The Laxton Family
Laxton Brothers Limited, the renowned Bedford nurserymen, went into liquidation in 1957 and is now only a distant memory. The Laxton brothers, Edward and William, and their father, Thomas Laxton, however, left a lasting legacy of many new varieties of strawberries, apples, plums, potatoes, peas and roses, earning their place in horticultural history. They also left their mark on the face of Putnoe and Goldington. When their firm was wound-up, it released a large amount of land for housing development and education (what is now Goldington Academy and the University). Much of the course of Polhill Avenue follows the boundary of their ‘Tollgate Nursery’.
The story of Laxton Brothers Limited starts with Thomas Laxton (1830-1893). Thomas was born in 1830 in the village of Tinwell, Rutland, the son of Ann and Thomas, a tailor. On leaving school, Thomas was a clerk for Mr. James Atter, a solicitor, of Stamford. He subsequently read Law in London, and returned to St. Mary’s Hill, Stamford, where he set up practice as a solicitor. He developed a passion for horticulture, initially as a hobby, and began experimenting as a plant breeder during the 1850s and became chairman of the Stamford Horticultural Society.
While his work was of scientific value, his main purpose was to improve products such as vegetables for the benefit of civilization rather than for monetary gain. He believed that it was vital to preserve seed from all commercially produced plants. In 1858, at the Stamford Horticultural Fete, Thomas won first class honours, for a new vegetable, called the “American custard squash,” which had the appearance of a small pumpkin. That same year he introduced the ‘Stamford Pippin’ apple. It was around that time he began his research into the hybridization of plants.
Thomas Laxton began the most extensive and continuous strawberry breeding programme ever attempted in the late-nineteenth century in England and started to introduce new varieties from 1872. His first great success was the Noble, until recently a major early variety of many countries. His output as a plant breeder was prodigious. He is credited with 32 varieties of peas, 16 of strawberries, 7 of roses, 3 of potatoes, and 3 of apples. He had an active and scientific mind. He was a member of the Linnean Society and of the Royal Horticultural Society (R.H.S.). He published in the R.H.S. Journal, was a member of the R.H.S.’s Fruit Committee and a judge. His work won him an international reputation as well as the respect of Charles Darwin, for whom he conducted experiments.
Thomas was known for being one of the highest authorities on the hybridization of plants. His persistence, fortitude, and observations were compared to that of Charles Darwin with whom he had corresponded for some time on his study of cross-fertilization and his trials and observations. Thomas had sent Darwin some pea seeds he produced from crosses and in Darwin’s reply to Thomas on 3rd November 1866, he writes that he had spent a few days examining them with great interest.
Darwin was so greatly interested in Thomas’s work that he writes of his studies in his published works. “So again, Mr Laxton, who has had such great experience in crossing peas, writes to me that whenever a cross has been affected between a white-blossom and a purple-blossomed pea, or between a white-seeded and a purple-spotted, brown or maple-seeded pea, the offspring seems to lose nearly all the characteristics of the white-flowered and white-seeded varieties, and this result follows, whether these varieties have been used as pollen-bearing or seed producing parents.”
Charles Darwin. The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. Vol 11. chapter 2 XIV.
“Recently Mr Laxton has made numerous crosses, and everyone had been astonished at the vigour and luxuriance of the new varieties which he has thus raised and afterwards fixed by selection. He gave me seed-peas produced from crosses between four distinct kinds; and the plants thus raised were extraordinarily vigorous, being each case from 1 to 2 or even 3 feet taller than the parent-forms, which were raised at the same time close alongside.”
Charles Darwin. The Effect and Cross and Self-Fertilization) Chapter V.
Thomas’s first marriage to Annie Ashby
On 24th September 1856, Thomas married Annie Ashby. She was born in 1830 at Stamford. Thomas and Annie set up home at St. Mary’s Hill, Stamford. In 1857 their son, Thomas Lowe Laxton, was born. Sadly, Annie died on 9th October 1858, giving birth to her daughter, Annie Ashby Laxton.
