In the past, hot climates, sparse rainfall and the need to keep food plants alive required clever and complicated systems of irrigation. From open earth ditches to carved limestone canals, and from open rills formed from upturned terra cotta roof tiles to reservoirs and aqueducts, the peoples of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, the Persians, Egyptians, Romans and Moors all developed sophisticated and effective methods of transporting water around the garden.
However the technology available for supplying water could be extended beyond flowers and herbs, and wealthy landowners sometimes employed their irrigation systems in more frivolous ways. At the Villa di Castello in Tuscany in the 16th century, for example, the headstrong and despotic Cosimo 1 de’Medici installed a system of bronze pipes hidden under the paving, solely for the purpose of giochi d’acqua, water games. He could, at the turn of a key, instantly souse his unwary visitors.
Still in the 16th century, Thomas Hill showed different methods of irrigation, including the use of a pump and water from a wooden trough in The Gardener’s Labyrinth. It was, he explained “the commended times for watring of the garden beddes, and what maner of watre ought necessarily be used to plants, with the later inventions of diverse vessels aptest for this purpose”. The 17th -century John Evelyn also illustrated “diverse vessels” with which Thomas Hill would have been familiar. They included a water tank beside which stood a barrel sitting on a low, four wheeled trolley. Equipped with handles for pumping, it looked like an early form of fire fighting apparatus.
No-one, it seemed, had come up with the idea of a hosepipe (from the Dutch hoos meaning a snake). That was until a particular seventeenth-century town hall fire. When Amsterdam’s town hall burnt down in 1652 the accident left a lasting impression on one of the witnesses, 12-year-old Jan Van der Heijden. Some 20 years later, having become an accomplished draughtsman and painter, Van der Heijden was also gripped by the technical potential of various inventions. It was he who is credited with contriving the arrangement of a water carrying linen tube attached to a fire appliance. Later, leather superseded linen as the preferred fabric of the hose, and lengths of leather pipes were hand-stitched in 50 foot (approximately 15 metre) lengths by sail makers. Canvas hoses sealed with tar also made an appearance, but it was not long before Van Heijden’s invention was seized upon by gardeners who recognized its potential.
(From Tales from the Tool Shed – The History and Use of Fifty Garden Tools, RHS, 2014)