A Family of Plant Hunters

The Veitch Family of Seedsmen, Nurserymen/women and Plant Hunters Part 1

Recently I opened a Spring Plant Catalogue and noticed Echinops rito Veitch’s Blue or Globe Thistle originally from Asia and Africa.

I knew the name Veitch in connection with Horticulture but until I started researching them I did not realise the family were so interesting or that they were based in Exeter.

In the 19th century the Veitch Nurseries of Exeter and Chelsea became the largest group of family run Nurseries for plants, seeds and trees in Europe with a reputation that was world renown. It spanned 5 generations of the family over more than a century, including not only pioneering Horticulturalists, but those who had the foresight to send out intrepid Plant Hunters, including members of the family, to collect specimens from remote, dangerous and unexplored parts of the world.

When looking at the list of specimens introduced to this country, hybridised and cultivated by the Veitch family, 1281 new plants and 232 orchids, it is difficult to imagine what our gardens and conservatories would look like today without them.

John Veitch 1752-1839

The founder of the Veitch dynasty was John Veitch, born in Jedburgh, Scotland. In 1768 he was sent to walk London by his father with 10 shillings in his pocket to find employment with the Scottish Nursery company of Lee’s at Hammersmith.

Here his talent was noticed by Sir Thomas Acland 7th Baronet of Killerton who invited him, in 1770 at the age of only 19 years, down to Devon to lay out the grounds of Killerton House, Broadclyst, 5 miles north of Exeter. John created snaking paths winding up the rolling hills with glimpses of the stunning views framed with sheltering trees. By 1780 John was appointed land steward for all the Acland estates.

Sir Thomas Acland encouraged John to set up his own enterprise by leasing him land at Budlake near Killerton to establish a Nursery. Sir Thomas died in 1785 and work at Killerton ceased but John had established a reputation in landscape consultancy and as a tree contractor. In 1808 John had an order for trees worth £1212 from the landscaper Humphrey Repton for Luscombe Castle. This still followed John’s connection with the Acland family as Luscombe Castle was owned by Charles Hoare, a banker, the brother of Henrietta the widow of Sir Thomas Acland 9th Baronet. John laid out the garden to Repton’s design.

Since the 1700’s Jesuit missionaries had been sending back plants from around the world to the UK which sparked an enthusiasm for new and exotic plants.

When the Napoleonic Wars were over in 1815 James imported many new plants via the port of Topsham near Exeter.

John married Anna Davidson and they had six children.

The Garden History of Devon by Todd Gray

James Veitch senior 1792-1863

It was John’s youngest child James who followed him, from an early age, into the business

James married Mary Batten Tosswill in 1814 and they also had six children. James junior 1815, John Tosswill 1816, Theresa Mary 1819, William Tosswill 1819, Robert Tosswill 1821 and Anna Davidson 1823.

After Mary died in 1825, James married her sister Rebecca Tosswilll in 1831 which was before the Marriage Act of 1838 when it became prohibited to marry your wife’s sister.

By 1830 the distance of the Budlake Nursey from Exeter was a disadvantage for the expansion of the business. James and his father John purchased a 25-acre site at Mount Radford Exeter on the junction of Wonford and Barrack Road and extending behind the present Devon County Hall.

James ran this site from 1832 and his house Gras Lawn, was in the grounds of what became the old Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital.

Over the years a number of shops and seed warehouses were opened in the City Centre, the final one from 1930-1980 at 17 Cathedral Yard which became part of Well House Tavern.

James’ son, James junior, joined his father in the Nursery business and it became called James Veitch and Son.               

James Veitch junior 1815-1864

James junior, James and Mary’s eldest son, married Harriott Gould, a farmer’s daughter from Portimore.

After initially working with his father in Exeter, James junior went to train with two Nurseries in London. With this experience he would have seen the potential of expanding the Exeter business to a wider clientele through a London site.

This consisted of an extensive range of glasshouses, warehouses and Stanley House. James junior and Harriott moved up to Chelsea with their seven children, James Gould 1839, Harry James 1841, Mary 1842, Emma Pauline 1843, Arthur 1844, Anna Harriette 1845, Agnes Julia 1854 and Constance Lucy 1858, their eighth child, was born in Chelsea.

In 1852/53 James Veitch and Son purchased the premises of Messrs Knight and Perry in the King’s Road, Chelsea known as the Royal Exotic Nursery.

James Veitch and Son already owned their own Railway wagons and were able to transport a large quantity of plants from their Exeter Nursery up to the new premises.

James enjoyed exhibiting plants and was a member of the Council of the Royal Horticultural Society, the Veitch Memorial Medal was founded in his honour. Under his guidance the business became the largest in Europe.

James senior continued to run the Nursery at Exeter until his death in 1863.

John Gould Veitch 1839-1870

James junior and Harriott’s eldest son, John Gould Veitch was involved in the management of the Nursery at Chelsea before, at the age of 21, he left on a Plant Hunting expedition to Japan and the Far East.

John Gould was one of the first Plant Hunters to visit Japan in 1860, which had been closed to foreigners.

He travelled on to the Philippines, Australia and Fuji.

