- Suki Urquhart
Eckford, Henry (1823–1905), gardener and hybridist, was born at Stenhouse, near Liberton, Midlothian, on 17 May 1823, the seventh of eight children of James Eckford (1780–1826), a well-to-do farmer, and his wife, Isabel, née Pirie (1794–1876). His father died when he was still in infancy. He attended school in the Stenhouse area before being sent north, at the age of fifteen, to be apprenticed as a gardener at Beaufort Castle, Beauly, Inverness-shire, the seat of Lord Lovat. After three years he returned south where he worked at the garden of James Hogg at New Liston House, outside Edinburgh, and was subsequently garden foreman at Fingask Castle, Perthshire, Penicuik House, Midlothian, and Oxenfoord Castle, East Lothian.
In 1847, aged twenty-four and with ten years' experience at some of Scotland's best known estates, Eckford travelled to London with a letter of introduction from William McNab of the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens. Until the rank of head gardener was reached, it was normal to move from post to post to gain experience, so Eckford's frequent change of employer was unremarkable. His first position was with Hugh Low (1793–1863), a fellow Scot, who owned a famous orchid nursery in Clapton, near London. He next went to work for Colonel Baker, a dahlia expert in Salisbury, under the direction of the head gardener and plant hybridist William Dodds (1807/8–1900). They formed a lifelong friendship while working with tropical and subtropical plants in the glass houses. Eckford moved next to Trentham Park, the Staffordshire seat of the duke of Sutherland, and then on to Caen Wood (Kenwood) in Middlesex. While living in London he married, on 6 April 1857, Charlotte (1831–1873), daughter of Job Stainer, gardener, of Islington, London. They had four sons and two daughters.
About 1858 Eckford settled down for a twenty-year stint as head gardener for the earl of Radnor at Coleshill in Wiltshire. Here he raised dahlias, pelargoniums, and verbenas, achieving recognition for his introductions. His wife died giving birth to a still-born child on 30 November 1873 and was buried in Coleshill cemetery. He married, second, at Coleshill on 30 January 1875, Emily (1843–1942), daughter of Godfrey Gerring, farmer. There were no children of his second marriage.
In 1878 Eckford was invited to work in the gardens of the lunatic asylum at Sandywell Park, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, run by the physician William Henry Octavius Sankey (1814–1889). Sankey was a keen amateur hybridist himself and together they raised seedlings of florist's flowers at Sandywell and then, from 1882, at Boreatton Park, Shropshire, where Sankey moved his asylum.
The sweet pea experiments for which Eckford became famous started in 1879 when he obtained the best varieties of both edible and ornamental sweet peas and set to work to raise new varieties of both. He was looking for a new cut flower to compete with the ever-popular verbena. The original scented sweet pea was a simple hooded flower in purples and reds with white. It had hardly changed since its introduction from Sicily in 1699 when Father Cupani sent seeds to Britain to Dr Uvedale at Enfield. By careful cross-fertilization and selection Eckford developed new sweet pea varieties with longer stalks, multiple flower heads, a heady fragrance, and in a range of colours, that were able to flower for seven months of the year. He was particularly associated with large-flowered varieties, termed ‘grandifloras’. One of his earliest cultivars, Bronze Prince, raised from varieties purchased from the famous Lee Nursery in Hammersmith, won a Royal Horticultural Society award in 1882, and thereafter his cultivars were regularly exhibited at the society's shows.
In 1888, aged sixty-five, Eckford finally set up his own nursery on land he leased at Wem, on the Welsh border, in rolling countryside reminiscent of his childhood home in southern Scotland. He described it as 'a place quite out of the way, where people would leave me alone, and where I could grow my peas' (Martin, Henry Eckford). He joined the Baptist church in Wem and was also a member of the urban district council while continuing to develop his beloved peas. His business prospered and demand grew to the extent that varieties were being sent as far afield as California. The Canadian-born Washington Atlee Burpee, who started the Burpee Seed Company of Philadelphia, became a friend and marketed Eckford's seedlings, including the successful Blanche Burpee, named for Burpee's wife in 1893, followed by Sadie Burpee in 1897. A craze for sweet peas in America made Eckford's name across the Atlantic while in Britain sweet peas became the most popular flower of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.
In 1900, from one of Eckford's seedlings, came a pale pink ‘sport’ (variation) whose standard and wings had wavy edges. It was bred by Silas Cole, head gardener at Althorp, seat of the earls Spencer, and once the seeds were ‘fixed’ it started the famous Spencer strain of sweet peas. Eckford exhibited at the proceedings in 1900 at the Crystal Palace to mark the bicentenary of the introduction of the sweet pea to Britain and became first president of the newly formed Sweet Pea Society in 1904. He was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society's Victoria medal of honour in 1905. Regarded as the father of the sweet pea, 'he found the Sweet Pea little known and as little valued, and transformed it into that glorious annual which is now found in almost every British garden', an expert breeder wrote of his achievement (Unwin, 4). Sporting a profuse white beard, his lanky figure could be seen bicycling around Wem into his eighties. Eckford died at 31 Noble Street, Wem, Shropshire, on 5 December 1905, and was buried in the New Street cemetery in Wem. His second wife and three of the children of his first marriage survived him. His son John Stainer Eckford (1864–1944) carried on the seed business at Wem.
- G. Martin, ‘Henry Eckford’, priv. coll.
- G. Martin, ‘The father of the Queen’, National Sweet Pea Society's Journal (2002)
- The Garden (28 July 1900)
- Gardeners' Chronicle (16 Dec 1905)
- Journal of Horticulture and Home Farmer (14 Dec 1905)
- M. Hadfield, R. Harling, and L. Highton, British gardeners: a biographical dictionary (1980)
- C. W. J. Unwin, Sweet peas: their history, development, culture (1926)
- census returns, 1861, 1891
- m. certs.
- d. cert.
- engraving, repro. in The Garden
- photograph, repro. in Gardeners' Chronicle, 432
- photograph, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York, New York, USA, Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh
- photograph, Royal Horticultural Society, London; repro. in The glory of the garden: a loan exhibition in association with the Royal Horticultural Society (Sotheby's, 1987), 209
Wealth at Death
£3795 19s. 0d.: probate, 19 Dec 1906, CGPLA Eng. & Wales