'My Life in Roses' by Peter Harkness
It didn’t begin in roses. My father was a civil servant and had been posted to Dublin in those days before the First World War when Ireland was governed from Whitehall. He met my mother at a cricket match, where she was the scorer for the opposing team. Dad must have been on form that day, because they started courting and got married in London when he was on leave from France in 1917. Within five years he and Olive were blessed with two boys, Jack and Austin, and a daughter Betty. It was probably a shock when, eight years later, they found I was on the way.
When my personal history began in Thornton Heath, Croydon on 29th October, 1929, it happened to be Black Tuesday, when Wall Street slumped to its deepest trough in the Depression. Not until I was doing my National Service did I become aware of this link. I was watching a film in which a character with a nasal twang said to the fall-guy comedian George Gobel: ‘you’re the worst thing that’s happened since twenny-nine October twenny-nine’. Imagine my stunned reaction as I sat in that darkened cinema. But on reflection I adopted the positive view that, as I went through life, things could only get better.
My parents were staunchly Anglican, though not good church attenders, and instilled a strong moral code into their offspring, which was reinforced by a teacher who taught us to take to heart the principle of ‘self-sacrifice’. This meant little when I was nine, but one discovers its importance as a corrective guidepost through life’s untidy pathway. A saying of father’s also proved a helpful at times of stress: ‘You must keep a sense of proportion’. Evidently I suffered stress, or so the doctor thought when I lost a patch of hair, caused, he said, by anxiety. The outcome was that mother held me, looked very serious, and said ‘You are not to worry’. So I’ve always tried not to appear worried, to the extent that in later life some have taken ‘not worrying’ for lack of concern. You can’t win, can you? I’ve been glad to keep in mind Dad’s ‘sense of proportion’ mantra to restore the balance.
We moved to Nottingham when I was six, and it was there that I became aware that the family had links with flowers. Grandfather John Harkness, I was told, had a nursery in Yorkshire. He died when I was three but I have a distinct memory of him as a smiling old man drinking tea from a saucer. I had never seen anyone else drink from their saucer, and no one told him not to. But when I tried to copy this technique at home, I was firmly told to stop. It was of course the injustice of being stopped that fixed the incident in my mind. John had a good eye for spotting novel strains among his plants, and he named several for family members. Grandmother was a lupin and a potentilla, aunts Gladys and Elsie had delphiniums and sidalceas, father was a marguerite, mother an oriental poppy, brother Jack a delphinium and sister Betty and I were a pair of lupins. It was all rather casually done. Betty found out about her lupin by accident, when she wandered into the packing shed, and one of the packers picked up a plant and said ‘Oh, this one’s for you’ and showed her the label with her name.
In Nottingham we planted a bed of grandad’s ‘Regal’ lupins, and they were splendid: in my mind’s eye I still see their glorious spires of blue, yellow, wine red and chocolate.We also planted roses in the garden, and these came from the family nursery in Hitchin, managed by Bill Harkness, my father’s cousin. Bill told my dad that two were new and rather special. At the age of seven I watched closely as the buds opened to reveal the shining yellow petals of my first rose love, the hybrid tea ‘Phyllis Gold’. By today’s standards it looks an indifferent bloom on a plant with insufficient foliage, but I fondly recall it as my initiation into roses. The other novelty was ‘Christopher Stone’, whose red blooms were wonderfully deep and bright. Yet of the two I preferred the yellow. For me, the red one didn’t make the same impact. It was some years before I discovered why this was.
At the outbreak of World War II I was with my grandmother on the Yorkshire nursery, and my parents suggested I remain there, and attend the village school, on the theory that rural Leeming Bar was less likely to be bombed than industrial Nottingham, though that theory was seen to be a bit flawed when half a mile away they promptly created Leeming RAF aerodrome. But I’ve always been intensely grateful for the chance I had as a nine year old to witness the last of that nursery’s wonderful flower displays. A book on Yorkshire I picked off the shelves in, of all places, my local Letchworth library, tells how people used to come from miles around to enjoy the glorious rows of phlox, sweet williams, dahlias, chrysanthemums and many more flowers, and to buy seeds and plants. Now in 1939, here I was, free to explore the glasshouses, nursery buildings, and the surrounding fields. The office telephone number, by the way, was Bedale 2. Happy days! But today the only traces of our presence are roads named ‘Harkness Drive’ and ‘Harkness Close’, sprouting their crops of bungalows.