Thomas’s second marriage to Jane Maria Goodliffe
On 2nd August 1860, Thomas married his second wife, Jane Maria Goodliffe, at St Andrew’s Church, Wood Walton, near Huntingdon. Jane was born in 1834 at Wood Walton. Their first child, Richard Lowe Laxton was born in 1864, followed by William Hudson Lowe Laxton (1866), Edward Augustine Lowe Laxton (1868), Emily Diana Lowe Laxton (1870), Mary Sophia (1875), and Louisa Jane (1873).
Thomas’s arrest and imprisonment
Thomas’s reputation received a setback, however, in 1877, when he was arrested and stood trial at Stamford on charges of obtaining £250 and £400 by false pretences from John Duncombe, a butcher. At his trial, the first charge was dropped, but he was found guilty on the second charge. He was sentenced to nine months hard labour. He was struck off the legal Roll and lost his practice in Stamford.
Thomas and family move to Bedford
After his release from prison he did not return to Stamford but moved to Bedford with his family.
In December 1878, Thomas purchased about three acres of land at Girtford, near Sandy, Bedfordshire, probably with a loan from family and friends. The cost of the land including buildings, fencing, and glasshouses amounted to about £1,000. The land was used for hybridizing and crossbreeding plants. He also set up a further nursery of 140 acres at Goldington Road. He focused his attention on crossing the best varieties of apples, pears, plumbs, and small fruits. Experts thought the Malus “Allington Pippin” that was introduced in 1884 was the best apple ever bred.
In the 1881 Census for Bedford, Thomas, Jane, their five children, and one servant are living at 103 Tavistock Street, Bedford. By 1884, the family had moved to 41 Harpur Street. At some point Jane and her children, William, Mary and Edward went to live with her sister, Eliza Goodliffe and her niece Fanny Goodliffe, at 18 Bromham Road, Bedford. Eliza was a boarding house keeper and Fanny was a governess.
On 4th February 1888, Thomas and his son William formed a partnership and opened their shop at 4 Bromham Road, Bedford. They intended to stay there on a temporary basis until they had found larger premises. Their partnership of a couple of months dissolved on May 29th 1888, by mutual consent.
A few months later Jane died on 17th November at her sister’s home at 18 Bromham Road. She was 54 years. Her burial took place at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Grave Ref: G3.222
Thomas’s third marriage to Harriet Elizabeth Ferguson
On 12th December 1899, Thomas married his third wife, Harriet Elizabeth Ferguson, at St. John the Evangelist Church, Brixton Surrey. Harriet was born in 1851 at Deptford, Kent. She was the daughter of Mary, nee Cook, and James Henry Ferguson.
Death of Thomas Laxton
After suffering two months of painful illness, Thomas died on 6th August 1893, at his home 78 Tavistock Street, Bedford. He was 63 years old. His burial took place a short distance from where Jane was laid to rest at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. The Rev. Pope, of St. Peter’s Church, conducted the service. Harriet was the main beneficiary to his Will. Grave Ref: G2.32
The Laxton Brothers
Two of his sons – William Hudson Lowe Laxton (1866-1923) and Edward Augustine Laxton 91868-1951) took forward their father’s work and commercialised it, ultimately developing ‘Laxton Brothers Limited’.
William Hudson Lowe Laxton (1866-1923)
William was a partner in the nursery business with his brother Edward from 1888, although he didn’t play a particularly active role in developing the business. He was also a joint owner with Edward of brickworks at Kempston Hardwick. He was then living at 28 The Embankment. By the early 1920s he was in poor health and died on the 14th December 1923, aged 57, three weeks after a motoring ‘mishap’ at Bromham. Grave Ref: H3.
Edward Augustine Laxton (1868-1951)
Edward was the driving force behind Laxton Brothers, supported by his son Edward (‘Ted’) William Henry Laxton (1894-1942).
In 1890 the Laxtons opened a shop at 63a High Street, Bedford, part of the ground floor of a Georgian house which still stands. In 1893 it was described as “The grand floral display in the window, the good stock of bulbs, seeds and flowers varying according to the season”.
