The last decades of the 19th century saw a passion for all things rustic in the garden – seats, arbours, bridges, and above all summerhouses. For as it was said in 1870, a garden summerhouse of some sort was ‘desirable, and indeed almost necessary’.
These are the words of Shirley Hibberd, an influential Victorian garden writer, in his Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste of 1870. In this volume he advocated all things rustic: boat houses, fishing houses and some curious, and alarming, hybrids such as a ‘Rustic Reading Room and Bee-shed combined’. He believed a rustic summerhouse was essential as a ‘place of retirement for rest, shelter, conversation […] the quiet enjoyment of a book, or an afternoon nap’.
One of the most famous suppliers of such gardens buildings was the firm founded by Henry Caesar in Knutsford. Although 20th century catalogues for the company state that it was founded in 1871, the rustic work probably came a few years later. In the 1871 census 18 year old Henry describes himself as a ‘joiner’, and in 1878 he advertised as a builder of ‘Hot Houses and Garden Frames’. But by 1884 he had decided his future lay elsewhere, and he placed an advertisement in the local papers:
RUSTIC HOUSE BUILDER
RUSTIC CHAIRS, SEATS, VASES, BRIDGES, PORCHES, ARCHES, TABLES, AND EVERY
DESCRIPTION OF RUSTIC WORK. HOUSES RETHATCHED AND REPAIRED.
This early letterhead shows the sort of summerhouses and furniture he had on offer, and that enquiries were coming in from across Britain. The summerhouses were made with a wooden frame that was decorated with branches and bark to give the rustic effect. The roof was thatched, or covered in wooden shingles, and the windows usually featured floral motifs in coloured glass.
Very quickly Henry decided that the best way to attract custom was to showcase his rustic work at country fairs, and in June 1885 he was at the Essex Agricultural Society Show. In 1886 he exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Exhibition in Wavertree Park in Liverpool, where he ‘carried off the medal’ for ‘garden seats &c.’. Not just the judges were impressed: the paying public loved the work too, and at the Shropshire and West Midland Agricultural Show of 1906 ‘so comfortable looking were the seats, and so inviting the summer-houses, that many were unable to resist the temptation to use them.’
By 1889 the business had been renamed ‘Henry and Julius Caesar’, and at the Warwickshire Agricultural Society Show of that year the newly-named company won a medal for a summerhouse. It seems that Julius was entirely fictional, and Henry simply decided to promote his business by adopting a more august name. And if one has the surname Caesar, who better to have on your letterhead than Julius to help you conquer the competitors?
Henry Caesar died in 1891 and his wife Jane continued the business, being described as a ‘Rustic House Manufacturer’ in the census later that year. The company continued to flourish, and in 1893 it could be found at stand 399 at the Royal Agricultural Show in Chester. The Manchester Courier reported that ‘Messrs Henry and Julius Caesar of Knutsford and Kings Cross Station’ were showing a collection of rustic houses. The paper continued that ‘this firm enjoys a high reputation for this class of work, and their present display will undoubtedly come in for a good deal of notice.’ As the summer houses were built in panels, and essentially ‘flatpack’, the range must have been (relatively) easy to transport, and a ‘very pretty summer house’ was shown in Dublin in 1899, and ‘some artistically constructed rustic summerhouses and seats’ at the Highland Show in Cupar in 1912.
The summerhouses were snapped up for gardens in the town and country, and were at home in the gardens of the middle classes as well as those of the grander country houses – Queen Victoria owned one and Edward VII is rumoured to have presented a Henry and Julius Caesar rustic shelter to many of the Edwardian hostesses who invited him for the weekend (and gave Alice Keppel the adjoining room). That the King was a patron is confirmed by a plaque in one of the company’s summerhouses which reads ‘Henry and Julius Caesar Rustic House builders to the King and Royal Family, Knutsford, Cheshire’. There was even one in the garden of the Governor’s House at Reading Jail, although for reasons unknown it rapidly became surplus to requirements and the ‘almost new’ summerhouse was offered for sale in 1899.
A late example can be found at Tudor Croft in Guisborough, Yorkshire. Known as The Hideaway, it was probably erected soon after the house was built in 1934. It has been fully restored and re-roofed, and can be visited on charity open days (see below) when a hidden sound system plays 1930s music to add to the atmosphere.
By this date the company had changed hands. Jane Caesar sold the business in the first decade of the 20th century, and with her three unmarried daughters set up a confectionery business in Barrow in Furness. Later owners continued to trade as Henry and Julius Caesar of Knutsford, and in 1939 were awarded the Gold Medal for a Rustic Summer House at the Southport Flower Show. Sadly, the company ceased trading soon afterwards.
Many Caesar summerhouses will have been discarded as fashions changed, and although the structures were robust if cared for, if neglected they rotted away. Those that survive remain popular today, and models occasionally appear at auction or in the catalogues of specialist garden antiques dealers. There were of course other manufacturers designing and building rustic structures, but the Caesar company ensured their name was not forgotten by adding a plaque to many of the summerhouses, cannily also reminding the owner that they were available to execute repairs in the quieter winter months.
Tempted? Move fast; at the time of writing there’s one for sale on eBay.
UPDATE JULY 2021: thank you to everyone who got in touch with information about further extant summerhouses. The Knutsford Heritage Centre has added them all to its records, and the team there continue to research the Caesar business.
For more on the Himalayan Garden, which features a number of unusual garden structures, visit https://www.himalayangarden.com
Tudor Croft is open in aid of charity on a number of weekends in 2021, subject to Covid restrictions: 22-23, 29-30 May, 26-27 June, 3-4 July. See their Facebook page for more information https://www.facebook.com/TudorCroftGardens/photos/a.111875330351585/251624659709984/
The Knutsford Heritage Centre has a display on the work of ‘Henry and Julius Caesar’. For updates on opening visit http://www.knutsfordheritage.co.uk
Thank you for reading. If you know of any Caesar summerhouses, or would like to add any thoughts, please scroll down to the comments box below.