At Nottingham High School my best subject was history. In 1948 it won me an Oxford scholarship, specialising in the medieval period. The notion of doing horticulture didn’t enter my head. But before going to college I chose to do my National Service. While awaiting call-up I applied for a local job.
At this point brother Jack telephoned. He was eleven years older than me, and had left school at fifteen to fulfil his wish to be a nurseryman. In 1937 he joined Bill Harkness on the nursery at Hitchin. And now he was ringing to ask if I would come and work until my army papers came. A few days later I was having my first lesson as the new boy. My instructor was Ernest Barker, who told me he had started on the nursery in 1903. That made me curious to know more about the history of the firm and I began a search that has continued over the years, culminating in a substantial archive of records, now housed for safe keeping in a Letchworth Museum.
In brief, what I found is that in 1879 my great grandfather Thomas, a tailor, invested his savings to found Harkness & Sons, Bedale with his sons Robert and John. They had shown a natural affinity with plants, notably when as boys they spent fourpence on wallflower seed and made two pounds from the resulting sales!
Robert and John were skilful exhibitors, and in 1887 won the NRS Champion Trophy, the first northern nurserymen to do so. To give themselves a better chance at the southern shows, they considered opening a second nursery. Hitchin was where the amateur champion, Mr E B Lindsell, grew his roses, and that fact helped to determine their choice. In 1895 Robert moved south, and in due course his son Bill Harkness followed as proprietor of R.Harkness & Co., Hitchin.
My National Service was spent teaching shorthand to clerks, which taught me valuable lessons in keeping lively individuals under control, useful when I was chairing committees in later life. One day we were lined up for tests for colour-blindness. The man behind me said later he thought they’d put you me on a charge for giving the wrong answers. Red-green was the main problem, and maybe this is why bright reds don’t appeal to me.
In years to come, when I had to register the colours of our introductions, I would compare the petals with the RHS Chart to get the nearest matches, then call on others for help. No use asking Jack though, he too was colour-blind, as was my brother Austin.
When I was at Hertford College, every vacation brought an invitation to work on Bill’s nursery, where I was glad both to be earning, and to learn more about the business. One day Bill mentioned he’d be pleased if the arrangement became permanent. Would I think it over? I pondered how enjoyable it was to work among roses, and with people, both clientele and staff, who loved roses. I thought the business might benefit from skills I could provide. I said yes, and after achieving what my tutor called a ‘very respectable second’, became a full time nurseryman in summer 1953.
Bill was a perfectionist, and created one of the best equipped nurseries of the time. He was modest by nature, and more concerned with quality than quantity. At the time I joined we were planting 120,000 stocks each year. Tractors had long replaced horses, and though the stocks were planted by hand, planting machines would soon be introduced. Bill was keen to make improvements, but you couldn’t hurry him. Those who tried were told they’d be ‘rushing past a shilling to pick up sixpence’. Often his response to a fresh problem was ‘Let’s sleep on it’.
Our regular staff respected Bill for his fairness and high standards. Most had been with him for years, and they had a wide range of skills. To suit his style of exhibiting they made equipment to create a colourful bank of bloom. This worked so well that between 1932 and 1959 he won the NRS Championship Trophy at the summer show 22 times. We still have a letter from a competitor: ‘Dear Bill – Well done again. Let me know if you are going in for the Football Cup, the St Leger or the Boat Race, and I’ll get my money on you!’
We entered other classes too, and Ernest Barker, my old mentor, would scour the rosefield and place muslin shades over blooms he judged fit for the exhibition classes.
For summer budding we took on extra staff, often students. The 1954 intake were a bright lot, and we entertained them at home one evening. One called E. J. Hughes read us poems. Years he became the Poet Laureate, and wrote to say how much he’d enjoyed his interlude with roses.
Before the days of latex ties and polythene we used raffia to tie the eyes in place, and straw for packing. In the office the phone number was Hitchin 227 – nice and simple, though in earlier days it had been Hitchin 15 – and manual typewriters were used to make four copies of each order. Shows were important selling opportunities, with people queueing up, anxious to brighten their gardens with novelties like ‘Fashion’ and ‘Spek’s Yellow’. ‘Peace’ and ‘Ena Harkness’ were clear of the field as the most popular Hybrid Teas. We offered a few Rugosas and old roses, but Bill had little time for most of them.
