Developing a career in horticulture takes more than just a passion for plants; you also need plenty of hard work and dedication! Archive Volunteer, Tony Bucknall, shares the inspiring story of Fred Saunders, a man who overcame a tough start in life to become a successful horticulturalist and TV personality.
During the 1960s, Fred Saunders came to the attention of the public as the gardening expert in the BBC television show ‘Gardening Club’, fronted by Percy Thrower. Despite poverty and hardship in childhood, Fred’s unwavering commitment to horticulture enabled him to forge a successful career and to achieve national fame.
Members of Fred’s family have kindly donated Fred’s horticultural books to Winterbourne, and this donation has prompted us to throw a spotlight on his life. This article draws upon information provided by Fred’s family, supplemented by further research.
Fred Saunders was born in 1903. He was one of four children from his mother’s second marriage and, sadly, in 1909 their mother died. Subsequently, the children were admitted to Marston Green Children’s Homes where the boys and girls were segregated.
The Marston Green Homes were created in 1879 by the Birmingham Poor Law Guardians, who had responsibility for the ‘paupers’ of Birmingham, including families in the workhouses. The Guardians were concerned that children growing up in the workhouses would learn ‘bad habits’ from the adults and become the criminals of the future. While the adults were assumed to have ended up in the workhouse through their life choices, the children were seen as innocent victims who deserved a second chance.
Sir Henry Manton was credited with setting up the Marston Green Homes and received his knighthood for social reform. This Birmingham initiative for helping poor children drew great praise from a German delegation visiting in 1910, which stated that they had ‘given the lead to the whole World’. This delegation also visited the Moor Pool Estate to see John Nettlefold’s innovative ‘garden city’ and took home a copy of John’s book on town planning to present to the Kaiser.
When Fred joined Marston Green Homes in around 1911, there were 438 children there. The Homes comprised 14 cottages (seven each for girls and boys) staffed by foster parents, each cottage accommodating 30 children. There was a school, infirmary, swimming pool, farm, and workshops to facilitate training for work in service or elsewhere. One initiative was to train children in farm work for emigration to work on farms in Canada and Australia.
Fred would have been separated from his three little sisters, and life in the children’s home was hard. The food and clothing were no better than those provided in the workhouses. In later life, Fred recalled feeling hungry and being cold in winter, especially at night. He recalled one boy dying because of the treatment he received.
However, Fred gained skills at the Homes which stood him in good stead later. Not only did he learn how to knit socks for the soldiers during the Great War, but he also received an introduction to gardening. His family explain: ‘It was at the children’s home that Fred’s love of gardening began. He was put to work in the gardens of the Homes, where he was befriended by the gardeners employed to ensure the Homes were self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. They turned a blind eye when Fred, suffering from hunger, pulled up raw vegetables to eat. He worked with the gardeners before and after whatever school lessons he attended with no extra clothes to wear and certainly no waterproofs during inclement weather.’
Online newspaper archives reveal that during Fred’s last year at the Homes there was an experiment to see how successful the boys would be at growing potatoes. Three fields were donated outside the Marston Green Homes. The project was a huge success: an expenditure of £15 15s 6d yielded a profit of £54 17s 6d. Considering Fred’s growing interest in gardening, it seems likely that he would have been involved in this project.
On leaving the Homes at the age of 14, Fred was given a booklet which set out how former residents were expected to behave. Alongside exhortations to remember their duty to God, the children were also told to rise early, be punctual, be clean and be diligent in their business. Despite the privations of the Homes, Fred certainly seems to have demonstrated these qualities in later life!
Fred returned to the area where he was brought up in the back-to-back houses of Ladywood. He stayed with an elderly couple called William and Elizabeth Holton at 2 Denbigh Place, Ruston Street, Ladywood. Whilst living with the Holtons, Fred joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (Territorials) and played a flute in the band. There is a cross under Fred in the group photo.
Fred got a job in a factory in Ladywood, but, as his family recall, ‘the factory job didn’t last long, as he hated it!’ Gardening was obviously his calling, and, with the help of his extended family, he obtained employment with gardeners who worked at the affluent residences of Edgbaston. The semi-rural environment of Edgbaston must have been a stark contrast with Fred’s inner-city home.
Meanwhile, Fred met and married Hilda Isabella Hudson who had lived in this area of Ladywood all her life.
