Arthur Hellyer: the greatest garden writer of his generation?

When I was growing up, and it was the same for  my parents’ and even grandparents’ generations,  one of the great names in the gardening world was that of Arthur Hellyer, whose books were on every amateur gardeners shelves and whose life spanned almost the entire 20thc. He was a practical hands-on gardener, a highly respected gardening journalist and author and a professional to his fingertips.  

Arthur Hellyer, from The Garden 1993

In his obituary in  in The Garden in 1993 Alan Titchmarsh wrote‘Anyone who knew Arthur Hellyer will tell you two things about him. First that he was one of life’s gentlemen, and second that he had an all-round knowledge of gardening that few could rival…. his articles continued to be enquiring and erudite to the end”,  so read on to find out more about  “a man who must rank as one of the busiest gardening writers ever, but who was never too busy to be nice.’

 

photo by Navana Vandyck, from The Hahazard Gardener by Penny Hellyer

Arthur was born in Bristol in 1902 to comfortably off parents His father was an accountant and   became Auditeur-Comptable of the States of Jersey, his wife’s birthplace,   which required regular visits to the island but not permanent residence.  The family later moved to Clapham in south London which is where Arthur first learned about gardening:  ‘It was in 1915 or 1916, when I was no more than a small boy. My family, in common with tens of thousands of others, started to dig up the lawn and grow vegetables as our own small answer to the U-boat menace. We were endowed with much enthusiasm and a complete lack of knowledge, and I do not think that our efforts were crowned with much success. But I do remember in the intervals of struggling with the unkindly London clay spending happy hours poring over the pages of Cousins’ Chemistry of the Garden and H. H. Thomas’ Complete Gardener and finding a new world of delight that has remained with me ever since,”

Arthur contracted TB at the age of 15 and it was suggested that rather return to school  he work out of doors.   His first job was on a tomato farm on Guernsey, which apparently put him off raw tomatoes for life, before moving to work on a farm on  Jersey near his mother’s family. It was there he fell in love with flowers. ‘One of my earliest gardening memories,’ he told a meeting of The Jersey Society in London in 1968 , ‘is of my mother’s cousin, Mr Malzard of Prospect House, St Peter’s, growing the most marvellous double flowered begonias and turning the flowers of his hydrangeas blue by burying quantities of rusty nails around them. Maybe his begonias might not seem so wonderful today, but to my childish eyes they were the most luxurious blooms I had ever seen,”

His father died in 1921, and Arthur  moved back to Bristol with his mother and found a very poorly paid  job at a nursery[so whats new!],  Isaac House and Sons, of Bristol, where he was initially paid just 12s 6d (62.5p) a week.  Within a week they realised his potential and raised his wage to 15s. He went from being just a nursery boy to being a propagator and worked with the owners developing new strains of plant – one of which was the scabious ‘Clive Greaves’. [For more on that see Val Bourne’s 2008 article in the Telegraph]

He soon began organizing exhibits for them at shows. He was very successful and starting bringing back medals.  “Then I got too big for my boots”. After winning “a Large Gold Medal..I came back and asked for a rise. He refused to give me one so I left.” Within a season he became manager for another Bristol nursery, Luke Rogers and Sons, where he stayed until 1929.

A.J.Macself from The Haphazard Gardener

It was while working there he met A.J.Macself, the assistant editor of Amateur Gardening, the weekly horticultural magazine.  This, and a chance encounter with a jobbing gardener who was writing the occasional article for gardening magazines, prompted him to think :  ‘This is extraordinary; she doesn’t know as much about gardening as I do, and if she can write, why can’t I?’ Unfortunately his first effort was rejected by return of post and he gave up the idea for a while.