Apart from our catalogue we did little advertising, because the object was to sell the plants we grew, and in those years that was not a problem, especially as so many garden owners were customers of long standing. Bill rarely bought plants in from other growers, though he was forced to in 1956 when a cruel May frost spoiled the crop and ruined our chances in the Championship. Fortune smiled when I had the good luck to meet Margaret at the local church, and exchanged vows in 1955. Jack was best man, and Austin, now a clergyman, married us – as he did our daughters Anne and Rosemary in the years to come.
Wishing to introduce Margaret to my Yorkshire relatives, I drove her up to Leeming Bar. On the way we were held up at a level crossing, and the car would not restart. By the time we got it fixed we were very late. Uncle Sid, a rough diamond at the best of times, came to the door. His opening words to his new niece were ‘Eh, lass, tha’s dinner’s buggered!’
On Bill’s death, Jack became our managing director, and soon planned to begin a new venture, the work of breeding roses. Knowing that Plant Breeders’ Rights was about to become law, he wanted the firm to produce its own quota of new roses rather than rely solely on the efforts of outsiders. The established breeders of the time such as Sam McGredy and Pat Dickson were generous in welcoming him to see their work, and Jack found in Alec Cocker a grower who was also just beginning in this field. Their cooperation developed into a wonderful friendship, and in some respects a business partnership, in the years ahead.
Our first selections had their airing at the 1966 Summer Show in Westminster. This was a red letter day for us, because the date was June 29th, which was Jack’s birthday and also Robert’s birthday, and we had on display ‘King Arthur’, ‘Guinevere’, ‘Merlin’, ‘Sir Galahad’, ‘Sir Lancelot’, ‘Excalibur’ and ‘Escapade’.
To stage these we were assigned a site at the back of the Hall. The Queen Mother was due, and everyone expected she would turn left on entering and make a clockwise tour, bringing her to our main exhibit, where Jack and everyone else was waiting. Instead she chose to go the other way, and so found me instead, keeping solitary watch over our new creations.
After explaining about our work, I could not resist telling her why this was a triple red letter day for Jack. When, twenty-five minutes later, she got to him, her opening words were ‘I hear it’s your birthday’. A camera clicked at that moment, showing him open-mouthed in total surprise.
Within a few years, Alec and Jack’s efforts provided good sellers such as ‘Silver Jubilee’ and ‘Alec’s Red’ from Aberdeen, and ‘Alexander’, ‘Southampton’, ‘Compassion’ and ‘Yesterday’ from Hitchin. These successes encouraged us to put up two big glasshouses, one for hybridising and seed sowing, and the other producing flowers for Chelsea and budwood for the growing number of nurseries anxious to try the new varieties.
In addition to the breeding work, we began to grow additional varieties, hoping to make our catalogue truly comprehensive. We sourced old garden roses, early hybrid teas, polyanthas and climbers so that by 1967 we were offering one thousand different roses, and had visions of growing more. At that year’s Summer Show we celebrated the centenary of ‘La France’ by staging several hundred items, so that, in the words of the RNRS Annual, ‘the exhibit as a whole formed almost a history of the rose’.
To provide space for so many different sorts at despatch time, and better conditions for our work force, we built a large double-storey shed, and to cope with the increased crop we took on extra staff.
The next step was to create a large garden to display them in. Visitors flocked to see it, and drivers of holiday coaches changed their routes so their passengers could enjoy the spectacle. Here is a description of it from page 134 of the English edition of Gerd Krüssmann’s Roses, published in 1981.
‘Hitchin, Herts. The private gardens of the firm of R. Harkness & Co.
About 5 ha. / 12 acres in size, these contain 30,000 roses of some 750 varieties,
including many of the old roses, grouped in 350 beds.’
That description was correct when the German edition appeared in 1974, but alas, when the English version came out in 1981, much of it had gone. What went wrong?
We had overstretched ourselves by trying to do too much at once. As a family we had been brought up to be provident, and grew uneasy as the bank overdraft grew uncomfortably large. Although we didn’t see the issue as clearly then as we can now with hindsight, the basic problem was that we were trying to fulfil two roles. One role was to be a nursery offering every kind of rose. The other was to be a successful breeder.
