History of the Firm
1881 - 1951
As recorded in the 1951 catalogue.
Started in 1881 by Mr. Henry Woolman, Senior. His early days were devoted to the growing of Chrysanthemums in a small way in a back garden at Cooksey Road, Small Heath, and with the help of Mrs. Elizabeth Woolman, became famous as a grower of the fine old outdoor chrysanthemum, Mme. Desgrange.
In the eighties, the founder of the firm began to turn his attention to the trade in cuttings and plants, one of his earliest triumphs being the advertising of five varieties of early ‘Mums, at a time when outdoor varieties were almost unknown. These five varieties, viz.: Mme Desgrange, Incurved Desgrange, Sour Melaine (Soeur Elaine?), Elaine and Lady Selbourne, paved the way towards the establishment of the firm, and formed the foundation stone for the future.
As the years went by, progress, though slow, was sure and the back garden being too small, premises were taken at Muntz Street, Small Heath, in 1886, where two glasshouses were erected and a good piece of ground cultivated.
Chrysanthemums were still the keynote and all the best varieties were added to the collection, and a catalogue issued each year. Included in these were such famous varieties as Baron Hirsch, Queen of England, Empress of India, J. Salter, Glenny, Rundle, Dixon, Major Bonnafon, Rbt. Cannell, Ed. Molineaux, Stanstead White, Etoile de Lyon, W. H. Lincoln, Cullingfordii, Cedo Nulli and a host of others considered magnificent in their day.
The stay at Muntz Street lasted seven years, when at the end of that time, in 1893, the premises proved too small and a move was made to purer air and more spacious grounds at Tyseley, near Acocks Green, where four large greenhouses were erected.
It was here, between the years 1893 to 1907 that real progress was made, and it can be recorded that exhibiting was first resorted to in 1896.
In 1894, the Dahlia was added as a speciality, and all the best varieties of that day were cultivated, types then in vogue being mostly Pompons and large double Show Fancies. The Cactus Dahlias were also forging their way into public favour, and the grand varieties, Mrs. J. J. Crowe (raised by Mr. West); J. H. Jackson, Mrs. A. Peart, Countess of Radnor and others were catalogued.
The Chrysanthemum trade too was being developed successfully at Tyseley and such varieties as Mrs. Weeks, Miss Elsie Fulton, Hairy Wonder, Eva Knowles, Mme. Carnot, M. Theresa Pankoucke, Good Gracious, Pallanza, Oceana, Phoebus, Richard Dean and a host of others were catalogued during successive years.
During the stay at Tyseley, in fact in 1900, a floral branch was opened at Sparkhill, Birmingham, and augmented by a second floral department, where at the present time heavy trade is carried on in the making of designs, etc., sale of cut flowers, the importation of bulbs, all kinds of seeds, sundries etc.
From 1900 onwards, Mr. H. Woolman, Junior, and Mr. John Woolman, began to take an active part, and used their every endeavours towards the well-being of the business, so much so that the Tyseley premises soon became too limited in size.
In 1907 a move was made to the present Shirley Nurseries and steady progress was made each succeeding year. Exhibiting was also increased and many trophies and first prizes were awarded during the years that followed.
Sandy Hill Nurseries, Olton Road Shirley, Birmingham about 1925. Making up dahlia orders.
Then came the Great War, and the consequent depletion of staff, which, of course, resulted in a temporary halt. In due course the war finished and the business progressed marred only by the fatal accident in the Rotherham railway smash, in which Mr. Henry Woolman, junior lost his life, when returning from Hull Chrysanthemum Show, where he had been exhibiting and judging, in November 1926.
A water system had been created by the sinking of an artesian well, 200 ft. deep. Storage towers hold 10,000 gallons, always in readiness to fill up the ground tanks, for providing ample air-warmed water for the use of the many thousands of Chrysanthemums grown in pots for exhibition.
During the last war the culture of Chrysanthemums was brought almost to a standstill. Various food crops being grown to help in the time of need. Fortunately sufficient space was allowed to enable us to retain a nucleus stock and although we had to severely certain the number of varieties and amount of each, we managed to keep all the best ones and also our irreplaceable seedlings. Some of which have been placed on the market in the years since the war.
