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The History Of Unwins
Unwins has become, over the decades, one of the best-loved and most respected names in gardening. A firm familiar favourite since that golden age of gardening at the dawn of the 20th century. This was a time when exciting new plants were introduced to our gardens, some collected by intrepid explorers in the wild, others developed by brilliant breeders. It was the beginning of the glittering new Edwardian era; remarkable advances during Queen Victoria's reign had much positive impact on horticulture, be it the vast glasshouses plants could be grown in, or even the better understanding of genetics that started to unlock plant breeding. At that time new plants, often with exciting traits and features, began to transform what we grew in beds, borders and flower gardens.
From humble beginnings
The story of Unwins begins with James Unwin, a humble market gardener who lived in Impington near Cambridge. He grew cut flowers and soft fruit, supplying many of the Cambridge colleges from the 1860s. It was his son, William Unwin, born in 1872, who would transform the business into the leading seed house respected by gardeners today. He started to take over from his father in the 1890s, and grew all manner of flowers fashionable at the time to grace the tables and lapels of his customers - including sweet peas, plants with which the history of Unwins is forever associated.
Henry Eckford and the first Spencer sweet peas
Scottish-born Henry Eckford of Wem in Shropshire was a plant breeder who worked on improving various popular flowers, notably dahlias, but in the 1870s he turned his hand to sweet peas and with great success raised popular selections of the time, such as 'Bronze Prince' and 'Primrose', the first with cream flowers. Demand for his sweet peas grew as more selections were made available: raised in 1896, pink 'Prima Donna' would change sweet peas forever, giving rise to new flowers with larger, wavier blooms. As well as William Unwin's 'Gladys Unwin', others were found including one at Althorp Park in Northamptonshire, home of the Spencer family. This was named 'Countess Spencer' and became the first 'Spencer type' of sweet pea.
The popularity of sweet peas
Sweet peas had been made popular by the work of breeder Henry Eckford during the late 19th century, and by 1901 William Unwin was growing several rows of these plants for cutting. One evening he noticed some blooms of ‘Prima Donna’ – a plant bred by Eckford – looked different, with larger, showier, rather frilly petals. He saved the seed and the following year his new selection, named ‘Gladys Unwin’ for his daughter, flowered. It was an immediate hit; everyone wanted to grow this new sweet pea. William went on to breed from his popular new flower, creating a strain of ‘Unwin type’ sweet peas, which were impressively stable in colour and flower shape.
Making sweet peas perfect cut flowers to sell
William Unwin didn’t take sweet peas seriously as a cut flower crop until he learned about autumn sowing. If you sow sweet peas in September or October, plants produce earlier flowers, from May the following year, and these William found are perfect for selling. In 1895 he grew 400 yards of six different selections; the following year, following great success, he doubled the quantity. In an interview in 1905, William mentioned the importance of mulching, feeding and watering plants in hot weather, and reported that pink selections sell best – he called darker shades ‘worthless’!
Establishing the seed house
William picked his first crop of sweet pea ‘Gladys Unwin’ seed in 1903, which was distributed for sale by a London seed house. By 1905, 25 seeds of this (still-popular) selection were selling for the considerable sum of a shilling each, which gave William the idea to sell a few packets of seeds by post. Little did he realise he was on to something big: in the first year he made just £25 from his seeds and his wife urged him to stick to what he knew best, cut flowers. However, things improved dramatically: by 1914 he had 35,000 customers for his seeds.
In the foreword to the Sweet Pea List, published September 1911, William says ‘my business continues to increase, and in the future, as in the past, my aim will be to give satisfaction by purity of stocks’. He goes on to mention that he started to produce seed in California as ‘some of the best sweet peas cannot be seeded successfully in this country’. He also said that this is done at ‘great expense’ but the only way of ‘offering good plump seed at a reasonable rate’.
Showy Spencer sweet peas would ultimately become more popular than the Unwins type; William himself lists many Spencer peas his 1911 list, but his breeding carried on with success. Soon, selling seed of his and other breeder’s selections took over from his original cut flower business, with acres of land under sweet pea cultivation by the end of the decade.
Keeping it in the family
Born in 1895, William’s son Charles inherited his father’s fascination with sweet peas and flowers such as dahlias and gladioli; he actually started hybridizing sweet peas while still at school, and before he was 20 took on responsibility for the sweet pea side of the seed house. He also looked after the compilation of the company’s increasingly desirable annual seed catalogue which, by 1914, was offering now seed of vegetables and various cut flowers as well as sweet peas. Under William and Charles, the company become one of the leading breeders of sweet peas of the 20th century, the pair creating more than 250 named selections.
