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 with a nursery in Sturton By Stow. Today the company is run by the seventh and eighth generations Richard Pennell and his son William Pennell.

Later in the early nineteenth century the nurseries were moved to 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 Sturton by 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-?) and his grandson Richard (1798-1876) both of whom lived in Sturton by Stow and were baptised in Stow St Mary’s Church, Sturton by Stow, Lincolnshire. By 1825 about the time of his marriage Richard Pennell (1798-1876) had left Sturton by Stow to live in a cottage on the nursery at Gowts Bridge, High Street, Lincoln.

Richard Pennell (1799-1876)

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 Pennell (1826-1891)

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. By 1868 Charles Pennell had opened a shop from which to sell the farm seeds at 169A High Street, Lincoln.

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 Waldegrave Pennell (1861-1939)

Walter Richard Pennell (1865-1955) 

Charles remained as Pennell’s Chairman until his death in 1939, after which his younger brother Walter Richard Pennell took over from him. By 1894, CW & WR Pennell had acquired additional nursery land at Bracebridge and moved the Lincoln High Street shop to 181 High Street Lincoln (just north of the Great Northern Railway footbridge in the High street) and it was described in the 1899 Kelly’s directory as the “Seed Establishment and Order Shop” where they were also Florists and Insurance agents for the Scottish Provincial Fire and Life Office. In 1901 this shop was moved again to 312 High Street Lincoln. In about 1907 the land of the original nursery at Gowt’s Bridge was sold for housing and the Lincoln nursery was fully relocated to the Brant Road, Bracebridge nursery on the edge of the city. By 1909 Pennells had also acquired the Mill in Princess Street, Lincoln and opened a Seed and Garden “High Street” shop in Grimsby. This was followed before and after the First World War, with similar Seed and Garden “High Street” shops in Brigg, Doncaster, Gainsborough and Scunthorpe.

312 High Street, Lincoln. 


Pennell's Clematis History

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 (1910-1977)

 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 (originally called a Plant 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.

Pennells First Purpose Built Centre at Doncaster in 1969

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.

 Mrs Vyvyan Pennell - (Chairman 1977-1995)

Richard N Pennell - (1953 - ) Chairman 1995 

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 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

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 2010 William E Pennell’s brother James Richard Pennell joined the family business. 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.

In 2018 the company purchased the Four Seasons Garden Centre at Sleaford. This centre has a 140 seat restaurant and garden shop. The company is currently developing plans to expand the centre further.

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