17 minute read

Remembering Eddie Topping MBE

Remembering Eddie Topping…

Last month the garden centre industryr lost one of itst great pioneers, Eddie Topping MBE, who died aged 89 on Monday 6th September. GTN’s Associate Editor Mike WyW attt has compiled this farewell to the Preston pioneer.

The warmth of Martin Stewart’s tribute to Eddie Topping at the service celebrating the founder of the Barton Grange Group’s life was a moving testimony to the deep affection in which Eddie was held throughout the garden industry.

Martin told how his own father had been the first to pick up on the concept of garden centres, but Eddie had “all the skills, energy and ambition required to do it better”.

His father, an RAF pilot in World War II, had been reluctant to return to the Stewart family’s “dark, dingey and basically bankrupt” nursery business after the war but wrote home before returning from a trip delivering a plane to the United States in 1955: “I have seen the future – they are called Garden Centres.” The subsequently converted Stewart potting sheds became what was almost certainly the UK’s first embryonic garden centre.

It was in that same year that Eddie Topping took over the Rochdale Market fruit and veg stall from his father who (with his wife Ada) was by then busy building up business at the newly-developed hotel at Barton near Preston, adding a modest landscaping business two years later. Over the decades ahead, Eddie (helped by his three sons, Guy, Peter and Ian) moulded the flourishing Barton Grange Group we know today, with the flagship multi-award winning Brock garden centre at its core, augmented more recently by the enterprising Flower Bowl leisure and entertainment centre. By any measure, it became one of the UK’s most spectacular garden retail, landscaping and leisure businesses.

When Martin Stewart’s father, Edward, was elected president of the Horticultural Trades Association in 1960, he would have met Eddie, 12 years his junior. Twenty-two years later, in the year of Edward Stewart’s death, Eddie was also to become HTA president. “He was a huge support to me at that time,” Martin recalled in his tribute. “For those of you not familiar with our trade, it is the most extraordinarily open, warm and friendly industry imaginable. It is now and it was then.”

Eddie loved to be involved in the activities of the wider industry, including the Garden Centre Association (whose chairman he became in 1977) and the International Garden Centre Association, whose congresses he regularly attended, soaking up ideas and experiences from garden centre operators across the world.

Many have remarked on Eddie Topping’s warmth and humour – and what Martin Stewart called his “seat of the pants” management style. “It was his style that made it happen,” Martin said, “that subtle warmth, modesty, humour and that amazing twinkle in his eye that made those around him just want to push on, have a go, have fun and ultimately, through his subtle guidance, be successful.”

When I first met Eddie Topping in the 1990s, he reminded me of a mischievous schoolboy…impish grin, cheeky chat, that twinkle… yet always everybody’s idea of a perfect gentleman. It didn’t take long to understand that behind the engaging façade was a shrewd entrepreneurial brain, which he used to fashion his fantastic legacy.

Mischief clearly runs in the family. The notorious Brighton hotel chandelier incident involving Guy has entered industry folklore (see sidebar, page ???). But it turns out Eddie too had history …

Martin Stewart related how at a very early GCA conference in Stratford, Eddie had re-located the ICI Forest Bark display up to the second floor of the hotel, placing the large bales of bark ‘brick by brick’ outside the room of Neville Snowdon, the then head of ICI Horticulture, so he would be unable to get out of his room in the morning.

“Eddie found out, too late in the morning, that Neville had been moved to another room and that the room was now occupied by the only hotel resident not associated with the conference. Eddie had some explaining to do!”

Another of Eddie’s remarkable qualities was the time he managed to find for everyone who needed it. “He was calm and considered but had a go at everything he could,” Martin said. “Guy told me this week that even in recent years, when he was

The Brighton Chandelier… (as told by Martin Stewart) At a conference in Brighton a chandelier somehow found itself in Guy’s arms as he fought to keep it above his head. It was huge but not strong enough to hold his weight as he had attempted to swing on it.

