During my time at Myddelton House, one of the greatest honours was to meet and know Frances Perry VMH. My first visit was one of great trepidation because she well deserved her reputation for not suffering fools gladly. One of the grand dames of British horticulture she lived most of her life in the area and she married Gerald Perry in 1930, son of the famous Amos Perry who owned the world famous Perry’s Hardy Plant Farm. Her first job was working there after being encouraged to take up gardening by E A Bowles. This was unusual because, as far as is known, she was the only female he helped – the evening class and other activities were for boys. She married Roy Hay VMH (1977), another horticultural heavyweight, after the death of her first husband in 1964.
She was best known for her many books and her columns such as that in the Observer. But she was also Principal of Norwood Hall Institute and College of Horticulture and was instrumental in the early development of Capel Manor College which is just down the road.
She knew Myddelton well and saw the garden fall into a poor state and was not a great fan of what she saw happening to it. She served on a committee to oversea work there before I became Head Gardener. One of the rules she imposed, which I broke, was that hoes were not to be used. She insisted that they were never allowed in Bowles’ time and I am sure they were not. If you hoe off seedlings you won’t get to see all those novel plants that Bowles was famous for. But when the workforce is reduced from seven to one or two, things have to change.
I wanted to pour oil on troubled waters so trotted off down the road to see her and Roy Hay. He was a tall man and very protective of her but stayed out of the way while she showed me round the garden. Oddly, she seemed curiously absent minded as she discussed the plants and it did not take me long to realise that I was being tested! Fortunately I seemed to pass the test and by the end of the meeting I was told I was free to visit when I liked. I remember that every time I did pop round, usually during my lunch, I was liberally applied with sherry.
Their garden was perfectly kept and packed with plants and her study insulated with well stocked book cases.
From time to time, in the early days, she would lead groups around the garden (seen below with Roy Hay) but that soon stopped as my work got going. Roy Hay died in 1989 and Frances then moved to Devon and she died in 1993 but her name and books live on as strongly as ever.
- VMH is the Victoria Medal of Honor, the highest award given by the RHS. Only 63 people can hold the award at any time, to commemorate the number of years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Roy Hay received his in 1970 and Frances a year later.