When I first met Eddie Topping MBE in the 1990s, he reminded me of a mischievous schoolboy…impish grin, cheeky chat, a twinkle in the eye – yet always everybody’s idea of a perfect gentleman. But it didn’t take long to understand that behind that engaging façade was a shrewd entrepreneurial brain, which he used to fashion a fantastic legacy – one of the UK’s most spectacular garden and leisure businesses with a pre-pandemic turnover of more than £25 million.
The new-build destination garden centre at Brock – a project led with extraordinary energy by one of his three sons, Guy, who inherited his father’s flair, plus added cheek – was a far cry from the Rochdale Market fruit and veg stall Eddie took over in 1955 from his father, who (with his wife) was by then busy building up business at their newly-developed hotel at Barton near Preston.
When I interviewed Eddie in 2010 for a new GTN series on family businesses, he told me how he used to grow cut flowers, fruit and veg in the grounds of the hotel. A couple of years later, he started growing trees and shrubs and set up a small landscaping business to keep himself busy in between market days.
At the start of the 1960s, Eddie was quick to latch on to the new-fangled idea from the United States that plants could be grown and sold all the year round in containers, eliminating the seasonality of bare root culture. With containers as we know them today not yet available, he got hold of empty apricot cans from a jam factory and tins from a biscuit factory – and the container revolution was under way. It turned out to be the catalyst that sparked the development of the modern garden centre industry.
So, Barton Grange Garden Centre, with a shop area all of 16ft square, opened in 1963 in the grounds of the hotel, followed in 1974 by the formation of a wholesale plant nursery (now Garden Centre Plants, run alongside the landscaping business by Guy’s brother Peter).
After Guy joined the family business in 1989, two more garden centres were added, both since divested (as was the hotel, run by Ian Topping, the third of his sons) to allow the family to focus on the award-winnning Brock flagship centre and the more recently added Flower Bowl leisure complex.
Eddie was always keen on the notion of a family business and took pleasure in seeing all three sons join it. “I guess I hoped we would end up with a family business into the next generation,” he told me. “But I wasn’t sure it would happen. I don’t think I put any pressure on the children to come in.” Guy recalls being told as a teenager by his dad that he and his brothers had to work in the garden centre on weekends and holidays but “we never talked about joining the business.”
Eddie had already insisted that none of his sons should join the family business until they were at least 25. But Guy was only 24 and travelling in New Zealand when Eddie invited him on board. “Dad said: ‘We’ve got this new garden centre in Bolton. Do you fancy coming back and running it?’ I had two jobs at the time, working 16 hours a day to try to earn enough to pay off my overdraft, so I decided running a garden centre sounded like a cushy number. I said yes. When I got home that summer, I said to Dad: Where’s this garden centre then? He said: ‘We’ve got to build it first.’”
Eddie believed that letting his offspring get on with the job without too much interference was the key to a happy succession. “When I was their age, I was my own boss and had been for some time, making big decisions,” he says. “Now they have got to the point where they have to do it all. I don’t think I interfered too much...”
Although he stepped back from day to day matters some years ago and was succeeded by Peter as chairman last year, he continued to take a close interest. He was immensely proud of his three sons and their achievements – but getting him to admit it within earshot was an entirely different matter...
Private funeral and service of remembrance on 28 September
Guy Topping has paid the following tribute to his father:
“Dad was such a huge character who touched the lives of so many people over many, many years.
“His death is a huge loss to the whole family, and all his friends and colleagues. We have received hundreds of messages from people all over the world who knew Dad from his work in garden retail or through his huge efforts for local charities.
“He will be sorely missed but very fondly remembered for so many reasons.”
Eddie, who also had two daughters, Jane and Anne, nine grandchildren and a great granddaughter, supported many local charities and organisations in the Preston area and, in 2003, was awarded the MBE for services to charity. He was a past president of Preston North Rotary Club, of which he was a member for over 50 years, and an honorary fellow of Myerscough College.
The family have announced that there will be a private funeral and service of remembrance on 28 September. Further details will be announced in the next few days.
Barton Grange have book located at the front of the Garden Centre if anyone visiting wishes to share their memories of Eddie with the family.
Hundreds of comments from customers about the sad news are pouring into the Barton Grange facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BartonGrangeGardenCentre//peaceful-passing-eddie.../
Garden Industry Tributes pour in
Here are just some of the tributes received by GTN Xtra:
Warren Haskins, chairman, Haskins Group:I first met Eddie in the mid 60s when we both joined a garden centre development group which included such forefathers of our industry as Leith Hayes and Derek Bunker. We were all working on our young businesses and were stimulated by what he was doing at Barton Grange. Eddie was full of ideas, ready to help everybody and I have many happy memories of being with him at GCA, IGCA, HTA conferences and many other places. He contributed so much to our industry for which we must all be grateful.
