Monica Dyson: German invaders popular after the War

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It’s good to know that the garden gnome is very much alive and well. I was quite excited this week when I walked into the entrance of a local supermarket to be greeted by GNorman, GNorma, GNoah and GNora, members of an extremely large garden ornament gnome family.

Who on earth buys them, I asked myself? Well, it seems that the British fascination for these little people has never gone away, and even at prices exceeding £20, they may well all by now have been relocated to good homes. G-n-one, as it were.

Garden gnomes have always been popular garden ornaments. There are various theories about the origin of the name gnome. Some think it is from the Latin Gnomus or Greek Gnosis meaning knowledge, or Genomos meaning earth dweller. Webster’s dictionary certainly believes that the name is derived from Gignoskein which is ‘to know’.

Legend has it that tired of the frequent wars with goblins, gnomes went off to look for a better life, often living under stones in the gardens of dumb people like ourselves, or in burrows like hobbits. First manufactured in Germany by Griebel and Heissner in the early 1800s, and made of terracotta, they became sought after in Britain around the 1940s, although had some competition in later years from cheap imitations from the Czech Republic and Poland.

The first gnomes really caught the imagination of the British people who wanted to inject a bit of fun into gardening after years of ravaging by air raid shelters and dig for victory campaigns when gardens were turned into vegetable patches. Although during the 1960s and 1970s they were manufactured in lightweight plastic materials, they never lost their traditional designs which were for the most part of gnomes engaged in masculine pursuits like fishing and snoozing or dressed in football strips, which was popular during the 1970s.

It is widely believed by gnome enthusiasts that gnomes possess supernatural powers, come out at night, play in the garden and can see into the future.

Gnomes are subject to a great deal of snobbery. For the past 100 years gnomes were banned from the recently held Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, on the grounds that they are of working class origin, are tacky, and are only suitable for suburban gardens. Who do these people think they are? But for the 2013 show, the ban was lifted for a charity event with celebrities like Dame Judi Dench and Sir Elton John each painting one of the small people for a charity auction. Hopefully gnomes are back, although it is rumoured that for years people have been smuggling them into the show and leaving them under bushes.