Veitch Family History

Exeter’s Famous Nursery – By Caradoc Doy

In 1771, a 19-year-old Scottish gardener by the name of John Veitch arrived in Devon. Little was the world of horticulture to know what an impact this talented man and his family would have on gardening throughout the country and the world for generations to come.

Young John was sent for by Sir Thomas Acland to lay out the park at Killerton, near Exeter. He was a skilful gardener and his landscaping work took him all over the country. Sir Thomas encouraged John to start his own nursery, which he did in Budlake near Killerton sometime before 1808. In 1832 he and his son James bought land at Mount Radford in Exeter (where recently the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital stood) and in 1837, John handed over the running of the firm to James.

James was a man of foresight and with plant mania sweeping throughout wealthy society, spotted an opportunity to exploit the potential that foreign plants could have on the British garden market. He was one of the first men to systematically pioneer the exploration of far away places for new plants and sponsored plant hunters who themselves became horticultural heroes. Twenty-three different plant hunters were sent out by the firm at one time or another. Men such as the Cornish brothers Thomas and William Lobb, Charles Maries, Richard Pearce and Ernest Wilson all of whom discovered plants in difficult to reach foreign lands, often risking their lives in search of seeds or plants. Members of the Veitch family too discovered important plants and many were named after them in recognition of their endeavours.

In 1853, James and his son James Junior, seeing that expansion was justified, purchased a nursery in Chelsea, which the young James went to run whilst his father remained in Exeter. On the death of James Senior in 1863 the two nurseries which had been run together, separated. James Junior remained in London trading as James Veitch & Son whilst his younger brother Robert took over the Exeter firm. In Chelsea, James Junior was eventually joined by his sons John Gould and Harry James.

In 1899, Harry who was now operating the Chelsea branch of the business, sent Ernest Wilson to China to search for plants suitable for British gardens and in particular for seed of the Davidia, or Pocket-handkerchief Tree. In his search he discovered many plants and finally found a group of Davidia producing seed, which he duly sent back to Veitch’s nursery at Coombe Wood from which, he found on his return to England they had successfully raised thousands of seedlings.

The Veitch Legacy

The firm of Veitch had by the 1914/18 war been responsible for introducing an astonishing 1281 plants which were either previously unknown or newly bred varieties. These included 498 greenhouse plants, 232 orchids, 153 deciduous trees, shrubs and climbing plants, 122 herbaceous plants, 118 exotic ferns, 72 evergreen and climbing plants, 49 conifers and 37 bulbous plants. In the years to come, more plants followed.

St. Bridget’s buys Veitch Nurseries

Veitch’s Nurseries no longer functions as a separate business. The Chelsea firm ceased to trade in 1914 whilst the Exeter business continued under Peter C.M. Veitch (son of Robert) and later his daughter Mildred. Failing health obliged her to sell the firm in 1969, when it was bought by St. Bridget Nurseries, Exeter. For nearly twenty years it was run as a separate business, but is now a non-functioning subsidiary of St. Bridget’s.

The House of Veitch Leaflet

A 12 page A5 sized history leaflet (including black and white photographs), titled The House of Veitch, is available for £2.50 including postage and handling. Please call 01392 876281 to order this. For a limited period, we also have a lottery funded publication called the Plant Hunters’ Guide to the Devon Veitch Legacy. This is available free of charge from our garden centre while stocks last.