As we discussed the future, Jack tried to work out the breeding costs in relation to everything else. He gave up when the figures began to scare him. But his mind was made up. Breeding was too important to forgo.
After much heart searching we sacrificed our lovely garden, which was becoming expensive to maintain to the standard we and our visitors should accept. And in the same spirit of rationality, we reduced the number of varieties catalogued to about three hundred.
Luckily our breeding work continued to go well, and my time became increasingly involved in selecting potential introductions, deciding to which international trials they should be sent, finding appropriate clients for the successful ones, and devising ways of publicising them. Our clients might be companies, such as L’Oréal and The Savoy Group, or charities, such as the National Trust and the Red Cross, or individuals wishing to name a rose for a family member. Some roses suggested their own names, such as ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘Yesterday’.
During the 1970s we began to show our novelties at Chelsea, which for publicity value easily outranked all other shows. When we first showed our Persica hybrids, I think in 1976, the Lindley Medal awarded gave Jack special pleasure, because it was a recognition that he had made a contribution in advancing the species.
The show of 1982 is one I will never forget, when we brought out ‘Mountbatten’. This was named for the Forces’ charity SSAFA and had already made its mark by being chosen for Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding bouquet. The rose growers had voted overwhelmingly for it to be the 1982 ‘Rose of the Year’. But its launch did not go as smoothly as I had planned.
We’d booked a 10 am photo call with the RHS slot for the launch, regarding this as a prime time, when photographers and presenters are still fresh and eager. We actually got busy earlier, with the BBC TV news team wanting a piece direct to camera. I had worked out in my head how to word it so that crucial points would all be included, viz. its selection by the growers as the first ever Rose of the Year, credit to Jack as the breeder, its charitable purpose for SSAFA, its naming for SSAFA’s late President by royal permission, its choice by Diana for her bouquet, and its excellent plant qualities. All this I combined in one sentence of 40 seconds or so without drawing breath, feeling like a contestant in Just A Minute and expecting at any moment to be interrupted. At the end the interviewer said ‘Not bad for a single take’ and off they went. On the evening 9 O’clock News it was transmitted unaltered and uncut.
The intended plan was that at 10 am, as Countess Mountbatten took her place, she would be trumpeted in by a Royal Marine sergeant hired for the occasion. There would then be a welcome from Lt-General Sir Napier Crookenden as Chairman of SSAFA, and from three crew members of HMS Kelly, who of their own accord had asked to come and take part.
After that, gifts would be presented of a Mountbatten silk scarf printed in Italy, an artist’s full sized and lifelike ceramic of the rose, and a basket of the rose itself. Everything was on course, and our corner site was thronged with the press and buzzing with anticipation.
10 am came and went. No sign of the Countess! Then came a message – she was held up on the A2. She hoped to make it by 11.
This impending disaster had interesting and unlooked for consequences. Instead of dispersing, the press people latched on to those who were there, the trumpeter, the sailors, SSAFA’s people, Jack and our staff. Also, the other press calls pending found themselves gazumped, because the media didn’t want to miss the Countess. When at last the trumpet did sound, we still had a good crowd. And when the papers came next day, they carried a fascinating range of different ‘Mountbatten’ stories, giving us, quite fortuitously, the best Chelsea coverage we’ve ever had.
In his sixtieth year Jack said he wished to retire as Managing Director, in order to devote more time to breeding, and writing. He was busy working on his book Roses at this time, which was published in 1978 and is a wonderful example of his graceful, incisive style of writing, laced with humour. He was also much occupied as Secretary of the British Association of Rose Breeders (BARB), the organisation created by Jack with Pat Dickson, John Mattock, Roger Pawsey, Alec Cocker and others, to encourage growers to bud protected varieties under license. On Jack’s retirement I took his place as MD for the next twelve years, helped by other family members, including Jack’s sons Robert and Philip. Though living in Southwold, Jack remained actively involved with the breeding work in Hitchin.
That year Margaret and I had an invitation to stay with friends in Bermuda. This brought us in contact with The Bermuda Rose Society, who invited us to return as guests for their Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1979. A fortnight of talks and garden meetings made me keenly aware for the first time of the beauty of Tea and China roses. I’d often looked at the Teas in St Albans and been mystified at their erstwhile popularity. Now I understood how ‘Safrano’, if you grew it in the right conditions, would captivate your heart. We saw some great rarities, including ‘Belfield’, which is thought to be ‘Slater’s Crimson China’, and ‘Spice Rose’, which looks uncannily similar to depictions of ‘Hume’s Blush’. The whole experience broadened my rose knowledge and gave me confidence to undertake other international talks.
