Perennial: A story of compassion brought about by mavericks

21 May 2024


4 min read

This year marks a significant milestone in the history of Perennial, formerly known as The Gardeners’ Benevolent Institution, as we commemorate our 185th year of service to the horticulture community. Founded on January 17, 1839, during an annual dinner for 'nurserymen, florists, and amateurs' at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in London, our charity has a rich history deeply rooted in compassion and support for gardeners.

From our inception, the Gardeners’ Benevolent Institution set out with a noble purpose: to provide financial assistance to gardeners, particularly head gardeners, in their retirement years. This initiative stemmed from a recognition that many individuals who dedicated their lives to tending to estates and public gardens faced financial insecurity in their later years. Despite their lifelong dedication, low wages often left them without the means to support themselves after retirement, leading to the loss of their tied property and financial struggles.

Over the past 185 years, we have remained steadfast in our commitment to helping individuals within horticulture. Through various programmes and initiatives, we continue to provide essential assistance to those experiencing hardships, ensuring that they can live with dignity and security during their working lives and retirement years.

As we reflect on our journey spanning nearly two centuries, we are reminded of the enduring impact of compassion and community support. Perennial's legacy serves as a testament to the power of collective action in uplifting and empowering individuals within the gardening community. As we look ahead to the future, we remain dedicated to our mission of providing assistance, guidance, and support to gardeners across the nation, honouring the spirit of compassion that has guided us for 185 years and counting.

Originally called the Gardeners’ Benevolent Institution, our creation was first proposed in 1839 by George Glenny who was a florist, garden journalist and agitator. A true maverick of his day. His motive and reasoning was little more than that other trades had a benevolent fund, and it was reported as: ‘While the butchers, bakers, drapers and almost every other class of tradesmen had their benevolent associations, he expressed his surprise that none had hitherto been attempted for so scientific and useful a body as the gardeners, [and] he did not know of any class who had so great a claim.'

Being set up as a friendly society, our key purpose was to dispense pensions, and our past is filled with stories of people who we’ve helped and those who have helped us. Modern society may have evolved since our creation, but the struggles people faced back then were real and sadly too similar to many challenges faced by too many people today. The Institution remained a pension-granting body for 100 years until state pensions were introduced in the early 20th century.

In this article Jonathan Sharpe, Perennial Marketing Manager, ventures into our archive with garden historian and Perennial archivist Francesca Murray to bring to light the lives of real people and businesses from the early part of our past and to share their captivating stories.

The first pension is awarded

The first gardener to be awarded a pension, in 1840, was John Standen, an estate gardener born in 1780, from Steyning in Sussex. Two years later Sarah Attlee, née Franklin, was the first widow awarded a pension in 1842. She was the widow of nurseryman William Attlee, and the 1841 census shows her living surrounded by gardeners in Hollow Road, Beddington, Croydon.

Persistence finally pays off

Those who applied to receive a pension weren’t always successful, with many people applying year after year. Edward Marshall, a Northumbrian gardener from Alnwick, persisted in his efforts. After thirteen attempts, in 1854 he finally achieved success. His case was helped after an appeal was published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle for the lengthiest applicants to be considered for immediate election. Regrettably, he passed away two years later in 1856 aged 76.

Elsley wanted to ensure that he could resume his pension if the legacy did not continue and it was resolved in the treasurer’s letter to him that ‘if ever you should be in a position to do without the pension and gave it up voluntarily and should need it again in the future, you would be put on the funds again without expense of the election’. He was reinstated on the pension list in 1903.

The competitive edge

Sir Harry Veitch was one of the most successful nurserymen of the Victorian age. As well as being the head of the family business, James Veitch & Sons (one of the leading nurseries of the time), he was also Treasurer of the Institution for 25 years. To ensure he had the competitive edge over his rivals, he sent numerous plant collectors across the world to search for new species. In 1912, Veitch was knighted for his pivotal role in founding the Chelsea Flower Show and for his outstanding contributions to horticulture, making him the first horticulturist to receive such an honour.

Pineapple Place Nurseries

Growing pineapples has appealed to estate owners and skilled gardeners since the 17th century. Due to the challenging conditions for growing pineapples in the UK, along with the associated costs, they quickly became emblematic of status, wealth, and prosperity. Hence, they are frequently featured in stonework and grand gates. Edward George Henderson was a nurseryman whose family firm owned numerous nurseries including the wonderfully named nursery on Pineapple Place in St John’s Wood. Henderson’s Pineapple Nursery has been described as one of the great Victorian nurseries, and as a business they were big supporters of the Institution, sat on many committees and supported numerous candidates through the pension award process.

As we look back at the difficulties of the past and see the challenges people still face today, it’s clear that some things haven’t changed. But through it all, we’re still here, offering support, assistance and guidance to those managing similar issues. With the incredible backing of our supporters, we're determined to keep going for another 185 years. Thank you for being part of our journey.