Pennells is one of the oldest garden companies in the UK, and probably the oldest still in the same family ownership. The business was founded by a Richard Pennell in 1780. Today it is run by another Richard Pennell, a seventh generation member of the family.
The company's first nurseries were on the outskirts of Lincoln next to a small stream called Gowts Beck. Little is known about the first Richard Pennell, but the firm still possesses his copy of the beautifully illustrated “Eden, or a Compleat Body of Gardening”. This was published in instalments from 1757. On the flyleaf there is a faint inscription “Richard Pennell’s book from his master, Richard Sutton” to whom he was apprenticed. He was to be joined in the business by both his son and his grandson, Charles and Richard.
The company's earliest record of its catalogues is from the 1840's. It shows that the nursery was by then growing a wide range of plants, particularly fruit trees and rose trees. Interestingly, a rose bush cost the same as a fruit tree - 2s 6d.
The nursery developed during the second half of the nineteenth century, but it was only in the 1880's that clematis first started to appear in quantity in the company's catalogues. In 1846 the company listed seven species including C. calyscina, C. flammula and C. sieboldii which retailed between 6d and 1s 6d. [now approximately 2.5p - 7.5p UK, $0.05 - $0.15 US, €0.04 - €0.11]
In the early part of this century, the great grandson, Charles Pennell (1826 - 1890), came into the business, on his father's death. He’d refused to come into the business prior to that because he didn’t get on with his father. As a result, he had spent a great deal of time working on nurseries in Germany and Holland. Consequently he came back with some very progressive ideas which transformed the business.
In addition to building up the nursery side of the business, he developed a very large farm seed business, introducing new herbage seeds, roots and clovers for the farmers of Lincolnshire. He was also one of the first to try and popularise the tomato in this country.
Charles was succeeded by his two sons, Charles Waldegrave Pennell (1862 to 1938) and Walter Richard Pennell. (1868 - 1955). Charles Waldegrave was a very energetic character and, with his brother, developed the business through the first part of the century. Not only was he the youngest ever Mayor of Lincoln in 1900, he also became chairman of William Fosters, the famous Lincoln Engineers who designed and built the first tank in the First World War. The nursery developed and expanded, moving to new premises in 1906 at Brant Road, Lincoln. The site of the old nursery at Gowts Beck is marked by a street called Pennell Street.
Charles Pennell and his brother remained in charge of the business until his death prior to the Second World War. Garden shops were opened before and after the first world war in most of the local towns in Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. The nursery business was developed into a traditional business supplying the retail market by mail order.
The company introduced many new varieties of plants during this period, including Hedera colchica Dentata Variegata and the well known apple variety Ellisons Orange. Displays were mounted at shows throughout the country as well as Chelsea Flower Show, during which orders were taken. The range of plants grown by the nursery was very wide, and clematis were only a small part of the range. However, by 1939, the company listed 48 large flowered species and twenty-nine species. New introductions included armandii Apple Blossom, Huldine and troutbeckiana, with prices up to 7s 6d. [37.5p, $0.75US, €0.56]
Walter Richard’s son Walter E Pennell (1911 - 1976) came back into business 1947 after serving in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War. Walter Pennell had trained at Reading University before the war and then worked on nurseries on the continent before the war interrupted his career. He very nearly didn’t come into the business as he had developed a great interest in chemistry. He was, however, persuaded to stay in the family business. However, his interest in science and technology was to lead to his interest in plant breeding and his later interest in Astronomy.
Walter started collecting seed from naturally pollinated plants during the 1950's. The earliest hybrids raised in this way were Lincoln Star and Bracebridge Star. Vyvyan Pennell, perhaps the most famous of all the “Pennell” introductions, was raised in this period but as a calculated cross between Daniel Deronda and Beauty of Worcester. It was first marketed in 1959. In the early 1960's, Walter Pennell undertook a much more planned breeding programme from which over 20 more clematis hybrids were introduced. These varieties included Walter Pennell (Vyvyan Pennell x Daniel Deronda), Richard Pennell (Vyvyan Pennell x Daniel Deronda), Scartho Gem (Lincoln Star x Mrs N Thompson) and Veronicas Choice (Vyvyan Pennell x Percy Lake).
Walter Pennell was also a pioneer in the development of the modern Garden Centre. The principle of growing plants in containers had been developed in the USA and was brought over here by one or two nurseries in the early 1960's. Pennells' first Garden Centre consisting of a small shop and beds of plants grown in old crisp tins from the local Smith’s Crisp Factory was opened in 1966. Between 1969 and 1971, he went on to develop three purpose built centres at Lincoln, Doncaster and Grimsby.
Unfortunately, because of Walter Pennell's ill health in 1970's the business was allowed to slow down. Ironically, the impact of Garden Centres across the UK, which Walter Pennell had pioneered, saw a dramatic downswing in the nursery business, which was still based on the mail order market and open ground production. Walter Pennell died in 1976 and was succeeded, as chairman, by his wife Vyvyan Pennell, with his son Richard, becoming managing director.
When Richard Pennell came into the business, he was to change the direction of the nursery to concentrate on container production supplying garden centres throughout the UK, basing the centre of production around clematis and climbing plants. During the 1990's, the company's garden centres at Lincoln and Grimsby were expanded and developed. The nurseries moved again in 1989 to a site behind the company's Garden Centre at South Hykeham. An additional nursery was bought at Waddington.
Pennells' close association with clematis continued during the 1990's. The wholesale business was developed to supply garden centres throughout the UK with clematis. While it didn't have an active breeding programme, it introduced Clematis Special Occasion bred by Ken Pyne, and jointly launched in the UK Clematis Josephine (found by Mrs Josephine Hill and propagated by The Guernsey Clematis Nursery) and Golden Tiara (bred in Holland). At its peak, the nursery was growing over a quarter of a million clematis plus many climbers, shrubs and perennials.
However, increasing costs and competition led to the decision in 2002 to close down the wholesale side of the business, and to concentrate on the two retail garden centres at South Hykeham (Lincoln) and Cleethorpes.
The company switched its remaining plant production away from clematis and climbers to growing bedding plants, perennials and a range of shrubs for the two centres.
Reproduced, with permission, from the web site of Pennell's Garden Centres