Seeds: a packet history

In 1797 James Cuthbert travelled to London to seek his fortune. Two hundred years later his seed empire is still thriving, says Michael Leapman

Like many others, I first became aware of gardening and its alluring possibilities when, as a child, I was trailed through Woolworths in the high street of my home town. There, tucked away in the furthest recesses of the shop, beyond the mahogany counters cram-med with tempting sweets and toys, my eyes were drawn by racks of packets bearing pictures of flowers and vegetables in impossibly bright colours.

The chances are that the name on those first seed packets I saw was R & G Cuthbert's, the venerable garden supplier that this year celebrates both its 200th birthday and the 60th anniversary of its Woolworths connection.

Today, although the patterns of seed marketing and of high street retailing have changed beyond recognition, Cuthbert's seeds, now in less frenetic packaging, still dominate Woolworths' racks and are sold there in exclusivity.

Cuthbert's long history encompasses much of the story of British gardening, which over two centuries, has changed from being mainly a hobby of wealthy property-owners into a huge industry that draws in people of every class. But one thing has remained constant, whether you are a weather-beaten long-term fanatic, or a bedazzled child badgering a parent to give you that first magical packet: buying seeds is buying dreams. Your flowers may never achieve the perfection of the picture on the sleeve: the joy is in striving for it.

In 1797, James Cuthbert walked (or so the story goes) from his native Scotland to London to seek his fortune. He stopped a few miles short at Southgate, which is now a part of the Greater London sprawl, but was then a village surrounded by open fields. There he established a company that provided landscaping services and garden supplies for aristocrats, along with their other necessities such as servants' livery, tea and gunpowder.

This was in a time before suburbia was invented, and the ornamental gardening was largely the preserve of the land-owning classes. Villagers who were lucky enough to have a small patch of land behind their cottages would normally use it to grow food for their families. Gardeners on the big estates would save much of their own seed from the previous year. Otherwise seeds were sold by nursery men, usually loose from barrels or drawers rather than in ready-filled packets.

James Cuthbert's sons, Richard and George, are the "R and G" of the firm's present name. They concentrated on growing plants and fruit, notably strawberries, for the market as well as for gardeners. Later generations of Cuthberts developed a trade in garden shrubs, becoming famous for camellias and azaleas - just the things to add colour to the suburban gardens that began to spring up in Victorian times.

In 1933 the Cuthberts' nursery was bought by London Transport and Southgate underground station now stands on the site. The company name was acquired by a flamboyant marketing genius named Clayton Russon, who re-established it further out from London at Goff's Oak in Hertfordshire.

According to Bert Reeves, who worked for Cuthbert's from 1945 until he retired as managing director in 1977, Russon was a dynamic and colourful chairman. "He would never get up early, but he always worked late into the night," says Reeves. "Many is the time I remember having to drive back from his house at 2am after a meeting that had run on into the night." Later Russon became Sir Clayton and he was still the chairman when he died in 1968, aged 72. His wife Gladys then took over the company for a few years.

Russon's best-remembered contribution to the cultural life of the nation was a regular advertisement he wrote from 1935 until the Sixties, called "Mr Cuthbert's Weekly Garden Talk". In closely-packed, small type, it appeared every Saturday on the front page of the Times and sometimes in other papers.

The ads were eagerly awaited by hundreds of thousands of admirers. They were not always confined to gardening alone, but would embrace other important events in the life of the nation. In November 1954, for example, on the occasion of Sir Winston Churchill's 80th birthday, Russon, alias Mr Cuthbert, wrote: "Seldom in the history of the world has a human star scintillated so brightly, bedimming the gleams of his contemporaries ... Seldom has any race been blessed with such a patriot. To this great and gallant gentleman we bend our knee, and stirred with emotion, send our affectionate and heart-felt felicitations."

But Russon was not a man to let emotion get in the way of his sales pitch for too long. Immediately below this encomium, in identical type, was another of his announcements: "Half price sale offer: Spring flowering bulbs; Darwin tulips pounds l for 100."

The years before the Second World War had seen the rise of the high street chain stores. Woolworths was the dominant name and soon it had captured a large proportion of the domestic gardening market. Russon, spotting an opportunity, managed to negotiate a deal to provide a range of prepacked bulbs and then seeds to the chain, while continuing with the thriving mail- order business he had developed.

