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The Mudlark and The Orchid

a short story by lesley parness

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Introduction - Orchid Delirium


Victorians were a passionate lot who adored assembling collections. Among their collecting passions, orchids occupied the highest of positions. So much so, that when the fever for collecting orchids peaked in the mid 19th century, the country was said to be in the grip of “Orchid Delirium.”

Many forces coupled to create this fervor. The first was the desire to have the best, most complete collection in one’s personal sphere. Like everything rare and precious, orchids represented wealth and privilege.

The second was the growth of plant exploration which experienced its Golden Age during the Victorian era. Yet orchids - with their impossible colorings and variations, their sexual organs on display in a most immodest and yet compelling fashion, their brief, but spectacular bloom - began their journey to popularity by accident.

In 1818, British ornithologist William John Swainson, was in Brazil packing plants he collected to take back to England for study. As the story goes, that he used plants he deemed worthless as packing material. Among these were dormant orchids. By the time he crossed the sea back to England, many of the orchids had bloomed, particularly Cattleya labiata. The stunning, exotic flower set the horticultural world on fire and helped to ignite orchid fever.

The final force was Charles Darwin, who in 1862 announced “I was never more interested in any subject in my life than orchids” and published “On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing” in which he proposed that Angraecum sesquipedale from Madagascar (aka the Darwin orchid) must be pollinated by a “huge moth with a wonderfully long proboscis.” It would take 40 years to discover the Sphingidae moth with a foot long tube and once again prove his theory of natural selection. His hypothesis however sparked great controversy and interest in orchids.

Another book “About Orchid: A Chat,” (1893) by Frederick Boyle depicts the scene at London’s weekly and hugely popular orchid auctions “At the stroke of half past twelve, the auctioneer mounts his rostrum.” Hundreds of exotic specimens were put up for bid and gentlemen gathered to peruse the enchanting orchids just brought in from around the world.” Fortunes were made and lost at orchid auctions, similar to the scenarios during Holland’s “Tulipmania.” Orchids might command “the fanciest of prices” or plummet from “a guinea a leaf to a fraction of a shilling.” Wild monetary swings were driven by supply, demand, and a lot of hype. A single orchid could fetch more than 2000 pounds (256,00 pounds today) or were sold in lots of 100s for far more.

Auctioneers embellished their botanical descriptions to attract interest and any danger surrounding the gathering of these plants figured into their value as well. For example, Boyle tells of an orchid growing in a New Guinea graveyard, which arrived in London still attached to a skull. Stories of orchid hunters being mauled by tigers, burned alive by angry natives and robbed at knifepoint proliferated. While many hunters died in their efforts, the survivor who returned with new orchids earned a fortune for their efforts.

Amongst orchid hunters reaching the pinnacle of fame, Frederick Sanders was called the “Orchid King,” He built an orchid empire, employing two dozen hunters who traveled to remote regions. He built an orchid farm in England with sixty greenhouses. And in 1880 he built an orchid farm in Summit, New Jersey. Fifteen years later it was sold to J. Lager and H. Hurell and became the largest commercial producer and distributor of orchids in the USA.

Now that you have an understanding of the grip in which Britain was held by orchids, you are ready for several upcoming columns, which together will form the novella, “The Mud Lark and the Orchid.”

Sequential fictional installments or serialized fiction surged in popularity during the Victorian age due to the rise of literacy, technological advances in printing, and the improved distribution logistics. Many Victorian novels, such as Dicken’s “The Pickwick Papers” first appeared as monthly installments. Its success established the viability and appeal of the serialized format which still exists today, often online. I hope you will enjoy reading it over the coming months.



Part 1

Give it ‘ere.” He was a big lad, bigger n’me. But I would not give my prize to him. As luck would have it, another mudlark, for that is what we were called, raised his hands and a pale ray of London’s morning light glimmered on the silver thimble he held aloft. Even plate would mean eating well and a warm bed for a fortnight. The bully turned and I ran.

