Weeke local History - Hillier Garden Centre


Hillier Garden Centre

Edwin Hillier arrived in Winchester in 1864 when he purchased a nursery and seeds business at 80 High St. Edwin had been born in 1837 at Cholderton Wilshire to Noah and Hannah Hillier. Noah was the butler to the Rector of Kimpton and the family lived in a cottage on the rector’s estate. Eventually Noah became a grocer in Kimpton, just in Hampshire close to Andover. Edwin probably went to Amport School close to Kimpton where his elder brother Abner had gone to school before his untimely death in 1849.

Edwin started his training in gardens and plants in 1853 at Penton Lodge close to his home near Andover. It would appear that he must have come under the wing of someone possibly the Rector of Kimpton that his father worked for, who arranged for the young Edwin to work at a number of major gardens in Southern England. He spent 6 years working at various gardens starting at Penton Lodge and then moved to Cobham Hall in Kent then Brantridge Park in Sussex. He then worked at Syon Park, Studley Royal (1862), Messrs Osborne and Sons, Fulham Nursery in 1864 (HRO 136M/82/33 &34).

In 1864, although he was only 24, Edwin had gained wide experience including Veitch's nursery in Chelsea. Like Veitch Edwin combined plantsmanship with entrepreneurial ambition. In 1864 Edwin married Betsy Lawrence and decided to start in business. He had two options a small florist and nursery business in Winchester, or a similar business in Richmond. It is believed he chose Winchester on the spin of a trencher. Initially with the shop he took on two acres of land, primarily to produce flowers and plants for sale in the shop. In the following year another three acres were acquired. They moved from their rented accommodation to 14 Jewry St, which served as home, office and shop.

The business did well serving customers in Winchester and surrounding areas. The Warrens directory for Winchester in 1880 contains an advertisement for the business demonstrating the breadth of activities undertaken. Below is the text of the advertisement:-

“Edwin Hillier Nurseryman, Seedesman & Florist
An Extensive collection of old & new roses.
Fruit trees of the very best kinds
Evergreen, Deciduous Ornamental Trees & Shrubs, and Forest Trees in great variety
Stove, Greenhouse, Bedding, & Border Plants in large quantities
Culinary, Flower, and Agricultural seeds of the first excellence
Seed potatoes, true stock
Dutch bulbs imported from the Best Growers
Estimates given for laying out Pleasure Grounds
Floral Decorations
Wedding, Ball, & other Bouquets supplied on the shortest notice.
Extensive Hothouses for the growth of choice fruits as Grapes, Peaches, etc
Gardens kept in order by Contract or otherwise.
The Nurseries are – Parchment St for Plants & Cut Flowers
Romsey Road for Roses, Fruits and Out – door Stock
Catalogues sent Post Free at their respective seasons.”

In 1874, Edwin bought a parcel of land adjoining the County Gaol which eventually encompassed 14.5 acres. In 1876, the Turnpike system was finally being abandoned and Edwin purchased the Toll Cottage and gardens on Cock Lane on the road to Romsey. This expanded the land purchased in 1874. This was to become an important part of the business and remains today as the familiar Hilliers Garden Centre on Romsey Road between the prison and West Down Site (HRO 136M/82/80).

This has remained while the shop was eventually closed. The Garden centre is in the land that seems to be cut out of the Weeke parish boundary. It is in St Faiths but is included with the other buildings in this area as part of the Weeke history.

In 1873, the firm purchased 95 High St which provided a new shop with rear storage and office space as well as living space upstairs for staff. Also Edwin purchased 130 acre Shroneer Wood 6 miles north of Winchester on the London Rd (HRO 136M/82/85).

Edwin and Betsy had seven children and their eldest was Edwin Lawrence (Lawrence was his mother’s maiden name) born in 1865. Edwin Lawrence was to become the owner of the nursery business. The other children were Annie Elizabeth (1867), Frank (1869), twins Lilian Edith and Alice Rose (1875), Arthur Richard (1877) and Albert Ernest (1879).

By 1896 the business was described as E.Hillier & Sons. Edwin Lawrence married Edith Marian Giffard in 1896 (HRO 136M/82/44).

Edwin Lawrence was to become one of the most knowledgeable experts of his day on conifers. While Edwin Lawrence became an expert in plants his brother Arthur was the administrator who ran the company as the business grew.

