Percy – The Nation’s Head Gardener

Cover photo from Timothy O'SullivanPercy Thrower: A Biograpy

Cover photo from Timothy O’Sullivan       Percy Thrower: A Biography

Percy Thrower was a household name during his long career in gardening programmes on radio and television.  A natural broadcaster, with quiet enthusiasm and a very hands-on practical approach, he built a substantial following amongst adults and children alike. 

Always cutting a fairly formal figure in jacket and tie, he was usually seen with a pipe in his hand, even when actually gardening.  His biographer may have called him” a mild mannered sergeant-major”, but Peter Seabrook, one of his successors on Gardener’s World said “Percy was comfortable to watch on television… He was a lovely man and he smiled from the inside”. Alan Titchmarsh, another of his successors,  says it was Percy who inspired him to take up gardening.

Read on to discover how he became so influential and why, as a result, he was nicknamed the Nation’s Head Gardener.

Percy as a baby, with his parents and elder brother outside the head gardener's house at Horwood

Percy as a baby, with his parents and elder brother outside the head gardener’s house at Horwood

Percy Thrower was born in 1913 and grew up at Horwood House near Winslow in Buckinghamshire where his father, Harry Thrower, was the newly appointed head gardener.  The estate was owned by Frederick Denny who had made his millions out of pigs, pork and bacon. The William and Mary style house by Detmar Blow had 14 acres of ‘bare fields and woodland’ which Denny wanted converted into a proper garden.

 

Horwood House courtesy DebenDave

Horwood House
courtesy DebenDave on Wikipedia

Percy outside the gardener's bothy at Windsor, from My Lifetime in Gardening

Percy outside the gardener’s bothy at Windsor, from My Lifetime in Gardening

The Dennys sold Horwood after the war and it later became a training centre for British Telecom and is now a hotel. For more information see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horwood_House

http://www.horwoodhouse.co.uk

Percy watched the new garden develop and decided he wanted ‘to be a head gardener, like my father’. As a result he left school at 14 and joined the garden staff at Horwood, starting work at 6.30 six days a week for a shilling a day.  After four years in 1931 he was offered, through the unofficial  head gardeners network, a post in the Royal Gardens at Windsor at £1 a week.

Driven to Windsor by the Chauffeur from from My Lifetime in Gardening

Driven to Windsor by the Chauffeur  from My Lifetime in Gardening

C.H.Cook, the royal gardener at Windsor, from My Lifetime in Gardening

C.H.Cook, the royal gardener at Windsor, from My Lifetime in Gardening

His autobiography tells how Mrs Denny was so impressed by this royal connection that she instructed one of the  chauffeurs to take Percy to Windsor in style. There he joined a staff of 60 under C.H.Cook, and met and later married Cook’s daughter, Constance.

The Royal Gardens were, despite their prestige, run under a very disciplined and frugal regime and this stood Thrower in good stead when he decided to move on, this time into municipal horticulture, and found a job with Leeds Parks Department.

lmg128852

View of Temple Newsam House, James Chapman, c.1750 © Leeds Museums and Art Galleries (Temple Newsam House) UK

When Percy arrived in Leeds  he was sent to work at Temple Newsam, formerly the home of Lord Halifax, which was in the process of being transformed from a private garden into a public park. For more about Temple Newsam see our database:

http://www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/image?id=358

Temple Newsam, 1927

Temple Newsam, 1927

He reports being horrified by the profligacy that he saw: “Every year thousands and thousands of bulbs were bought in from Holland and every year as soon as they had flowered, they were dug out and destroyed. The head gardener insisted on total destruction and he would stand by to ensure they were buried or put on a bonfire so that no-one could possibly use them again, not even perhaps to enjoy them flowering on a  piece of waste ground.” It was not just bulbs, but right across the board – azaleas , for example, were  “bought by the hundred for the display houses …and then were burned….That is the way things were in the public parks in those days.”

From Leeds Thrower moved to Derby in 1937 and gradually rose through the ranks to become deputy parks superintendent, becoming responsible for maintaining the country’s historic arboretum, as well as converting another private estate garden at Darley Abbey into a public park.

For more on Darley see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/derby/features/tours/parks/derby/darley_history.shtml

Demonstarting poptato planting at a sports ground in wartime Derby, from My Lifetime in Gardening

Demonstrating potato planting at a sports ground in wartime Derby, from My Lifetime in Gardening

When the war broke out in 1939 he was put in charge of food production, “growing crops at the sewage works…the racecourse, in the parks (where we did demonstrations to show allotment holders how to get the best out of their Dig for Victory Plots)  and many other odd places.”

It was in doing this that he seems to have discovered his talent for communicating simply and naturally that was to endear him to large audiences later on.

