In a recent post we saw Carters establish themselves as the premier seed company in Britain and then one of the leading seed brands globally. This prominence continued throughout the first half of the 20thc, but then things started to go slightly awry until suddenly in the late 1960s the company was sold up and gradually descended into limbo.
To catch up on the previous post see http://wp.me/p4brf0-zr7
Then read on to find out more about the good times and then about the surprising decline and virtual disappearance of James Carter’s once global enterprise….
As the company expanded they began issuing a range of catalogues for every aspect of their business, and although the packeted seed was not the most profitable part, it continued to be best known publicly. Carters exhibited at every major horticultural show, and regularly won armfuls of cups and medals at all of them, which of course gave a great boost to their advertising potential.
But its most profitable sector was its involvement in the agricultural and ‘leisure’ markets. Carters provided top quality grass seed for pasture, specialist grass seed for tennis courts, golf courses, sports fields as well as bulk seed for farmers.
In 1930 the Dunnett and Beale families who had controlled the company since the mid-19thc decided take it public. The retail side of the business was officially renamed Carters Tested Seeds, building on their long established reputation for quality, although the wholesale side continued to be styled James Carter, Dunnett & Beale. Despite the flotation Carters effectively remained a family business with the two families staying firmly in the driving seat, and William Dunnett as Managing Director.
The company then embarked on yet further ambitious expansion. The catalogue – previously known as the Vade Mecum – became The Blue Book of Gardening, although it was still stuffed with advice on every aspect of horticulture for the amateur grower. By 1937, their centenary year, the Blue Book was a hardback reaching 415 pages, full of photos including many in colour. Since that was also coronation year it featured lots of suggestions for coronation displays using red white & blue flowers.
By now Carters had a garden design service, made flower perfumes, designed and planted golf courses, and offered an extraordinary range of garden sundries many of which appear to have been developed in-house using their large technical and scientific team.
Adverts in the Blue Book show they sold products as widely diverse as worm killer to deal with “the worst pest that attack turf”, and Carterite that killed daisies, and were not shy of using references from satisfied customers.
There was a whole series of publications on how to upkeep bowling greens, tennis courts, polo grounds and cricket fields, how to grow a wide range of plants including forage crops, bulbs, sweet peas and carnations. Their seed was used to sow Wimbledon, Lords and the Oval amongst many other prestigious venues.
Looking through the vast array of seeds on offer in those early Blue Books there were some “uncommon vegetables”, including calabrese, sweet corn, New Zealand spinach, yellow tomatoes [“which when preserved with sugar are not unlike apricot jam”] physalis, cardoon, chinese cabbage, capsicum, and even okra. They also sold mushroom spawns in ‘brick’ form.
The flower seeds were equally diverse, but what is most noticeable is the range of flowers that are no longer popular, particularly those that require greenhouse conditions. Many of these were developed as part of a specialist breeding programme done in-house by their technical staff. Who now grows calceolaria or gloxinia for example? Yet Carters could offer the seed of many varieties of these and similar plants and mount splendid exhibitions of them at horticultural shows all over the country.
They sold garden tools, sheds and frames, hose, netting, and even took adverts from other companies whose products they did not sell themselves.
At their Raynes Park base which they had bought in 1910, Carters went to town. They built a grand new head office, together with greenhouses, trial gardens, packing and despatch facilities.
By now they had expanded from one to four shops in London. Can you imagine a seed company having any sort of stand-alone presence on any high street these days let alone in major shopping areas such as Regent Street?
They continued diversifying, setting up a large and pioneering bedding plant nursery nearby to cater for the increasing demand for mail-order plants. Their Perry Hill site had over a hundred staff who ran six large [150 x 20 ft] glasshouses each of which could contain 100,000 plants.
With the outbreak of the Second World War Carters continued to produce the Blue Book but as National Emergency Editions with a much greater emphasis on vegetable growing. The 1940 edition was only a quarter of the size of its predecessors but still substantial at 120 pages and with lots of photos. Those issued in 1941 and 1942 were slightly smaller but still ran to 96 pages. By 1946, however, when the war had been won the situation was much much worse, as it was in almost every other area of life. Paper rationing reduced the size of the catalogue to just 48 pages with not a photograph in sight. The fact that it was called “ A Gayer Garden for Peacetime” was, to put it mildly, slightly ironic!
