One of the oldest Garden Suppliers in the country...
Richard Pennell 1799-1876
Charles Pennell 1826-1891
Charles Waldegrave Pennell 1861-1939
Walter Richard Pennell 1865-1955
Walter Everitt Pennell 1910-1977
A Potted History
Pennells is one of the oldest garden companies in the country and is probably the oldest still in the same family ownership. The business was founded by a Richard Pennell in 1780. Today the company is run by the seventh and eighth generations Richard Pennell and his son William Pennell.
The company’s first nurseries were situated in what was then, the outskirts of Lincoln next to a small stream called Gowt’s Beck, the site of the current Pennell Street. The first Richard Pennell (1735-1812) was born in Stow, Lincolnshire. 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. Richard Pennell was to be joined in the business by both his son Charles (1771-?) who was born in Stow, Lincolnshire and his grandson Richard (1799-1876) who was born in Collingham, Nottinghamshire.
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 6p. The nursery was further developed at Gowt’s Bridge, Lincoln 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 clematis species including C. calycina, C. flammula and C. sieboldii which retailed between 6p and 1s 6p. In about 1858, the great grandson of the first Richard Pennell, Charles Pennell (1826-1891) came into the business on the condition his father Richard (1799-1876) retired. Although Charles had worked with his father for a time after leaving school they were in constant disagreement, as a result Charles worked for a number of years on nurseries in Germany and Holland, where he acquired some very progressive ideas which he used to transform the business upon his return.
Charles 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 (1861-1939) and Walter Richard Pennell (1865-1955). Charles W. Pennell was not only Company Chairman, but in 1900 he was also the youngest ever Mayor of Lincoln. He also became Chairman of William Fosters, the famous Lincoln Engineers who designed and built the first tank in the First World War. Charles remained as Pennell’s Chairman until his death in 1939, after which his younger brother Walter Richard Pennell took over from him.
Garden “High Street” shops were opened before and after the First World War in Lincoln, Brigg, Doncaster, Gainsborough, Grimsby and Scunthorpe. In about 1907 the land of the original nursery at Gowt’s Bridge was sold for housing and the Lincoln nursery was relocated to Brant Road, on the edge of the city.
The company introduced many new varieties of plants during this period, including a golden ivy Hedera colchica “Dentata Variegata” and the well known apple variety “Ellison’s Orange”. Displays were mounted at shows throughout the country as well as the Chelsea Flower Show. By 1939, the company listed forty-eight large flowered clematis hybrids and twenty-nine species of clematis in its catalogue.
Walter Richard’s son Walter E. Pennell (1910-1977) began working for Pennells in the early 1930’s after studying horticulture at Reading University. He would have preferred to study chemistry, but was eventually persuaded to stay with the family business! Walter E Pennell returned to the business in January 1946 after serving in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War. However, his interest in science and technology was to lead to his interest in plant breeding. Walter started collecting seed from naturally pollinated plants during the 1950’s. Clematis “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”.
Walter E. Pennell was also a pioneer in the development of the modern “out of town” Garden Centre which resulted in the gradual closure of the garden “High Street” shops during the 1960-70s. Pennells’ first Garden Centre was opened in 1966 on the company’s Brant Road nursery site. The centre consisted of a small shop with beds of plants grown in old crisp tins from the local Smith’s Crisp Factory!
Between 1969 and 1971, Walter E Pennell went on to develop three purpose built centres at South Hykeham,Lincoln; Doncaster and Humberston Road, Grimsby. Walter Pennell died in 1977 and was succeeded, as chairman, by his wife E. Vyvyan Pennell (1913-1995) with their son Richard Nicholas Pennell becoming Managing Director. Richard became Chairman after the death of his mother in 1995.
When Richard N. Pennell came into the business in the mid 1970’s, he changed the nursery to concentrate on growing plants in containers for the evolving garden centre market. In particular the nursery specialised in the production of clematis and climbing plants. During the 1990’s, the company’s garden centres at Lincoln and Grimsby/Cleethorpes were expanded and developed.
The nurseries moved again in 1989 from Brant Road to a site behind the company’s Garden Centre at South Hykeham. An additional nursery was bought at Waddington, just outside Lincoln. Pennells’ close association with clematis continued during the 1990’s. The wholesale business was developed to supply garden centres throughout the UK with clematis. At its peak, the nursery was growing over a quarter of a million clematis plus many climbers, shrubs and perennials.
In 2002 the company changed direction again to concentrate on the development of its garden centres. The nurseries were reduced in size and its plant production was changed away from clematis and climbers to the production of bedding plants, perennials and shrubs for its own centres.
Recent years have seen the development of the Cleethorpes Garden Centre with the opening of a new restaurant in 2004. In 2007 the eighth generation of the Pennell family, William Edward Pennell came into the business. William became manager of the company’s garden centre at Cleethorpes in 2009.
In 2008/2009 the Lincoln Garden Centre was redeveloped with new retail areas and a restaurant. This doubled the size of the centre and increased the number of seats in the restaurant to 270. All a far cry from the initial beginnings of the company in 1780.
In 2014 William Pennell moved from the manager’s role at Grimsby to become managing director responsible for the day to day operation of the business. Richard Pennell continues his involvement as company chairman.
Further developments at the Lincoln centre were completed in 2015 with increased retail areas, an increase in restaurant seating (up from 260 to 420 covers), new luxury food hall and a fully covered plant area.