51 years ago in May and June 1968 there was a revolution in Britain. It did not include rioting students on the streets as in Paris but took place in the grounds of one of Britain’s grandest stately homes, Syon Park in Middlesex. 55 acres of the Duke of Northumberland’s estate was set aside “for the establishment of a National Centre for Gardening, where all that is best in British horticulture will be on permanent display.” It was Britain’s first garden centre.
Plans for this had been announced in 1965 when the 10th Duke went into partnership with ICI. They were soon joined in this venture by Percy Thrower, “known to millions of people in Britain as a broadcaster and writer on gardening topics” who became a director of The Gardening Centre Ltd, and by Roy Hay, gardening correspondent of The Times, who chaired the advisory committee to set it up.
ICI asked Percy to check the site out and he reported back that “the gardens were neglected and the lake and woodlands overgrown and untidy. Yet I saw the site and its amenities certainly held the potential for a large garden centre providing sufficient money was forthcoming for extensive redevelopment.”
It was enough to convince ICI to come up with the cash. One of their subsidiaries Plant Protection Ltd leased 50 acres from the Duke and together they formed a company called The Gardening Centre, with the Duke having 25% of the shares, around 20% coming from outside investors and ICI holding the rest.
Most of the information and images for this post came from British Newspaper Archives, the Guidebook to the National Gardening Centre, Historic England’s Register of Parks and Gardens, and two short films, one, Garden Revolution, by Pathe News and the other, A Visit to Syon, made by ICI.
Syon had a long and illustrious history in horticultural terms. The house had been built by the Duke of Somerset, the Lord Protector of Edward VI, between 1547 and 1552, on the site of a monastery suppressed by Henry VIII. The Duke was executed in 1552 but not before he had the garden laid out by William Turner, the “Father of English Botany”. But it was the 1st Duke of Northumberland who was responsible for much of what can be seen today when he called in the Adam brothers to remodel the house and Capability Brown to landscape the grounds and create the lake between 1767 and 1773.
The Great Conservatory was added for the 3rd Duke of Northumberland by Charles Fowler in the 1820s with advice from Robert Forrest the head gardener, and this was to figure as one of the centrepieces of the National Gardening Centre. Fowler also designed the Riding School which was to form the Selling Area of the Gardening Centre, and remains the garden centre today.
As with almost all other grand gardens Syon began to fall into disrepair with labour shortages following the first world war, and death duties following the second world war. The 10th Duke was faced with an uphill task to maintain Syon, given that he also had Alnwick to care for as well.
He had already opened the house and grounds to the public as early as 1951 but despite that there was clearly insufficient money to maintain the gardens and grounds, to say nothing of the house itself. The kitchen garden was sold off in 1962 for housing and the idea for a National Gardening Centre was first mooted in 1964 must have been part of a long term vision for planing to restoring Syon and making it a viable proposition in the modern world.
James Gardener was appointed the overall designer for the site. He had previously worked as chief designer with Russell Page on the Festival of Britain gardens at Battersea, but I can find very little more about him. Edward Hyams writing in Illustrated London Life in July 1965 said Gardener “has a gift in industrial design for respecting the best artefacts of the past without rejecting the sort of ideas which belong in 1965… and even perhaps 1975.” Page himself was retained as a consultant and says Hyams “this will ensure there will be a proper understanding of what the home-owning gardener of 1965-75 requires, rather than what his grandfather required.” However in the guidebook and Pathe News film about the opening neither Gardener or Page is mentioned, instead it is Thrower and Jim Middleton who seem to get the credit.
Work for the Gardening Centre started in 1965 and continued non-stop until just before it opened in 1968. “As far as possible the landscape was left undisturbed” says Percy Thrower in his autobiography. That may be the case but there was still a huge amount of upheaval.
Apart from clearing trees, dredging the lake, roads and four miles of gravel paths had to be laid down, as well as a series of new show and demonstration gardens put in place.
Furthermore, since Syon’s location between central London and Heathrow allowed the centre to aim at being a national showcase for the horticultural trade, a whole range of buildings were constructed to house permanent displays of machinery, equipment and every other kind of gardening requisite imaginable, as well as a conference centre, cinema, meeting rooms and the inevitable cafes and catering facilities.
They were unfortunately “utilitarian” rather than in any sense “complementary” to the existing estate outbuildings, although “the selling area” was in the converted and extended stable block. Altogether around £500,000 was invested in the centre – doesn’t sound much now but we are talking 50 years ago- and by way of comparison an entry ticket cost 5 shillings.
The gardens were not, as in many garden centres today, just a superficial add-on, but based on the existing extensive formal gardens and parkland. In the guidebook Percy Thrower picked out seasonal highlights around the grounds and explaining how the gardens were being restored and enhanced.
One area where this happened was Flora’s Lawn with its 18thc Doric column topped by the goddess Flora. According to Historic England the statue was restored at this time, but the publicity film says that the statue is fibreglass!
The lawn itself had “been reclaimed from grass in a very run down condition” and now contained “hardy herbaceous beds which are devoted to the new lower-growing varieties of old favourites such as delphiniums, phlox, perennial asters and red hot pokers. The work of staking and tying…is almost done away with…” However Edward Hyams in Illustrated London Life was “disconcerted by the shapes of the cut-out flower beds” which he thought could not be original in design since “they ought not to look like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.”
Grandest of all the additions was a new rose garden – “unique in Britain” – with “intoxicating scents and a sheet of colour from over 12,000 roses.” It extended over 6 acres with 500 varieties chosen from about 20 growers.