The hotel handled the situation brilliantly; it was now well past midnight, as the manager and the night porter walked into the lounge to ask: “Would you like a hand with that sir?” He needed help desperately. He wasn’t getting any from us!

The next morning Eddie was sitting at breakfast with a folded piece of paper to give Guy on his arrival. With a beautiful smirk (you know, the one that Eddie had on plenty of occasions) he simply passed the paper to Guy saying: “You’d better pay that, lad.” It was of course the bill for re-hanging the chandelier.

cans from a jam factory and tins from a biscuit factory –and the container revolution was under way. It turned out to be the catalyst that sparked the development of the modern garden centre industry. So, Barton Grange Garden Centre, with a shop area all of 16ft square, opened in 1963 in the grounds of the hotel, followed in 1974 by the formation of a wholesale plant nursery (now Garden Centre Plants, run alongside the landscaping business by Guy’s brother Peter.) After Guy joined the family business in 1989, two more garden centres were added, both since divested (as was the hotel, run by Ian Topping, the third of his sons) to allow the family to focus on the Brock centre and the Flower Bowl complex. Although he stepped back from day to day matters some years ago and gave up his chairmanship last year, he continued to take a close interest. He was immensely proud of his three sons and their achievements…but getting him to admit it within earshot was an entirely different matter. Eddie was always keen on the notion of a family business and took pleasure in seeing all three sons join it. “I guess I hoped we would end up with a family business into the next generation,” he told me when I interviewed him with Guy for a GTN series on family businesses. “But I wasn’t sure it would happen. I don’t think I put any pressure on the children to come in.” Guy recalls being told as a teenager by his dad that he and his brothers had to work in the finding life tough and the decisions being taken garden centre on weekends and holidays were on an even bigger scale than his early ones, but “we never talked about joining the Eddie would chip in with ‘Just get on with it’. business”. In his own tribute at the service,

“What a proper pioneering spirit. The Peter, who runs the landscaping arm, finest example of his legacy can be seen recalled the “tough love” of those early days. within his offspring and the enterprises that they are Eddie had already insisted that none of his sons involved with now. The Barton Grange business with its should join the family business until they were at least unique culture has Eddie written right through it like a stick 25. But Guy was only 24 and travelling in New Zealand of rock. What an extraordinary legacy.” when Eddie invited him on board. “Dad said: ‘We’ve got

At the start of the 1960s, Eddie was quick to latch on to the this new garden centre in Bolton. Do you fancy coming new-fangled idea from the United States that plants could be back and running it?’ I had two jobs at the time, working grown and sold all the year round in containers, eliminating the 16 hours a day to try to earn enough to pay off my seasonality of bare root culture. With containers as we know overdraft, so I decided running a garden centre sounded them today not yet available, he got hold of empty apricot like a cushy number. I said yes. When I got home that summer, I said to Dad: Where’s this garden centre then? He said: ‘We’ve got to build it first.’” Eddie believed that letting his offspring get on with the job without too much interference was the key to a happy succession. “When I was their age, I was my own boss and had been for some time, making big decisions,” he says. “Now they have got to the point where they have to do it all. I don’t think I interfered too much...” Martin summed up Eddie Topping as “amazing – a proper entrepreneurial pioneer, someone loved and respected more than anyone I have met in our trade. He earnt his reputation in the most beautiful, calm unruffled manner…. ” Perhaps the last word should go to one of Eddie’s grandsons, Andrew, who said at the service: “I won the lottery having Eddie as our grandad.”

