Contributed by: Joyce H. Munro, Morris Arboretum Archives Volunteer

John Tonkin had been in Philadelphia four years when the United States joined its allies in “the war to end all wars.” As required, he went to the draft office in Chestnut Hill to register. But since he was a neutral alien, with two dependents, he was granted a deferral. So he returned to his job—as a gardener to Miss Lydia Morris of Compton—and continued his springtime chores, setting out cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts in the vegetable gardens.

John Tonkin knew all about vegetable gardens—he learned on England’s Cornwall coast. By age fourteen, he was a gardener’s apprentice, preparing for a career as a “market gardener,” not merely tilling the soil in his own backyard. John’s birth in 1887 was registered at the civil parish of Madron, though his family lived several miles away in Tregavarah, a tiny hamlet off the St. Just Road. Today, a handful of two-story cottages built of coarse granite mark the place, but sadly, Tregavarah’s chapel is no longer standing. It was bombed during the Second World War and never rebuilt. John’s father, Thomas, raised cattle on grazing land enclosed by boundaries dating to medieval times. Being Cornish, John’s speech was likely filled with heavy “r’s” but few “h’s.”

Tregavarah is a “tre” or homestead at the southwestern tip of England, near Penzance, a lands-end region that supplied British cities with produce, fish, and beef. The region also exported its sons and daughters to other parts of the world, due to lack of employment opportunities. In fact, seven of Thomas Tonkin’s ten children immigrated to the U.S.

John, with his newly-wedded wife Margaret and his sister Clarice, sailed for Philadelphia in 1913 to join older brother Thomas, who had crossed seven years earlier. Thomas, also a gardener, worked for Thomas Meehan’s nurseries in Germantown and may have arranged for John to work there. Wherever John was employed initially, he didn’t stay long—his boss swore at him and he quit. John quickly located part-time employment at Compton, working under head gardener Frank Gould. Soon after, John joined the grounds staff full-time and remained at Compton the rest of his career.

When Gould left Compton in 1919, a new job description was drawn up for his replacement; however, the job may not have actually been advertised. In the end, Lydia Morris was “prevailed upon” to promote Tonkin to head gardener, perhaps in keeping with the bird-in-the-hand theory. The grounds staff was now in maintenance mode. With John T. Morris’s death in 1915, no major projects were undertaken, except reconstruction of the Rose Garden, under Lydia’s direction. The original plantings of flowering cherries, chestnuts, and pines were falling prey to time, and much of Tonkin’s work involved hewing out the dead and diseased, replanting certain species, and caring for the hardy. And, of course, maintaining the flower gardens to Miss Morris’s standard of perfection. 

On January 25, 1932, the day after Lydia Morris died, Tonkin learned he was living in a new reality. His purchase order for five hundred spring chicks was cancelled and his budget cut to the bone. All activities at Compton “centering solely on Miss Morris’ personal pleasure and requirements” were to be discontinued, he was informed. Yet despite a severely downsized crew, Tonkin continued to care for the grounds after Compton became an arboretum under the aegis of the University of Pennsylvania. He gave informal talks to visitors, hosted administrators from the university, and was—in every sense of the word—caretaker. Had Tonkin not taken care to rescue items from the main house as it was being demolished in 1968, we would not have ledgers and other primary sources that help us identify the people who worked for the Morrises at Compton.