In May 1923, when on holiday in Jersey, he  met Thomas Sanders, the long established  editor of Amateur Gardening, and asked about the prospect of work. Sanders was clear: none whatsoever.  ‘I have one assistant editor, and he has been with me for 30 years. When he retires, I shall want one replacement. Those are the prospects.”   Sanders died in post the following year and was succeeded by his assistant, Macself. It was Macself who then accepted Hellyer’s first  short piece – on perovskia – in 1927, and the following year   asked if he would be interested in a post on a new publication aimed at professional nurserymen. Commercial Horticulture soon folded  but in that short time it Hellyer had proved himself  and he  moved sideways to become  Macself’s assistant at Amateur Gardening and he stayed  connected with the magazine for the next 35 years.

Apart from writing regular pieces he was set to work on  a revision of Sanders Encyclopaedia of Gardening. It was the first of many updates of Sanders work, although it was renamed twice in the process as Sanders name and reputation faded, firstly, after its publishers as Collingridge Encyclopaedia of Gardening, and then following another complete revision in the 1990s  as Hellyer’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening.

No sooner was that completed than Simple Rose Growing [1930], Practical Gardeners for Amateurs , Your New Garden and Your Garden Week by Week followed in orderly succession. But it was in January 1933 that he and Macself found themselves stretched.  The publishers offered readers a “gift book” that Spring for a collection of coupons from Amateur Gardening plus 2s6d. The problem was no-one seems to have told Macself.

They needed a quarter of a million words in less than 2 months.  By searching and revising earlier articles from the magazine, and writing others to fill the gaps as they went along the book – The Gardener’s Enquire Within – was finished in just six weeks, and became a best seller under Macself’s name with over 100,000 copies sold.

Arthur & Gay working the land at Rowfont, from The Haphazard Gardener

from the Haphazed Gardener

Amazingy while Enquire Within was being written Arthur got married. His wife, Gay Bolt,  was a teacher and botanist from a horticultural background. After a short while living in Wimbledon, the couple  built a house, Orchard Cottage [later Orchards] , on 6 acres [later extended to over 8] at Rowfont in Sussex.  There they created a sizeable garden  together out of uncultivated scrubland and bought up 3 children.    The gardens  developed slowly. “For the first few years, we did little with the field, beyond planting a few trees and building a little house that has grown with the years.”

They lived in a wooden shack while building the house themselves from scratch,   to a design based on a Canadian barn. It was completed in 1938 at a cost of £450.  And the “few trees” were declared to be of national importance in 1999 after they had been recorded for the Tree Register of the British Isles.

Orchards, in the late 1940s/early 1950s from The Haphazard Gardner

“Then came the war, and orchards became a smallholding managed by my wife and a couple of Land Girls and supporting an ever-growing stock of goats, chickens, ducks, rabbits and eventually a couple of cows …plus all manner of fruits and vegetables.”  Later the Hellyers were to inherit a large garden on Jersey as well and spent much of their time there. Their daughter Penny wrote The Haphazard Gardener about her time at Orchards and also writes a blog which has many other memories of her parents and is well worth looking at if you want to know more.

Like Mr Middleton, Arthur was too old to be called up but  played his part in  the war effort by helping the Dig for Victory campaign.  This led not just to the obvious coverage in the magazine but also War-time gardening for Home Needs, published in around 1940, and  the Amateur Gardening Pocket Guide,  in 1941. The Guide was continually reprinted until a second edition was published in 1956 when the country was still recovering from wartime austerity.

Typical front cover of Amateur Gardening in 1946, the year Hellyer became editor.

In 1946 Arthur took over the editorial chair at Amateur Gardener when Macself retired, and turned it into one of the great voices for horticulture in the post-war decades with a circulation which rose to  300,000 copies a week in 1957.  He stayed there until his retirement in 1967.  But not content with that, in 1947 he also took on the editorship of  the monthly magazine Gardening Illustrated, again staying until retirement

and a typical front cover the year he retired

Arthur Hellyer must have been something like a modern version of John Claudius Loudon – although in output rather than temperament! And Gay was his version of Jane Loudon, helping and contributing, often behind the scenes, but absolutely fundamental to his writing success.  He was a prolific writer, and turned his hand, and nursery experience, to writing books.