By 1893 the Laxtons had trial and experimental grounds off Goldington Road (subsequently named the ‘Tollgate Nurseries’ – after the old Toll Gate opposite) and at Girtford. By 1903 they had opened the Tollgate Nurseries along Goldington Road (the entrance was originally opposite the junction with Newnham Lane (now Newnham Avenue). The grounds were extensive – 140 acres, running off Goldington Road, following the line of the present Polhill Avenue and abutting Putnoe Lane. In 1937 the limited company Laxton Bros. (Bedford) Ltd. was formed.
The Second World War took a heavy toll on the business and on Edward Laxton personally. The nursery grounds were turned over to food production and the land became exhausted. Acute shortages of labour and materials added to the problems faced by the Laxtons. Edward himself never recovered from the sudden death of his son Ted, in July 1942 in a bombing raid. Two years later Edward wrote: “I am now 75, and am not capable of carrying on the special work, and now my dear son has gone we have no one capable of doing so”. In recognition of his achievements, Edward was awarded the MBE in theNew Year’s Honours list for 1951. He died weeks later at his residence 73 Bushmead Avenue, aged 90. Grave Ref: E5
Edward (‘Ted’) William Henry Laxton (1894-1942)
Ted Laxton powered the development of the business after 1918. Like his grandfather, he developed a national reputation. He was elected President of the Horticultural Trade Association in 1926 and was awarded the Association’s Pearson Gold Medal. As President, he was a delegate to the 1926 International Trades Congress at Paris and Geneva. Ted was awarded the Gold Medal of the Ancient Fruiterers’ Company of the City of London in 1931, and served on the Advisory Committee on Horticulture to the Ministry of Agriculture. He became the company’s Managing Director in 1937.
Sadly, Ted Laxton was killed in an air raid on Bedford in the early morning 30th July 1942. He had been watching the raid from his house at 176 Kimbolton Road, Bedford, with his neighbour, Percy Bandy, from number 147. A German bomber dived unexpectedly and released four bombs which fell in a line from the foot of Cleat Hill, to Ted’s house, a house at the corner of Putnoe Lane, and allotments in Kimbolton Road. Ted’s house took a direct hit and the side of a neighbouring house was destroyed. Ted and Mr. Bandy were killed instantly (they were two of ten victims of that raid). His wife and their two sons survived and were taken to hospital, where they recovered from their injuries.
Shop and Nurseries Close
Lacking direction, the business ticked over. No new varieties had been produced since the late-1930s, the land was now largely useless for horticulture and tens of thousands of fruit trees had been grubbed up, labour was scarce in an expanding town and costs rising. The shop and nurseries closed in March 1957 and the site of the Tollgate Nursery was sold for development. In July 1957 Laxton Bros. went into voluntary liquidation, the end of nearly eighty years of Bedford history.
Three generations of the Laxton family, and over a hundred years of horticultural work raised at least 182 varieties of plants. Their once great apple and pear varieties are now in short supply. In their honour, an orchard consisting entirely of their fruit trees is planted at Park Wood Nature Reserve, Brickhill Drive, Bedford, where the public are allowed to sample the delicious fruit.
Lincolnshire Chronicle 9th July 1858
The Lincolnshire Chronicle and Northampton and Nottingham Advertiser 15th October 1858 and
10th August 1860
The Bath Chronicle 3rd July 1873
Stamford Mercury 5th January 1877
Stamford Mercury 16th March 1877
Leicester Journal Friday August 24th 1877
The Grantham Journal, Saturday 1st September 1877
The Grantham Journal, Saturday 12th October 1877
The Echo and Times 10th May 1878
Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser 28th December 1878
Stamford Mercury 3rd January 1879
The James Gazette 24th April 1896.
South African Settler
Bedfordshire Times and Independent 27th April 1895 & 1942
The Bedfordshire Times and Standard 23 May 1952
Laxton’s ‘Tollgate’ Nurseries, Goldington Road, photographed in 1957
Source: R. Wildman, Bedford A Pictorial History, 1991, plate 115
August 04, 2021