The first Cuthbert's seeds appeared on Woolworths' counters in 1937, selling for just two old pennies per packet. Thanks to colour printing technology, it was possible to package the seeds in the bright envelopes that have ever since proved a potent marketing tool. In those days the pictures were idealised drawings, which were replaced by colour photographs in the Sixties.

During the war, Cuthbert`s efforts, like those of the rest of the horticulture industry, were devoted to producing and selling vegetable seeds as part of the "Dig for Victory" campaign. On the Government's instructions, the precious seed stocks and the firm's head office were moved to Llangollen in North Wales, for fear of bombing in the Home Counties. When peace returned, the production of flower seeds quickly resumed and they were eagerly sought by a nation which was keen to return to the domestic certainties of the pre-war years. "There were still shortages of many goods and Woolworths were finding it hard to get enough merchandise to fill their counters," Reeves recalls. "We homed in on that and got a lot of extra counters for our seeds at the height of the season."

In 1959, Clay Jones, later to become a much-loved radio gardening expert, joined the company. Soon his communications skills were being exploited in training Woolworths' staff to answer questions about Cuthbert's seeds. He took with him a "handbook for the Hortigirl" - a name for the horticultural counter assistants that, for some reason, never really caught on.

As the market became ever more competitive, seed companies were forced to merge to survive. Cuthbert's first took over the mail order firm of Dobie's and then the famous Carter's Tested Seed Company. Eventually, in 1976, Cuthbert's was itself acquired by a Swedish firm.

It has changed hands several times since and is now part of Vilmorin et cie, the giant French horticultural group. It shares production and office facilities with Sutton's Seeds of Torquay, another member of the group.

The retail market has also changed, with a boom in garden centres and do-it-yourself chains with strong horticultural sections. Woolworths has closed hundreds of smaller shops, and is now down to 780 branches from a post-war high of some 1,300. After having the mass seed market effectively to themselves for many years, they have seen their share drop sharply.

"Seeds are everywhere, they are even sold in supermarkets," says Roger Danbury, the mail order director of Sutton's, who managed the Cuthbert brand in the Eighties. "Their distribution has increased dramatically."

At the same time more and more gardeners are turning to young plants sold in plugs of compost. These are much more expensive than seeds but suit today's busy lifestyles, when the time available for sowing seeds and planting in our borders, patio pots and hanging baskets is always being squeezed.

As people increasingly choose to grow flowers this comparatively easy way, the balance of demand between flower and vegetable seeds has shifted. Vegetables, long the underdogs, are now drawing level with flowers.

"In the Sixties, flower seeds out- sold vegetables by a long way," says Danbury. "Then, in the mid-Seventies, there was a massive swing towards vegetables, partly because of television programmes such as The Good Life and also because of high vegetable prices in the shops. In the Eighties there was a drift back to flowers but in the last two or three years vegetables have come up again."

Woolworths is now selling an increasing range of young plants alongside its seed packets. And it uses the Cuthbert brand-name on them, as well as on many other of their garden products, although they are not produced by the Torquay Seed Company.

Despite these new market factors, Woolworths still sells more seeds than any other chain and Cuthbert's remains their most popular brand - partly because, with packet prices starting at 49p, it provides good value on its range of about 100 best-selling varieties.

Phil Kabane, Woolworths' gardening buyer, makes the point that most of its branches are still in high streets rather than out-of-town shopping centres. "Seeds are light and easy to carry," he points out. "Many people who buy seeds, as opposed to plants, tend to be older, and they don't always have access to a car, so they still come to the high street for their shopping.

"It's true that the market is changing, but I don't foresee a time yet when we won't be carrying seeds in Wool-worths." For as long as that remains the case, optimistic gardeners will still be able to gaze at the racks, seeking inspiration for their technicolour dreams of paradise. And who knows, one day Mr Cuthbert's homilies about life, horticulture and rock- bottom prices may even come back into fashion. !

WHEN TO PLANT SEEDS

May is a good month to sow seeds of hardy annuals outdoors, because the soil is warming up and germination will be rapid. Seeds sown between now and early June will give a good show in late summer and autumn. Many vegetables and herbs will also produce late crops from a May sowing. They include French and runner beans; beetroot; Brussels sprouts; carrots; chives; courgettes and marrows; fennel; lettuce; peas; purslane; radicchio; radishes; rocket; salsify; spinach and turnips.

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