The Annual Reports during the 1950s present an optimistic picture. The company’s chairman, Sir Arthur Vere Harvey, a Tory MP, warned of increasing costs but still reported profits which reached [don’t laugh!] a record £147,000 in 1957. By way of comparison there were reserves totalling £575,000 and assets including their land and HQ worth £108,000.
By 1959 profits were down to £67,000 because of continually increasing expenses but also because “seed prices were in general too low, and had increased in price much less than any other commodity.” Harvey went on to explain that popular flower and vegetable seeds were less than double pre-war prices whereas in many other trades prices had increased 3 or 4 fold.
The Sixties were, however, not a good time for companies like Carters. Profits continued to fall. In 1962 they had dropped to £27,000 after tax. Like other great horticultural names including Rochfords and Veitches they simply couldn’t compete with cheaper foreign imports. Their overseas markets had dried up as former colonies developed their own indigenous agricultural and horticultural sectors, and as the founding families ran out of steam or decided to capitalize on their assets while they could.
The leases on some of the shops were surrendered as they expired, or like the one at 134 Regent St was sold and a cheaper one taken near Victoria. Despite the chair claiming this ” will be one of the most significant events in the recent history of the company as [the surplus cash] will allow the opportunity to expand the business in ways which would not otherwise be possible.” profits continued to fall. By 1965 they were down to £9,000. Nevertheless the directors continued to try new ideas . They opened one of the earliest garden centres “as a retail sales outlet for all gardening requisites…” and it quickly showed “every sign of making a satisfactory contribution to future profits”. They also introduced the idea of garden vouchers in 1966, and in 1968 were reported as still producing new greenhouse novelties such as gerberas. [Times 13/1/68]
Yet this must still have been too optimistic because in May 1966 the directors sold up to the equivalent of a modern private equity firm which valued the company at about £900,000. A few months later it was sold again and merged with their erstwhile rivals Cuthberts. The Raynes Park site was put up for sale and bought by Merton Council, and uickly cleared and redeveloped as housing.
Cuthberts Seeds was another long established family firm, founded in 1797. Like Carters, they struggled in difficult market conditions and the family had been bought out in 1933. Four years later under their new owners they formed strong links with Woolworth which carried them through until Woolworths itself went under. [see post http://wp.me/p4brf0-vKp%5D.
As a result Cuthberts looked strong. Just before acquiring Carters they had taken over Dobies Seeds. but appearances were deceptive and it wasnt long before the new combined seed group was itself taken over before eventually ending up as part of Airwick [remember them?] who were themselves bought out in 1985 by Reckitt and Colman.
Yet all this while Carters drifted on. Books continued to be produced under the Carters name, with “advice from the technical staff”. In 1972 they introduced Floraband seed tapes [Times 5th Feb 1972] and were reported as “concentrating their business on the sales of packeted seeds” with their varieties being listed in the Dobies catalogue with all the mail order being handled by Dobies too. But the Blue Blook of Gardening advice was still being issued as late as 1970 and free of charge from a POBox in Raynes Park. But really by this stage Carters was merely a brand name and the real company was dead on its feet.
Since then the brand has changed hands several times, and was until recently part of Vilmorin, the giant French horticultural group, which in turn itself soon became merely a small part of Limagrain a vast global agribusiness. In 2014 there was one final turnaround with a management buy-out of the Torquay-based Sutton group which by then included both Carters and Cuthberts as trade names. When Sutton achieved independence once more, Carters was resurrected to serve as a convenient and well known label for a range of bargain basement seeds sold in shops like Poundland , while the Sutton name has been maintained for more upmarket products. What a depressing end to James Carters’s conquest of the worldwide seed market!
The few remains of Carters archives are held at Reading University’s Museum of English Rural Life. They mainly comprise some 388 different advertising publications for 1877-1968, and some photographs taken at Raynes Park by Mrs. E.M. Jowett, an employee. Merton Council have a further small photo archive whilst the V&A also hold a surprising collection of the artwork for 162 designs of seed packets .
Further details of the various archives can be found at:
The 1914 catalogue is at http://mertzdigital.nybg.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15121coll8/id/10918
There are lots of photos of the Raynes Park site at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pete_edgeler/sets/72157627540667542/