Another of William’s sons, Frank was also key to the business, running the vegetable seed side, breeding new tomatoes and peas among others. He was also an important player in the development of gladioli, those tall and beautiful summer show stoppers which grow from corms. He was particularly interested in Gladiolus primulinus, a species discovered in 1902 and known for its daintier, elegant soft yellow flowers. With his father he went on to develop many first-rate selections – the 1938 catalogue listed 58 bred by Frank.
Unwins in the wars
The First World War was of course a challenging period for seed production; in Unwins Seeds 1918, William writes, ‘owing to the shortage of labour and other abnormal war conditions the quantity of vegetable seeds grown has greatly diminished’.
During the Second World War, the Unwins seed catalogue again reduced in size and concentrated more on vegetable seeds to help encourage the Dig for Victory campaign.
When William Unwin died in 1947, Charles and his uncle Frank – who shared an office together until the late 1970s – took the helm. James (Jim) Unwin, Charles’s son, joined the business in 1939, running trials at the company’s trial grounds, laboratories and headquarters at Histon, Cambridge, to reveal the best selections for sale to customers. He helped grow the business after the war, and established a reputation as an expert judge and seedsman. In the 1970s he helped establish Fleuroselect, the international organisation that promotes ornamental plants and continues to this day.
In 1954, Unwins began to sell seeds, bulbs and plants through shops as well as mail order, all around the world, a side of the business run by Colin Unwin, Jim’s brother. Despite the deaths of Jim in 1980, Charles in 1986 and Colin in 1990, Unwins remained a family company, with Colin’s sons David and Andrew and daughter Sally, all in key roles. Unwins became the largest supplier of seeds to Britain’s gardeners, an achievement realised by its commitment to bringing the best and newest selections to gardeners, and using the latest technology to develop and package its products. By the time it celebrated its centenary in 2003, the company had a turnover of more than £15m.
What is Fleuroselect?
Fleuroselect is the international organisation for the ornamental plants industry. Founded in 1970, it is an association of plant breeders from around the world where professionals come together to test and evaluate new pot and bedding plants, and promote the winners to gardeners.
Keeping it in the family
In 2004, Westland took over Unwins. Today the firm remains committed to bringing their customers the very best in new selections in much the same way that William Unwin did when he sold his first packet of seed. Sweet peas remain a key part of the business, and Unwins maintain this tradition through extensive annual sweet pea trials, where different selections from countries around the globe are bought together, compared, and the finest selected to eventually appear in for sale. Seeds are carefully tested for quality of germination and vigour, and sold in packets that ensure contents reach customers in perfect condition; when you buy a packet of seed from Unwins you can do so with absolute confidence as you are benefiting from 120 years of experience in these exquisite plants.
The lockdowns of the global pandemic saw new customers turning to Unwins – people perhaps without gardens but interested in growing on windowsills or in containers. Edible plants saw a huge uplift in interest (echoing the ‘Dig for Victory’ years) and Unwins was able to supply seeds of salads, herbs and other crops for indoors. Customers nowadays are more interested and concerned about the environment than ever before, and Unwins has seen huge interest in seed of native plants and wildflowers. The experience of growing plants can offer so much to so many people, and Unwins is keen everyone experience the joy of raising plants from seed. Perhaps, one day, this time too will be looked back on as a golden age for gardening.
10 Facts About Unwins
- One of the best loved names in UK gardening, Unwins celebrates its 120th year as a seed house in 2023.
- Unwins was founded in 1903, when the first seed of William Unwin's immediately popular sweet pea 'Gladys Unwin' was sold.
- Unwins founder, William Unwin, was an important breeder of sweet peas in his day; working with his son Charles, the pair introduced more than 250 named selections.
- Frank Unwin, another of William's sons, who helped run Unwins during the first half of the 20th century, is closely associated with the development of gladioli breeding, especially smaller flowered kinds which became popular in many gardens.
- During the Second World War, Unwins helped to drive the 'Dig for Victory' campaign by concentrating more on vegetable seed than flower seed, key in keeping the nation supplied with home-grown food.
- Charles Unwin was a key player in setting up Fleuroselect, the international organisation for the ornamental plants industry, which helps identify the best plants for gardeners.
- Sweet peas are still very much in the blood at Unwins: the company still runs extensive annual sweet pea trials to find the best selections for gardeners.
- Through the global pandemic, Unwins helped support customers who turned to gardening, supplying seeds of crops suitable for indoor growing and satisfying the growing demand for wildflower seed.
- The core values that have long made Unwins a trusted and loved brand remain today - great, exciting new varieties perfect for today's gardeners, and the best quality seed.
- In his first year, William Unwin made just £25 from his seeds; today Unwins has grown to be one of the UK's leading and most trusted suppliers of seed to gardeners with a multi-million pound turnover.
Who We Work With
We are a sponsor of many National Vegetable Society events, providing members with discounted seeds.