In the late spring of 1866, when Charles William Groves started a small garden nursery in Piddletrenthide, he wouldn’t have realised that he was sowing the seeds or what would grow into one of the largest garden centres and nurseries in Dorset; C.W. Groves and Son who celebrate their 150th anniversary this year.
If Charles William were alive today he couldn’t be anything but proud that the small business he started all those years ago has evolved into an award winning company, whilst remaining very much an independent family business. He started the company with his son, also a Charles William, hence the name CW Groves and Son, which remains in place today. The father and son management is much the same in 2016 with Clive Groves and his son Charlie, the current managing director, working hand in hand at Groves in Bridport.
However today there are two extra pairs of managerial hands with Charlie’s sister Becky Groves running the sister nursery, Little Groves, in Beaminster and Diana Groves, Clive’s wife, being the back bone of Groves in Bridport.
The 2016 nursery has, not surprisingly, many more staff and far more plants than the nursery of 1866 and for Charlie and Becky the sixth generation of Groves running the company it’s a very different job in some ways. Modern technology may allow on line shopping, a website and many other benefits, there may be a café and a vast range of gardening products, but at heart
Groves still remains a plant nursery growing the majority of its own stock albeit on a much larger scale, with an amazing 32,000 bedding plants, 12,000 trees, 8,000 roses and 6,000 perennials grown annually!
It’s not possible to say exactly when the founder, Charles William, discovered he had green fingers. He’d tried his hand at a few occupations before realising he had a talent for horticulture. His family had been thatcher’s in the Toller Porcorum area for years, a trade which he did for a short while; he’d also worked as a miller and even traveled throughout Dorset selling bibles before he decided to concentrate his energies on growing plants, mainly for their seed.
Today’s Groves Nurseries is firmly rooted in Bridport but the original nursery was at Ivy House, Piddletrenthide and was situated on a steep south facing slope overlooking the Piddle Valley. This was an ideal spot as the plants benefited from the sunny warm site that brought early crops and matured the seeds they sold. These were distributed by post throughout the country and by hawkers, on pony and carts, who travelled throughout Dorset. As trade built, the family purchased shops in Dorchester to sell their seeds plus plants and floristry grown at the nursery. The first Dorchester shop opened in East Street and as they grew busier the family then opened another shop in South Street and two more in Fordington and Trinity Street.
The flourishing business was handed down from father to son and after three generations of Groves being born in Piddletrenthide the family, needing more land, moved in 1936 back to the Bridport area where the first Charles William originally came from. The nursery and shop was situated in West Road and an amusing story from 1938, passed down through the family, recalls how the then Mrs Groves was in the shop selling flowers when King Edward VIII, on a visit through Dorset, was attracted by the colourful floral display and stopped to purchase a large bunch, the best in the shop, for Mrs Simpson! Mrs Groves was absolutely thrilled to have served his Royal Highness.
Like that Mrs Groves many of the Groves women have played a vital part in the company’s success both in the past and today. During the First and Second World Wars the Mrs Groves’ of the time had to keep the business afloat whilst their husband’s and sons served their country. A longstanding former employee, Fred Morey, who worked at Groves from 1932, during the depression, right up to the 1980’s recalled how Charles William, son of the founder, worked in the office in the early 1930’s while his wife and daughter and Fred worked diligently for hours on end in the seed packing department wrapping packets of seeds for orders. More recently Diana Groves, Charlie’s mother, supported her husband Clive for many years whilst he was at the helm, and she still help’s to run the Bridport garden centre today. And of course Becky Groves put her stamp on the business by opening Little Groves and at the same time managing the nursery at Bridport.
Whilst the business has been passed down through the generations so have their initials with each successive generation naming their sons C.W. Groves. A tradition that continues today with the two current sons Charles Winston and Christopher William both being named by their father Clive Watt Groves. The most recent Charles William, great grandson of the founder and father of Clive, was another Groves to put his mark on the company when, in 1962 he purchased the current Bridport site at West Bay road. It was the old Bridport football field but he could see it was the ideal place for further expansion. As well as this good business decision he was also responsible for two great horticultural achievements; firstly working with the government on trials to perfect the technique of growing onions from sets rather than just seed and this led to Groves being the company that introduced onion sets to the UK.
Secondly, he is to be thanked for saving the famous Zambra collection of violets amongst others and going on to build a collection of over 130 varieties. In 2003 Groves Nurseries collection of Victorian Dorset Violets gained the status of being a recognised national collection of Viola odorata and Parma Violets. Clive Groves inherited his father’s passion for these beautiful scented flowers and has won many medals in Europe for them as well as getting a Silver Medal at Hampton Court Flower Show in 2007 and was even Knighted by La confrerie de la Violette in the city hall of Toulouse, France. Giving Clive even more pleasure than growing new varieties is naming them after members of the family, including those named after his three grandchildren, Eliza, Maddie and Amelia. The collection is on show between January and April in the solar dome at Groves in Bridport and these beautiful little flowers have even attracted buyers from as far away as Canada and Japan.
In 1986 the nursery was well established at West Bay road when a compulsory purchase order was put on some of the land and earmarked to build Bridport’s new bypass. This was a very traumatic period for the business but it did allow the site to develop from a traditional nursery into the modern garden centre that it is today.
The latest generation will be stamping another mark on the garden centre this year with Charlie Groves planning to build a new 200 seater restaurant which will replace the one his father commissioned in the 1990’s. The impressive glass structure, designed to complement the garden centre’s attractive layout will provide a large family friendly venue to meet the needs of the modern garden centre customer.
Managing a long running family business comes with the responsibility of ensuring its future; not just for those yet to come but as a mark of respect for those who came before you. So whose green fingers will take control in the future?
The latest generation Eliza, Maddie and Amelia are only 5, 3 and 1 so it’s a bit early to tell, but they are already familiar faces at the nursery so hopefully the business will continue and keep the gardeners of Dorset happy for years to come.