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Percy John Thrower MBE (30 January 1913 – 18 March 1988) was a British gardener, horticulturist, broadcaster and writer born at Horwood House in the village of Little Horwood in Buckinghamshire.
He became nationally known through presenting various gardening programmes, starting in 1956 on the BBC's Gardening Club then later on the BBC's Gardeners' World from 1969 until 1976. He has been described as "Britain's first celebrity gardener", although that accolade is often accorded to C. H. Middleton who was a significant figure before and during the Second World War.
Career as gardener
The name Thrower means someone who twists the fibre – properly wool – into thread or yarn. This term is peculiar to East Anglia, where Percy’s father worked as a gardener at Bawdsey Manor, Suffolk, before moving to Horwood House near Bletchley (now part of Milton Keynes) in Buckinghamshire as head gardener. Percy Thrower was determined from an early age to be a head gardener like his father, and worked under him at Horwood House for the first four years after leaving school. He then became a journeyman gardener in 1931, at the age of 18, at the Royal Gardens at Windsor Castle, on £1 a week. He lived in the bothy at Windsor, along with 20 other improver gardeners and disabled ex-servicemen who were employed on full wages. The bothy housed only single men and if you "had" to get married you lost your job. He spent five years there under the head gardener, Charles Cook, who was subsequently to become his father-in-law.
Thrower left Windsor on 1 August 1935 for the City of Leeds Parks Department as a journeyman. There he passed the Royal Horticultural Society’s General Exam. In 1937 he moved to Derby Parks Department, initially as a journeyman but was promoted to be a foreman, General Foreman and finally the Assistant Parks Superintendent. At Derby, he met John Maxfield, whom he considered to be the best gardener he ever worked under; Maxfield died a couple of years later, but remained a large influence. Percy studied and passed the National Diploma in Horticulture (N.D.H.) at the second attempt, and also became a lecturer at Derby Technical College.
He became engaged to Connie Cook (Constance Margaret Ina), the daughter of Charles Cook, who was now the head gardener at Sandringham, having moved from Windsor. Things had not gone well for Charles Cook at Windsor, where Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson had interfered with the running of the gardens. In order to help him, Queen Mary, who was now in residence at Sandringham after the death of her husband George V, instigated his moving from Windsor to Sandringham. On 9 September 1939, at Sandringham, Percy and Connie married. The couple received a wedding gift of a set of Burslem china dishes from Queen Mary. Percy's own father died on 31 December 1939.
While at Derby, Thrower became a leading light in the "Dig for Victory" campaign in the Second World War, carrying out educational visits to many of the local parks and even Derby Sewerage Works. Percy became a Special Constable on fire-watching duties after twice being turned down for active service after volunteering. In fact, he saved the life of a fellow firewatcher by pushing him out of the way of a falling tree which had come crashing down after a bomb fell near it. It was whilst at Derby that Percy had a football pools win of £52 which enabled him to buy his first motor car which was a Morris Eight for which he paid £45.
His final career move was to Shrewsbury in 1946, as the Parks Superintendent, becoming the youngest parks superintendent. He had a staff of about 35. He had reached the top of his profession at just 32 years of age and it was his sole ambition in life. He expected to stay only four or five years, but in fact remained in post until 1974.
In 1951 Percy Thrower was asked to design a garden in Berlin on the lines of an English garden on behalf of the Shropshire Horticultural Society, and he did this with the Berlin Superintendent of Parks, Herr Witte. Anthony Eden opened the garden in May 1952. Thrower made his first TV appearance in 1951 in a programme, Picture Page about this garden.
Broadcasting and business ventures
For many years Percy Thrower was the leading face and voice of British gardening on television and radio. He was credited by Alan Titchmarsh with inspiring him to take up gardening.
Godfrey Baseley, the presenter of a Midland regional BBC radio programme, Beyond the Back Door, spotted his enthusiasm and talents and he was offered a regular slot on the programme. The first TV series with which he was associated was Country Calendar, followed by Out and About. When colour television came along, this programme was renamed Gardeners' World. He became nationally known through presenting these programmes and regularly presented Gardeners' World from 1969 until 1976.
