine Brophy and Peter Hogarth