When Troy Smith became head gardener at Sissinghurst Castle Garden in May 2013, it was widely reported that he was the first man to ever hold the title. In fact, he is the third, but history does not always choose to remember facts correctly and there are many people who still believe that Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger were Vita Sackville-West’s first head gardeners. Certainly, they are the most famous and had a great deal of influence over the development of the garden but there is another head gardener who deserves just as much recognition for his work; his name is Jack Vass. Jack was Vita’s first head gardener and the horticultural skills he brought to Sissinghurst were massively important to the ultimate success of the garden.
Jack was born in 1909 and his life as a gardener began in 1927 when, age 18, he went to work at Crondall Court as an apprentice. Four and a half years later he left to start his career, working his way up the gardening hierarchy.
By the time he arrived at Sissinghurst as head gardener on October 2, 1939 he had already worked in the gardens of Albury Park, Hall Barn, Clivedon, Oldland Hall (where he was in charge of 17 staff and extensive glasshouses), and Bakeham House. He was 30 years old and had been training and working as a gardener for 12 years. He had a wealth of experience and a recommendation from the RHS; in short, Vita had struck gold.
Inevitably though the Second World War intervened quickly in the lives of those who lived and worked at Sissinghurst. War had been declared on September 3, 1939 just a month before Jack started working for Harold and Vita at Sissinghurst. The war made everyone’s future uncertain but nevertheless, he and Vita made plans and started work on projects such as the draining of the Lion Pond, something that Vita had wanted to do for a while.
But in January 1941 Jack and Copper (the chauffeur) left Sissinghurst to join the war effort. Before he left he instructed Vita to “look after the hedges. We can get the rest back later.”
Jack joined the RAF and became a wireless operator with No. 35 Pathfinder Squadron. His service throughout the war was not without danger and adventure. During a mission on a Halifax bomber, his plane was shot down over France and Jack had to parachute into occupied territory. He was posted as ‘missing in action’ but eventually made it back to England in April 1944. He later told his friend and colleague, John Humphris that he owed his survival to the Maquis who bravely sheltered him and led him and others to the safety of Spain by guiding them over the Pyrenees. The journey was arduous and Jack recalls surviving on dried horsemeat as they climbed over the mountains. Once back in England, Jack joined Transport Command where he served out the rest of the war.
Jack’s Sissinghurst story starts again in 1946 when he returned to his post of Head Gardener. Whilst he had been away fighting the war, Vita had been left to do her best with the garden. The war years had not been easy. Vita had the help of the one remaining under-gardener, William Taylor who was mildly epileptic and therefore, not able to fight. He was joined by a land girl and a donkey called Abdul (who had lived at Sissinghurst since 1934.) It was hardly an adequate workforce.
With the emphasis on growing food to eat and the presence of the army at Sissinghurst, it was inevitable that the garden would suffer. The lawns were not mown, the beds and borders became full of weeds, the moat was clogged with reeds and the nuttery and herb garden became completely overgrown.
But the good news was that none of the garden had been dug up to grow food and the structure was still intact. More importantly, the German bombers that flew directly overhead had not succeeded in bombing any part of the garden or buildings. Harold had managed to keep the hedges clipped and the limes pleached, and weeded the Spring Garden as much as he could. Vita scythed the orchard, pruned the roses and maintained the glasshouses. Post-war, there was plenty of work to do but with a proper workforce and knowledgeable gardeners, Sissinghurst could be rescued from its decline.
Next week in part 2; post-war developments.