From 1978 the RNRS Summer Show became The Rose Festival, held not in London but at St Albans, and the Rose Growers Association (RGA) co-operated with the Society to provide flowers and decorate the marquee. Philip and I both served as RGA chairmen during the 1980s and encouraged our members to support these ventures, which became more elaborate and imaginative year by year. One minor but interesting element I introduced was the Fragrance Competition. Growers would submit a dozen or so blooms of a fragrant variety they were selling, which we staged in a line, labelled A-B-C etc. For a token fee, visitors cast votes for the three they found most fragrant. In this way we involved hundreds of people at each Festival, made the point that new roses could be fragrant, earned a modest sum for the Society, and rewarded the lucky winners (those whose selection matched the overall judgement) with donated bushes.
In 1984, two years on from ‘Mountbatten’, we had another clear winner in the ROTY trials, an apricot-orange floribunda I’d considered naming for my daughter Rosemary, now approaching twenty-one. But there was a problem about giving a family name to a Rose of the Year, which was by definition intended to attract support from all the growers. Bill Tysterman of Wisbech proposed the name ‘Amber Queen’, which was agreed as both appropriate and marketable. I was disappointed for Rosemary, but reflected that the illustrious Francois Meilland and Mathias Tantau had suffered constraints when ‘Mme. A. Meilland’ became ‘Peace’ and ‘Ilse Tantau’ was changed to ‘Super Star’. And ‘Amber Queen’ has proved a real stayer, for, on the expiry of normal protection rights, it became the first of our roses to be patented.
‘Amber Queen’ also holds the record for the highest number of international trial awards to one of our varieties, twenty-eight in all, including the James Mason Memorial Medal. James had died in 1984, shortly after a week-long show in Paris, where he and his wife Clarissa had made frequent visits to our stand. Clarissa wished to give an award to commemorate James and his love of roses. Could I suggest what it might be awarded for? It occurred to me that the Society had nothing in the way of a Good Conduct Medal, recognising a meritorious variety’s long term performance. The RNRS embraced the idea, and thanks to Clarissa’s generosity a few lucky breeders received a beautifully crafted medal, the first JMMM winner being Cocker’s ‘Silver Jubilee’.
By 1993, when the RNRS judged the JMMM should go to ‘Amber Queen’, the presentation was to be at Hampton Court. That was a award ceremony I shall never forget.
Robert Runcie, now retired and ennobled, was due to open the Rose Festival at 1 pm. The plan was for Runcie to be presented with a basket of ‘Amber Queen’ by Michael Jones, the young son of grower Keith, dressed as a Pearly King. Following that, Clarissa would present the James Mason medal to the raiser.
At 12.30 I went to get the basket of ‘Amber Queen’. I’d left it all ready in the refrigeration van, provided on site so that roses could be kept cool until needed. But I found I couldn’t open the access door. A big lorry with a Belgian address had parked so close that it had blocked the way.
It was now 12.35. I went in search of Ken Grapes, the RNRS Secretary. He knew where the Belgians had their exhibit, so we went there. But they weren’t sure where the owner had gone. He might be in the van, asleep. We went back, and by 12.45 we’d knocked hard enough to wake him, retrieve the basket and be thankfully back on track.
At which point Ken, looking stricken, clapped a hand to his head. ‘Oh God, I’ve left it in St Albans!’ The James Mason Memorial Medal was in his office safe twenty miles away. ‘Leave it to me,’ he said, and dashed off.
Everything went well for Runcie and young Michael, and, on the face of it, so did the medal presentation. Only Ken and I knew that three things were not as we would have wished: I was standing in for Jack, the raiser, who was unwell; a friend was standing in for Clarissa, who had urgent business to attend to; and in place of the magnificent Gold Medal specially made by Asprey’s, what I received was a badge saying ‘Merstham Garden Club – Vice-Chairman’. I slipped it in my pocket and didn’t show it around.
