As we come to the end of our first year of work, almost all of the (stable) quarter plates in the collection are cleaned and rehoused with just a few hundred yet waiting to be scanned. Among this batch of small format plates, we have found very few images of local places, buildings or events. The quarter plates, measuring 3 1/4 by 4 1/4 inches seem almost wholly reserved for portrait images which were destined to be printed as cartes des visites, postcards, miniature or locket images, or as Christmas and other greeting cards. The quarter plates comprise by far the largest tranche of the collection and being the most inexpensive and therefore democratic of the formats, this ratio makes sense. They are also, we believe, the most well preserved of the plates, being least vulnerable to mishandling and typically having been stored high up on shelves and so less exposed to damp from the floor and walls in the cellar in which they were kept. They were also less likely to have suffered damage from the collapse of the original shelves (see introductory blog post), both of which are issues which have chronically affected our larger plates.
We are aware that the larger plates contain a bit more variety in their subject matter and in preparation for the next phase of work – tackling the full plates and largest format 10 x 12″ and 10 x 8″ plates – we have started to carry out a condition assessment of those plates that can be prioritised for digitisation. One of the first full plates we have come across is of Cox Bros., Florists & Nurserymen.
The shop front advertises Cox Bros as Florists and Nurserymen, with nurseries in Sherwood and Lower St James Rd. Notably, the shop next door is also occupied by a Herbert Cox, Ladies & Gentlemen’s tailor. With no more information to go on, and no recollection of this shop front, or its location from among the archive staff, the first question was if these two Coxes could have been related, and where in Sutton was this shop to be found? The plate itself was undated, but Knights-Whittome used a chronological numbering system for his plates, so we have been able to gauge the year of photography as approximately 1914. A search of the Piles Directory for Sutton in 1914 listed both Herbert Cox, Tailor, and Cox Bros Nurserymen at 2 and 3 Carshalton Road, Sutton respectively, and so as easily as that, we had an address for the shops. The shop also took out a half page advertisement in the 1914 Directory which actually lists the addresses of three Cox Bros. nurseries: Hope Nursery in Carshalton Road, Sherwood Park Nursery in Robin Hood Lane and a site in Lower St James Rd. On a 1913 map of the area, these nursery sites can be clearly seen. The Hope nursery being to the left and rear of the Jenny Lind Inn on the corner of Lind Road and Carshalton Road.
Interestingly, we also have a photograph in the archives (though not by Knights-Whittome), of a Henry Cox florist and nurseryman in the High Street, Sutton and we were curious to discover if this could have been owned by the same family.
Our next port of call was the 1911 Census, which showed us that Ernest Edwin Cox, aged 45 and a Nurseryman, was resident at Sherwood Park Nursery with his wife, three daughters and four sons, three of which, aged between 14 and 20, were listed as gardeners at the nursery. But as the business was not called Cox & Sons but Cox Bros, we needed to establish the names of the other brother, or brothers engaged in the enterprise.
Going back to the 1871 Census, Ernest is listed as the son of Edwin Cox, a gardener, and mother Sarah Cox. They are living at Wildes Cottages, Ewell Road, Cheam. He is one of two boys and three girls. Following the family to the 1881 census, the older children, including Ernest, have left home and the family have moved to 105 Carshalton Road, Sutton. By this point there are another seven younger siblings listed. From what we can deduce from the directories and census records, from among these twelve siblings Herbert was to become the Ladies and Gentleman’s Tailor with the shop at 2 Carshalton Road, Sutton, Arthur James was to enter the nursery business with his brother Ernest (he is listed as living at the Hope nursery site in the 1914 Piles Directory, and earlier as a florist assistant on the 1901 census), and Henry Cox ran an additional florist and nursery shop in Sutton High Street, having also trained as a florist assistant in his fathers’ business. It seems likely that a sister, Louisa also worked for the family business as a florist assistant.
We wanted to establish a little bit of history around the shop; how long had it been there? Who were the family? And just how had they built up this small empire in Sutton? When we began to work our way consistently back through the Piles directories, the listing for Hope Nursery remained constant. In 1890, the Hope Nurseries were occupied by the Coxes. In 1880, they are not listed, but because of a 10 year gap in the directories we cannot be sure of when the nursery was established. Further research of Rate and Evaluation Books is required to determine this.
Interestingly, the lead name for the business listed in these directories changes over time from solely that of Edwin Cox, to Mrs Cox in 1906 after his death, and then eventually to Cox Bros or A J Cox post 1909. It seems clear that by this point the sons have taken over the family business in its entirety. The Cox Bros shop at 3 Carshalton Road, as pictured in our plate does not make an appearance in the directories until 1914, and this significant development in the family business may well explain just why the photograph we have was commissioned.
So how had the Coxes come to have such a gardening empire in Sutton? How had their father built up his business to the point that they owned two nurseries and two shops? Not to mention the tailoring shop owned by Ernest.
Our earliest sighting of Edwin, the family patriarch is in 1861, aged 23 and listed as a Servant-Gardener at 9 Park St. Windsor. By 1871, aged 33 he is a gardener living at Wildes Cottages, Ewell Road near to Cheam Court Farm and opposite the Nonsuch Estate. The house they occupied in Cheam was one of a small terrace but on a large corner plot with plenty of room for horticulture. The site would have given Edwin easy access to manure, and to possibly casual work gardening in one of the large houses or estates nearby – indeed he may well have been permanently employed by one of them, although we have no evidence of this. It is speculation on our part, but it seems an ideal situation for an ambitious man looking to set himself up as a ‘seed and nursery man’. Definitely by 1890, but perhaps earlier, we see him established at Hope Nurseries, Carshalton Rd, Sutton advertising his services as a seed man and florist.
His children began to arrive from 1863; Ernest in approximately 1865; and after short spells working in other trades, and in service, his sons quickly follow their father into the nursery business, giving him the workforce he needs to expand across two sites. In 1901 we see Ernest, plus another two of his sons and one daughter working as nurserymen or florist’s assistants (presumably in the family business). Herbert is working as a tailors’ apprentice.
So what happened to the business? The Carshalton Road shop is listed in local directories well into the 1950’s. Ernest dies at the age of 83 in 1949 and so it seems likely that the business was taken over by one or more of his sons, probably well before this date, although by 1960 the listing disappears altogether.
No specific name appears on these later listings but looking at the image of the shopfront in this plate one cannot help but wonder about the small figure of a boy standing to the left (our right) of the window. Could this have been one of Ernest’s younger sons, perhaps Dennis Edward, aged approximately fourteen at the time of the photograph; Could it have been this individual that took over the business in its final incarnation?
We do not have the time to track down the exact reasons for the demise of this long-running local business, or to discover who eventually took it over, but whatever the story we are especially happy to have been able to link a couple of our plates together and fill in a little bit of the context surrounding them. Who knows, perhaps someone reading this post may recall the Cox brothers shop on Carshalton Road and be able to flesh out this story a little more.
Whatever the story of this shop and it’s inhabitants may be, after working our way through close to 3000 portrait images it is a joy to see these kind of contextual images which offer a literal snapshot of life in the borough at the time Knights-Whittome was in operation. We hope for much more of the same in the plates yet to be uncovered.