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 The First Fifty Years

Although there had been a brief flowering of a National Hardy Plant Society from 1910-1915, the seed of the present Society was sown in December 1956. Alan Bloom, the prime mover, met with Arthur Hellyer, Will lngwersen and John Sambrook, to discuss the formation of a society to promote knowledge and appreciation of hardy herbaceous perennials. They called a meeting at the RHS at Vincent Square in March 1957 and some 30 people attended. As a result the Hardy Plant Society was formed and Alan Bloom elected its first Chairman. Members of the committee formed then were Noel Prockter (Hon Treasurer), Mrs Flora Bloom (Membership Secretary), Wendy Carlile and Mr H P Champneys, (Hon Editor), Mr Will lngwersen, Mr A G Hellyer, Mr S M Gault and Mr Ralph Gould. The first outing was to Bressingham in July 1957; the first RHS exhibit in September 1958 and at this the Thomas Carlile Cup for the best new or recent perennial was awarded to Miss R B Pole for her aster ‘Lye End Beauty’. Her small nursery was at Lye End, Woking and she had already introduced AchiIIea ‘Coronation Gold’ in 1953, amongst others.


Clockwise from left: Arthur Hellyer, Will Ingwersen, Alan Bloom and John Sambrook

By 1961 however, the Society seemed to be failing, with only 220 members. An EGM was called by Mr S M Gault, who had succeeded as Chairman in 1959, to dissolve it. This was the first meeting David Barker attended, having recently joined the Society. Miss Pole spoke strongly against the motion and it was defeated. She took on the office of Chairman to try to revitalise the Society and called for help. David volunteered and became Vice-Chairman; Mrs E A Letts agreed to be Hon Secretary and Mr M Upward the Hon Treasurer. The annual subscription was set at I2/6d. Apart from Miss Pole, the whole committee was composed of amateurs. In her Chairman’s Letter in the first Newsletter (August 1961) she pointed out that the previous committee was largely made up of horticultural journalists and nurserymen, all too busy really to give the Society as much time as they would wish. She also wrote “Had I anticipated that I should be called upon to take office as Chairman of the Society, I doubt if I should have had the temerity to accept. As it was, the alternative seemed to be dissolution and I was not prepared to allow this if it could be prevented.” In this Newsletter she also, in effect, started what was to become the Seed Exchange. Miss Barbara White became Hon Secretary in 1963 and Miss Pole remained as Chairman until 1971, when she retired. There was an EGM immediately before the AGM that year and the Constitution was amended to allow ‘vice presidents’ (rather than ‘a vice-president’, which Alan Bloom had been since 1959). This was passed and at the AGM which followed Mr Noel Prockter became Chairman; Miss Pole was made a vice-president, which she remained until her death in 1975. It was not until then that the office of President was created and Alan Bloom transplanted to that. In 1963 an Advisory Panel was formed - 12 members agreed to be on it, including such well known horticulturists as Alan Bloom, Wendy Bowie (nee Carlile), Margery Fish, Arthyur Hellyer, Will lngwersen, Mrs Francis Perry and later, Rear Admiral Paul Furse. This eventually faltered, but we have now restored our Horticultural Advisory Panel which, though not overwhelmed with questions, does receive a steady flow.

Summer outings started in 1961 with a visit to Regent’s Park (where Mr Gault was superintendent). The second was to Miss Pole’s nursery and then to Wisley. Part of the 1963 visit was to Carlile’s Nursery at Twyford, where Wendy had made a splendid and huge, arrangement of herbaceous perennials and challenged those present to name them in 10 minutes. There were 40 different sorts: the winner named 33 in the time. Other memorable outings were to Middleton House and Perry’s Hardy Plant Farm, to Margery Fish’s garden, Ness Botanic Garden and to the Liverpool International Garden Festival (1984) where two hardy plant gardens, in association with the Society, were planted. The outdoor one was designed and made by Oland Plants and was awarded a Gold Medal. Indoors, members of the North West Group planted the garden around the Gold Medal winning Anchor Housing Trust’s exhibit.

