This June marks the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ death.

The novelist, philanthropist and social reformer died aged just 58 at his beloved home – Gads Hill Place near Rochester, Kent – in June 1870.

We know a lot about Dickens’ literary works and his efforts to improve the lives of the poor and destitute, but one of his lesser-known passions was his garden.

Dickens adored gardening and thought England itself was ‘the one great garden’. He did not claim to be a gardener himself, however, so when it came to overhauling the garden at his beloved country home of Gad’s Hill, he wanted the best horticulturalists available.

He turned to his friend, the MP, architect and gardener Sir Joseph Paxton, of Chatsworth and Crystal Palace fame, for advice and Paxton recommended the gardener Charles Barber as the man for the job.

According to the Gardens Trust Barber wasn’t shy in sharing his views with his employer – telling him soon after his arrival that ‘his orchards were hardly fit for firewood’.

Barber also urged Dickens to build a conservatory, although this didn’t happen until years later when the author was flushed with profits from his America book tour.

Barber remained with Dickens for many years, until illness forced him to retire from gardening in 1864. We don’t know much about him after that. But somehow he ended up living in Brentwood and in 1894 he was declared a ‘lunatic’ by the Billericay Board of Guardians. He was sent by the parochial authorities to the Essex County Lunatic Asylum at Warley. A hearing into his case heard how Barber had “for many years been in the employ of Charles Dickens at Gads Hill but during recent years had been living in Brentwood where he had been assisted by many of the inhabitants in the locality.”

For some time, it was said, he had been ‘strange in manner’, then three weeks before being sent to the asylum he developed symptoms described as ‘complete insanity’ which would see him rushing from his house crying “murder, murder!”.

Barber died at the asylum in September 1895 and his death in such dire circumstances ras reported in newspapers around the country.

It turned out Barber had taken into the asylum with him a gold watch that had belonged to Charles Dickens which the author had given him, as well as several £5 notes and an ‘interesting letter’ written in Dickens’ own handwriting to Barber. The board of guardians who ran the asylum decided to sell off these items.

It is not surprising that Barber, who served Dickens for many years, would have been gifted presents from his former master. The novelist was known for his generosity. Even in death he catered for his staff, leaving nineteen guineas to ever member of his household in his will.

The cause of Barber’s death is not clear and we have no photograph of him.

We do know that disease was rife in the asylum and conditions were dismal. In 1894, when Barber was admitted, an outbreak of smallpox occurred at the asylum which killed 13 patients. Then in 1895, when he died, diphtheria affected 33 patients.

At this time the bulk of patients were being admitted for being ‘mentally defective’. Often they suffered from epilepsy or from delirium tremens, a serious form of alcohol withdrawal. The original asylum building was transformed into luxury homes over a decade ago.