Charles Johnson (1872-1940), Cheltenham’s
From the early 1920s until his death in 1940, the principal resident of No. 8 Pittville Parade (now 16 Evesham Road) was Charles Phillips Johnson. According to his obituary in the Cheltenham Chronicle, he was ‘well known all over the country’ as a wholesale florist, largely due to his role as the principal supplier of mistletoe to Covent Garden, from where it was exported, mainly to France. Thanks to the interest and help of Jonathan Briggs, mistletoe enthusiast and founder of the website Mistletoe Matters, it has been possible to find out something of Johnson’s life in the trade.
Gloucestershire Echo (7 December 1938)Charles Johnson was born in 1872 in Peterborough, the eldest of four children of a Baptist minister. The family moved around the country – in 1881 they were living in Stoke-on-Trent and one of the last places they lived in was Falmouth, from where Johnson visited the Isles of Scilly and first became interested in flowers. In 1891 he was working as a cheesemonger’s assistant, and boarding in Plymouth. By 1901 he was living in St George’s Place, Cheltenham, and working in the wholesale flower trade. He was now married with 3 daughters; two sons, who later worked with their father in the trade, were born in 1904 and 1907.
In an interview for the Echo in 1938, Charles Johnson spoke of his work as a supplier of mistletoe for more than 20 years, how his farming and fruit-growing friends (and foraging local children) would sell the mistletoe to him in time for export. It was important to start early enough to be able to supply the continental trade and still leave time to supply the domestic market in December. He would start collecting at Bishop’s Cleeve, and then work his way round the county, usually sending, he said, more than two tons to Covent Garden each year. A photo from the Daily Herald archive shows mistletoe and holly being brought to market in 1933. There was some pride in supplying true English-grown mistletoe to English residents abroad.
Mistletoe (Wikimedia Commons)Mistletoe is still common in Gloucestershire, for although it is found throughout Britain its core area is the southern Welsh Marches up to south Shropshire. The fact that it is alive and green in midwinter when other plants appear dead and bare could have been a factor in its veneration. In the Middle Ages it was used to treat tumours, keep witches at bay, protect crops and enhance human fertility – this last may be due to the somewhat suggestive appearance of the leaves. In the 18th century its association with Druidism led to a revival of interest.
The plant continues to be valued: Jonathan Briggs has revived another centre for trade in the plant, and Tenbury Wells is now recognised as the Mistletoe Capital of England. A December Mistletoe Festival keeps alive the tradition of the seasonal holly and mistletoe market.
Briggs notes how Johnson seems to have made mistletoe his personal specialism, possibly leading to his ‘Mistletoe King’ accolade, although this, along with ‘the high priest of Christmas’, may have been given by journalists who interviewed him. A reference in 1902 to the season of Christmas as ‘the rule of the holly and mistletoe king’ suggests that the term has a long history. Racehorses have been called Mistletoe King, presumably expressing a wish for good luck on the course. Whatever the origin, Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire continues to elect a Mistletoe Queen each December to preside over its festival.
Johnson stayed in the ‘over-roomy’ house in Evesham Road even after his children had left home and married. He liked to accommodate the family, eventually with nine grandchildren, at Christmas: the folding doors between the sitting-room and front drawing-room would be open and a 12-foot (3.6m) Christmas tree reached to the ceiling. And, of course, there would be mistletoe.
Charles Johnson would probably be disappointed in the current levels of the plant in this country: most of the mistletoe now hung up at Christmas is imported from Normandy and Brittany. Jonathan Briggs’ website Mistletoe Matters, however, shows that there is still considerable interest in the plant – propagating it, finding out more about it and where it is most abundant.
Cheltenham Chronicle, 16 November 1940
Gloucestershire Echo, 7 December 1938, 13 December 1943, 24 December 1942
Jonathan Briggs, Mistletoe Matters at mistletoe.org.uk/mmatters/
Picture Post, December 1938 (article by John Fisher)
Wellington Journal, 27 December 1902