Aerial viee of Shrewsbury, with Quarry Park in the foreground. The Dingle is the central garden area. http://www.shropshirestar.com

Aerial viee of Shrewsbury, with Quarry Park in the foreground. The Dingle is the central garden area.
http://www.shropshirestar.com

The Dingle Shrewsbury 1945-1950  http://www.sharehistory.org/janes/uploads/2662-the-dingle-shrewsbury. licensed for reuse Creative Commons Licence.

The Dingle Shrewsbury 1945-1950
http://www.sharehistory.org/janes/uploads/2662-the-dingle-shrewsbury. licensed for reuse Creative Commons Licence.

When the war ended he moved again this time to Shrewsbury becoming the youngest parks superintendent in the country. He recalls “I think perhaps two years here and then onto something bigger” but was to remain there for until he retired in 1974.

He inherited  several well-known gardens notably Quarry Park and The Dingle, all sadly in need of  restoration.

One of the Lime Avenues in Quarry Park, felled in 1946  from http://www.search.secretshropshire.org.uk

One of the Lime Avenues in Quarry Park, felled in 1946
from http://www.search.secretshropshire.org.uk

One of his first jobs was controversial. Quarry Park had several historic avenues of lime trees planted in the early 18thc  but which thought to be dangerous and liable to fall.  Despite outrage, he ordered them felled and replanted with wider spacing. 70 years on their replacements are  coming to  maturity.

For more about Quarry Park and the Dingle see our database:

http://www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/2733/summary

Shrewsbury Flower Show, late 1940s, from Timothy O'SullivanPercy Thrower: A Biography

Shrewsbury Flower Show, late 1940s, from Timothy O’Sullivan  Percy Thrower: A Biography

His other responsibilities included helping to revive the famous annual Shrewsbury Flower Show, which had been second only to Chelsea in terms of prestige, and restoring it to its place near the top of the annual gardening calendar.  He set out to turn Shrewsbury into “The Town of Flowers’  and in the process set off his own broadcasting career.

Incidentally Shrewsbury has continued with its great floral traditional and is a regular winner of Britain in Bloom competitions. Last year, 2014, the judges awarded the city the  title of ‘Champion of Champions’. Jackie Brennand, chairman of Shrewsbury in Bloom said: “This is a fantastic result for Shrewsbury, to be crowned Champion of Champions is true testament to our horticultural legacy – the late, great Percy Thrower would be proud.”   For more information on that see:

http://www.visitshrewsbury.co.uk/shrewsbury-news/shrewsbury-crowned-britain-in-bloom-champion-of-champions.html

and:    http://www.shrewsburytowncouncil.gov.uk/live/welcome.asp?id=1485

and there is a full history of the show at:

http://shrewsburyflowershow.org.uk/about-us/society/

Godfrey Baseley, BBC

Godfrey Baseley,
BBC

The  BBC,  was keen to develop its treatment of all leisure interests and covered the Shrewsbury show on a programme called Round and About.   During this it became apparent that Thrower had the qualities of a natural broadcaster and it wasn’t long before Godfrey Baseley invited him to fill a 10 minutes gardening slot on a Sunday afternoon programme called Beyond the Back Door.  If you’ve heard  Baseley’s name  before it’s probably because he was also responsible for creating The Archers.  The scope soon became broader and once a month Thrower  would visit somebody’s garden and talk about it with them live on air.   One of these visits was to Hope Court near Ludlow where the owner, Mrs Leese, was a very keen gardener. Thrower recalls “she asked Basely what he called his programme and on receiving the reply…she looked at him rather straight and said ‘but my garden is not a ‘beyond the back door’ one.’ The name of the programme was soon changed. As  In Your Garden  it was immensely popular with Sunday afternoon listeners and continued until television started in 1951. Percy then used it as a title for one of his books.

In the Blue Peter Garden with John Noakes 1975 BBC

In the Blue Peter Garden with John Noakes 1975
BBC

His enthusiasm spread gardening into children’s television too. In 1950 he began a 10 minute slot on Children’s Hour, aimed he said not just to encourage children to grow plants but also to reduce vandalism in parks. Later he was to work on Blue Peter,where he designed a small sunken garden with  a fishpond, and used garden ornaments sent in by viewers.

The Blue Peter Graden designed by Percy Thrower, from darkestlondon.com

The Blue Peter Garden designed by Percy Thrower, from darkestlondon.com

 

Unfortunately its fame did not stop vandalism. Percy’s reaction can be seen at this end of this short extract from the programme:

For a much fuller history of the Blue Peter garden, its connection with Percy Thrower and its recent destruction see: http://darkestlondon.com/tag/percy-thrower/

screenshot

The title screen of Gardening Club  – clip from Youtube

A quick search of the BBC listings database: http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk

[which is still incomplete I think] show him appearing in a total 959 broadcasts.  He worked with David Attenborough doing a regular gardening slot on a series called Out of Doors in the early 1950s, and with Baseley on Country Calendar. 

