If you ever need information about herbs, plants or trees, then one of the best resources available today is a book called “A Modern Herbal” by Mrs M. Grieve F.R.H.S. - Edited and introduced by Mrs C.F. Leyel (first published by Jonathan Cape Ltd in 1931). This book is a veritable tome and contains all you need to know about the “Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folklore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs and Trees with all their modern scientific uses” (ca. 1931). But who was the author Mrs M. Grieve? Sadly while this lady deserves so much credit for her work, which continues to inspire so many people, very little is known about her life. This bio is full of speculation leading from what few actual facts we have been able to uncover, so I would encourage anyone reading it who can add to our knowledge, to please contact me and let me know. Here’s the bio:
Sophia Emma Magdalene Grieve (née Law) was a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society, a Fellow of the British Science Guild, and the first President of the British Guild of Herb Growers. Mrs. Grieve or “Maud” as she preferred to be called, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of medicinal plants and during the early 1900’s founded “The Whins Medicinal and Commercial Herb School and Farm” at Chalfont St. Peter in Buckinghamshire, England. Through her School, Mrs. Grieve provided tuition and practical training courses in all aspects of herb growing, harvesting, drying and marketing.
During WWI as supplies of established medicines dwindled, Mrs. Grieve wrote and produced numerous Pamphlets explaining the use of specific herbs as remedies against common illness, disease and sickness, thus greatly aiding the war effort. Many of these pamphlets were later collated into the now classic work “A Modern Herbal” edited by Mrs. C.F. Leyel (founder of the Society of Herbalists) and published in 1931. Credited with re-establishing herbal medicines into Britain during the early 1900s, today her work continues to inspire herbalists and New Age communities all across the world.
Maud was born on the 4th May 1858 at 75 Upper Street, Islington in London, a daughter of James Law and his wife Sophia (née Ballisat). Her father James Law originated from Scotland where his family owned a Linen Mill, and had moved to London with his brother David Law to set up a warehouse in Finsbury Circus from where they stored and sold on their family’s products. When later his father in Scotland died, the Linen Mill was sold and the proceeds divided among family members. As part of his inheritance, James Law retained ownership of the Finsbury Circus warehouse
With money in his pocket due to his inheritance and after a brief sojourn to Australia in a failed attempt to enhance his fortunes, James Law returned to London and married his wife Sophia, the eldest daughter of a Cobbler and Milliner living in Upper St, Islington. After their marriage, as well as running the warehouse in Finsbury Circus, they set up a modest Ladies Outfitters in association with Sophia's parents. Later, Maud the eldest of four children was born in 1858, followed by a brother James John William and two sisters, Margaret Ann and Eliza Caroline. Being a fairly well to do family, we speculate that each of the children received a decent early education.
Sadly nothing more for certain is known about Maud’s early life, except for one report that states: “At the age of eight, she and the rest of the children were effectively orphaned and later separated”? Much of what follows is speculation, but it appears that Maud was raised by her uncle David Law and his wife, who by that time owned Carpet business in Beckenham and a warehouse in Friday St, London. The other children it seems were sent to live with relatives called Catmull in Essex? Maud remained with her uncle until he died when she was about 20, after which we believe she travelled to the family home in Scotland with her late uncle’s wife, who was also a cousin, and there later met her future husband?
What is known for sure is that by 1885 Maud was in India and married to William Somerville Grieve of Edinburgh. William’s family lived in Blacket Place, Newtown in Edinburgh and were wealthy burghers connected to the Somerville and Symington families, owners of the Edinburgh Merchant Company. The Company's holdings included a Paper Mill with associated Publishing and Stationary businesses, and a Wine Merchants. After their marriage the Grieve's remained in India from where William managed the Company’s paper supply business from Calcutta.
As an aside note, it is worth adding here a little more speculation and asking the question "Where did Maud gain her education/knowledge about herbs"? It would seem from the erudition of her later writings that she must at sometime have attended College or University to study Botany or Horticulture? What is interesting to note is that a cousin of her husband William was Symington Grieve (1850-1932), a distinguished antiquarian, naturalist and archaeologist. At times he was a vice-president of the Edinburgh Botanical Society, an ex-president of the Edinburgh Field Naturalists and Microscopical Society, a Fellow of the Royal Physical Society and a Fellow of the Scottish Antiquarian Society. His publications included “The Great Auk”, on which he was recognised as a leading authority; “Notes upon the Island of Dominica”, and “The Book of Colonsay and Oronsay”. He also wrote many scientific papers including “Researches on the Floating Power of Seaweed”, a subject that he was encouraged to pursue by the great Charles Darwin. A man of wide scientific interests who travelled the world in pursuit of knowledge, we can only speculate as to whether Maud ever met with him? Could he have been her inspiration??
