The Modern Slavery Garden

26 July 2016

Garden writer, Charlie Hart, tells us about the Modern Slavery Garden that won Gold at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show…

The Modern Slavery Garden came about as a result of a small group of friends, based in Sussex, who happened to share a love of gardens and a desire to do something about modern slavery. The start point was a lady called Mirabelle who came in from her garden one afternoon and suggested a Modern Slavery Garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The end point was a deluge of press, the People’s Choice award and a coveted Gold Medal. Between these two points there was much adventure and horticultural derring-do. But the intention throughout was to raise awareness of the plight of the 13,000 slaves in Britain today and the 27-45 million around the world.

The Modern Slavery Garden was designed by Juliet Sargeant. In addition to being handed a brief for what might be the garden with the grittiest meaning to be exhibited at Chelsea, she also broke the mold by being the first ever black female garden designer at the show.

In Wilberforce’s day slavery was legal and visible. Today slavery is illegal and invisible. The garden contains a circle of doors and railings much as you would see in a smart Chelsea streetscape. Everything outside the doors and railings was planted lushly as you would expect from a show garden. But inside the doors and railings there was only a black charcoal mulch creating a haunting contrast. The doors themselves had handles only on their exterior symbolizing the fact that modern slaves are “hidden behind closed doors” and that we must be the agents of their freedom.

The Modern Slavery Rose - a new variety which we named for the garden. It was bred by a specialist rose nursery called Dickson in Northern Ireland and is available from them:
The Modern Slavery Rose – a new variety which we named for the garden. It was bred by a specialist rose nursery called Dickson in Northern Ireland and is available from them:

The UK has taken a global lead in the fight against modern slavery by passing the Modern Slavery Act, in the Spring of 2015. Part of the brief of the garden was to celebrate this fact, whilst also acting as a call to arms for those who would hear about or see the garden. As we all know, changing the law is only the start of the process, real change comes only when people engage with the issue. The garden also carried a message of hope. At the center of interior stood a three ton oak tree. This symbolized the oak tree Wilberforce stood under when he pledged himself to ending transatlantic slavery with then Prime Minister, William Pitt.

Surrounding the oak tree were planted small oak saplings representing the people today who work tirelessly to finally bring an end to slavery, and to care for those who have been damaged by it. Imagine our excitement when we discovered that a Salvation Army safe house run by the excellent charity Medaille Trust uses an allotment to help create a wholesome context for recovery for the survivors it looks after. These very same survivors helped bring on the oak saplings for our garden! Finally, two of the eight doors were thrown open to show that if we stand together we can end the suffering of this silent, hidden multitude.

Alongside the garden the team launched the #askthequestion campaign. This is an open hearted campaign designed to encourage people to ask: is there slavery on my street? Is the there slavery in the products and services I buy? There is a simple way for an ordinary person to participate, simply photograph a product on a phone, post it to your social media accounts and tag the company who made it including #askthequestion slave free? If enough people do this the companies who make the products we buy will take note.

The garden was supported by an inspirational committee, a dedicated team and the good offices of the UK’s very first Anti Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland OBE. Hull is City of Culture in 2017 and we hope the Modern Slavery Garden will travel there then as it is also, of course, William Wilberforce’s constituency. Where to next? Wherever the garden and its story travels, we hope it is into a slave free future. Perhaps when the children of the future marvel in school rooms at the sheer scale of slavery at the start of the twenty first century, some teacher somewhere will say; “it was so bad, they even built a garden to raise awareness of it!”

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

Back to News

Help our local partners realise their vision of hope for their communities