The flat bank of the Thames stretched before me. Pickings were best here in all of London. When the tide was out, one could find all sorts – bits of pottery, buttons and nails, rope, hairpins, buckles, I heard Roman coins even. We mudlarks knew the Thames’s tides well. In spring, miles upon miles of smooth brown sludge were revealed and all that it contained there for us to find.

That morning, as I stood knee deep in muck, a lighter and a barge carrying oats for horse’s feed jostled under London Bridge. My prize had slipped gently off the larger boat and bobbed in the brown water.

Unlike many mudlarks, I could swim as my brother James had taught me last summer when he was still alive. I screwed up my courage and swam toward the strange glass box floating towards me. Back on shore, I stowed it under James’s oversized jacket. Up the Queen’s stairs I raced, two at a time and then in the shadow of some pilings I examined my find.

A box it was. A wooden box fitted out with glass panes. Like the glasshouse in Hyde Park my mum had taken James and me to see three years gone. The Crystal Palace it were called. This box was small, perhaps 12 inches long , wide, and tall. It surely will fetch a good price I thought, puzzling over the strange brown root within it. A queer feeling came over me then. For although this object looked dead, still, it felt alive. I touched it tentatively, and thought I felt it throb. Like a hurt bird, I reasoned in my 8-year-old mind.

A hurt bird should be placed somewhere warm and quiet my mum would say. My mum loved birds and sometimes when she found an injured one in the grand squares where she sold violets, she would bring it home and care for it this way. She had died two years ago of a cough that would not cease and left her breathless, with two bright spots upon her cheeks. Consumption it were called. Thinking of her, and her love for plants, I determined this is what I would do with my strange root in its glass box.

The morning streets were crowded now as costa mongers sang out their wares. “Rutabaga and skirrets, sea kale and salsify” they called from carts led by donkeys. Botany Bens, young men selling potted plants from hand pulled carts, flirted with scullery maids and showed off their fine geraniums, heliotrope and begonias.  Home I thought, but first breakfast. So, I headed to Clapham Road where two hot oyster pies could be had for a farthing. In Well Close Square I passed a neat brick house as the door opened and a finely dressed gentlemen emerged. The shining black doorplate read “Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward.” And glad I was then that my mum had made me go to Ragged School for two terms, for there I had learn to read a little. Dr. Ward boarded his carriage with a smile and a wave to the figure in the window.

From behind a lace curtain, a woman inclined her head and as she did so, I could see the interior of the front parlor and all that graced its windowsill. A glass box, very like the one I now concealed under my dead brother’s jacket, sat there. In it, a plant unlike any I had ever seen. Sidling closer to the window, I stood on tip toes and read the brass plaque affixed “Phalaenopsis x intermedia.’ Thinking on this, I purchased my pies and set off home.

Part  2

I awoke wet. Rain had found its way through the broken brick wall of the East End warehouse I called home and drenched my bed of straw. Fumbling through my few possessions, I found a dry set of pants and shirt. “Rain’s no good for mudlarking” I thought aloud. Rubbing my eyes, I remembered yesterday’s unusual find and, lighting a small candle, looked again at it. Could it be that this brown root would one day turn into the likes of the flower I had seen in Dr. Ward’s window? I determined to visit his home again.

My glass box under my coat, I made my way to Well Close Square in the rain. As I approached the house, the door opened suddenly and the gentleman I had seen yesterday caught my eye with a friendly look. Surprised, my hands lost their grip on the box. It crashed to the ground and amidst the broken glass lay my strange brown root.


“There’s a good lad. What’s that you have there? “ asked the gentleman on the doorstep. “I found it Sir, in the river. It’s a plant, innnit?” I replied. “Well, I do believe you have the right of it!” was the cheerful response.

“Come inside and get dry” he offered. I hardly expected such kindness but soon found myself in a warm parlor, the fireplace lit, myself on a wooden bench, a cup of tea and a meat pie in my hands. “Crikey,” I said in a small voice, my eyes wide, as I began to look around. Throughout the parlor, on every surface was a glass box. Of every size they were, from less than a foot to twelve feet across, and all were filled with plants.