The main lake, created by Capability Brown by shifting a million or so cubic feet of earth was cleaned out and edged with an 8ft high bank to prevent flooding from the Thames. The Gardening Centre saw themselves “as heir to this splendid stretch of water” and was “determined to do it full justice.” It was restocked with water and marginal plants including”the first ever national collection of waterlilies.”
Barbara Hepworth’s suggestion of a Sculpture garden was also adopted, and included 9 of her own works set up on the lawn for the first year, although it was hoped that other artists work would be shown in the future.
Meanwhile Fowler’s great conservatory was full of displays of indoor and greenhouse plants…
and a rockery was built to show off orchids.
But the designers were aware of the need not just to show off but to cater for the needs of the amateur small-garden owner, so there were a series of individual model gardens.
The leading women’s magazine of the day, Woman’s Realm, sponsored a garden designed by Violet Stephenson as “living answer to the thousands of letters she receives as gardening editor. It shows examples of every kind of garden – lawns, roses, cut-flower borders, fruit and vegetables, alpines, shrubs, grey and silver plants, shade plants, pools and patios.” These laid out over 5 sections totalling 12,000 sq ft.
Another was “an Electric garden with its fascinating labour-saving ideas” showing how it is possible to water and cut the lawn, trim the hedges, till the borders, raise greenhouse crops and do many other jobs at the flick of a switch.” The Wilkinson Sword Garden, on the other hand was “designed for upkeep with a range of well-designed hand tools”.
There was also an allotment garden the size of an average plot – 50 ft x 110ft, based on the “continental style” which included a grass play area for children.
The Garden Centre was finally officially opened by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother on 12 June 1968 and you can hear part of her speech on the film A Visit to Syon.
The opening year or 2 were very successful, if for no other reason than novelty. To quote the guide book “the idea of the garden as an extension to the house – an extra living area for all the family – is catching on fast” and with it came ” a demand for all kinds of furnishings to make the garden more habitable”.
Syon made it simple to select all of these since “they are all on view together in the Ornamental Walk exhibition” where “among the displays are furniture, fencing and natural and artificial paving and walling; modern and antique ornaments and garden statuary; ironwork; plant pots, troughs and urns in many different materials and designs; fountains and waterfalls; swimming pools and numerous other products for garden use.” This was all designed to “give you a better opportunity to how they will visualise how they will look in your own garden. You can inspect and compare at your leisure and make your own choice without interference. There are no salesmen on these stands.”
There was a separate pavilion for Gardening Products. It had a floor area of 18,000 sq ft where visitors could inspect and compare a vast array of tools, furniture, fertilizers, weedkillers, pots and bowls, cloches, heaters, sprayers, hoses, incinerators, nesting-boxes, thermometers”- in fact – “almost anything you care to name” because ” nowhere in the world probably has such a wide range of gardening equipment… assembled under one roof.” Again there were no salesmen on the stands but most of the items could be bought in the Selling Centre or ordered for later delivery.
And if that wasn’t enough there was a garden machinery hall where there were displays of “powered lawn-mowers” but because “millions of gardeners…are now thinking in terms of machinery for other garden tasks” there were also hedge-cutters, edge-trimmers, diggers, saws and leaf-sweepers.
Garden Buildings were not neglected. Chalets, sheds, summer-houses, home extensions and greenhouses in a “bewildering selection had all been sited in the grounds so the visitor could judge for themselves how any particular building will fit into their own gardens.”
At the end of their visit it was expected that most gardeners would be “seething with ideas” and “putting them into action is a very simple matter indeed” because before you could leave you had to pass through the Selling Area where nearly everything the visitor might have seen was available for purchase. Unlike a traditional nursery Plants were available “ready to carry away in container” and a “dazzling collection of house and greenhouse plants, all for sale ” was on show in the greenhouses…
…which in turn led to “the supermarket – containing what is probably Britains most comprehensive collection of gardening aids, from fertilizers and pesticides to tree ties and horticultural books.” There was also gift shop, a bank branch and the Duke’s State Coach.
You could also get advice from the experts…
On the opening day there were 750 visitors, but thereafter numbers topped a thousand a day and the ultimate goal was a million a year.
“The whole venture” was thought Edward Hyams “one of those rare enterprises in which commercial, social and aesthetic purposes are all equally well served and it deserves to be a great success.”
Unfortunately before too long things seem to go wrong. Percy Thrower attributed this to it being top heavy with non-productive managers and not enough emphasis on the practicalities. As costs of maintaining 55 acres of grounds increased and visitor numbers did not rise as anticipated the centre moved from profit into the red. ICI soon tried to get out and eventually in Dec 1972 the Duke took over full control presumably buying back the ICI shares.
Thrower left the board at the point but he noted very astutely that the Duke had done quite well out of the venture despite all the problems, because there had been a major investment in the estate and the grounds were once more back in reasonable shape.
Other attractions began to appear to try and maximise income. A motor museum and motor shows, a butterfly house, aviary, aquarium, craft and antique fairs, conferences of all kinds and the site even provided a temporary home for the London Transport Museum while its new home in Covent Garden was being converted. But by the mid-1970s the National Gardening Centre had virtually disappeared from the press, and eventually the Syon estate took back the management of the formal gardens, most of the modern buildings and other features were removed, and the garden centre shrank to a small part of the site where it still exists now run by Wyevale.