Reaching back to its founding decade of the 1860s the early 21st century Hillier customer or employee would recognise aspects that remain true despite the passage of nearly 150 years. Foremost is the supply of premium quality plant material achieved by hard graft and close attention to detail. This is focused by the ability to anticipate the mood of the gardening market and grow accordingly. Throughout, one family remains at the helm.
Having been employed in several leading nurseries and large gardens, in 1864, in his mid-twenties, he bought a small nursery (two acres of land) with companion florist's shop in Winchester. Things went well and in 1865 a further three acres of land was acquired. In that year also his eldest son, Edwin Lawrence was born. In 1866 he rented 14 Jewry Street, Winchester which served as shop office and family home. In 1883 the business moved to 95 High Street; this expansion provided a new shop, rear storage and office space as well as accommodation for staff.
Although floristry remained at the core of the shop, hardy plants were the main business for the Romsey Road nursery. Stove plants, grapes, peaches and other tender fruit were delivered (by horse and cart) to those larger houses in the neighbourhood which did not grow their own. At the same time the firm became known for staging floral displays in private houses and at civic events - Winchester was the county town for Hampshire. Gardening and landscaping were other skills on offer, quickly taken up by this wealthy southern England locality.
Shroner Wood, 130 acres six miles to the north of Winchester on the London road, was bought in 1883. To do this Edwin Hillier borrowed £2,000, which was repaid within a couple of years. 1874 saw the start of the acquisition of 14.5 acres adjoining the County Gaol in Winchester. Known as No.1 Nursery, almost a century later part of this became the site of Hillier's first garden centre.
Edwin's business acumen was sharpened by a passion and ever-growing knowledge of plants. Amidst such expansion, Hillier's first plant introduction occurred in 1875 with Primula sinensis flore pleno 'Annie Hillier' which received the Royal Horticultural Society's First Class Certificate in 1880. From this beginning the company has raised or propagated over 150 new plants including such favourites as Ceanothus 'Blue Mound', Cotinus 'Grace' and Choisya 'Aztec Pearl'.
Interestingly, it is said that although Edwin Lawrence's first love was palms, he focused his professional attention on hardy plants, especially conifers, which were far more marketable. In Shroner Wood he planted a pinetum, the most comprehensive of its day, where Thuja plicata 'Hillieri' was selected in the 1880s. It remains popular today as a slow growing form of the 'Western Red Cedar'.
Edwin Hillier gradually passed the firm's management to his two sons - Edwin Lawrence and Arthur Richard (born in 1877) - before his death in 1926. Five years earlier, 1921, his grandson Harold (eldest son of Edwin Lawrence) had joined the staff. Harold Hillier became a partner in 1932 and ran the nursery with his father and uncle from that time. He was to build upon the company's strengths in every direction.
Reminiscing on his childhood (Shroner Wood was sold in 1913) Harold wrote, "I remember the days when my father, my uncle and the staff worked from 6.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m., finishing at 4.00 p.m. on Saturdays, using hurricane lamps in the winter, early mornings and evenings. In the days of Shroner, this meant a walk of 6 miles before 6.00 a.m. Only if one was lucky was there a lift in a wagon. After a high tea, my father would work in the office at the back of 95 High Street, returning home in time for bed at 11.30 p.m".
Harry Bryce, a propagator, was to look after the young Harold's training in the firm. He was given the firm instruction that Harold was to learn everything possible about propagation and the gentle raising of plants but was to pick up no bad habits.
In the years between the two World Wars Hillier continued to expand. The gift of some new large-leaved Himalayan Rhododendron species from Lionel de Rothschild is said to have motivated the purchase of some acid land near Chandlers Ford in 1926. Hitherto the nurseries had been sited on chalk.
The company profile as a supplier of top quality trees, shrubs and hardy plants, was by now well founded. The Duke and Duchess of York visited in 1936, with just an hour's prior notice. The first Royal Warrant of Appointment had been granted to Hillier and Sons as Nurserymen to HRH the Prince of Wales in 1935, to be replaced, on his abdication, by that to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.
Stock was being grown on 80 acres of Hampshire by 1939. The Sarum Road nursery in Winchester had become the centre for the production of larger trees. These - some 25-40 metres high - were to prove useful as camouflage for aircraft hangars during the 1939-45 War.
From this also sprang the inspiration to provide portable hedgerows that could be wheeled onto airfield runways between sorties and so disguise their purpose. The London South Bank 1951 Festival of Britain brought Hillier acclaim as this ability to transform other arid sites into landscaped parks, by instant planting of large trees, was shown to perfection.
Harold Hillier, like his grandfather, combined the ability to think and act both as plantsman and astute businessman. He realised that gardening from the 1950s would become more "hands on" for the many living in the new housing developments, which mushroomed across the UK after the Second World War. The nursery's mail order business in these days of cheap postage and packing was nationwide. These gardeners wanted to buy plants throughout the year, and not just in the autumn, but container grown plants were not to become available for another decade.
At the same time, as a connoisseur of plants, he wanted to establish a garden and arboretum dedicated to temperate zone "woody" plants that would grow to maturity long after his lifetime. So, with his wife Barbara, in 1953 he moved the family from Winchester to Jermyns in the village of Braishfield, two miles north east of Romsey.
Here his love of trees was to flourish for the next twenty-five years. Planting, by dint of his great capacity for friendship with so many other plantsmen worldwide, what was to become an internationally renowned resource for scholars, students and the general public. Here, too, his family of two sons and two daughters grew up with an unrivalled opportunity to learn about plants.
Harold Hillier was knighted in 1983; five years after this remarkable arboretum had been gifted to Hampshire County Council. He had already been awarded a C.B.E. (Companion of the British Empire) and some of the highest accolades of the plant world - the Victoria Medal of Honour, the Veitch Memorial Medal, Honorary Fellow and Vice President of the Royal Horticultural Society, and Fellow of the Linnean Society.
At his memorial service after his death in 1985, Lord Aberconway, President of the Royal Horticultural Society quoted the words on Christopher Wren's tomb in St. Paul's Cathedral when referring to Harold's Arboretum - 'If you seek his memorial, look around you'.
During the 1970s and 1980s the company burgeoned in several directions. The local authority - or amenity - market found in Hillier a company who could supply what they needed: trees and shrubs in volume and variety of size. 270 acres of deep, sandy loam at Liss in east Hampshire were purchased in 1984 to meet this demand. Production needed to keep pace and Hillier forged ahead, investing in new techniques of propagation, equipment and tailor-made state-of-the-art glasshouse and growing areas. Green to its fingertips, the environmental lobby caught on early with re-cycled water, biological control and the use of biosafe insecticides.
Garden centres were now springing up across the country, Hillier's first, in Winchester, was trading from the mid 1960s and was further developed in 1971. The firm had never lost touch with the small gardener through its mail order service but, as garden centres became big business throughout the UK, so its mail order to the individual retail customer was replaced by a network of Hillier stockists in 1992. Hillier's catalogue remains however in folk memory and its spirit lives on in Harold Hillier's Manual of Trees and shrubs.
In the decade leading up to the 150th birthday of Hillier Nurseries and Garden Centres every member of staff within the company knows that to reach this anniversary - and celebrate it - we must adapt to an ever-changing market place whilst continuing to strive to supply plants, gardening accessories and services of the highest calibre.
Have these goals changed from Edwin Hillier's in 1864?