From 1955 he presented Gardening Club, the first regular TV gardening programme. It started monthly but very soon became weekly.  Watched by up to 5,000,000 people it took a strictly practical approach and had none of the glamour and stardust of celebrity of gardening programmes today.  Its TV garden was a makeshift affair in the corner of a studio used for other programmes as well, so the potting shed and greenhouse had to be put up and taken down for every show, and all the soil and plants barrowed in and removed afterwards.  It relied on illusion as much as reality, and because early TV cameras didn’t produce good results when shooting through glass,   the greenhouse was just a wooden frame with no glass panes. Only once was this obvious: the door got stuck and Percy forgot the convention, reached in through the “pane” and opened the door from the other side.  Such deceit was possible until 1968 and the advent of colour TV.

Gardeners World producer Barrie Edgar with Thrower preparing a scene for the programme Daily Telegraph January 6, 2013

Gardeners World producer Barrie Edgar with Thrower preparing a scene for the programme
Daily Telegraph January 6, 2013

New camera technology meant that the lack of glass and the other studio fictions had to be abandoned. Black-and-white  Gardening Club became colourful Gardeners’ World, which Percy fronted from 1969 until  1976 when he was unceremoniously sacked by the BBC  for appearing in commercials on ITV.  (More about this and Gardeners’ World in a future post]

You can hear the opening music and see the titles of Gardening Club in a very short clip at:

50s gardeningOffers to write poured in as well. Amateur Gardening, then run by Arthur Hellyer, was first and Thrower wrote weekly notes for them for over 20 years. Local newspapers, Radio Times, and John Bull followed.

screenshotThen it was the national press  First was Empire News, which was taken over by the Sunday Dispatch which in its turn was absorbed by the Sunday Express. A new editor told him “Well, of course, your articles are all right but some of them read a bit puddingy.  I asked him what he meant exactly. Not enough life in them was his reply. It was obvious we approached the subject from entirely different viewpoints so I finished with the Sunday Express.” But the Daily Mail approached him saying they wanted their gardening page  to be the best in the national press so he started writing for them instead.

UnknownUnknown-1Hellyer, a prolific writer himself as well as editor of Amateur Gardening, then persuaded him to begin writing books.

Sixteen followed, almost all with his name in the title from In the Flower Garden with Percy Thrower, via Percy Thrower’s Encyclopedia of gardening and Percy Thrower’s Garden Notebook to Percy Thrower’s How to Grow vegetables and Fruit. They were all best-sellers.

Scan 1

Percy and Connie at the gates of “The Magnolias” 1975  from Timothy O’Sullivan Percy Thrower: A Biography

At the same time as all this, he was still running Shrewsbury’s Parks Department, but also  planning for life after retirement. He and Connie bought land on a hillside at Bomere Heath outside Shrewsbury, then designed  and built a new house – ‘The Magnolias’ – where, of course, he designed a garden. The  name was chosen by them from suggestions sent in by   his readers in Amateur Gardening. [‘The Magnolias’ also merits a post of its own one day].

Percy & Connie at home BBC2

Percy & Connie at home
BBC2

 

 

 

 

 

 

from Percy Thrower's Picture Book of Gardening, 1963

from Percy Thrower’s Picture Book of Gardening, 1963

Percy Thrower was the voice of British gardening in the 1960s and 1970s. He helped take it out of the age of austerity into the age of consumerism – indeed, as we will see in the next post, he capitalised on his name and reputation to venture into  business on his own account. After his wartime days teaching people to grow potatoes instead of lawns now he showed them how to use the garden in a different way even if he did do it wearing a 3 piece suit and good shoes while working.

from Percy Thrower's Picture Book of Gardening, 1963

from Percy Thrower’s Picture Book of Gardening, 1963

from Percy Thrower's Picture Book of Gardening, 1963

from Percy Thrower’s Picture Book of Gardening, 1963

He could do this seemingly without either getting dirty or losing credibility  because as Alan Titchmarsh said in a centenary tribute in 2013:  “Percy absolutely reeked of experience… I don’t think he had blood, he had sap in his veins.”

from Percy Thrower's Picture Book of Gardening, 1963

from Percy Thrower’s Picture Book of Gardening, 1963

But notice even Percy relaxed the rules just a little when mowing the lawn!

About Parks and Gardens UK

Parks & Gardens UK is the leading on-line resource for historic parks and gardens providing freely accessible, accurate and inspiring information on UK parks, gardens and designed landscapes. Email - info@parksandgardens.org. Website - www.parksandgardens.org
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