Pre-Covid I was looking for material for a post on Winifred Walker, the botanical artist and discovered that one of the companies who commissioned her flower paintings was Ryders of St Albans. That name sounded familiar but didn’t ring any horticultural bells so I set off down a side-track to see what was known about them too. It was well worth the detour.
Looking back it’s a pity that my brother, a super-keen golfer, wasn’t with me because he’d have told me immediately why the name Ryder was familiar. I decided to leace reporting what I found until the next time the other Ryder Cup happened which apparently it did last week….
The story of both Ryder Cups begins in Walton-le-Dale, on the other side of the river Ribble to Preston in Lancashire. It was there in 1858 that Samuel Ryder was born, the fourth in a family of 8 children. When Samuel was 3 his father, also Samuel, who was a gardener and Methodist lay preacher, and his mother, Elizabeth, a dress maker moved to Sale on the southern outskirts of Manchester. The railway had arrived there a few years earlier and lead to an influx of middle class residents many of whom commuted into nearby Manchester. The town was booming and the Ryders opened a market garden.
Young Samuel grew up attending chapel regularly, taking an interest in music and sport and at 17 becoming a Sunday School teacher. All this helped develop a strong philanthropic streak. After school he initially began to train as a teacher but failed to complete the course because of ill health. Instead he joined a Manchester shipping firm but by the 1881 census he was working as a nurseryman in his father’s business, which had expanded to include selling ornamental plants and seeds. Father and son went into a formal business partnership as Ryder and Son, issuing catalogues and presumably selling by mail order.
Samuel also turned his attention to writing some short guides to successful growing which were published by the company. “How to grow roses in the garden and in pots under glass” came out in 1885, with another edition in 1888, “How to grow Tuberous Begonias” followed in 1890 and “Successful Chrysanthemum Culture” in 1891.
The partnership was dissolved by mutual consent in November 1890 – probably because Samuel senior retired – but despite the official announcement in the London Gazette that the business would be continued by Sam’s brother John Ryder and Alfred Jones, both described as nurserymen, it looks as if Samuel junior retained a stake in the company.
Earlier that year he had married Helen Barnard, who came from Bishops Stortford. By the 1891 census he is described as seedsman and local preacher in Tottenham then a village on the northern fringes of London and not that far from Stortford. Still trading as Ryder and Son he took premises on the Strand almost next door to the Royal Courts of Justice. Was he getting seeds to sell there from his brother in Sale?
Unfortunately things must have gone wrong and in 1893, when the couple have two young daughters, there is an order in bankruptcy against him. The evidence suggests that he was also still involved with the Sale nursery, and was also acting as an auctioneer! In 1898 his application for discharged from bankruptcy was agreed but suspended for two years until August 1900 because his “assets are not of a value equal to 10 shillings in the pound on the amount of his unsecured liabilities”.
It looks as if Samuel had burnt his fingers, but he soon began again.
He had to find a way of selling seeds that would work, and that meant being inventive. I’ve written about Carters, the largest seed company of the day who had pioneered selling seeds and plants by mail order in the 1880s but Samuel realised they didn’t have much competition, and like most seedsmen Carters sold in quantities too large for most people who only required a very small amount of anyone variety. His plan was simple: he would make a special feature of small packets costing just one penny. After all as the slogan went “if a Pennyworth is enough, why buy more ?”
For this to be a viable proposition he realised he needed to have a base with access to good postal and rail links. That turned out to be St Albans which had at the time, three railways stations on different lines which as Samuel himself put it “from my point of view …the centre of the kingdom.” He and Helen, or Nellie as she was usually known, moved there with two young daughters in 1895. They began in a very small way buying seed in bulk and making up their penny packets in a shed in the back garden of their small terraced house.
Their next step was to print a catalogue that was sent out on Friday nights, because the the postal service was then so efficient it would drop through letterboxes on Saturdays in time for most workmen’s half-day holiday.
Within a short time the business began to take off and they had to move from their shed into proper business premises – a former Unitarian chapel – and take on staff to help with the sorting, packing and dispatching.
By the time of the 1901 census Sam and Nellie moved round the corner to a larger house as well. Amongst his respectable neighbours there were was an architect named Percy Blow.
Within 8 years the company were employing 90 women to pack and despatch the orders which were coming in at the rate of about 2,000 a day. This meant further expansion. He acquired a building on Holywell Hill in the centre of the city, which Blow rebuilt in the Arts and Crafts style. Costing £6000 it became their Head Office. Buried under the foundations of what is now a hotel is a bottle containing packets of seeds, a seed catalogue and a history of the firm.
By 1910 Ryders were sending out a million copies of their catalogue all over the world, and an average of 10,000 seed packets in a 12 hour day.
Conditions during the First World War forced them to raise their prices to a penny halfpenny a packet but it did not stop their growth.
It appears that Ryder travelled the world including British Columbia and California, as well as many of the British colonies, looking for alternative places to obtain seeds which he had previously sourced in Germany and they began exporting overseas, although not on the same scale as their rivals Carters and Suttons.
As the expansion continued Samuel decided to take the company public and in 1920 formed Ryder and Sons  Ltd. The premises and workforce continued to expand until by 1922 there were 300 staff. Their slogan became Seeds by Return with a 24 hour turn around. They diversified fast supplying bulbs, plants and even garden tools, and seeing local agents and shops to sell direct to the public rather than by mail order.
