In 1897, the year that Bram Stoker's Dracula was published and Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, Charles Rassell opened a florist's shop in 'The Lodge' at the head of Pembroke Square, fronting on to what was then Earl's Court Lane. Over 100 years later, the business continues to flourish under the Rassell name, and has become a favourite haunt of show business and sporting stars, leading politicians and the wider public. And it's easy to see why; for behind the unassuming shop front lies a horticultural paradise, filled with trees, shrubs, roses, bedding and bulbs, terracotta pots and all the paraphernalia any gardener could desire.
Until the late eighteenth century, Kensington was still a village surrounded by fields, although 'the two great houses here, Holland House and Nottingham House, had already made [the area] fashionable'. All that changed with a burst of speculative building and the emergence of the fashionable squares and terraces that attract today's super-rich. As a result the population soared: the census of 1821 recorded a population of 13,428 for Kensington parish. Fifty years later it was 120,299. Indeed Kensington has been described as ‘the very citadel of Victorian London’.
Pembroke Square's development, which began in 1823 when the second Lord Kensington sold off parcels of land, mirrors the ups and downs of speculative building in the Regency era and it was eventually completed in the 1840s. The centre of the Square was developed in similar piecemeal manner, its enclosure originally granted to Williams Collins on an 89-year lease in 1834. Maps of 1837 and 1843 show a building at the east end of the garden; known as 'The Lodge' it was occupied by a succession of florists before being acquired by Charles Rassell in 1897. Although Rassell made some alterations to the building in 1903, it still looks much the same today.
In the same year, Charles acquired the freehold of the whole garden area when parts of the late Lord Kensington's estate were sold.
That proposed sale sparked a furore: under the headline 'Muncipalising Edwardes Square', the Kensington News of 20 November 1903 reported that 'the sale of the garden areas of Pembroke and nearby Edwardes Square was a potential threat to these spaces being preserved 'as a "lung" or breathing space and a recreation ground for the benefit of the surrounding population'.
London County Council's proposed legislation to prevent 'the erection of buildings in the open space of Edwardes Square' scared off potential purchasers and the lots were withdrawn, giving Charles Rassell the opportunity to buy the freehold in a private sale. The 'Edwardes Square Protection Bill' of 1904 was defeated in the Lords, but public interest remained high and in 1906, the London Squares and Enclosures (Preservation) Act was passed giving limited protection to some of London's squares.
Change and construction was everywhere in Victorian London, from the great railway termini to Bazalgette's new sewer system, from shopping arcades to rows of stuccoed villas.
Prosperous new home-owners with more leisure time and disposable income not only wanted to furnish their homes in elegant fashion, but also their gardens. There was a huge increase in the number of nurseries in London. New and exotic plants flooded into the country, and hybridization and selective breeding led to greater choice. By the time Charles opened Rassell's Florist's & Horticulturalist's Shop, there was enormous demand from all sections of society; and 'a clerk's terraced house could be as bright as a banker's, with beds cut into the lawn, glowing orange, purple, scarlet, yellow and blue'.
The family connection continued through Charles's daughter Marjorie who ran the firm with the able assistance of George Raybould (1893- 1964) and Donald Rider (1919-2011) until 1979, a year before she died. George joined in 1930 as Buyer and rose to become Managing Director brilliantly steering the firm through the aftermath of the Great Depression and the terror of the Blitz. Donald Rider was employed as an apprentice in 1935 at the age of sixteen. After a shaky start (he inadvertently wrecked Miss Rassell's Imperial typewriter!) he stayed for 76 years, taking over when Miss Rassell died.
In its report on the celebrations held to mark George Raybould's 21st anniversary at Rassell's, the Kensington News observed that he had 'never been a "desk man" and hundreds, if not thousands of local people are familiar with his appearance, in gardener's apron, ready to advise on the ordering of a "park-load" of plants, or the purchase of a few packets of seed'. During the war, George worked at Rassell's all day and at night as an ammunition worker and auxiliary fireman; he also played his part in the 'Dig for Victory' campaign advising on how to grow vegetables in Kensington Gardens. After the War, the Morrison shelter in the Raybould's living room at The Lodge was moved by the resourceful George to the back of the shop as a potting table!1 An Anderson shelter was dug deep into Rassell's ground under an ancient Mulberry tree. George's son, Vilven John, recalls that as a young boy he climbed the ancient tree and picked the mulberries and Miss Rassell allowed him to sell them at sixpence per jam-jar.
Photos of George Raybould and the business
In the early 1950s Rassell's pioneered the new concept of the self- service 'Garden Centre'. 'Plants and bulbs were laid out in boxes and rows. Coloured pictures and beautifully handwritten descriptions by Donald gave customers a good idea of what they were buying would eventually look like.'
In contrast to the ebullient George, Donald Rider was a private man, 'never happier than when presiding over the banks of nodding violet-headed agapanthus, scented lemon trees, roses and tinkling fountains'. His celebrity clients included Dame Diana Rigg, Freddie Mercury and Brian May of Queen. The Daily Telegraph in its obituary of Rider wrote that 'the film director Michael Winner used to visit the nursery annually to find bulbs for his one-acre garden' and Lord McAlpine was 'such a devotee that, even when he moved to a palazzo in Venice, he ordered all the bulbs and plants for his home on the Grand Canal from Rider personally'. Quick to identify new gardening trends, Rider was one of the first importers of large decorative terracotta pots from Florence and he proudly claimed that Rassell's stocked 150 different types of roses and 70 varieties of clematis, and that they could provide any speciality plant. Although he had many offers to buy Rassell's, he was determined it would 'remain a place of peace, beauty and rustic pleasure in the busy centre of the city'. He died in 2011 aged 92 and his ashes are scattered beneath the Ginkgo biloba tree in Rassell's' grounds. Richard Hood succeeded him and fully intends that Rassell's will continue to offer a rich selection of plants along with knowledgeable and personal service to its customers. Let's hope it flourishes for another 100 years.
With thanks to Rassell's Nursery, Vilven John Raybould & Heather Raybould, and Mick Keates.
Further information available at www.rassells.com.