After William retired from the company in the early 1900’s, the Grieve’s returned to England and in 1905 settled at “The Whins Cottage”, Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire. Already a keen gardener with a particular interest in the medicinal properties of Herbs, Mrs Grieve soon developed an extensive Herb Garden. A strong and indomitable woman, but never outwardly involved with the Women’s Suffragette movement (highly active in those times), instead she became a lead representative of the Daughters of Ceres, a small group dedicated to increasing the opportunities for women in horticultural jobs. To this end she founded the "The Whins Medicinal and Commercial Herb School and Farm" through which she provided practical tuition and courses in herb growing, harvesting, drying and marketing. She was aided at the School by an assistant called Edith Grey Wheelwright, who much later wrote a book called “The Physick Garden: Medicinal Plants and Their History” (Jonathon Cape Ltd, 1934).
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With the ever increasing demand for medicine brought on by WWI (1914-18), and seeing a demand for herbal remedies as an alternative and supplement to existing supplies, Mrs. Grieve began to write and produced individual pamphlets on the cultivation of specific herbs for their medicinal uses. These she made available to the public by post at 9d each, 6 for 4s, or 12 for 7/6d. She also sold plant seeds by mail order and developed a correspondence course charging 5 guineas for 12 lessons. As well as the pamphlets on herbs, she also wrote articles on subjects such as: Plants supporting Bees, The soil and its care, Economic trees and their by-products and Fungi as Food. In this she was assisted by Miss Ella Oswald F.R.H.S. (Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society) and a Medallist of the Society of Apothecaries.
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To further promote the UK's herb growing industry, and when opportunities presented themselves, Mrs. Grieve attended trade shows and exhibitions. One such was the British Scientific Products Exhibition in 1918, which was reviewed in the British Journal of Nursing dated 17th August. The exhibition was due to open on the 7th September and Mrs. Grieve is mentioned as one of the exhibitors. The article states: “An exhibit which opens up to nurses a vista of an interesting hobby, which may also be a work of national utility, is that arranged by Mrs Grieve, F.R.S.H., who has a School of British Medicinal and Commercial Herb Growing at the Whins, Chalfont St. Peter, Bucks, which represents an organised determination to recapture from Germany and Austria the Herb Growing Industry, which those countries have won from Great Britain. Before the war we spent annually £200,000 on importations of drug-yielding Herbs, which we could have grown. What's more interesting for a nurse living in the country than the cultivation of medicinal herbs? It is further of interest that the demand for properly trained herb growers far exceeds supply, and good posts are obtainable for students when proficient.”
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It would seem from the above photos that while Mrs. Grieve ran the business of the School, her husband William was content to interest himself collecting and selling antiques. Sadly however, after the end of WWI and during the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, not only did the School struggle to survive as the recession deepened, but her husband suffered a series of health issues leading to dementia, and died in 1929. After the death of her husband and no longer able to cope with running the business, Mrs. Grieve stopped teaching and closed the School. She gave away many of her existing plants to a fellow herb grower and friend Dorothy Hewer, who ran a similar Herb Farm and School at Seal, near Sevenoaks in Kent.
It was about this time Mrs. Grieve was approached by Mrs. C.F. Leyel (founder of the Society of Herbalists) who wished to use her pamphlets, articles and collection of reference books as the bases for a new “Herbal”. Mrs. Grieve welcomed the chance of working on such a book, and had hopes it might relieve some of her failing fortunes. As a result of their collaboration “A Modern Herbal” was published in 1931. However, just before its publication Mrs. Grieve wrote to a friend stating: “My Modern Herbal has been published and will be on sale 29th June, but they have not sent me a copy, nor has Mrs. Leyel returned all my reference books”. It would seem that toward the end of their collaboration, their relationship was not always an amicable one?
Sadly the publication of her book did not bring the anticipated relief Mrs. Grieve needed and she descended into poverty and paranoia. In 1939, no longer able to care for herself, she was place into the care of “Camberwell House” at 30-35 Peckham Road, Camberwell in Surrey (a Lunatic Asylum in South London). That same year to cover her mounting debts, the Whins Cottage and her extensive gardens were sold to property developers and today lies under new houses. Later as WWII escalated and the threat of bombing in London became real, she was released into a private care home called “Townsend House” at 109 High St, Barkway near Royston, Hertfordshire, and there she remained until her death on the 20th December 1941, aged 83.
During her lifetime Mrs. Grieve was acknowledged by her peers as an expert in the science of medicinal herbs, and did much to re-establish the herb growing industry throughout the UK. Many of her original pamphlets together with her extensive collection of reference books have been preserved and are now held by the Special Collections Division at Edinburgh University. Correspondence and other papers relating to Mrs Grieve’s and The Whins Medicinal and Commercial Herb School and Farm are also held by the Library and Archives section of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AB.
My grateful thanks to Mrs. Joan Dugdale MNHAA, MASA, for her invaluable help in compiling this bio. After overlapping careers as a broadcaster, organic farmer and author/novelist (with five published books to her credit), Joan is now a Medicinal Herbalist with a general practice in Marrickville, Sydney, Australia. Some years ago Joan visited the UK where she did some extensive research into the life of Mrs. Grieve and has future plans to write a book about her. More about Joan and her practice can be seen here: http://www.naturaltherapypages.com.au/connect/medicalherbalist/service/1204
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