Wherever you live in the world if you are a gardener ‘of a certain age’ then you’re bound to remember Carters Tested Seeds. They were one of the great horticultural institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries. But where are they now?
When I was a child and first learning about gardening my grandparents had an allotment where I was allowed a little patch of ground on which to grow plants.
We would go to the local seedsman and nursery sundries shop – Roses in Farnham – and choose a few packets from the colourful display of Carters seeds. If we went to London by train we would travel past their nursery and trial grounds on the south western outskirts so it was very sad when, in the late 60s and I had begun commuting, that these were sold off and built over, and Carters seemed to vanish.
Of course the company didn’t disappear completely, as you will see, but I was reminded of Carters a few months back when when writing a post about sweet peas. [Catch up on that at http://wp.me/p4brf0-vyp] That’s because the founder of the firm, James Carter seems to have been a pioneer in hybridizing them to sell from his shop on High Holborn.
It made me investigate a little further, so read on to find out more about the rise and rise and then the Cheshire-Cat-like disappearance of this pioneering and iconic firm of seedsmen .
There is surprisingly little known about the origins of Carter’s. We know that James Carter was born in 1797, and by 1835 was apparently acting as an agent for a German seed company, Rahmann and Mohring, in London. We know too that in 1837, the year Queen Victoria ascended the throne, he issued a printed catalogue of his own and had a shop at 238 High Holborn in central London. After that things become a little less clear.
[If you want to know why then read on, otherwise skip the next paragraph if you want!]
Most of the firm’s surviving archives are held by the Museum of English Rural Life. Their overview says: “the earliest reference to Carters, as mentioned in their publicity, is in an 1804 London directory…. A partnership, styled James Carter & Co., was eventually formed including William Herbert Dunnett and Edward John Beale, being continued by these two partners after Carter’s death.” An alternative version is given by Judith Taylor in Visions of Loveliness: Great Flower Breeders of the Past . She states that it was Dunnett and Beale who were mentioned in the 1804 directory, and that Carter bought their business and changed the name to James Carter & Co. If it was really Dunnett and Beale mentioned in 1804 [and I haven’t been able to trace the unnamed directory in question to check] then it was certainly not the same D&B who ended up running the company later. Their obituaries show them to have been born in around 1827 and 1836 respectively, and Beale’s is very clear that he had started as an employee of Carters. Another possibility is that there was more than one generation of D&B’s and that Carter may have dealt with the older generation and then employed the younger. However, he is very unlikely to have entered into a business partnership with Beale who was only 19 or 20 when Carter died in 1855.
All we can say with certainty is that by the mid-19thc the business somehow eventually came into the hands of William Herbert Dunnett and Edward John Beale, and that they ran it as James Carter, Dunnettand Beale or sometimes just J.Carter & Co.
Carter’s firm was one of many seedsmen in London in the early/mid 19thc, but it rose to prominence because of the sweet pea! As explained in that earlier post Carter himself had tried hybridizing sweet peas but also promoted several new forms of the flower bred by amateur gardeners, including the famous Scarlet Invincible. This and several other new colour variations led the way in making the sweet pea the most popular flower of mid-19thc Britain. It remained one of the company’s most popular lines until well into the 20thc. [For more on Carter and the sweet pea see: http://wp.me/p4brf0-vyp]
However even from the early days James Carter’s catalogues contained a vast range of seeds, with over a thousand sorts of flowers as well as vegetable and agricultural seeds.
The business thrived, and by the later decades of the 19thc Carters was amongst the leading seedsmen in the country. One of the main reasons for this was that, along with Martin Sutton who ran their great rival Suttons, Carters prided themselves on their quality control. One of the great problems with the seed trade generally was that it was very easy for unscrupulous growers and stockists to adulterate their supplies with old seed or even weed seed to bulk it up.
Carter’s tackled this problem in several ways. Firstly they grew most of their own seed on four farms in Essex. William Dunnett who was from Essex himself and described as a farmer in 1863, seems to have taken charge of this aspect of the business, and lived nearby at Dedham. To give some idea of the scale of the operation 70 acres were used for growing beans of all kinds, 96 acres for growing cabbages, and no less than 814 acres for peas.
Next was to maintain their own high commercial standards. One way to guarantee that the seed was actually theirs was to sell it only in sacks or packets sealed with a company tag. Another, once photographs were in widespread use ,was to to be transparent about the seed packing process. All of this was backed up by registering clear trademarks and rigorously defending them.
