Percy Thrower is remembered as Britain’s first celebrity gardener. As well as being the voice of gardening on the radio in the 1950s, he was also a writer and TV presenter for around four decades.
Throughout his long career, he always maintained nothing else came close to his love of being in the garden. While many of today’s TV horticulturalists have become A-list celebrities, Thrower always thought of himself as a gardener first, rather than a broadcaster.
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He has inspired generations of modern gardeners, including the likes of Alan Titchmarsh, who used to watch Thrower presenting Gardening Club on the BBC in 1956.
Titchmarsh was a kid at the time but he used to enjoy watching factual programmes such as Zoo Quest with David Attenborough and natural history documentaries. He said Gardening Club brought his world “to a standstill” every Friday night.
He recalled how the show started with Thrower hanging his familiar tweed jacket on the greenhouse door, before chatting about the jobs that had to be done, such as mowing the lawn, taking cuttings, or potting up chrysanthemums.
Titchmarsh said Thrower was remarkable because he explained everything with “enormous patience, charm and courtesy”, never patronising the viewers. Instead, he inspired them with his passion for gardening. “I wanted to be just like him,” Titchmarsh admitted.
Some years later, Titchmarsh was working at a publishing firm, editing gardening books, when he saw that Thrower was one of the authors. Titchmarsh visited Thrower at home and said that he was just the same as he appeared on TV.
He would talk straight to the camera, telling stories “without waffling”, Titchmarsh remembered. Thrower would stop speaking after the allotted number of minutes by ending his story, demonstrating skills that made him a “joy to watch and an inspiration”.
Thrower’s love of gardening had been inspired by his own father, Harry, who was head gardener at Horwood House in Buckinghamshire. The Grade II listed building was the country residence of the prosperous Denny family. Dating from 1911, the grounds had a massive apple orchard.
Harry employed his son as a trainee gardener in 1927, when Percy was 14. He learned everything there was to know about horticulture from his father and turned out to be green-fingered himself.
He became a gardener at Windsor Castle at the age of 18, followed by a stint working for the City of Leeds Parks Department from 1935.
After passing his Royal Horticultural Society general exams, he also worked as a lecturer at Derby Technical College during World War II, when he promoted the Dig For Victory campaign, encouraging people to grow their own vegetables.
Thrower became a radio presenter as a result of transforming a neglected piece of land called The Dingle, in Quarry Park, Leeds into a blooming plant haven.
In 1947, radio presenter Godfrey Baseley visited Quarry Park and on finding out Thrower was responsible for the transformation, he offered him a job as resident gardener on his show, Beyond the Back Door.
This was the start of Thrower’s radio career, that further led to his first television appearance in 1951, when he featured on the BBC programme, Picture Page. He was the subject of a documentary which followed him as he designed a garden in Berlin, Germany.
His natural, down-to-earth approach endeared him to viewers, and he became a firm favourite, inspiring ordinary folk to take up gardening.
Thrower’s most famous role was presenting Gardeners’ World on the BBC from 1969 to 1976. He became an iconic figure, as he chatted to viewers smoking his trademark pipe, wearing his waistcoat and tie.
He was also resident gardener on the children’s television series, Blue Peter, between 1974 and 1987. He was responsible for establishing the legendary Blue Peter Garden, inviting other celebrities to travel to the BBC television centre to help him to cultivate it each week.
He still found time to be horticultural advisor (and then chairman) of Shrewsbury Flower Show for 40 years – a cause close to his heart.
Beginning with Percy Thrower’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening in 1962, he wrote 21 horticultural books -his final book was Gardening Month by Month in 1980.
In later life, Thrower launched his own garden centre on Thrower Road, Shrewsbury, after retiring from his broadcasting career. It was the realisation of his dream, as he was able to sit behind the counter, chatting to customers in his down-to-earth manner to give them gardening advice.
He remained approachable and never acted like a star. In interviews, he said he believed his popularity stemmed from the fact he had always kept his feet on the ground.
He won a host of Royal Horticultural Society awards and also the MBE in 1984. Percy died on 18th March 1988, at the age of 75. His garden centre is still going strong today, more than 30 years after his death.
It has often been said that without Thrower’s influence, today’s celebrity gardeners such as Alan Titchmarsh, Charlie Dimmock, Monty Don and Diarmuid Gavin may not have been in the public eye. It was Thrower who made gardening fashionable and proved that an ordinary gardener could become a TV star.
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