He came home to England in 1866, married Jane Hodge and had two sons, James Herbert 1868 and John Gould Jr 1869. Unfortunately, he was showing symptoms of fatal Tuberculosis and died in 1870 at the early age of 31.

Harry James Veitch 1841-1924 and Arthur Veitch 1844-1888

Harry James, John Gould Veitch’s brother assisted by his younger brother Arthur, managed the Chelsea Nurseries for the next 30 years until his nephews, James Herbert and John Gould junior, were old enough to take over.

Harry was energetic and enthusiastic, a keen businessman, establishing a successful business model ensuring the business entered its most prosperous period.

He was instrumental in establishing the RHS Chelsea Flower Show at its current site of the Royal Hospital Chelsea which lead him to be knighted in 1912 for his services to Horticulture.

James Herbert Veitch 1868-1907

James Herbert was the last of the family travellers, visiting the Far East. He married Lucy Elizabeth Wood in 1898, they had no children.

He compiled the story of the family dynasty in Hortus Veitchii [1906]. He took over the Chelsea nursery when Harry retired but he was not a businessman. He was eccentric, offended customers and had a nervous breakdown, and the business went into decline. He died at the early age of 39 years.

John Gould Veitch junior 1869-1914

John married Dorothy in 1904 and they had a daughter Phyllis Mary 1910.

John, who had been an England International footballer was also not a successful businessman so Harry returned to revive the business.

With John’s death at the age of 45 in 1914, the outbreak of the First World War, the running out of the lease of the Coombe Wood land and no successors to this side of the family, Harry brought the Chelsea Nursery to a close.

Robert Tosswill Veitch 1823-1885

Robert Veitch was the youngest son of James Veitch senior and Mary Tosswill.

From the 1861 Census I found that he had married Sarah Jacoba DeLa Rey, who was born at the Cape of Good Hope Dutch Settlement in South Africa. They had 11 children, 4 of whom were born at Cape of Good Hope and seven were born at Heavitree, Exeter. They were William James 1849, Peter Christian Massyn 1850, Robert Henry 1853, Walter Francis 1855, Marion Rebecca 1859, Quinton Reid 1857, Hester Annette 1861, Sarah Alice 1864, Hellen Mary 1865, Florence Anna 1867, and Robert Louis 1870.

I had assumed that Robert had gone out to South Africa to send back botanical specimens to the family firm, such as the indigenous Proteas and Osteospermum Daisies of the Fynbos vegetation but on searching the varieties listed in Hortus Veitchii by James Herbert Veitch, I could find no mention of them. With much research I found that Robert had emigrated to Cape of Good Hope to become a farmer. He had studied farming in England, went on to manage a farm growing corn in Smyrna Turkey before living in the Cape of Good Hope Colony and fighting in two of the Kaffir Wars.

He returned to Devon with his family in 1856 to join the business which he took over on the death of his father James in 1863.

He extended the business from a four-acre site to one of 37 acres.

His particular interest was in developing new varieties of fruit and Rhododendrons and plants that flourished in the Devon climate. [Obituary Exeter and Plymouth Gazette Fri 23 Jan 1885]

There is a blue plaque on 11 Elm Grove Road Exeter where he lived with his family.

Peter Christian Massyn Veitch 1850-1926

Peter, born at the Cape of Good Hope South Africa, was the second son of Robert and Sarah and he joined his father Robert in the Exeter business in 1880 when it became Robert Veitch and Son.

Peter had travelled extensively as a young man around the islands of the South Pacific and had gained experience in French and German Nurseries as well as the Chelsea branch of Veitch Nurseries under his uncle James Veitch junior in the Trees and Shrubs section.

He married Harriett Drew in 1881, they had 6 children, Harold Massyn 1883, Gladys 1884, Robert Norman 1886, John Leonard 1887 (shown as working in the Nursery on the 1911 census), Anna Mildred 1889 and Olive 1891.

Ann Mildred Veitch 1889-1971

Known as Mildred, like many of the Veitch family known by their second name, joined Peter in the business in 1919.  She took over the business after her father’s death in 1929 although she retained the name of Robert Veitch and Son. She moved the nursery in 1931 from New North Road to Alphington which was nearer their site at Exminster. The Seed shop moved from the High Street Exeter to Catherdral Close and remained in business until the late 1960’s.

Mildred’s nephew Douglas H.M.Veitch worked in the Nursery between 1946-50 before migrating to Rhodesia in the early 1950’s.

Owing to ill health and no other family members remaining to take it on, Mildred was forced to sell the business in 1969 to St Bridget Nurseries of Exeter. It continued under the name of Robert Veitch and Son into the 1990’s but is now a subsidiary of St Bridget Nurseries.

There is a Lamppost Trail, which takes you around the area where the Veitch Nurseries, orchards and family home were, on which plants introduced by the Veitch family have been painted.

…Sandi Vass, Assistant Librarian

Sources and References

Devon Garden Plants-The magic tree by the NCCPG Devon Group

Hortus Veitchii James Herbert Veitch

The Garden History of Devon Todd Gray

The Veitch Heritage Garden

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