Going for Gold - From Chelsea 1924 to QE Park, London 2012

colonel gavin jones

Much of business in a competitive world is focussed on strategic decision-making for a sustainable future. The celebration of the Queen's Jubilee and Coronation Festival have provided Gavin Jones Ltd with a catalyst which has encouraged us to pause and look back over history to the roots of our business which was founded in 1919 – some 93 years ago.

Our founder, Archibald Nelson Gavin Jones was born in 1882, the son of Gavin Jones and Margaret French. He joined the Royal Artillery in 1901 aged 18 and served in India before transferring to Marseilles in 1914 to see action in the First World War. His war diaries provide us with an insight to the man behind our company, with fascinating first-hand accounts of combat and life in the trenches. Although afflicted by injury, Colonel Gavin Jones (pictured above right) survived the War and retired from service in 1920.

The "War to end all wars" was over, and this was the time many soldiers decided to relinquish their military careers. One such was Colonel Gavin Jones. He and his wife bought a small horticultural property in Letchworth and began to devote themselves to the cultivation of alpine plants. The book Aileen – a Pioneering Archaeologist details trips made by GJ and his wife to European alpine regions in search of specimens in their natural habitat.

Significant remaining features built by GJ include: Chelwood Vachery which is an early 20th Century garden laid out by Leonard Rome Guthrie in 1906. In 1925 GJ constructed a water feature comprising a spring-fed gorge with waterfalls and a chain of lakes using limestone and immature conifers. A year later in 1926 the Colonel created a rock garden with an oriental flavour in what is now known as the Bristol Zoological Garden which was originally landscaped in 1896. This garden has several small pools and statuary. In the same year he was commissioned by Lady Byng alongside Gertrude Jekyll and other notable s to help create a garden at Thorpe Hall which illustrated the importance of matching plants to their proper habitat. The result was an alpine, water and wilderness setting created in a natural fashion that reflected what she had seen on her travels. These garden features remain to this day and we have had the privilege of visiting Thorpe Hall and chatting to the current gardening teams that maintain the heritage to this day.

By 1930 the business had expanded to three locations and GJ catalogues advertised plants and gave advice on the design of rock gardens. Rock Gardens had long been the much-lauded focal point of the annual Chelsea Flower Show and GJ began constructing rock gardens at Chelsea in 1924, and by 1946 he had amassed many gold medals.

In a newspaper article in 1946 after his latest gold medal award the Colonel describes the build rather humorously as a "rush job", nonetheless the King and Queen who had visited the garden during the Preview event prior to the opening of the show had "shown considerable interest" in his exhibit. Later in 1951 a newspaper article of the time details further Gold Medal success – this time for a rock garden that featured a rare dwarf scotch pine. Believed to be unique and discovered on the Icknield Way not far from his home in Letchworth, it was named Pinus Icenii by the curators at Kew Gardens and subsequently the Colonel grafted three specimens, one of which was presented to HM The Queen for the gardens at Windsor. In 1948 yet another success and GJ's award winning garden was bought by Sir Winston Churchill and reassembled at Chartwell.

In a moving tribute by his daughter, Daphne Lawry, reflecting on her childhood and memories of her father, she describes Easter as being devoted to the Chelsea Flower Show. She tells of how difficult it was to get a space at Chelsea and that a place on the rock garden bank was much prized and the competition was strong. "A Gold medal was given only when exacting design and horticultural criteria were met. Gavin Jones achieved a Gold Medal for most of it's exhibits, and anything less was considered a failure." She further notes that "A special bed for HM Queen Mary was always placed near the front of the exhibit and planted with the little plants she liked. She would jab her parasol at a plant or two saying "I rather care for that", and the plants would be tweaked from the ground in pots and handed to an equerry as a gift".

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Photo: The Princess Elizabeth sampling the delights of a GJ Rock Garden at Chelsea Flower Show

We are very proud of our heritage. The principle of striving for excellence in all that we do remains a constant to the present day and what began as a simple hobby has developed into a thriving business which is now one of Britain's leading landscape construction, grounds maintenance, arboriculture and nursery enterprises – culminating the granting of the Royal Warrant to HM The Queen in 2008 and in our involvement in the construction and maintenance of the Queen Elizabeth Park for London 2012 – we trust the Colonel would be very proud of the custodians of his legacy!

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