St Albans’ world golfing legacy
PUBLISHED: 15:38 08 September 2014 | UPDATED: 15:38 08 September 2014
One of the highlights of the world golfing calendar, the Ryder Cup, takes place this month, but many may not know it was founded by a St Albans horticulturalist. Gillian Thornton follows in the footsteps of the remarkable Samuel Ryder
With its vast cathedral, impressive Roman theatre and medieval clock tower, St Albans packs a punch when it comes to historic monuments. But not all the city’s significant buildings have quite such an obvious story to tell. Walk down Holywell Hill, for instance, and you wouldn’t instantly associate the Art Deco frontage of Café Rouge with one of this month’s high-profile sporting events.
The eye-catching building, with its curved roof and stained-glass windows, was opened in 1931 as an exhibition hall for flowers grown by local seed company Ryder and Son. The company was started by St Albans businessman Samuel Ryder, a deeply-religious Nonconformist and highly-respected local philanthropist, who also left an international sporting legacy.
In 1926, Ryder founded the Ryder Cup, which plays out at Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire from September 23-28. And to educate more people about the man behind the prestigious trophy, a Samuel Ryder Trail has been created around St Albans. The ‘nine-hole’ trail begins at the town hall and leads to sites outside the city centre.
Samuel Ryder was born in 1858 in Walton-le-Dale, a small village outside Preston. One of eight children, he was the son of a gardener and after short careers in education and shipping eventually joined his father’s market-gardening business. But Ryder had an idea for a horticultural business of his own, and in 1895 he moved with his wife Helen to St Albans. He saw the city, with its three railway stations, as the ideal base for a mail-order business selling ‘penny packets’ of fruit and vegetable seeds – an original idea to reach a mass market.
His new venture, Ryder and Son, began in a shed in his garden at 5 Folly Lane. ‘He named the company out of respect to his father, Samuel himself being the son in question,’ explains Bob Reitemeier, a trustee of the St Albans-based Samuel Ryder Foundation. The roots of the foundation, launched three years ago to carry on Ryder’s philanthropic work, lie in a project to erect a statue of the man in the city centre. A site has been agreed with St Albans District Council in a paved area off St Peter’s Street that leads to Alban Arena, and the foundation has launched an appeal to raise the £150,000 needed. Patrons include former Ryder Cup captains Jack Nicklaus, Tony Jacklin and Colin Montgomerie, as well as Lord and Lady Verulam, Lord Charles Cecil and ‘voice of golf’ Peter Alliss.
Once the statue is in place, the foundation plans to help young people working in Ryder’s key areas of interest – golf, green-keeping and horticulture.
Foundation members also helped set up the Samuel Ryder Trail. Foundation trustees and self-confessed golf fanatics David Holwell and Patricia Fulton of Kings Langley were on the committee that created it. ‘We were surprised at how few reminders there were of Samuel in his adopted city and we wanted to remind people of his contribution,’ explains Patricia.
As Ryder’s business took off, he moved with Helen and their three daughters to bigger houses in the town and took on larger business premises. A key location on the trail is the property next to the White Hart Hotel on Holywell Hill, bought by Ryder in 1903 for his head office. In 1911, he replaced it with a new building in Arts and Crafts style, now the Clarion Hotel. Decorated with carved reliefs of sowers and reapers, it housed the company’s sales and adminstration offices downstairs. Climb the impressive mahogany staircase today and you can still see the original stained-glass dome and, if not in use, the fireplace in Ryder’s former office – now a meeting room – that is carved with his initials.
On the vacant plot next door, Ryder commissioned the Seed Exhibition Hall from local builder Miskin and Sons. It opened in 1931. Sit at a table in what is now Café Rouge and you can browse a folder of newspaper cuttings showing gentlemen in bowler hats admiring herbaceous borders and fountains. A cover illustration from one of his 1930s’ seed catalogues also shows Ryder beneath the glass roof.
A devout Nonconformist, Ryder was a prominent and popular member of the local community throughout his life. Serving as a Liberal councillor from 1903 to 1916, he was elected mayor in 1905 and superintendent of the Independent Sunday School. He was also a caring employer by all acounts, rewarding loyal staff with sick pay and encouraging singing among staff to promote wellbeing.
By the time he was 50 however, Ryder’s own health was suffering and he took up golf for relaxation, becoming a member of Verulam Golf Club. Hooked on his new hobby, he was elected captain three times and sponsored a number of professional golf tournaments through Heath and Heather, a company he had formed with brother James in 1920 (it is now part of Holland and Barrett).
In 1926, Ryder dreamed up his biggest challenge yet – organising a match between the USA and Great Britain and Ireland, a deliberate move to popularise what was still essentially a minority sport with a competition for teams rather than individuals. The first event, played at Wentworth, Surrey, the same year, was deemed unofficial after the General Strike disrupted travel and the Americans had to recruit non-US players. The first official Ryder Cup took place in Massachusetts the following year, with a win for the Americans.
Verulam Golf Club on London Road can rightly claim to be the founding home of a tournament now watched by millions across the globe. A replica cup stands in the clubhouse. The real Ryder Cup is a magnificent gold trophy made by London silversmith Mappin and Webb and measuring 17 inches high and nine inches from handle to handle, and weighing 4lbs. On its top is an image of Ryder’s great friend and golf professional Abe Mitchell. It was commissioned and paid for by Ryder and presented to the Professional Golfers’ Association of Great Britain to be used for the event.
Ryder died in 1936 and is buried in Hatfield Road Cemetery beneath a modest headstone. To find it, turn right at the chapel of rest and just keep walking. The Ryder brand is now owned by Suttons Seeds and the penny packets are ancient history, but his name remains sacred to golf fans across the world.
‘Samuel Ryder was a man who thought constantly about how to help others,’ says Bob Reitemeier. ‘He knew poverty as a young man and vowed that if ever he became an employer he would treat people well, and he always did. A humanitarian at every level and not too bad at golf either!’ >>>
A free guide to the Samuel Ryder Trail can be picked up at the Tourist Information Centre in the Old Town Hall or downloaded at enjoystalbans.com
To donate to the Samuel Ryder statue appeal, visit sryder.com or call 01923 270925.