Many of our staff served in the forces and home services. Fortunately only one man being lost in action.
My Son, John F. Woolman, returning in 1946 after service in the Royal Navy, is now managing the business. It will be his policy to continue to give the same service as his predecessors, and to carry on the name of “WOOLMAN” in an efficient and businesslike manner in the years to come.
The conflict ended, work was begun to expand the Chrysanthemum stock sufficiently to meet the demand, whilst paying due regard to the still necessary food supply. Very good progress has been made and every effort will be continued in the future.
The number of employees continues to increase, and a canteen has been installed which provides hot meals in the day time, and houses an active social club for the use of the staff during the leisure hours.
The year 1951 is the seventieth year of the firm. We are very proud to note that some of our original customers are still hale and hearty, and still obtaining their Chrysanthemums from us. As those will know who were acquainted with the earlier days of the firm, the road was at times hard, but we can look back on it with pride and some satisfaction, feeling that we have in our own way helped to foster the ever growing interest in the Chrysanthemum which is notable to-day. It is certainly a far cry to the five early-flowering varieties mentioned earlier in this history; and in this seventieth year we would like to record our appreciation of the work and foresight of our founder Henry Woolman.
Sandy Hill nursery at Shirley in the early 1950's
A word in regard to varieties raised or distributed from Shirley in recent years, varieties which have become household words with the amateur, market grower and exhibitor.
Japanese for exhibition - Alfred Simpson, Bert Webb, Jaffa, Kathleen Storer, Newcastle, Shirley Chestnut, Shirley Desire, Shirley Triumph, Yellow Shirley, Break o’ Day, Fred Baker, John Robbins, Kathleen Pettinger, Pockett’s Maroon, Archie Woolman, Bacchante, Jack McGlashen, John F. Woolman, Magnolia, Patria, Primate, Versatile, Comrade, George Edwards, Turbulent, Winston Churchill, Duchess of Kent, Cossack, Fred Harris, Bertram Jomes, Edith Woolman, Gordon Habgood, Shirley Masterpiece, Shirley Primrose, Yellow Duke, Duke of Kent, Nellie Merritt, Sybil Molyneaux, Edith Lane, Lady Knott, Yellow Chandeur, Birmingham, Clara Trueman, Henry Trueman, Henry Woolman, Remus, R. Ratcliff, Sir A Chamberlain, Yellow Majestic and others.
Incurved varieties – Milton Gray, Charles Hopkinson, Coronation Gold, C. Buckley, Lilac Time, Yellow Ondine, Anne Curry, W. J. Hill, Advancement, Baby Royal, Lord Somers, Shirley Buff, etc.
Decorative varieties - Kathleen Hamilton, Apricot Elegance, Shirley Brilliant, Argonaut, Dido, Shirley Ivory, Say Edgar, Constance Baker, Henry Morris, Cream Monument, Shirley Late Red, Stilletto, Enid Goffe, Lilac Monument, Ulster, Edith Alston, etc.
Single varieties - Betty Woolman, Lillian Jackson, Pretty, Crimson Crown, Lisa, Royal Yellow, Florence Statham, Broadacre, Hilaire, Corporal, Margaret Lemon, Neil Dougal, David Green, Shirley Sunrise, Cheerio, Robin Hood, Shirley Gem, Shirley Flame, Desert Chief, Delicious, Ruth, Desert Song, Fantasy, Rob Roy, etc.
Early-flowering outdoor varieties - Golden Scepture, Cream Speat, Peach Una, Royal Prince, Red Caeser, Solidity, Oceanic, Lapworth, Joan Fellowes, Jean Pickering, Fortune, Shirley Cream, Charter, Bronze Early Buttercup, H. Sutcliffe, Shirley Pride and others.
Chrysanthemums and Begonias are exported to every corner of the world and the word ‘progress’ will be my every endeavour in the years to come.
I should be very pleased to receive Woolman’s catalogues of the year 1920, and any editions earlier than this.