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Articles » Setting the record straight: The trouble with James Carter in 1865
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Judith M. Taylor and Keith Hammett

For decades all histories of the sweet pea have started with Cupani in 1699, moved through Mason and his ’Painted Lady’ and galloped triumphantly on to James Carter winning the first FCC at a Royal Horticultural Show for any sweet pea, L.’Scarlet Invincible’ in 1865. The only problem is that James Carter died in 1855, and none of his sons lived to adulthood.

A return to the original documents shows what actually took place:
The facts were reported in “All About Sweet Peas, Report of the Sweet Pea Bicentenary Celebration 1900”. The report contains an article by S.B. Dicks, “The Early History of Sweet Peas”. This is followed by a paper by C.H. Curtis and J.S. Eckford, entitled “The Evolution of the Sweet Pea”.

The salient information appears on page 25:

“During the ten years from 1860 to 1870 several new Sweet Peas appeared and from different sources, showing that several florists were interesting themselves in these annuals. Next in order to Blue Hybrid came Scarlet Invincible, which was awarded a First Class Certificate on July 11th, 1865, and was thus the first Sweet Pea to receive official recognition from the R.H.S. It was exhibited by Steven Brown, of Sudbury, who was evidently the raiser, but its distribution was due chiefly to the Holborn firm [Carter & Co.] who described and figured it in their 1866 catalogue;….”

Curtis and Eckford would have had access to the Carter catalogue. We have confirmed that ‘Scarlet Invincible’ indeed appeared in that catalogue: Carter & Co.’s Gardeners’ and Farmers’ Vade-Mecum for 1866′ lists the following among the ‘List of Novelties for 1866’ on p.81. “This variety is entirely distinct from the common scarlet, being much more brilliant and the colour permanent, whereas the flowers of the common variety grow paler as the bloom goes off. A very desirable novelty. Price, per packet, 1s.” This can be considered as a definitive reference. Steven Brown deserves the credit for this seminal achievement, even though Carter & Co. omitted his name.

The Proceedings of the RHS, volume 5, 1865, page 170 confirm the assertions made by Curtis and Eckford that Steven Brown himself won the very first FCC awarded for a sweet pea in 1865: “Mr. Brown, Sudbury”, and the index to the RHS Journal lists ‘Scarlet Invincible’ as “FCC (Brown, 1865)”.

The society then held trials of sweet peas in its Chiswick gardens in 1868. The firm of James Carter showed two new sweet peas cultivars: ’Black Invincible’ and ’Scarlet Invincible’. A report on the trials was published in the Society’s Proceedings for 1869 (attached to volume 2 of the RHS Journal, 1870):

Both entries received FCCs, making this the second one for ‘Scarlet Invincible’, a rather irregular practice even at that date. Carter’s were selling the new flowers and that is how they have gone down in history as the winners.

In 1869, D.T. Fish wrote: “The Scarlet Invincible Pea, which, by the way, is not a scarlet, shows what may be done by careful selection, and points the way to greater distinctness and vividness of colouring.” This contemporary comment appeared in an article entitled “A chapter on sweet peas” in the Gardeners’ Chronicle , April 3 1869, p. 361


The authors are grateful to:

John Coulter, Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre, Lewisham, England, for finding the 1866 catalogue.

Suzanne Andrew and Dr Brent Elliott for finding the original documents in the records of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Roger Parsons for assistance