He was also the gardener on the children's programme Blue Peter from 1974 until 1987, appearing in over 100 broadcasts, making him the longest-serving Blue Peter gardener. One of his best remembered achievements was establishing the Blue Peter garden at BBC TV Centre, persuading numerous celebrities to give up a few hours every week to work in it.
In 1983, the Italianite garden was destroyed by vandals, ruining all of Thrower's work and leaving him desolate. A tabloid journalist later approached one of the purported vandals with a picture of a sobbing Thrower, asking him how he felt.
Thrower's work for the BBC was not restricted to gardening matters. Percy Thrower in the 1960s was a habitual pipe smoker, and on one occasion, in connection with the gathering by the radio producer Tony Shryane of sound effects for The Archers (then as now a popular UK radio soap opera) Thrower found himself employed to blow smoke into a pig's face in order to make it cough.
In 1963 he built his own house near Shrewsbury, called "The Magnolias", on land he acquired with a friend in the small village of Merrington, 6 miles (9.7 km) north west of Shrewsbury. This gave him a garden of about one and a half acres to "play with", something which he had never had before. The garden subsequently became the location for some of the episodes of Gardeners' World. He opened the garden to the public in 1966, and this became an annual event to raise money for charity.
In 1967 he became involved with the development of what was one of the first garden centres, Syon Park, near Brentford, Middlesex, owned by the Duke of Northumberland and backed by Plant Protection, a division of ICI, who had leased 50 acres (200,000 m2) from the Duke. The centre was a success at first but then sales tailed off and Thrower left the project. In 1970, in partnership with Duncan Murphy, he bought the firm of Murrell's of Shrewsbury and turned it into the Percy Thrower Garden Centre.
He retired in 1974 from the post of Superintendent of Parks as Shrewsbury and started a weekly column for the Daily Mail in 1975. He also wrote for several other papers, notably the Daily Express and the Sunday Express. He wrote for the magazine Amateur Gardening and also wrote many books, which were published by Collingbridge and later Hamlyn.
The BBC summarily dropped Thrower when in 1975 he agreed to a contract with Plant Protection, a subsidiary of ICI, for a series of commercials. He did this in the full knowledge of what the repercussions would be with the BBC, and later said it was the best contract he ever signed.
In 1976 he gave a lecture to the Royal Institution titled "Changing Fashions in Gardening", and in 1977 wrote his memoirs, titled My Lifetime of Gardening. The same year the Royal Horticultural Society awarded their highest honour, the Victoria Medal of Honour, to him. He was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1984.
He also became involved in hosting gardening tours in Europe, with travel agent Harold Sleigh. They established the Percy Thrower Floral Tours Company, chartering ships for lecture cruises and was also involved in English Gardening Weekends. On one of these he was taken ill, and a decline in his health set in. Eventually Hodgkin’s disease was diagnosed. He made his last recording for Blue Peter from hospital one week before he died.
Percy and Connie had three daughters: Margaret born 1944, Susan born 1948, Ann born 1952. They were all involved with the Percy Thrower Garden Centre. Percy always had a constant companion and that was a black Labrador of which he had several in succession, which was something that he always wanted to have since he went duck shooting with his maternal grandfather, who had a black Labrador as a gun dog. Dogs were even welcome in his garden centre.
- "Index entry". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved July 26, 2014.
- Births England and Wales 1837–1983
- "A history of British gardening". BBC. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
- See, for example, Daniel Smith (2011) The Spade as Mighty as the Sword who describes Middleton (1886-1945) as "the first great gardening personality of the broadcasting age", while noting that "having ruled the wireless in an age when recordings were rarely made, the silky tones that enchanted a wartime generation were lost to their children". "Mr. Middleton", as he was almost universally known, was also familiar to the public through newsreels and information films and was seen on television before its suspension at the start of the Second World War in 1939.
- Thrower, Percy: Percy was the forerunner of TV's gardening celebrities – You and Yesterday | You and Yesterday
- Doyle, Paul (10 August 2007). "Les Ferdinand". The Guardian (London).
- *Smethurst, William (1997). The Archers: The history of Britain's most famous radio programme. London: Michael O'Mara Books Limited. pp. 79–80. ISBN 1-85479-225-3.
- Deaths England and Wales 1984–2006