The Tenants’ Union and Tenants’ Advice and Advocacy Services have a long history with garden gnomes. Several gnomes are scattered throughout our office, honouring their role in a collective act of rebellion against unreasonable rules including a ‘gnome-ban’ in a residential land-lease community. Yet the work of one professor suggests garden gnomes have an even deeper connection to the abuse of power in housing.
Gordon Campbell, Emeritus Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, links garden gnomes to a troubling practice in Georgian England. At that time, it was fashionable for wealthy landowners to ‘keep’ a bearded, older man (called a ‘hermit’) in the bottom of their gardens. The man would be made to live in a makeshift home on the property and encouraged to dress as a Druid.
The life of an ornamental ‘hermit’ appears to have been pretty bleak. The role was frequently assigned to gardeners or agricultural labourers who may have had little choice but to comply. ‘Hermits’ were often encouraged not to wash themselves and to let their hair and nails grow long. They may not have been allowed to leave the garden. Landowners might converse with them, treat them as servants or just view them as a form of entertainment.
According to Campbell, the custom of keeping garden ‘hermits’ was replaced by ornamental (non-human) garden gnomes by the end of the 19th century.
The exploitation of garden ‘hermits’ in Georgian England is not without its parallels. Renters desperate for accommodation can be forced to tolerate substandard, mould-ridden and overcrowded housing. And while we are not aware of any landlords asking renters to dress ‘like druids’ lately, renters are often subjected to unreasonable demands from landlords and property managers. We’ve certainly started to see dwellings being put up for rent that are reminiscent of the old Georgian makeshift homes. As ridiculous as some of these requests may be, they belie a deeper problem; the vast power imbalance in our broken residential tenancy system.
So next time you spot a garden gnome peeking out from underneath a pot plant, spare a thought for the work that is still needed to ensure all renters are given dignity and respect in housing.
To explore the disturbing origin-story of garden gnomes further, see the book "The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome" by Gordon Campbell.