A History of the Trust

How the Trust was founded

1990 – Three people sit in an historic room at Fairfield and discuss a vision for a county gardens trust. Around Somerset, other counties have established gardens trusts to record and preserve historic gardens and landscapes – but are there enough people in the county willing to commit their time and energy to make it a reality? They decide to arrange a meeting at Hestercombe House and invite all the people they know to be keen gardeners in the county to come to it to test their interest.

To create a new organisation requires not only the vision but also a risk appetite, drive, persistence and the ability to inspire enthusiasm among others, particularly volunteers. This the group of three did. So who were they?

First, Lady (Elizabeth) Gass, who was then a County Councillor with a well-known interest in history and archaeology as well as gardens and gardening: she is now the fourth President of the Trust; secondly, Steven Pugsley, who had a close involvement in and experience from working with the young Devon Gardens Trust; and thirdly, Ken Brown, a County Council Planning Officer at that time who not only showed the support the Council gave the Trust but, beyond his duties, also contributed his countryside and planning knowledge to the cause. We owe much to the three of them.

Elizabeth Gass first gathered together, at Hestercombe House, many Somerset people who owned historic gardens and landscapes, as well as professional experts in various relevant fields who either owned or were known to have an expertise in the area of historic gardens. At an early stage the meeting agreed that a Trust should be formed.

It was from this meeting in July 1990 that a steering group was set up, chaired by the late David Tudway Quilter, owner of the well-known garden at Milton Lodge, Wells, which led to the formation of a launch committee and the start of the Trust. The legal documents gave rise to mild controversy:

“There is rather too much of the leave it to us, we know best in this” and “It is important that the people who are prepared to help are all Indians and not Chiefs” – perhaps an allusion to the feeling some had that not enough Indians were selected for roles. Others had more basic concerns “However I had understood that the Somerset CC was not prepared to allocate any money to such a project, and without funds, any ideas of a garden trust must fail”. But the group of three (with the enthusiasm of such early members of the steering group as Lady Sarah Wright and Lady (Hermione) Luttrell) was resolute – and so the Trust was born. By December 1991 the Trust had quickly established a membership of 144.

There was always a lighter side to this formal process. One highlight was an evening with Gilly Drummond, organised by Lady Gass at Fairfield in the early days of recruiting members. Mrs Drummond was the Chairman of Hampshire Gardens Trust (one of the very first Trusts to be set up) and doyenne of the Gardens Trust movement. She was a powerful and charismatic speaker.

How it all developed

The Hestercombe Meeting and launch of the Steering Group were the first and critical steps. Some other landmarks were:

  • The AGM at Cannington in 1991 when the Council members were elected (with Sylvia Ray as Secretary) and the setting up of the Survey Group (led for many years by Primrose Mallet-Harris) and the Events Committee.
  • The start of the Newsletter at the same time edited by Stephen Pugsley (who did the distinctive line drawings in his kitchen), the predecessor of this edition.
  • The establishment of the Education Committee to encourage colleges to promote horticulture as a career and schools to give a life-long enthusiasm to children for gardens, including giving grants – now ably led by Sheila Rabson.
  • The start of the very successful annual Plant Shows organised by Michael and Eve Stancomb at Barford Park.
  • The expansion of the role of the Survey Group to include Planning Applications in 1998 (now led by Jenny Kent) in part caused by the furore over inappropriate developments at Orchard Leigh.
  • The first in a series of very successful international tours, organised by James and Primrose Mallet-Harris, to Ireland in 2000, and more recently the one led by Camilla Carter and John Townson in 2014 of the Lake District.

The Future

And so, on to the next 25 years. Should the anniversary spur us to consider what our vision is for the next 5 or even 25 years? Change is the only constant. Past history of the Trust, and the coming forward of younger members, give us the confidence that we will take advantage of the opportunities and meet the challenges that lie ahead.

[article by Sylvia Ray and the Editors of the SGT 25th Anniversary Summer magazine published in August 2015]