Following their marriage in 1928, they lived at Number 4, Back of 117 Ruston Street. Hilda grew up at Number 2, Back of 117 Ruston Street, so this marriage did not involve a long-distance move for her! The fact that there were 4 separate addresses at the back of one property shows how desperately overcrowded the back-to-backs were.
Following their marriage, Fred and Hilda were both active members of the Ladywood Ward Unionist Workers League and helped to campaign for Geoffrey Lloyd who was elected MP for Ladywood in 1931. Fred and Hilda are at the centre of this photo with Hilda wearing the white stole.
Alongside this political involvement, Fred threw himself into horticulture, absorbing knowledge and gaining experience. He worked at Edgbaston Golf Club and by 1939 he was Head Gardener at Berrow Court in Edgbaston, living on the premises at the Old Cottage. Berrow Court is a Grade II listed Victorian building with extensive gardens and, as it was home to the Kenrick family in the nineteenth century, has connections to Winterbourne.
The Nettlefolds would have known the house well, and the Nettlefold, Chamberlain and Kenrick families were closely linked through marriage. The house later became a residential home for the elderly, and John Nettlefold’s sister Ruth lived her last years there. It’s now a wedding venue.
By 1944, Fred was gardener at the Convent of the Holy Child, now Priory School in Edgbaston. At this time, he decided to formalise his horticultural education. The family recall:
‘Encouraged by Hilda, his wife, it was here that he studied horticulture and successfully passed exams set by the Royal Horticulture Society to which he later became a member. The academic books he needed for his studies were purchased for him by his elder step-sister and these he referred to and treasured all his life.’
These books have now become part of Winterbourne’s collection. Fred annotated them with his working address at 39 Sir Harry’s Road.
By the 1960s, Fred had moved to Dowar Road in Rednal and had become a gardener at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. It was clearly a varied role as, in 1961, he was referred to as a propagator and his responsibilities included green banana plants, a miniature rice field in the corner of the pond, lotus and papyrus plants, plus the lovely Amazon lily.
In 1964, online newspaper archives reveal that Fred was now a Greenhouses Manager, one of his duties being the propagation of the dwarf banana species Musa Cavendishii. He was photographed holding an extra-large ‘hand’ of bananas.
One of the highlights of the horticultural year was the Birmingham Chrysanthemum, Fruit and Vegetable show, and in 1965, Fred, now the Greenhouses Foreman, busily prepared a chrysanthemum display as Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ entry in the show. The smallest flowers are the Charms and Cascades, each flower bearing a single row of petals a little bigger than a 10p coin. But each plant boasted hundreds of blooms and made a beautiful spectacle when fully out and it was one of these displays that Fred was working on.
Fred’s public profile was generated when he became guest expert and ‘back-up’ gardener to Percy Thrower, the BBC’s television gardener in the popular TV gardening show, called ‘Gardening Club’. This was filmed at Birmingham Botanical Gardens in a space known to viewers as ‘Greenacres’. The family recall: ‘Fred’s knowledge and experience was obviously appreciated by Percy Thrower as in 1967, two years before he died, Fred was invited to accompany Percy on a Gardeners’ cruise to the Canary Islands.’
Fred presented many varied gardening tasks during his time on the show from 1961. These included autumn work, winter digging and, in the photo below taken during the show on 17 May 1963, laying a concrete slab path with the renowned DIY expert Barry Bucknell. On this show they also covered fixing posts and straining wires for cordon fruit, installing a pool and fountain, and general culture in the vegetable and flower area. Then, later in the year, on the 16 November he talked about flowers for the winter in the garden and greenhouse.
The family describe Fred’s retirement:
‘Fred and Hilda were eventually able to buy their own home in Dowar Road, Rednal, where they lived through their retirement. The front garden of this modest semi was colourfully planted every summer, while the back garden was where Fred cultivated and grew vegetables, roses and chrysanthemums. During his retirement he still used and shared his gardening skills as he gave talks to gardening clubs all over Birmingham and judged at local flower and vegetable shows.’
The Winchcombe Flower Show in September 1966 were particularly pleased to obtain the services of Fred to open the show and act as judge, referring to him as a ‘TV garden personality’. Then later in the year he was one of the judges in the Meriden rural area ‘best kept garden’ competition.
Throughout his life, Fred seems to have grasped every possible opportunity to pursue his passion for gardening, regardless of the obstacles facing him. His books, some of which are now on display on the bookshelves at Winterbourne, are a permanent reminder of this remarkable man.