But for Carters this wasn’t enough, and they joined with other reputable firms such as Suttons to press for changes in legislation to make illegal the adulteration and cheating of various kinds that had long been carried out by unscrupulous sellers. In this it was Edward Beale who took the lead. Beale was one of those who campaigned strongly for the Seed Adulteration Act of 1869, although in the end it wasn’t particularly effective as there was no-one responsible for enforcing it. Nevertheless by offering guarantees of quality, firms like Carters and Suttons established a strong hold in the market.
In a letter to The Times in 1877 Carters said “the farmer need never fear getting adulterated seeds from respectable houses, as it is in the interests of the seedsman of reputation to exercise his technical knowledge for the benefit of his customer, otherwise the customer becomes dissatisfied, and when this is multiplied the seedsman loses his reputation.” They followed the same line in their catalogues, with a ‘handwritten’ and ‘personal’ appeal to the reader.
During the 1860s and 1870s the agricultural side of the business grew rapidly under Beale’s direction, and as his obituary in 1902 said “it was largely due to his business capacity and abilities that the firm has reached its present dimensions.” [Gardeners’ Chronicle, 18th Jan 1902]
As can be seen from their advertising Carters exported vast quantities of seed of all kinds all over the British empire, and in fact they became the principal exporter of pasture grasses globally. Of course it helped that they could say they supplied the seed for the Oval cricket ground and other great sporting venues.
But through Carters British colonies could also buy vegetable seeds to develop their own agriculture, and flower seeds to create English gardens in every corner of the world. The company became big enough to be able to supply large quantities as short notice such 1,000 tons of seed potatoes during the time of the Irish Famine, 200 tons of carrot seeds for alleviating a famine in India, or 10,000 bushels of English seed barley to replenish the Canadian governments stocks following a poor harvest. All of which earned them thanks from, and renown with, governments, and all of which could be exploited in their publicity.
You get a real sense of Carter’s complete ubiquity when you read their claim that “the reputation of Carter’s seeds has reached wherever the touch of an Englishman’s hand is to be found” For example, Henry Stanley’s expedition to Central Africa not only explored but distributed “Carters pure English seed among the native tribes.”
But at the same time they appealed to the amateur gardener at home. Not just with the huge range of seeds, bulbs roots and sundries but with lots of special offers and economy buys.
There were seed boxes targeted at differing sizes of gardens and differing sorts of gardener. They went from the 12s 6d box for a cottage gardener, via the 31s 6d selection for “a villa garden” to the 105s box for a hotel or public institution.
Carters exploited the still expanding railway network for easy delivery so that customers could collect from their nearest railway station but they also introduced a comprehensive mail order service for those who live to far to away to do that. By the 1880s they were claiming nearly 70,000 regular customers.
And all the time they were innovating. New varieties came out in every catalogue. They exhibited regularly and scooped up prizes nationally and internationally. Plants which then fashionable like gloxinias, cinerarias, calceolarias were especial favourites. As far as I can see the only thing Carter’s did not do was what the Veitch nurseries did with such success, and that is send out plant hunters.
Their annual catalogue was soon much more than just a list of available seeds.It included bulbs, and roots as well as a large range of garden sundries. As the years went by they also kept up with the latest printing technology. Soon it wasn’t even called a catalogue but The Gardener’s Vade Mecum, and was full of advice on many aspects of gardening.
All this earned them patronage by European royalty including the Kings of Italy and Portugal, as well as the Ottoman Sultan. They became seedsmen by appointment to both the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria herself. They then traded on these connections very effectively as they began to expand into the American market, taking over companies such as Thorburns of Boston and establishing an office there. To see some of their American catalogues follow this link to the Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium. Ethel Z. Bailey Horticultural Catalogue Collection
Dunnett retired from active involvement prob in the 1880s. Beale remained senior partner until he died in 1902 and his three sons took over. By then Carters had outgrown their premises and had to expand and although they kept the Holborn shop – and the one next door – they opened new nursery grounds in Forest Hill, in south east London where they grew and tested their own range of seeds.
Even this proved insufficient space, and in 1910 they did what all nurserymen do, sold their land for development and moved yet further out, acquiring a 19 acre site at Raynes Park in south west London adjacent to the main London-Portsmouth railway line.
More about this and their 20th century successes in another post soon.