An interesting part of my work was deciding to which trials we should submit our seedlings. There were over twenty major trials, each with its own rules and offering a variety of climates. After a few years one acquired a sense of where a particular seedling might do well, based on the knowledge of past results, the local conditions and, in some cases, personal visits. If a particular seedling won awards in several trials, that gave grounds for extra confidence in its plant qualities, and was important for generating publicity and opening fresh markets overseas.A new trial was started by the City of Dublin in 1980, and they invited us to take part. The rules they sent covered everything except the rather vital issue of how many varieties we were allowed to enter. I wrote to ask, and back came this neatly typed reply: ‘The number of varieties allowed is six. But as this is an Irish trial, the six could be about nine.’
Margaret often accompanied me at final judgings, which provided useful opportunities for making new friends. In Belfast we sat with a Parisian engineer who had just been appointed Superintendent of the City’s gardens. ‘I love working in horticulture’ he said, ‘everyone wants to ask me about my work. It wasn’t like that in my old job.’ ‘What were you in?’ we asked. ‘Reinforced concrete.’
The experiences gained from trials came in useful at Glasgow, where the City asked the rose growers to advise them on establishing a new one. Jos Timmermans was RGA chairman at the time, and the two of us met the people who ran the City’s parks, and between us devised a regimen for the plants and rules for judging them that over time have served us well. I was delighted years later when Glasgow’s judging guidelines were substantially adopted by our Trials Committee at St Albans.
From 1985 to 1999 I acted as adviser for the Glasgow trials, and Margaret and I would make three annual visits. The City Council were generous hosts and we with our fellow judges got to see many features of this vibrant city, not the least of which was the gradual transformation of drab Tollcross Park in the City’s east end to a beautifully laid out and tended trial ground, with additional and extensive rose plantings, a renovated old people’s home and a state of the art new-built sports centre. This wonderful support for the rose culminated in Glasgow being chosen to host the World Rose Convention in 2003.
The British Association of Rose Breeders, over which I presided towards the end of the 1980s, was now promoting new roses from forty breeders round the world, including several amateurs, one of whom, Chris Warner, became so successful that, like Pemberton, he turned professional. Jack had retired as BARB secretary, and the breeders were lucky to find a worthy successor in Dee Dealtrey, and also to have the services of Peter Poole, a solicitor specialising in intellectual property rights. Both Dee and Peter had family links to horticulture, Peter being Jack’s son-in-law, so they understood completely the concerns of breeders and growers when new pan-European regulations were being proposed to replace UK Plant Breeders’ Rights.
We were given the draft legislation to consider, and Dee and Peter’s sharp minds were an invaluable asset when it came to untangling the complex issues, and finally arguing our case so that the outcome was something we could live with. At Hitchin our breeding and retailing businesses continued to hold their own, helped by worthwhile varieties, improved publicity and good results at shows, including fifteen successive Chelsea Gold Medals from 1981. Yet it was clear that the golden era of rose retailing had passed. A major factor was the rise of garden centres offering plants all year round in pots. These provided an attractive alternative form of gardening compared with the handling of bare root plants in winter, and the wide range of other types of plant available meant that roses had ceased to be everyone’s prime choice. We visited other garden centres in search of ideas, and rebuilt our own, complete with a restaurant. Susan Hampshire opened it for us in 1987.
My retirement came two days before my sixtieth birthday in 1989. Robert and Philip succeeded me, operating as Joint Managing Directors. After a few years they felt the need to concentrate on their core rose activities of breeding and retailing, and so they moved the office closer to the glasshouses and sold the garden centre to the Wyevale group. This is now named the Hitchin Garden Centre, and contains a large Harkness Roses section filled with roses supplied and cared for by our skilled staff, who can also be called on when required. This seems a very satisfactory solution to the problem of providing proper care and advice for garden centre roses.
The breeding work continues, and among recent prizes are the James Mason for ‘Penny Lane’, the All-America Rose Selection award for ‘Easy Does It’ and a special accolade for our hardy veteran ‘Amber Queen’ which was judged The Platinum Rose at The Hague in 2010. In 2009 three ‘Persian Mystery’ varieties were introduced, extending the Persica strain pioneered by Jack and Alec.
There is a contradictory image that many have of roses, being on the one hand the nation’s favourite, yet deemed to need a lot of looking after to keep them vigorous and healthy. By choosing their introductions from roses grown for five years without spray protection, Robert and Philip are making every effort to improve the public appetite for garden roses.