In 1963 it was suggested that members might like to write in about plants in which they had a special interest and the Society could then put those with shared passions in touch. The scheme “made a poor start for the satisfactory reason” that interests were so varied. Apart from bergenias, hellebores and hostas, there were not enough for the smallest group. Nevertheless, in 1965 Angela Marchant set the ball rolling by organising an Ornamental Grasses Group. The Hardy Geranium Group followed in 1968 (started by Mr and Mrs Robin Grout), Euphorbia in 1979, Variegated Plants in 1980. Since then we have had the Paeony, Pulmonaria, Half-Hardy and the Correspondents Group for those unable to attend other meetings; the first Grasses Group unfortunately did not survive the death of Mrs Marchant. The Euphorbia and, a later formed Viola Group, have petered out and the Hosta Group split away to become part of the Hosta and Hemerocallis Society. The rest of the Specialist Groups have thrived. They hold National Study Days and all produce their own newsletters. The latest addition is the Ranunculaceae Group which just received approval from the Trustees and will hold an inaugural meeting in 2008.

Gwladys Tonge almost got a Midlands Group functioning in 1967, but the first local (or regional) group really to make a start was the Nottingham Branch (1968) and then Surrey (now Southern Counties) later in the same year. Dilys Davies and Mr R Houghton had the North Western Group up and running - leaping really in 1979 in preparation for a two day Autumn Meeting at Knutsford that year. The Northern Home Counties also appeared in that year. 1981 saw the formation of the South West, the Western Counties and the Essex Groups. Snowballing to 43 local groups in 2007; the latest 2 being Clwyd and the Isle of Wight Groups.

1967 was also the year when we had our first Weekend, at Pendley Manor, Hertfordshire, organised by the Ornamental Grasses Group. Thirty members attended the talks and demonstration, and saw the exhibit of grasses staged by Mrs Marchant and the Group. We had had Autumn Meetings in London (usually at Caxton Hall) but in 1976 the first outside London was held at Derby and extended over two days. The energetic Nottingham Group arranged it and Mrs Doris Home (who ran the seed exchange for a number of years) talked about her nursery near Lincoln. The 1977 Meeting, also two days, was at Taunton and Eric Smith talked about ‘Lucky Finds’ including several hellebores and hostas. We have always had good speakers, both at Annual Lecture Day, which incorporates the AGM and Autumn Meetings and just to mention a few more - G.S.Thomas, Margery Fish, Brian Mathew, Chris Brickell, Roy Lancaster and Timothy Walker. The Society organises occasional study tours abroad. This last activity was inaugurated by Jean Sambrook with a tour to Holland in 1987. Jean has been a diligent member, taking over as Hon Secretary when Miss White died, until 1992 and working for both the Conservation and Plant Breeding Subcommittees.

Frequent Study Days around the country cater for specialist interests and the ever popular Autumn Weekends and Summer Days are always fully booked. In July 2000 we held our most ambitious event so far, a 3 day Conference for 400 people at Nottingham. The early Seed Exchange has developed into a mammoth Seed Distribution Scheme.

“Where can I get that Plant?” So wrote Wendy Bowie in Newsletter No 36 (February 1973) an article about the scarcity of many herbaceous perennials. This seed fell on fertile ground, for a group of Nottingham members decided to sponsor the compilation of a Directory of Hardy Plants. Discussion with Mr Prockter and Miss White gave encouragement and in February 1974, Joan and Robin Grout and Mr and Mrs John Widdison invited assistance from other members in recommending reliable sources of supply in different parts of the country. In February 1975 an order form for the first Directory accompanied the Newsletter (No 42). 20 Nottingham members had compiled an alphabetical list from 80 mail order nursery catalogues. There were to be three further editions, each larger than the last, before the whole thing became too considerable for them to continue. Then, in 1987, the first Plant Finder appeared, not an HPS publication, though the energetic and purposeful publisher, Chris Philip, who compiled it, acknowledged the Society’s influence and gave us tremendous financial support as a result of its success. The editor was Tony Lord and he included our list of threatened plants in the ever expanding issues. Dr Jack Elliott (Chairman from 1984-87) negotiated on behalf of the HPS.

