Coronavirus, seeds and Samuel Ryder

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

The environmental crisis has made people realise the value of greening, whether the planting of trees or pollinating plants. The Coronavirus pandemic is also now making people aware of the virtues of growing your own produce and allotments are flourishing - not just because people have time on their hands with forced social distancing or isolation (working on an allotment is classified by the government as taking exercise) but through a realisation that cheap imported food cannot be the future. Apart from the vulnerability of the supply chain, there are environmental issues of greenhouse gases, water use, fertiliser overuse, erosion of soil and the general threat to the health and biodiversity of landscapes.The culture of growing produce from seed is once more on the rise and this made me think of St Albans famous figure Samuel Ryder. Known throughout the golfing world as the original sponsor of the biennial golfing competition between Great Britain (Europe after 1979) and the USA, the Ryder Cup, he was also the inventor of the penny packet of seeds. After falling out with his father who ran a garden nursery, florist and seed merchant business near Manchester he moved south to London and then to St Albans. After working for another seed merchant Samuel set up his own business.By the 1890s he had started to be very successful through selling his penny packets of seeds by post, using the railway to send them across the country. With his cheap seeds, he made growing your own plants and produce available to all. At first, he and his family worked from his garden shed in a terraced house in Folly Lane but as he became more successful and expanded his business he needed to find new premises. In 1903 he acquired property on Holywell Hill and later, demolishing the old building, he commissioned a local architect and friend, Percival Blow, to design a new head office. This was constructed in 1911 (and is now the Clarion Collection Hotel). Some twenty years later the same architect designed next door to the office a show hall for displaying Ryder’s seeds and plants. Where the office is built in a Georgian style with red brick and stone, the seed hall is very different, a modernist (if not art deco) glass-roofed pavilion of delight, airy and light (which is now the Café Rouge).Samuel Ryder was a stalwart of St Albans: a counsellor from 1905-1916, mayor in 1905; a leading religious supporter of a dissident church. Probably best remembered by most people as the founder of the Ryder Cup, I shall always think of him as the man who brought democratisation to growing seeds through his penny packets.It is high time there was a 'Blue Plaque' honouring his memory on Percy Blows notable buildings!

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