Knap Hill Nurseries

The first of a two-part series on the area’s horticultural heritage
Nursery gardens have flourished in the Woking area for nearly 200 years as the soil, though not so good for arable crops, is well-drained and easily worked making it ideal for plant nurseries. By the 1850s the area was one of the most important in the Western  world for growing and breeding plants, especially those brought from America and the East.

The 1896 Ordnance Survey map shows eight areas as nurseries in central and eastern Horsell, and beyond these were Knap Hill Nurseries, the most important of all, which were within the historic parish of Horsell. Their founder, in about 1760, was probably John Waterer. After his death the business passed first to his sister Ruth, and on her death in 1796 to his nephew Michael, who in 1809 brought his eldest son, also Michael, into  the business. They began making crosses to improve rhododendrons from a plant brought to Chelsea from America by John Fraser. Michael the younger expanded his business, which J C Loudon, the founder of The Gardener’s Magazine visited in 1829 and found it to contain “the largest and finest collection of American plants I ever saw”. Thus encouraged, Waterer acquired premises in Chelsea by 1840 and held annual exhibitions of plants there. Michael Waterer died of cholera in 1842 and his brother Hosea took over Knap Hill.

By 1851 Hosea was employing 50 labourers on the nursery, as well as 10 on his 103-acre farm, and continued the London shows. After his death in 1853 his nephews Anthony Waterer and Robert Godfrey inherited Knap Hill.

The chief distinction at this time was in the development of azaleas. Some of the farm was converted to nurseries and by 1861 there were 107 employees on 350 acres. The stock included a Douglas fir 35 feet or more high and a magnolia with a spread of 54 feet. The borders on each side of a walk were 2,310 feet in length and 40 feet wide; this was the famous ‘Rhododendron mile’, which drew visits from King Edward VII.

Godfrey retired due to ill-health in 1867 and his share of the site was bought out by Anthony. Meanwhile, Anthony’s younger son Hosea had built up the existing American trade and had gone to settle in Philadelphia. As a result, a prosperous trade between Knap Hill and America developed.

Anthony’s older son, also named Anthony, took over Knap Hill on his father’s death in 1896 but, while he bred many new azaleas, he did little to market them. After the departure of staff from the nursery in World War I – a small memorial recorded the names of those who were killed in action – he lost heart and made no attempt to restore the wilderness it had become. On his death in 1924, he bequeathed some of the land to the town, forming Waterer’s Recreation Ground at Knaphill.

Soon afterwards, his sons put up the nursery for sale and it ceased to be a family-run business, although after World War II, Donald Waterer took over and ran it until it was acquired by Martin Slocock, formerly of Goldsworth Nursery, which was redeveloped as Goldsworth Park. Eventually Martin Slocock sold the nursery and, after a period as Botany Barns garden centre, at present its future appears uncertain.

Rosemary and Richard Christophers, Woking History Society

Sources and acknowledgements:

E J Willson. Nurserymen to the world. The author, 1989.
A Crosby. A history of Woking. Rev. ed. Phillimore, 2002. Useful map on p 102.
S E and R Whiteman. Victorian Woking. Surrey Archaeological Society, 1970.
R Davis. Woking living words. Vol. 1. The Lightbox, 2007.
1911 census records on and transcribed by Phillip Arnold, 2012.
Illustration courtesy of The Lightbox.

Editor’s Note: The stories of the other nurseries of Horsell Village will be featured in the Winter 2012 edition.

3 Responses to Knap Hill Nurseries

  1. Great to read this info I have lived in knaphill all my life and had never realised what a significant place it was for the growing of trees and shrubs and can’t understand why their is no reference to its past in the village it’s a real shame that no one here knows about its famous past and how important it was to the development of particularly rhododendron and azalias. I can remember slocock nurseries and some of the land still survives down carthouse lane I believe which does still support containerised shrub companies and wholesale but it must have been amazing when it was at its height. One thing I would like to mention is that although the soil here was good growing being acidic loam this is not true everywhere I am on heavy clay and the area where I live was used for making bricks their was a factory in the 1930s in lower Guildford road exploiting this the area was marshland and obviously underwater at sometime in the past it’s a pity Woking council don’t do more to promote knaphills interesting history maybe they do as they have a history center but no one knows here about knaphills past.

  2. Elaine Sedlack says:

    I found your site through my curiosity about the parentage of Rhododendron ‘Bow Bells’, which I have now learned was a cross made using one of the old Knap Hill Nursery hybrids by “J. Waterhouse”, named ‘Corona’, of unknown parentage. I also grow an old spiraea named for Anthony Waterer, which I have planted just across from the ‘Bow Bells’. Little was I aware of their long, though tenuous association and history. I live in Oregon. Rhododendrons have made their way all over the world, mainly due to the Victorian plant collectors. Then, I also grow Clematis ‘Belle of Woking’! I must make it to Surrey someday.

  3. William Hardy says:

    I as the lady above also found here through curiosity, I was born in a Knap Hill nursery property, and was lucky to have the nursery as my playground growing up!

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