They also embarked on a large-scale advertising campaign in both the gardening and popular press, on occasions taking the front page of the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail and Daily News. This was coupled with competitions and prizes at Flower shows for exhibitors who had grown their entries with Ryders seeds…. and they presented a silver challenge cup “to the most meritorious winner of the prizes. This will be regarded as the unofficial open champion Cup of Gardening.”
They sought local agents to sell their seeds direct from shops. There were free gifts too. A garden-related print for framing, including some of paintings by Winifred Walker the then well-known artist who’s work was used on some of their catalogues and seed packets, was sent free for all orders over £1.
Next on the cards was a specially designed exhibition hall next door to showcase their products. Likened to a miniature Crystal Palace it was also designed by Percy Blow and opened in 1931. Like the offices it is now Grade 2 listed.
There were two more major expansions of the Ryder empire. Samuel’s brother James, who had become a teacher in London, retired through ill health in 1920 and Samuel helped him set up a parallel business Heath and Heather which promoted herbalism.
Using the same techniques as the seed company and the slogan “Nothing but the Best” in a few years it became the largest herbal business in Europe.
The other was the acquisition in 1934 of impressive trial grounds complete with a range of greenhouses between St Albans and Hatfield, where they could grown their own seed and test new varieties.
Meanwhile, alongside all this, Samuel’s public-spiritedness became clear. A lifelong pillar of nonconformity he helped found Trinity Congregational Church, in St Albans, and later gave a furnished house for the use of the minister there. He also gave the land for a new Primitive Methodist chapel and helped build the Salvation Army Citadel. He supported a wide range of local charities often staging fund-raising events such as concerts and fetes in the garden of his home. One of them was the local St Albans Horticultural Society which elected him President and he presented them with another cup for gardening. [This is the one that I originally heard about – see below for more about it]
His beliefs and outlook on life made him a natural member of the Liberal Party, and he was elected to the City Council in 1903, and two years later was elected Mayor. He then became an alderman and served on the magistrate’s bench remaining on the council until 1916.
Ryder was an exemplary employer for the time, probably because like the great Quaker families such as Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree, his nonconformity did not see business and religion as separate but as an integral part of the way he lived his life.
There was a strong commitment to welfare which was unusual for the time, for example Ryders paid wages when workers were off sick. Like all good employment practice this paid off because for every job that came up with the firm there were about 20 applicants.
There was one downside to all the success It took a toll on his health. The Minister of Trinity Church, his friend and the minister at Trinity, Rev Frank Wheeler, persuaded him to get out into the fresh air and get more exercise, suggesting perhaps that he try golf. Sam took his advice and quickly seems to have become addicted. He joined the local club and within a short time was made captain.
He might have been keen but apparently he was never a very good player even after hiring Abe Mitchell, a professional golfer, to be his personal coach and spending large sums expanding both the club’s premises and its course.
Over time golf became a more and more important part of Samuel’s, and indeed James’ life. The brothers discovered that few British players competed internationally because the sport was dominated by Americans who were well supported financially by wealthy fans. The Ryders responded by looking for ways to match that and to encourage talented golfers to turn professional. Heath & Heather sponsored the first tournament to be open only to professional players and then Samuel proposed a challenge match between the United States and Great Britain & Ireland. This first took place in 1927 and was to become a biennial event for a trophy given by Samuel and now known as The Ryder Cup.
Samuel and Nellie had 3 daughters and it was of them, Joan, who was bought onto the board in 1933 and took over the day-to-day management of the business, after her father’s death. He caught pneumonia at Christmas 1935 and died in January 1936. After his funeral at Trinity Congregational Church, St Albans, he was buried with his favourite golf club in his coffin.
Joan saw the company through the war, and continued running it until she retired in 1966. She then sold her interest in Ryders Seeds to Cuthberts who were themselves later taken over by Suttons who themselves have changed hands several times since. Ryders were still advertising in 1969, although on a much smaller scale, but were closed down in 1971 and the name disappeared. Heath and Heather was eventually acquired by Holland and Barrett. They in turn have changed hands several times and are currently I think owned by an American private equity firm The Carlyle Group.
My initial on-line research for the Gardening Cup took me to the website of the Cottonmill & Nunnery Allotment Association, the umbrella organization for several allotment sites in St Albans. There on their Facebook page was the news that Scott & Erica Weindorf were presented with a prize cup by Adam Wrigglesworth, director of Ayletts Nurseries. And not just any old cup but the Ryder Cup for Gardening. It transpired that when the Horticultural Society was wound up it found its way to Ayletts, a local nursery, for safe storage. Almost inevitably it was then forgotten about. When it was rediscovered the nursery offered it to the allotment group as an annual prize – a really good way of remembering Samuel Ryder and his seed company. But does anyone know what happened to the Silver Challenge Cup?
It is extraordinary that a major company like Ryders can disappear almost without trace, although I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised given what happened to Carters, Cuthberts Suttons and many other seed companies. For what little there is, a good place to start is the Foundation’s website. Although I can’t find any digitised copies of the company’s catalogues a number of them are available in the RHS Lindley Library London, and others in the library of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.
Ryder’s story is briefly told in many golf-related websites and books, all repeating the same basic few bits of information probably based on the entry in the Dictionary of National Biography entry. There is a biography published in 2000 by the golfer Peter Fry, but I’m afraid its not very good and Sam Ryder deserves a lot better, so I hope there’s a keen researcher out there looking for a project!