“The boxes Sir, what are they called? “They are,” and here he paused for a moment, a wry smile crossing his lips, “Wardian cases.” “Named for you, were they sir?” Nodding yes, he told me of his experiments growing plants here in Whitechapel where the air was terrible bad. He said how in a sealed bottle or case like these, plants could live and “thrive” likes he put it.

Pointing to a collection of cases solemnly, Dr. Ward intoned “Mosses and liverworts, some of the oldest plants.” And there were cases of ferns. “Them’s what botany ben’s been hawking,” I added gladly to the conversation. “We are beset by pteridomania,” Dr Ward exclaimed. “That’s the love of ferns,” he added helpfully. Then, he beckoned me to the rear window which looked out onto his garden. There, along the tops of the stone fence and up and down the roof’s gables were Wardian cases. “Sedums and succulents” Dr. Ward proclaimed, arms extended toward the display. “Them’s what store water in their leaves Sir,” I offered bravely. “How do you come to know that?” he inquired. So, I told him then about my life as a mudlark, my mum’s job as a flower seller in Covent Square and her love of plants.

“Come with me,” he motioned then to an adjacent room into which light streamed through floor to ceiling shutters. Hanging on the walls, directly facing the windows were Wardian cases filled with jewels. Flowers that looked like jewels. “Your root is one of these, Henry,” Dr. Ward said quietly. “It’s an orchid.”

“Right fit for the Queen,” I replied in a strangled voice. My hands, clutched together tightly, and my o shaped mouth evidenced my awe.

“Care to accompany me today,” Dr. Ward asked appraisingly? “Yes Sir,” I quickly replied. “And will you leave your root here? You can visit every day and I will teach you to care for it.” I gave another nod.

Dr. Ward then summoned Mrs. Critchley, his housekeeper. 30 minutes later she had plated down my hair, scrubbed my face, ears, and hands, and removed a layer of Thames mud from my jacket and boots.

“Comfortable?” Dr. Ward asked as we settled into the Hansom cab, bound for I knew not where.

“Bang up to the elephant is what I am, Sir” I answered, smiling broadly.

Satisfied, Dr. Ward motioned to the driver and the ride commenced.


Part  3

The 45-minute hansom cab drive to Stevens Auction House in Covent Garden was instructive. “To begin with, the word orchid, comes from the Latin, orchis, for their root tuber’s oftentimes resemblance to your intromittent apparatus.” I must have looked puzzled, so he hastily clarified, “Your John Thomas, boy.”

Dr. Ward went on to explain that orchids could be epiphytic, growing on the limbs of trees, or terrestrial, growing in the ground. They had been collected on every continent, and here he took a small folding map out of his breast pocket and pointed to the places where orchids had been found, “except for Antarctica.” He said that the family of orchids was the second largest in the plant world. “Smaller only than the Asteraceae, those are daisy-like flowers, Henry.” *

“We are going to an orchid auction,” he went on. “Orchids can be of immense value, some fetching a King’s ransom.” I was skeptical, until he continued, “I myself witnessed an orchid sell for 100 guineas”.** There’s a story behind every orchid. Last week’s auction included a plant taken from a native cemetery in New Guinea. It was growing in a human skull. Orchid hunters are a fierce lot. They face dangers of all sorts to bring these treasures back to England. There are jungles with deadly snakes hanging from poisonous trees and remote mountaintops with avalanches and hostile inhabitants. Many a young man has lost his life hunting orchids.” he ended. It seemed that the more danger associated with procuring the orchid, the higher the price it fetched.

Then, as he started to explain something called pollination, the cab slowed in front of a large brick warehouse outside of which a crowd of gentlemen milled. As we stepped onto the pavement, several of them turned to greet Dr. Ward.

The first was a spare, tidy man with a thin nose and lips. “Dr. Lindley, meet my friend, Henry. Henry this is Dr. John Lindley, the orchidologist. He has written a fine book about them, The Genera and Species of Orchidaceous Plants. We shall look at it later at my home.” Dr. Lindley granted us a parsimonious smile.

