Blind veterans tend to Hampton Court Great Vine

6 July 2017 09:49

Blind Veterans UK is sponsor of the gold medal winning ‘It’s all about community’ garden at this year’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show which has been designed by celebrated designers Andrew Fisher Tomlin and Dan Bowyer.

Black and white photo of 5 WW1 blind veterans willow weaving
Our involvement with Hampton Court Palace goes back to our early years. In September 1920 it was announced that the ‘King’s Grapes’ from the famous Black Hamburg Great Vine were not needed by the Royal Household and could be sold to the public for the first time. The Great vine was planted in 1768 during the reign of King George III, who enjoyed staying at the palace.

At its biggest, the vine yielded 2200 bunches in a year and was basketed by our blind veterans. In addition to tending to the vines, our blind veterans weaved small wicker baskets which were then sold to the public with the grapes inside.

Hundreds of bunches of grapes from the Great Vine were sold to the public in the 1920s in baskets created by blind veterans like Harry, Michael and Thomas who you can learn more about below. Giving this connection, the vine sculpture in our show garden, created by willow weaver Tom Hare, pays homage to our WW1 veterans.

Hampton Court Flower Show vine sculpture
Tom says: “The willow vine sculpture that wraps around the whole garden allows visitors to walk through and experience the textures, colours and fragrance of the garden first hand”.

Basket making was one of the most popular choices of the varieties of training we offered in a range of occupations at our hostel, St Dunstan’s Lodge in Regent’s Park.

Black and white photo of Hampton Court Palace Great Vine - Private Harry Green's certificate

One of our early basket-makers was Private Harry Green, an Englishman from north London who went to Australia in 1914 to see what opportunities might arise. After war broke out he enlisted with the Australian Imperial Forces. He was wounded in France but decided not to return to Australia and after the war returned to north London and made his living making baskets.

Black and white photo of WW1 blind veterans willow weaving in charity's workshop
Our magazine, the Review, included copies of letters from around this time which bear testimony to how our blind veterans found basket making a fulfilling, as well as rewarding, career.

Michael Deegan had been a railway signalman before serving in the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers and losing his sight at the Somme in 1916. He later returned to a village near Waterford in Ireland to make baskets and wrote to us: “I am overjoyed at the work I am turning out and the way in which it pays me. I give people satisfaction when carrying out their orders. We all know of course that this is due to the training I received at St. Dunstan’s to whose staff I am very grateful and to whom I owe my sincere thanks for turning me out a proficient basket maker and putting me on my feet again”.

Black and white photo of WW1 blind veteran tending to the vines at Hampton Court Palace
Thomas Willis, who had served in the Northumberland Fusiliers, had succeeded in getting lots of work repairing baskets and wrote: “I think that this is one of the best things a St. Dunstanner can do. I get all kinds of baskets to repair and if one comes in that I take a fancy to and that I have not made the like of before, I take full particulars and when I have time I make a similar one. In this way, I am constantly making new baskets”.

Voting is open for People's Choice at Hampton Court Palace Garden Show. Please vote for ours! #allaboutcommunity

To see more stories from our Historical Photography Project click here or check our Facebook page for our #ThrowbackThursdays.