As the forerunner of today’s horticultural TV stars and the first celebrity gardener in Great Britain, Percy Thrower was the voice of gardening on the radio in the 1950s. He was also a writer and enjoyed a long career in broadcasting, when stars such as Alan Titchmarsh were still in short trousers!
Despite being a presenter on the radio and television for around four decades, the Little Horwood-born star said he always thought of himself as a gardener first and a broadcaster second. He admitted being a broadcaster wasn’t even a close second to his love of gardening.
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It’s not surprising he had such a love of horticulture, as his father, Harry, who hailed from Felixstowe, was green-fingered too. For many years, Harry worked as head gardener at the country residence of the wealthy Denny family, Horwood House. The Grade II listed building in Buckinghamshire dated from 1911 and boasted a huge apple orchard.
In 1927, at the age of 14, Percy also began working there. Thanks to his father’s influence, he was given a good grounding in horticultural skills. He soon proved to be excellent at his job, with an aptitude for gardening.
As a result, he successfully applied to be a gardener at Windsor Castle when he was 18, earning £1 a week – around £60 in today’s money. He moved on again in 1935 and started work for the City of Leeds Parks Department. He studied at college at the same time and passed his Royal Horticultural Society general examination.
During the second world war, he became a lecturer at Derby Technical College and was a key supporter of the Dig For Victory campaign, leading local efforts. After the war, however, he was less popular. Taking a job as parks superintendent in Shrewsbury at the age of 32, he was tasked with the controversial job of tree-felling.
The Quarry Park had fallen into a poor state before Percy’s time. In particular, it had been neglected during the war. He was told he must fell an avenue of lime trees – a task which was very unpopular among local people. He had no choice, as they must be cut down.
Percy was also responsible for turning a neglected area of land, The Dingle, in Quarry Park, into a thriving haven of plant life. This led to his broadcasting career, after a visitor arrived at the park’s entrance, Quarry Lodge, in 1947, and asked who was in charge of maintaining The Dingle.
Percy replied that he was and the visitor said he was Godfrey Baseley, the host of a radio programme called Beyond the Back Door. Baseley was so impressed with Percy’s handiwork that he offered him a job as resident gardener on the programme.
Of course, Percy accepted and this launched his hugely successful path as a celebrity gardener. After his radio career took off, he made his first TV appearance on the BBC show, Picture Page, which followed his design endeavours in a garden in Berlin in 1951.
Percy became the nation’s favourite gardener over the next three decades, with his down-to-earth and natural approach endearing him to his audience.
The show that he’s best remembered for is the long-running BBC programme that celebrated its golden anniversary in 2018, Gardeners’ World. Percy presented the show from 1969 to 1976, wearing his trademark waistcoat and tie, while smoking his pipe.
Despite his broadcasting career, he still had time for the causes that he held dear – one of which was helping to make Shrewsbury Flower Show a huge success. He was horticultural advisor for 40 years and he also became chairman.
As well as hosting Gardeners’ World, Percy became involved in the children’s TV programme, Blue Peter, between 1974 and 1987. This was another programme for which he was well remembered, as he established the now famous Blue Peter Garden and persuaded other celebrities to travel to the BBC television centre to cultivate it with him each week.
Percy was an accomplished non-fiction author of horticultural books. He was as successful an author as he was a broadcaster, with a whole host of books to his credit (21 in total), from Percy Thrower’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening in 1962, to Gardening Month by Month in 1980. Despite the modern trend of celebrity gardeners, Percy’s books sell well to this day.
Presenter Eamonn Andrews made him the subject of the TV show, This is Your Life, in 1976, springing the surprise on him in March 1976, while Percy was at the Ideal Home Exhibition in Earl’s Court, London.
Among those on the guest list were Lesley Judd and Peter Purves of Blue Peter – and even the presenters’ famous collie dog, Shep. Some fascinating memories were related during the show, which was broadcast on Wednesday 31st March.
It was revealed that Percy used to film Gardeners’ World at Clack’s Farm in Droitwich. He would often rest on a five-barred gate during the recording. Visitors to the open days at Clack’s Farm would pose leaning on the gate and would even form a queue to touch the top bar as they walked by, in tribute to Percy!
As well as continuing to write horticultural books, Percy launched his own garden centre on Thrower Road, Shrewsbury, which is managed by his three daughters today.
As a very down-to-earth character, he would quite happily sit behind the counter and chat to customers and give them gardening advice – fame never went to his head and he always remained approachable.
Percy inspired hundreds of British people to take up gardening, including modern celebrity gardener, Alan Titchmarsh. He died at the age of 75 on 18th March 1988.
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