At Shroner Wood Edwin senior established a pinetum. Sadly Edwin senior sold Shroner Wood in 1913, probably to make financial provisions for his daughters. Although the business had been handed over to his two sons he still took a keen interest until his death in 1926. Other land purchases had been made in the preceeding few years notably in St Cross, where herbaceous plants, aquatics and alpines were grown, and Pitt Corner for tree and shrub production. At the time of the sale of Shroner Wood Edwin Lawrence could console himself acquiring much choice plant material when the Veitch Nurseries were broken up (HRO 136M/82/85).

After the first world war the business continued to grow. Edwin Lawrence's son Harold spent his formative years developing a love of plants. He became an 'official' member of staff in 1921. Between the Wars 8 acres of acid land were purchased at Hiltingbury, near Chandlers Ford partly motivated by a gift from Lionel de Rothschild of Himalayan rhododendrom species. These would not have thrived in the lime laden soils of Winchester.

In Sarum Rd 13 acres (and, subsequently a further 18 acres) were devoted increasingly to the production of larger trees, which were appreciated by local authorities.

By 1939 there were 80 acres under cultivation. Edwin Lawrence died in 1944 and Arthur retired two years later. Harold embarked on a period of considerable expansion. Between 1950 and 1970s Hillier plants were grown on some 700 acres in Eastleigh, Ampfield, Braishfield, and the edge of Romsey. Harold and his wife Barbara made a house and the land around it their home. It became the Hillier Arboretum. It is now run as a trust by Hampshire County Council and extends to 150 acres. It is now a resource centre and a source of pleasure and erudition of international renown (URL36). The adjoining land has become one of Britian's largest container – plant production areas.

Ampfield house with surrounding land became Hillier's headquarters in 1977 with Harold Hillier as Chairman (subsequently held by Lady Hillier) and his two sons John and Robert as Managing Directors. Harold was knighted in 1983 and with his other awards became Sir Harold Hillier CBE, FLS, VMH. He died in 1985 (HRO 141M83/187).

At Liss in Eastern Hampshire 270 acres of deep sandy loam was purchased in 1984 for open – ground production of 'new generation' trees.

Further generations of the Hillier family are being trained in the now large horticultural business (HRO W/TOP343/3/103).

Sir Harold bought Jermyn's House and the surrounding land in 1952. Gradually he cleared the land for nursery use, removing the stumps of some of the old parkland trees with the help of dynamite! He also began his 'home for plants', initially in areas unsuitable for nursery planting. He planted his favourite plants close to the house where he could look out at them through the french windows of his office. He was forever trying to find more room for his plants and had the tennis court dug up to become his dwarf conifer bed. In 1964 he constructed Centenary Border to celebrate the centenary of the family nursery business (HRO 136M/82/85).

Sir Harold knew many renowned plantsmen and Jermyn's House became a popular place to visit. Lady Hillier would provide visitors with refreshments, homemade bread being a speciality. Although he was reluctant to commit much to paper, his collection being his 'living catalogue', Sir Harold wrote his first catalogue for Hillier Nurseries in 1926. This evolved into the renowned Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs (1971), which was described by reviewers as 'the catalogue to end all catalogues' and 'a horticultural bible'.

He gave the arboretum to Hampshire County Council in 1977, by which time he had increased the original acreage considerably. This event was commemorated in 1978 when the Queen Mother planted a weeping oak. Sir Harold's connections with the Royal Family dated back to when he had visited Glamis Castle with his father as a teenager and he met Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. She, as the Queen Mother, gave him his knighthood in 1983 (HRO 136M/82/85).

The arboretum was renamed the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, and is a charitable trust managed and operated by Hampshire County Council, as Sole Trustee. Each year the Trust teach 11,000 school children of all abilities and levels, train UK and international students, and have the invaluable support of 100 dedicated volunteers. There were around 128,000 visitors in 2006, and supported by an expanding database of 11,000 Members (an increase of 30% in 2006). The facilities also extend to the corporate conference, special occasion hire and weddings market. The contemporary Visitor and Education Pavilion and restaurant facilities, as well as Jermyn’s House, make the Gardens a unique and increasingly popular venue.

Sir Harold’s two sons have continued the family business and John, the eldest son is now President and the younger son Robert has been Managing Director and Chairman (HRO AV74/AWT6/S1). In April 2008 Andrew McIndoe who has been with Hilliers since 1974 was made Managing Director. Robert Hillier will continue as Chairman. This is the first time in the life of the company that the Managing Director has not been a member of the Hillier family (URL37).

The business has continued to grow so that there are now 13 Garden Centres around Southern England. These were started with the Garden Centre in Romsey Road ,Winchester in the 1960s. The business also provides over 1000 plant varieties from its nurseries through the wholesale market (URL37).

Release 1.0 last update 02/09/08

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