Founded in 1851, Kelways have put Langport on the map; gained a worldwide reputation for gladioli, peonies and irises; overcome bankruptcy; moved premises, and yet still remained an active and successful local business. It’s a remarkable story.
James Kelway, the Head Gardener at the Dillington Estate, near Ilminster, bought just over an acre of land in Huish Episcopi and began his own nursery there in 1851. He’d been working at Dillington for 17 years, and felt that it was time to run his own business. He specialised in herbaceous plants, especially gladioli, peonies and irises.
James’s strategy was simple: he bred his own varieties, and entered flowers, fruit and vegetables into local, national and international horticultural shows. He used the medals and prizes they won as evidence of the quality of their products. Their reputation was founded on the sheer scale of their activity, and the simple fact that they had grown and trialled their plants themselves. Prizes meant good publicity and increased sales. Gradually James built a huge international reputation for horticultural excellence.
In the nineteenth century the Kelway name became particularly associated with the cultivation of gladioli. James called his house ‘Gladioli Villa’, and quickly established a reputation as a first-class specialist in hybridizing gladioli. At the Paris International Exhibition of 1889 Kelways won a gold medal for a collection of gladioli, a tremendous achievement. Going to the Paris exhibitions was one of James’s favourite activities, and it is likely that the peonies that Monet chose for his garden at Giverny were ones he saw on Kelways’ display.
For many years Kelways described themselves as ‘The Royal Nurseries’, or the ‘Royal Horticultural Establishment’, but this was no more than a marketing ploy. They certainly sent flowers and plants to the Royal Family, and they may have had Royal customers, but despite receiving a letter of thanks from the private secretary to Queen Victoria in 1896, they were never awarded a royal warrant, so the description eventually had to be dropped.
James’s son William and his grandson James followed him into the business, specialising in peonies and irises. Peonies had always been grown at Barrymore Farm, and the peony field became known as Peony Valley. In the 1920s and 1930s it was a popular tourist attraction, with coach and rail parties coming from far and wide to see the spectacular plants.
By 1900 Kelways employed well over 100 people and had 45 glass houses, each 50 ft (15m) long. The original nursery buildings included warehouses where seeds and bulbs were packed and stored. (needs link to Streets) However, the First World War saw much of their workforce taken in to the armed forces, which made their labour-intensive operations even more difficult. The post-war economic downturn, combined with the break-up of large estates with their large orders, caused the business to suffer a slow decline into bankruptcy. It was rescued in 1933 by a consortium of local interests led by John Owen Lloyd, with James Kelway remaining as Managing Director until his death in 1952.
The nursery business remained strong, with repeated medal success at the Chelsea Flower Show cementing their reputation for excellence in growing irises and peonies. Unfortunately, however, over the years Kelways shared in the general downturn in the fortunes of the horticultural industry, and were again forced into bankruptcy in 1993. Rescued this time by the owners of McBean’s Orchids, careful management saw Kelways’ reputation gradually restored. The present owner and managing director, Dave Root, has changed direction in recent years, building an impressive reputation for supplying quality plants to the designers of Chelsea Show Gardens.
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