Remarkable Hillier story published
It makes a refreshing change to be able to read an in-depth, interesting and finely researched book on the creation and history of a long-established UK nursery. The recording of this side of our horticultural heritage is sadly lacking and when the nursery in question has just reached its 150th anniversary, it is certainly appropriate that Jean Hillier (pictured below left) has risen to the task.
‘Hillier Nurseries – The Plants, The People, The Passion’ is a superb record of one of the U.K’s and Europe’s foremost nursery and horticultural businesses. Founded in Winchester by Edwin Hillier in 1864, the Hillier story is one of enterprise, reflecting both family life and the firm’s survival through war and recession. It is an account of success and joy, failure and sadness that will interest the reader whether a gardener or not.
The awesome knowledge and expertise of successive generations of the Hillier family, have provided us with plants of every variety; from the rarest to the popular – plants which have found homes in the grandest houses to the most humble urban plots.
Hillier has built up an extensive archive of personal and business documents, photographs and correspondence and it is in this archive that Jean Hillier has spent over a decade of research to compile this history of one of Britain’s greatest horticultural businesses.
The story starts with Edwin Hillier’s early days as a journeyman gardener, his careful recording of every aspect of his gardening experience; an ambitious young man anxious to gain as much experience as possible to make a success of his chosen career. From 1864 he steadily built up his business in Winchester, offering extensive collections of old and new roses, fruit trees, evergreens and deciduous trees. When his son Edwin Lawrence joined the business, Hillier was able to continue expansion. Eventually, apart from the nursery side of the business there was also a flourishing floristry outlet as well as a range of other services for gardeners. (pictured right: Jermyns House, which became the family home and arboretum of Edwin’s grandson, Harold.)
In 1885 Edwin, ever looking for fresh opportunities, bought a ½ acre site on the corner of City Road and Hyde Street, Winchester. He developed this into a large greenhouse complex, really the forerunner of the modern garden centre which set the tone for successive generations.
Hillier have always been at the forefront of progress and innovation. In 1914 an article appeared in ‘The Gardeners’ Chronicle’, clearly showing that the business was well ahead of its competitors: “Within the boundaries of the ancient city of Winchester, but high up the hillside towards Romsey, Messrs. Hillier and Sons have what may be termed a ‘Home Nursery’, where they display collections of their large nursery stock. Though it contains ranges of glasshouses and frames, this nursery has but little likeness to the conventional. Where it not for the name of the firm at the entrance, it might well be imagined to lead to the gardens of a country estate.”
We follow Edwin Lawrence’s first days at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show through to Sir Harold Hillier’s plant-hunting exploits and the development of the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens. The production of the famous Hillier Manual of Trees & Shrubs, and the transformation of the company under the direction of Robert Hillier and John Hiller from a large-scale mail-order retailer to the UK’s largest wholesale hardy plant nursery and specialist tree nursery.
The book has some excellent historical plates and photographs – ranging from family portraits, early catalogues and advertising bills, to diary excerpts and correspondence. Jean Hillier has also included a useful family tree so that we can keep track of the various branches of the family. The book is divided into chapters on the successive generations of Hilliers, from Edwin, to Edwin Lawrence, Harold and finally the fourth generation today. This is useful as it keeps the information in context and makes the history flow smoothly.
Hillier are proud holders of a Royal Warrant to HM the Queen, have won a record 68 consecutive RHS Chelsea Gold Medals, to date, and over its 150 year history have introduced numerous plants, many of which have become classics of British Gardens.
In ‘Hillier, The Plants, The People, The Passion’ Jean Hillier has compiled an absorbing and interesting story encompassing not only the founders and successive generations of the Hillier family, their employees, botanists, managers and production staff but also the stars of the book – the plants.
Published in Hardback at £20, with a Foreword by Roy Lancaster, ‘Hillier, The Plants, The People, The Passion’ is published by Outhouse Publishing and is available from www.hillieronline.co.uk
Picture Credits: All photographs. illustrations, are ©Hillier Nurseries and Garden Centres