I didn’t expect a quiet life in retirement and so it proved. At home, I was asked to become chairman of trustees for the recently formed Garden House Hospice, which serves the people of North Herts and Stevenage. When our president retired, Margaret suggested we ask Nigel Hawthorne if he would take it on. (We’d got to know him when he visited the garden centre, and had named a rose for him at the suggestion of the RNRS.) Nigel agreed and in no time had organised a Royal Gala, fronted by Prince Edward, which raised over £30,000. When Nigel died in 2001, plans for doubling the size of the hospice were well advanced. On completion it was dedicated to his memory, and because he was so much loved no succeeding president has been appointed.
I was also involved in fund-raising for St Mary’s, Hitchin, the finest Perpendicular church in North Herts. We needed £150,000 to restore the east end, which was a bigger sum of money in 1989 than it sounds today. Archbishop Runcie, formerly our diocesan bishop, agreed to write the foreword for our appeal brochure, and took the rededication service.
The 25th of January 1990 was a memorable day, but for the wrong reasons. Many rose growers were in Chester to mourn Chris Jones of C & K Jones, our RGA chairman. He was exceptionally gifted, loved by all, and had been found dead on his nursery aged forty-one. I think the vicar must have been under some kind of stress, because the funeral was a travesty, beginning with the admonition that we were not there to commemorate the departed, but to consider what God intended for us in bringing us there. It got worse, and we wept quietly through a deeply insensitive sermon and prayers. We couldn’t create a scene in church, but afterwards met to arrange a more fitting tribute at the next RGA event. Our treasurer Bob Boswijk was a Methodist lay preacher, and he led the service, at which Chris’s brother Keith was present. We ended with the old Celtic blessing, so poignantly appropriate:
May the road rise up to meet you, may wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face, the rains fall soft upon your fields,
And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.
One day I had two unexpected rose requests. The RNRS asked me to be its editor, and a publisher in Godalming commissioned me to write a rose book, which came out as The Photographic Encyclopedia of Roses, published by Colour Library Books in 1991.
My five years as RNRS editor witnessed two editions of what had been called The Rose Directory, but I renamed it Roses To Enjoy, and introduced more information about each rose, and, where appropriate, the reason for its name, a detail people often ask about. I adopted a classification that differed slightly from the official one, because it seemed simpler and more logical.
Editing The Rose gave me welcome opportunities to keep in touch with rosarians round the world, especially as I was invited to rose events in Japan, South Africa, New Zealand and three times to USA during those years. The first US trip was a lucky fluke, due to the narrow win Gareth Fryer, Terry Kenwright and I achieved as a rose breeders’ team on Granada TV’s Busman’s Holiday. The ‘holiday’ was a three-day filming session in California, where we saw the breeding work at Weeks Roses, a rose show, a rose-filled memorial park, a baseball match and enjoyed a wine tasting. The baseball fanciers saw the film crew with us and kept saying ‘You must be famous, who are you?’ My second US visit was to the Antique Rose Emporium in Texas, where the plants are skillfully grown on their own roots, and the third was to celebrate the American Rose Society’s centenary, bringing greetings on behalf of our Society.
No one, not even the indefatigible Dick Balfour, seemed able to stop the fall in our own Society’s membership. I served as a trustee after the constitution was changed, but, being unable to persuade others that some aspects of policy were inadvisable, I didn’t stand for re-election in 2003. I salute those who have been striving to rehabilitate the Society after such trying years.
In my home town I’d been appointed to the board of the Garden City Corporation. Letchworth was the first garden city in the world, but had been administered with the other new towns by the Department of the Environment. The DoE wanted to shed this role, but unlike all other new towns, Letchworth was protected by an Act of Parliament. The DoE told us to devise fresh legislation if we wished to maintain our peculiar status. Promoting our Private Bill was a fascinating process, involving parliamentary lawyers and visits to Westminster. It was also extremely costly and it took three years.
The chairman of the Lords committee which considered our LGC Heritage Foundation Bill was Baroness Stedman of Longthorpe, Peterborough. Years before, I had known her as Phyllis Stedman, a director of rose growers E.W.Stedman Ltd. and a competitor at shows. I’m not claiming this link earned us any favours, but when, through our barrister, I asked her committee to consider an amendment to what they proposed, they took the suggestion seriously and agreed to it. This was vitally important to us, for the alternative could have brought party politics into our proposed charity.