Peter Seabrook, journalist, The Sun: Is it my feelings alone, are we losing all those who made garden centre retailing and development so much fun and a very real privilege and pleasure to have worked alongside? “Big Man” is the best description that can be conjured up to describe Eddie, big in energy, big in his approach to everything he took on and boy did he take on some challenges, big in good nature, big sense of humour, big knowledge of plants and gardening, big in his services to our industry.
What a legacy he has left us and what a standard set for others to follow. My deepest sympathies are extended to all his family, who must be so proud of such a lovely man and huge character. Eddie you are sorely missed, but never forgotten by those of us who knew you and were lucky enough to share your wonderful company.
Ron Bent, chairman of Bents Garden & Home: This sad news marks the end of an era. Eddy was an inspiration to me personally and to everyone in the horticultural world. He was also a wonderful friend to Wendy and myself and our family. We will miss him greatly. We were the best of friends but also always the best of friendly rivals in business. He taught us (eventually) that cooperation, sharing and togetherness would make us all stronger and more competitive and he created a business that is a wonderful example of his philosophy and one that many of us still benchmark against. He was one of the founding fathers of the GCA, which enabled garden centres in the UK to get together and share the very best ideas and displays and also worldwide through the IGCA, of which his family and ours were regular attenders. But he leaves a wonderful family and a great business legacy that I’m confident that Guy and Peter will carry on with, using their own style to grow the business and have lots of fun along the way.
Sue Allen, GCA past chair: For the saddest of reasons, this week, I looked at my copy of the book ‘Barton Grange - A Topping Tale’. I hoped I could find a little anecdote that summed up Eddie, but of course I soon realised it would be impossible to choose from such a wealth of incredible stories of his life, enthusiasm and achievements. Thanks to this remarkable man and his fellow pioneers we have the garden centre industry of today. Personally I have precious memories of times shared at industry events, conferences and international congresses and learned to appreciate Eddie’s quiet ‘no nonsense’ wisdom but also his delightful sense of humour and infectious laugh. My thoughts are with all the Topping family who continue to ensure Eddie’s legacy is in safe hands. Now I will treasure my signed copy of that book more than ever.
Ian Boardman, former Garden Centre Association chief inspector: I’ve known Eddie a long time. He always came to say Hello whether for training, Masterclasses, judging or inspecting. Always pressing for firm but fair ways to drive standards ever upwards. Thinking of family, friends and all at Barton Grange at this difficult time.
Simon Brindle, former colleague: When I worked at Bolton Barton Grange as a young lad in my first job, one of my tasks was to help weed the beds with Eddie, that and try to keep a track of all the stock he would just take off sale without writing off! There’s me two weeks into my new job trying to tell the owner, ‘No, you can’t just take a fork off sale’. I went on to work at the Preston branch for many years, quite often sharing a chinwag on one of his wanders around the offices. Even had the pleasure of creating a snapshot in time for the garden centre’s 50th anniversary, photographing every member of staff at that time, all packaged up into a coffee table book as a surprise.
Cliff Gorman, former colleague: What a man - so much energy, drive, determination and vision. It was my privilege to work alongside him for many years and I learnt so much from him. A great family man. I send my condolences to all the family.
Michael Cole, former GCA inspector: Eddie was a true gentleman and a proud Lancastrian, he was truly one of the pioneers of the garden centre industry and will be sadly missed by very many people.
Andy Campbell, Andy Campbell Consulting: I only got to know Eddie in recent years but it was very clear from the outset that he was one of life’s true gentlemen and someone who really understood welcome and hospitality. Our industry has lost an inspirational force and needs to take time to recover.
John Ashley, former supplier: Eddie Topping was the garden industry when I joined Fisons in 1972. He was HTA, GCA and his own growing business. Always welcoming and supportive and helpful to newcomers to this new industry. Eddie was a people person and it was always a pleasure to be in his company. He will be missed but never forgotten. May he rest in peace. Guy is a chip off the old block.
Brian Gibbons, retired journalist: When I made the transition from Garden News to become founding editor of Garden Trade News in the late 1970s I knew little about the workings of what was about to become a massive trade. I had to rely on the friendly advice and encouragement of those pioneers who had made it all happen. One of these was jovial Eddie Topping, founder of the Barton Grange empire. Although never a comfortable public speaker, he possessed a shrewd mind and warm personality which enabled him to carry out his many trade offices with great distinction. Eddie touched the lives of so many people in a positive way, including my own. RIP Big Man.
Michael Hayes, Hayes Gardenland: A lovely man and one of my Dad's best pals. Great memories over many many years. RIP Eddie.
Roger Crookes, former GCA inspector: Garden centre legend, pioneer, encourager and gentleman. My sincere condolences to the Barton Grange team and the Topping family.
Pat Flynn, former GTN executive: Another character from the industry leaving us. He was a true gentleman with a cheeky sense of humour who I remember well from my days at Nurseryman & Garden Centre magazine and then GTN. Condolences to the family and all the team at Barton Grange.
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