Suddenly, a short square man with sparkling eyes joined us. “Charles, so good to see you.” Dr. Ward exclaimed and “Henry, meet Charles Darwin.” “Good day Sir, I offered. Do you like orchids? I inquired politely. “I was never interested in any plant in my life more,” Mr. Darwin exclaimed. “Have you seen Angraecum sesquipedale? What insect can suck at it?”*** “Mr. Darwin can better explain pollination to you Henry.” And he did so as we circled the room, admiring orchids marked in lots.  Some of the orchids were dormant roots, like the one I had found floating in the Wardian case in the Thames, others abloom. One, had petals so exquisitely colored, the four of us drew audible gasps. Sadly, it was displayed on a garish purple velvet cushion. “Rather like gilding the lily, in my opinion” intoned Dr. Lindley dryly. “Like butter upon bacon,” I added, and the trio nodded their balding heads sagely.

At the stroke of half past twelve, the auctioneer mounted his rostrum and pounded his gavel. “Sirs, I have the honor of offering this fine specimen found atop a 5000-meter-high mountaintop in Peru by Benedict Roezl for Frederick Sander.” the auctioneer stated to an immediate undercurrent of interest. “Roezl has only one arm.” Darwin whispered in my ear. “He lost the other demonstrating one of his mechanical plant extraction inventions. But his prosthesis has an iron tip and with it he gathers orchids for Henry Frederick Sander, the Orchid King.” “At least he named the orchid for him, Miltoniospsis roezli,” Dr. Ward noted. “Sanders has 20 or more orchid hunters searching the globe for rare orchids. They gather what they can carry, then destroy the rest in order to ensure its rarity” Dr. Lindley added in a voice conveying his disapproval. My eyebrows raised in amazement that such educated gentlemen could perpetrate such skilamalink.

As the auction concluded, all parted company genially and agreed to meet in several days at Veitch’s nursery. “It’s a place every orchid lover should visit” Darwin added stroking his long, grey beard.

Back in the cab Dr. Ward asked, “Shall I have Mrs. Critchley make up a bed for you in my home?” “In the jewel box, if you please, Sir,” I replied, referring to the room of Wardian cases filled with orchids. That night, I slept on clean sheets in a jewel box, surrounded by a fortune in flowers. I dreamt of the Thames, filled with pound notes. Above its turgid, brown water rose a King, holding not a scepter, but an orchid.


* The Orchid family contains nearly 1,000 genera and more than 25,000 species.

** The current value of one hundred Victorian guineas is approximately 16,000 pounds, or $23,280.

*** Forty years after Darwin’s death, his assertion that pollinators co-evolved with plants was proved once again with the discovery of the moth, Xanthopan morganii praedicta, the sole pollinator of “Darwin’s orchid,” whose 30 cm. long proboscis can penetrate the flower’s long spurs.

Part  4

Despite the fair skies, I was feeling gloomy. “Tis the Queen’s weather, is it not Henry?” Dr. Ward asked.              “ I’ve got the morbs and am smelling the shrimpy," I answered. “Aha – you are missing your mudlarking life,” the doctor replied knowingly. ”Yes, and if you please, I would like to take the morning off.” The Doctor did not object and I quickly put on my coat and started for the Shadwell Street Stairs at the entrance to London’s docks, and as fine a place for mudlarking as any. At the top of the steps the familiar tang of Thames air, a combination of salt, offal, and rotting wood, filled my nostrils. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply.


“Well, look at ‘im, the Duke of Seven Dials, 'innit” said a mocking voice accompanied by a sharp slap to the side of my head. When my eyes flew open, I was surrounded by a pack of mudlarks. They eyed my clean, soft leather shoes, my fine woolen pants and jacket. “We  ‘ardly recognized you ‘enry,” they said in one voice.    “I’ve been studying with a Doctor, learning about plants called orchids” I offered uncertainly. This elicited no interest whatsoever and after a few more minutes of strained conversation one asked “Coming larking with us?” I looked down at my new shoes and knew I would not. Like one of the moths from Mr. Darwin’s tales,  I had metamorphosized and could not squeeze back into my former shape. At once, like a murder of crows, they flew down the stairs together, seeking their fortunes in the mud.