Quite how many its difficult to tell. The British Library catalogue lists 108 entries under his name, although other sources say 60 and yet others only 30. It depends whether one includes co-authorship, editing,  new editions or even ghost-writing.  Perhaps his most famous book was Popular Encyclopaedia of Flowering Plants, first issued in 1957,  which went into no less than 23 editions by the time of his death in 1993. This followed an earlier black and white Encyclopedia of Plant Portraits where I think he took all the photos himself. 

Most of his books are still in copyright but Plant Portraits can be found on archive.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Anna Pavord pointed out in her obituary notice there huge changes took place in horticulture between the publication of his first and last books. “For Arthur Hellyer, this was not an obstacle but an excitement. His views were never set in aspic” [Independent 6th FEb 1993]  

One example of that is his venture into a different publishing format: the advice card which could be  bought week by week and gradually built up into a boxed equivalent of a book. They’re still popular on e-bay.

The front vista from Orchards, 1960s. Photo by Penelope Hellyer

 

But it wasn’t just books. There were almost countless articles for The Garden, the journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, as well as features in Country Life and Homes and Gardens.  But still more relentless in terms of timing and pressure   he also wrote a weekly gardening column for the Financial Times without fail for over 33 years, and it was only with the onset of serious illness in 1992 that he asked to be excused duty for a few weeks.

Arthur & Gay from the Island Wiki

The caravan as a henhouse from The Haphazrd Gardener

1967  was a momentous year, marking as it did his retirement from editorial work. Gay had also retired from her work teaching and with their children all adult they were suddenly freed from the constraints of schedules and timetables.  They bought a caravan and toured the country visiting gardens which led him to comment:”I expect we saw more gardens in those two years than most people see in their whole lives.”  This was to lead to the Shell Guide to Gardens in 1977.  After Gay died the caravan became a henhouse!

They also travelled the world visiting the  United States, Europe, Southern Africa and the Soviet Union.   He became a director of Collingridge, the publishers of Amateur Gardening and also acted as an adviser to Cramphorn’s and their garden centres.

 

 

 

 

 

Everything Hellyer wrote came from experience and an enthusiasm to share. He was always clear, informed, and accessible to a wide readership. Nor was he blind to changes in science, circumstance or taste.

As a result, he became one of the most respected and popular garden and gardening writers in Britain although unlike Mr Middleton and Percy Thrower  he didn’t ever make, a breakthrough  into radio and TV. In fact he turned down opportunities to work on both.  One side effect was that did not become a household name, amongst non-gardeners, in the way that they did.  He was old school, quietly professional and never saw the need to be glitzy or glamorous.

from Country Life, 17th Dec 1992

Outside of journalism and he took a very active part in other parts of the horticultural word. He served for many years on committees of the Royal Horticultural Society, eventually becoming a judge at Chelsea and  a Vice President.  He was also involved with  the Royal National Rose Society,  the National Gardens Scheme, the Hardy Plant Society [which he helped originate] and  the Garden History Society [one of the Gardens Trust’s predecessor organizations] , where, again, he had been a founder-member. Throughout his career he  was also a keen supporter  of  the Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society, [now Perennial] a charity which cares for elderly gardeners and their wives, and he spent his last few days in their home at Henfield in Sussex.

When he reached 90 the Financial Times gave him a half-page spread and Country Life gave him their main picture slot.  He was awarded the MBE in 1967, and in 1976  the Royal Horticultural Society  gave him  the Victoria Medal of Honour, its most prestigious award.

I’ll leave the last word to Anna Pavord: “His industry was astonishing, his knowledge immense, his benevolence unparalleled. Arthur Hellyer set the highest possible standards for our whippersnapper generation of gardening correspondents.” Its not surprising he is generally considered the greatest all round gardening writer of his generation. 

from Arthur Hellyer’s All-colour book of indoor and greenhouse plants, 1973

 

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