He was calm and considered but had a go at everything he could

The tributes poured in…

• Ron Bent, chairman of Bents Garden & Home: Eddy was an inspiration to me personally and to everyone in the horticultural world. He was also a wonderful friend to Wendy and myself and our family. We will miss him greatly. We were the best of friends but also always the best of friendly rivals in business. He taught us (eventually) that cooperation, sharing and togetherness would make us all stronger and more competitive and he created a business that is a wonderful example of his philosophy and one that many of us still benchmark against. He was one of the founding fathers of the GCA, which enabled garden centres in the UK to get together and share the very best ideas and displays and also worldwide through the IGCA, of which his family and ours were regular attenders. But he leaves a wonderful family and a great business legacy that I’m confident that Guy and Peter will carry on with, using their own style to grow the business and have lots of fun along the way. • Warren Haskins, chairman of Haskins Garden Centres: I first met Eddie in the mid 60s when we both joined a garden centre development group which included the forefathers of our industry like Leith Hayes and Derek Bunker. We were all working on our young businesses and were stimulated by what he was doing at Barton Grange. Eddie was full of ideas, ready to help everybody and I have many happy memories of being with him at GCA, IGCA, HTA conferences and many other places. He contributed so much to our industry for which we must all be grateful. • Sue Allen, GCA past chair: Thanks to this remarkable man and his fellow pioneers we have the garden centre industry of today. Personally, I have precious memories of times shared at industry events, conferences and international congresses and learned to appreciate Eddie’s quiet ‘no nonsense’ wisdom but also his delightful sense of humour and infectious laugh. My thoughts are with all the Topping family who continue to ensure Eddie’s legacy is in safe hands. • Ian Boardman, former Garden Centre Association chief inspector: I’ve known Eddie a long time. He always came to say Hello whether for training, masterclasses, judging or inspecting. Always pressing for firm but fair ways to drive standards ever upwards. • Simon Brindle, former colleague: When I worked at Bolton Barton Grange as a young lad in my first job, one of my tasks was to help weed the beds with Eddie, that and try to keep a track of all the stock he would just take off sale without writing off! There’s me two weeks into my new job trying to tell the owner: “No, you can’t just take a fork off sale”. I went on to work at the Preston branch for many years, quite often sharing a chinwag on one of his wanders around the offices. I even had the pleasure of creating a snapshot in time for the garden centre’s 50th anniversary, photographing every member of staff at that time, all packaged up into a coffee table book as a surprise. • Michael Cole, former GCA inspector: Eddie was a true gentleman and a proud Lancastrian. He was truly one of the pioneers of the garden centre industry and will be sadly missed by very many people. • Andy Campbell, Andy Campbell Consulting, former GCA inspector: I only got to know Eddie in recent years, but it was very clear from the outset that he was one of life’s true gentlemen and someone who really understood welcome and hospitality. Our industry has lost an inspirational force. • John Ashley, former supplier: Eddie Topping was the garden industry when I joined Fisons in 1972. He was HTA, GCA and his own growing business. Always welcoming and supportive and helpful to newcomers to this new industry. Eddie was a people person and it was always a pleasure to be in his company. He will be missed but never forgotten. May he rest in peace. Guy is a chip off the old block.

• Brian Gibbons, retired journalist: When I made the transition from Garden News to become founding editor of Garden Trade News in the late 1970s I knew little about the workings of what was about to become a massive trade. I had to rely on the friendly advice and encouragement of those pioneers who had made it all happen. One of these was jovial Eddie Topping, founder of the Barton Grange empire. Although never a comfortable public speaker, he possessed a shrewd mind and warm personality which enabled him to carry out his many trade offices with great distinction. Eddie touched the lives of so many people in a positive way, including my own. RIP Big Man. • Michael Hayes, Hayes Gardenland: A lovely man and one of my Dad's best pals. Great memories over many many years. • Roger Crookes, former GCA inspector: He was a garden centre legend, pioneer, motivator and gentleman. • Pat Flynn, former GTN executive: Eddie was a true gentleman with a cheeky sense of humour who I remember well from my days at Nurseryman & Garden Centre magazine and then GTN. • Cliff Gorman, former colleague: What a man - so much energy, drive, determination and vision. It was my privilege to work alongside him for many years and I learnt so much from him. A great family man. • John Richardson, Nurseryman: Eddie and I were friends for many years due to our mutual interest in the HTA and horticulture in general. We shared our experiences in building a successful business, and we compared notes on the increasing responsibilities of our respective sons. Eddie was an industry leader, a motivator and a true friend. It is an honour to have known him.

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