The Kelway family
Three generations of the Kelway family ran the nursery for over 100 years.
JAMES KELWAY (1815-1899)
We owe it all to James Kelway, an experienced Head Gardener aged 35, who decided to set up a nursery in the parish of Huish Episcopi. He bought a piece of land there in 1850, and by May Day 1851 he had established Kelways, a plant nursery which he always called ‘Kelways of Langport’, even though it was actually situated in its next door neighbour, Huish Episcopi.
James was born on 2 November 1815, most likely in Gardener’s Cottage, Pilton, where his father William was the Head Gardener at Westholme House.
He left school at 13 to work as an apprentice to his father, who by 1833 was Head Gardener at Hatch Court. After 5 years’ experience, he became Head Gardener at Dillington House, near Ilminster, which had been inherited by John Lee Lee, who also owned Hatch Court.
After 17 years at Dillington, James decided to set up on his own in Langport. He bought a small piece of land and moved his wife and their 6 children to their new life in the parish of Huish Episcopi.
Tradition has it that the nursery began business on 1st May 1851, and by the end of the century Kelways of Langport had built a world-wide reputation for supplying seeds and plants. At the height of their operation under James’s supervision the nursery employed about 100 people and occupied over 200 acres.
James had always had a passion for gladioli, and spent much of his time in hybridising and improving different varieties. He called his house Gladioli Villa, and Kelways won many prizes for the excellence of their blooms.
His wife Betsy died in 1870, and two years later he married Charlotte Warren, the daughter of a printer from Hertfordshire. He took an active part in community life, being a member of Langport Town Trust and chairman of the local School Board. He was churchwarden at St Mary’s, Huish Episcopi for over 30 years.
When he died in 1899, the horticultural press printed long and respectful obituaries. The Gardeners’ Magazine stated, ‘With perfect justification, therefore, was the late Mr. Kelway described some years since as “one of the great horticultural lights of the Victorian era”’.
His son installed a stained glass window in the church in his father’s memory. It is a particularly fine example of a design from the studio of Edward Burne-Jones.
WILLIAM KELWAY (1839-1933)
William was James’s only son, and he joined his father in the nursery business in 1864. Two years later he married Amelia Higgins, who came from Butleigh, where his grandfather William had been Head Gardener to the prominent family, the Neville-Grenvilles. They had 5 children, two girls and three boys, although two of the boys died young.
The business continued to expand, and the first of the great seed warehouses was built in the 1880s.
In the 1881 census William was described as a nursery and seed merchant employing 30 men, 10 boys and 10 women on 140 acres of land.
William was not well liked by those who worked for him. One Kelways employee remembered William as a strict man who used to observe his workers through a small spy-hole cut into an umbrella, which he carried raised in front of him. They were forbidden to whistle, and if he caught them, they were fined sixpence. If they met him in the street, even ladies had to get off the pavement to let him pass.
Kelway & Son continued to build their reputation by entering and winning local, national and international horticultural shows. One of the keys to their success was their ability to breed and propagate new varieties. William recounted how he had propagated six hundred plants of his new dahlia ‘Baron Taunton’ in one spring, which ‘sold freely at 10/6 a plant’.
His first wife Amelia died in 1882, and in 1891 he married again. He and his second wife Sara had two surviving children. Like his father he played his part in local life. He was a District and County Councillor for many years, and a churchwarden.
When he died at the age of 94, he was described as Langport’s ‘Grand old man’, being the oldest inhabitant. His obituary in the Langport & Somerton Herald remarked, ‘Largely due to his acumen and assiduity “Kelway’s” became famous, especially for gladioli, paeonies and delphiniums, and the firm established a world wide trade.’
JAMES KELWAY (1871-1952)
The grandson of the founder of the nursery, James had the burden of trying to sustain the business during the most difficult of economic times. He was William’s eldest surviving son, and joined his father in the business in 1905, at the relatively late age of 34.
James was passionate about peonies, and his enthusiasm shone through in the lavish catalogues that were a feature of this period in the firm’s history. This classic catalogue cover from 1898 is typical of the high standard of illustration that James specialised in. The design introducing the peony section of catalogues of the period conveys his vision of Kelways’ place in the horticultural world.
Unfortunately, there was little he could do in the face of global economic collapse following the brutal losses of the First World War. Grand estates were never to return to their former glory, and the horticultural trade had to adjust to a different type of market.
Less than 10 years after taking sole charge of the business, he was forced to file for bankruptcy. His appearances at the Yeovil Bankruptcy Court in 1933 must have been personally humiliating, but he bore it well. Soon afterwards the business was bought by a local consortium, and he was retained as manager of the new business of Kelway & Son (1933) Ltd, under the managing directorship of John Owen Lloyd.
He stayed as Manager until his death in 1952. His foreword to the gladioli and seed catalogue for 1950/51 showed how much the association meant to him, ‘He is proud to be still associated with Kelway and Son and in so honourable a field of horticulture, and to be able on behalf of the firm to assure all of its determination and ability to give their orders the best possible care and attention.’
He had written a book about peonies, which was published in 1954. His death marked the end of the Kelway family’s involvement in the nursery business.
For more information please contact our Official Historian, Janet Seaton.