Slowly, I returned to Well Close Square and my duties tending the orchids. At tea, Dr. Ward inquired about my day. “I’ve no doubt they’ll come a ‘cropper,” he said decidedly of my former associates and then began my daily examination. “You have been reading Mr. Darwin’s "On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilized.”   Therefore please explain specialization to me.” I thought a moment and answered. “Each orchid has a particular insect to do this job. It’s a bit like my world. There’s the toshers I explained, them’s that comb the sewers for goods to sell. There’s the rag and bone men, them’s that comb the garbage pits, and there’s the mudlarks, them’s that comb the docklands. Specialists all, sir,” I finished.          Dr. Ward chuckled softly and tousled my hair. “We’ll have a bit of an adventure tomorrow with our trip to Veitch’s nurseries in Chelsea. You have earned it.”

At 10am sharp the next day, Dr. Ward and I entered Veitch’s nursery and at once removed our coats. These orchid glasshouses were steamy indoor jungles surrounding us on both sides with wood benches of potted orchids as far as the eye could see.* “The Veitch’s are a horticultural dynasty,” Dr. Ward explained. “Three generations and counting of plant explorers, breeders and suppliers. In addition to this orchid house, there is an aquarium filled with nepenthes, a carnivorous plant from Borneo, a cool fernery with massive rockwork and Osmunda regalis, the royal fern, and a propagating house whose star is the Sequoiadendron giganteum from America, he said, his face flushed with pride and heat.

As we explored the greenhouse, Mr. Darwin, Mr. Lindley, and a tall, robust young man joined us. ”Frederick, so good to see you,” Dr. Ward said, clapping his hand on the man’s muscular back. “This is Henry, the young lad I’ve written to you about.” This was news to me, but I remained silent. “Nathaniel, your cases are paving the way for Britain’s expansion. Did you hear that Sir Clements Markham has used them to smuggle more than one hundred chinchona tree saplings from Peru? They arrived in India in good health and are already being grown out. First class quinine will be distilled from them I daresay,” Sanders declared. “Managing malaria is the key to Britain’s colonial expansion and Rule Britannia” added Lindley acerbically. Dr. Ward waved a dismissive hand and said, “Tell us, Frederick what are you up to?” The Orchid King’s face lit up as he replied. “I am planning a book on orchids. The images will be drawn life sized – that’s never been done before.** “ I’ve more than two dozen plant explorers searching for new cultivars all over the world and my work in orchid husbandry will soon allow even those of modest means to afford them. “But you strike a hard deal, do you not?” Darwin inquired. “Hard? no” assured Sander. “New Guinean human sacrifices scared my collector William Micholitz, and he wanted to leave. When he telegraphed me asking what to do, I simply told him to stay calm, return and re-collect. But, I have named an orchid for him Phalaenopsis ‘Micholitz.’” “An epiphytic miniature,” I chimed in, having recently read about it in an auction catalogue.


Then, looking directly at me Sander said, “I want to bring orchids to America and am looking for smart young men to help. New Jersey, Henry. That’s the ticket. My greenhouses will be built there, in a fine town called Summit.*** Fast American trains will carry Sander orchids to New York City and points beyond. There’s a place in this splendid work for you if you want it.” I returned his gaze, my face enthusimuzzy, and telegraphing my assent.     So ended our visit to Chelsea and so began my life with Frederic Sander, the Orchid King, with the endless pleasures of orchid breeding, and with my new home in America -              New Jersey.


*The Veitch family introduced 232 orchid cultivars.

** Sander’s masterwork on orchids, Reichenbachia, published in 1888, may be viewed online at

*** Frederick Sander did indeed build his greenhouses in Summit, New Jersey. By the end of the Victorian era, New Jersey had become the second largest producer of orchids in America. The business was sold in 1896 to the firm of Lager and Hurrell who continued to build an orchid empire.


My presentation "We Grew it Here: 100 Years of New Jersey Horticultural History"  continues this story.    Read about it under Current Offerings

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