In due course I had the fascinating experience of a five year spell as chairman of the new body, which administers the estate on which the world’s first garden city stands, and seeks to maintain and enrich its special character.
Though we were now long retired, invitations to give talks in distant lands kept coming in, and our love of seeing roses in different climates as well as our interest in travel gave us every reason to say yes to many of these requests. Especially memorable in recent years have been visits to Professor Fineschi’s collection at Cavriglia in Italy, where Charles Quest-Ritson interpreted for us, to the Sangerhausen Rosarium with its thousands of varieties, the Huntington botanic gardens in Pasadena, and the newly established rose trials in Buenos Aires.
Nearer home I gave a talk to HRG members on the origin and history of the rose, with special reference to recent DNA research. I am no scientist so was rather expecting someone might challenge my findings and in that way we’d all learn more. Nobody did. Was that because they agreed, or because they thought it all too misguided to be worth arguing about?
I was asked in 2002 to work on a book based on the rose pictures held in the RHS Lindley Picture Library, which was published in 2003 as The Rose – A Colourful Inheritance. The majority of pictures were of species and old garden roses depicted before 1900, and while compiling the book was for me a labour of love, it was also a steep learning curve. Many days were spent foraging in drawers and turning the pages of rare volumes, and my eyes moistened when I handled the precious watercolours painted by Chinese artists for John Reeves. Anxious to avoid basic errors, I asked Graham Thomas if he would read the proofs, which he willingly did, and he contributed a graceful preface too. It may have been the last piece he wrote for publication, because the announcement of his death came a few weeks later.
It may seem incongruous, but in my mind I couple memories of Graham with those of Harry Wheatcroft, and there’s a personal reason for this which goes back to the first published article I wrote, for which I received seven guineas from the editor, though my net takings, after paying my hired photographer, were actually seven shillings! It appeared in 1962 in a magazine called The Rose and was about a remarkable plant of the Gigantea hybrid ‘La Follette’. To my surprise and delight, Graham and Harry both cited it in their books.
In 2003 a request came out of the blue for me to contribute an entry on Harry Wheatcroft for The New Dictionary of National Biography. His son lent me books and two huge scrapbooks of Harry’s, and it was hard to compress his eventful career into the requisite one thousand words. There was room for one story, when he was staging on a very hot day at Chelsea, shirtless. Up comes Lord Aberconway, President of the RHS. ‘Hot day, Harry.’ ‘Indeed, m’lord.’ ‘Tell you what, Harry, you put your shirt on, and I’ll take my jacket off.’
As the years go by, senior family members pass away: Jack died in 1994, and we were touched by the many tributes paid by rose lovers to his life’s work. One of his last decisions was to name a vigorous apricot floribunda for his widow Betty, who lives in retirement near Cambridge. My sister Betty died in 1995, and Austin at the end of 2003.
My siblings all enjoyed bonus years beyond their three score years and ten, but our dear rose friend David Welch was less fortunate, dying from leukaemia at the age of sixty-six. Raised in genteel poverty after his father died when he was four, he failed at school due to poor eyesight, which was corrected only when he did his National Service. Rosarians know him as the man who filled Aberdeen with two and a half million roses. He went on to transform the Royal Parks, and succeeded, through his unique blend of wit, energy, determination and personal charm, in creating space for pedestrians in front of Buckingham Palace where traffic had previously flowed, to the lasting benefit of London’s visitors. His colleague Tom Corby said of him: ‘It is impossible to encapsulate David in words, or in any other way. It’s rather like trying to put a genie back in a bottle.’
While we shall always love roses, there are other things in life, and Margaret and I have sought to ensure our family have restful and fulfilling holidays. In 1963 we went to St Davids in Pembrokeshire for the first time. We go back every year to our caravan which overlooks St David’s Head. It’s an area of indescribable beauty and peace.
And in Letchworth we attend All Saints Church in Willian, scene of our marriage fifty seven years ago. We have shared a wonderful experience in spending a lifetime together in the company of roses, and of people who love roses. We count our blessings that we have been fortunate to witness so much beauty, so much enjoyment and so much good fellowship through these years.
© Peter Harkness 2012