In February 1978 Trevor Bath reported on the early stages of a propagation scheme in the Southern Counties Group, set up 3 years earlier by Sheila Mousley, and in October he represented the Society at the RHS Conference on the Practical Role of Gardens in the Conservation of Rare and Threatened Plants. Other members were also present and in 1980 the Conservation Subcommittee was formed. Its first Chairman was Tony Lord, who worked for the National Trust at that time. He spoke at the AGM on Conservation of Garden Plants and in the Newsletter reporting this talk (No 61, June 1981) gave a long list of threatened plants which he had put together. Over the years this list has been modified as some plants were found and others disappeared and it has been an important part of the Conservation Subcommittee’s work. Anne Jenner of the Southern Counties Group amalgamated their list of wanted plants with it and this formed a basis for a propagation scheme for the Society. Plant Breeding Subcommittee held a number of teach-ins and encouraged members to look for variants and to hybridise for new cultivars and help them to register them. By the end of the 1990’s it was felt that these subcommittees would be better served by a single body and so a National Conservation Scheme was introduced which is looked after by a Co-ordinator and now involves many of the Groups all working to conserve good herbaceous perennials. A large number of the individual Groups also have their own Conservations Schemes in addition to the National one.

Another body which has done considerable work has been the Publications Subcommittee. This committee oversees the publication the national newsletters and our journal, The Hardy Plant, and the series of popular HPS booklets covering many topics. These too have moved into the modern era and now include photos as well as beautiful botanical drawings. It produced Plantsmen on Plants in memory of Miss White’s long years of service. A Shows Co-ordinator looks after increasingly successful appearances at shows, including for many years, Chelsea and an Events Co-ordinator organises the annual programme of Society events (as distinct from those of the local groups). The Slide Library offers members the use of a vast number of high quality slides and it now plans to include digital photos. The post of Historian has been created to ensure that the precious records of the Society are not lost to future generations.

There is now a Groups Co-ordinator and an annual Group Secretaries’ Meeting. This last was one of the first fruits of Rachel Crawshay’s important Working Party on the Society’s future (Hon Secretary from 1992-95). Other innovations coming from that policy review have been the appointment of a paid Administrator to take on much of the day-to-day running of what is now an international society of around 10,000 members and also work being done to clarify the groups’ relations to the parent Society with its Charity status, the use of postal voting for the AGM and the setting up of the Administration Committee. All of these required amendments to the Constitution, accomplished at an EGM in September 1992. Another loyal contributor to the Society has been Simon Wills who became Membership Secretary upon Miss White’s death and he began the task of bringing the Society into the modern computer age before handing over in 1992 to our Administrator, Pam Adams. She runs all the administrative affairs of the Society with admirable efficiency and is now assisted by Ginny Lowe. By the end of the century the Society had taken on a Publicity Officer and a Webmaster to handle our presence on the Internet.

The beginning of the new century saw the loss of a number of outstanding members who had contributed to so much to the first forty years of the Hardy Plant Society - Joan Grout, Rachel Crawshay, Jack Elliott, Bill Baker, Stephen Taffler and our President and founder Alan Bloom. It also suffered a great loss in the unexpected death of Jane Sterndale-Bennett. Jane had been at the heart to the Society from when she took over as Newsletter Editor and Events Secretary on the death of Miss White. She went to become Chairman for 5 years and presided over the Millennium celebrations in addition to being Chairman of the vital Publications Subcommittee for 18 years. The fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the Society was held in 2007 and as The Hardy Plant Society moves on to its second half century we have a new President, Roy Lancaster and Vice President, Tony Lord. In those fifty years the society has grown out of all recognition, but what has not changed the passion for plants and the friendships which are formed through dedication of many members to ensure the Society grows from strength to strength.

Jennifer Harmer

HPS Historian























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