WHEN you drive into Wem, from whichever direction you come, you’re immediately reminded the town is the home of the Eckford Sweet Pea.
But if, like me, you’re still a relative newcomer as far as Wem is concerned, you might be asking who, or what, is Eckford. If you’re someone who prefers to let others take up the gardening strain, and wondering what a sweet pea is, then read on.
Wem hold a Sweet Pea Festival each year in honour of Henry Eckford, the man who is considered the best-known breeder of sweet peas, a multi-coloured assortments of flowers. We take a look at the man credited with turning the sweet pea from a minor player in the history of flowers to the Queen of Annuals.
Eckford was born in Stonehouse, near Edinburgh, in Scotland, on May 17, 1823 and in 1839, he became apprenticed to the gardens and estates of Lord Lovat, who own Beaufort Castle.
After he completed his apprenticeship, Eckford began to move around Scotland, learning more about his craft, setting the scene for the years to come.
His first destination after Beaufort was the gardens of New Liston, also near Edinburgh, before he moved to Kingask Castle, in Perthshire. He then moved to Penicuik House in Midlothian before his last role north of the border at Oxenburgh Castle.
In 1854, he headed to England for his first role of serious prominence, taking on the position of head gardener for the Earl of Radnor’s Coleshill House, which at the time was in Berkshire. It has subsequently been placed in Oxfordshire, after boundary changes.
Eckford would have worked for William Pleydell-Bouverie, the fifth Earl of Radnor.
It was around this time Eckford began to take a closer interest in the breeding of plants, experimenting with dahlias, pelargoniums and verbenas.
He began taking his breeding work to another level when he moved to be in charge of the garden at Sandywell, in Gloucester, which was the home of a Dr Sankey in 1870.
He remained here with Dr Sankey for another nine years, which is when his interest in sweet peas began to – if you excuse the pun – flower; and he started major work on them here.
From here, Eckford made his first steps into Shropshire, moving with his employer Dr Sankey to Boreatton, after which he named one of his sweet pea varieties, which is near Baschurch.
It was 1888 when he moved to the town with which his name is most associated, and he played as big a part in daily Wem life as he could. As well as establishing his nursery, he became a prominent member of both the Wem Parish Council and the Wem Urban District Council.
Eckford was married twice – first to Charlotte, who pre-deceased him, and with whom he had two sons and a daughter, and second wife Emily – and was well-admired across the world, receiving an illuminated parchment address, and a silver tea and coffee service in the last year of his life.
He was also a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society, and one of the many awards he won in his life was their highest award, the coveted Victoria Medal of Honour.
He died at his house in Noble Street, Wem, on December 5, 1905, and is buried in the town’s cemetery.
The father of the sweet pea, the legacy of Eckford’s work is that the flower is now “of such world-wide importance that many hundreds of acres are annually cultivated”, according to one biography of him.