Image: Joseph Myatt.
I will be transplanting daffodils this weekend along with setting out two rhubarb plants. I will first find a sunny location where they can grow over the coming years without crowding each other or competing for space with other plants as they grow quite large.
I chose Victoria – not because it happens to be my name, but because it is one of the best varieties, or as William Woys Weaver put it, “the variety has established the gold standard by which to judge good rhubarb: large, fat stems, bright red skin, lack of stringiness, and a tart, apple-gooseberry flavor…”. It is a true heirloom, dating from 1837, the year of Queen Victoria’s accession, and it was named in her honor.
Initially rhubarb was considered a medicinal plant, but by the early 19th century it was recommended as a market crop and could not be, “too highly recommended as a very salubrious vegetable for the family, either stewed or in tarts and pies”. “Family Kitchen Gardener”. 1847. NY.
Mary Eaton’s book  contained receipts for Rhubarb tart, sherbet, soup, pie, pudding and sauce indicative of the many ways the English prepared it. The “Magazine of Horticulture & Botany, 1837, noted rhubarb growing in the vicinity of Newark, N.J., New York, Hartford, and Boston in July 1837, too early for Victoria to be grown in America, but almost certainly older varieties were being grown for culinary purposes.
Joseph Myatt’s Victoria was described as, “…a red variety, of great excellence and richly flavored, grows very strong, equal to the Giant, and much earlier than that variety; is richly deserving of extensive culture”. – Buist, Robert. “Family Kitchen Gardener”. 1847. NY.
Joseph Myatt was exhibiting specimens of his Victoria Rhubarb by 1839 in England, just two years after its introduction, as reported in the “London and Paris Observer”, April 28, 1839.
Joseph Myatt was born in Maer, Staffordshire, in 1770, and moved to Deptford, England around 1880 where he began growing strawberries, quite successfully. He presented his “British Queen” strawberries to Queen Victoria, and was in turn presented a silver medal by Prince Albert, probably in the 1840’s. He began offering rhubarb for sale in markets about 1809, but it did not become fully appreciated until sugar became inexpensive enough for common families to purchase it and the introduction of his Victoria, a much improved variety.
Myatt died in 1855 and is buried in Nunhead Cemetery, remembered as having done more to promote the culinary use of rhubarb than any other person. In fact, in 1851, “The Plough, the Loom, and the Anvil” said of Myatt (then over 70 years of age), he was a kind and most benevolent man. “It is now nearly forty years since he sent his two sons to the borough market with five bunches, of which they could only sell three, so little was the value of this excellent vegetable then known. The other two bunches they brought home with them. The next time they went to market they took ten bunches with them, all of which were sold.” – Published 1851. Philadelphia.
The article, which was widely re-circulated, went on to say Myatt immediately set about increasing his stock, predicting it would become increasingly more popular as word spread, confident enough to ignore remarks from his neighbors to the contrary. “When one of his sons said in market one day that his father intended to plant an acre next year, they said, “Your father, poor man, is fast taking leave of his senses”.
While Victoria Rhubarb’s earliest glory days stem from the environs of London, Americans were growing Victoria rhubarb by 1840 when the “Genesee Farmer”, reported it a relatively new variety. By searching early notices we can see at least a few of the states where it was grown during the early 19th century.
Henry Ward Beecher wrote that he had obtained from New York seeds for Victoria rhubarb in 1842. He was living in Indiana at that time as he did not become minister of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn until 1847. He advised much greater success in transplanting roots than with growing from seed. – Plain and Pleasant Talk About Fruits, Flowers and Farming. 1859. NY.
In 1843, Mr. S. A. Halsey submitted a dozen stems weighing 16 ½ lbs. at the New York Farmer’s Club. Shortly thereafter, The Michigan Farmer and Western Horticulturalist included Victoria rhubarb in a list of seeds sent to them by the Patent office in Washington [March 1845].
The Cincinnati Horticultural Society noted Mr. J. T. Plummer of Richmond, Indiana had reported on his success with it and a committee was formed to evaluate the potential of growing it commercially. On the same page, it was noted that Amos D. Worthington had exhibited seven stalks of Victoria in Ohio. – The Western Farmer and Gardener. Aug. 1848.
Growing Victoria rhubarb was not limited to northern gardens. William White of Georgia, wrote of successfully growing it after having received Myatt’s Victoria roots from Mr. Buist. – Gardening For The South. 1856. Athens, GA.
Advertisements are found in newspapers throughout the 1850’s and 1860’s, and in 1861, Charles Downing wrote from Rochester, NY, for the Gardener’s Monthly and Horticultural Advertiser, Vol. 3. 1861, saying some 15 years prior  he had attempted to purchase from an old friend in England a supply of Victoria rhubarb but instead received a letter stating that it, “could not be packed to send to America under a great expense of glass cases and personal attention on the voyage”. Glass cases were in essence terrariums used to keep live plants fresh and viable during sea voyages when they otherwise might have wilted and died.
I won’t make any effort to harvest stems from my plants the first year, but by year number two, I should be able to follow Mary Eaton’s example and prepare a variety of dishes made from my own Victoria rhubarb.
North West Kent Family History Society. Vol. 5, No. 3. Sept., 1989. Editor: Mrs. M. Alderman, 16 Crescent Rd., Sidcup, Kent. DA15 7HN.