Moorfields Garden Centre was across the road from where Edgerly Park car sales resides, now Westminster Gardens. The car sales was an Esso Station before the bypass opened.
Garden Centre’s only appeared after the war. They developed from the concept of the retail plant nursery but with a wider range of outdoor products and on-site facilities.
Before the 1950’s it was thought that plants could only be raised in the ground by plant nurseries. You brought your roses or shrubs from them in the dormant season between October and March to plant in your garden. Many grew ‘catch crops’ such as tomatoes to survive the summer months. Also existing pots where were heavy as they were made of baked clay, it wasn’t until the 1950s that mass production of Polyethylene began and the plastic plant pot appeared. Polyethylene itself was only discovered in 1933.
The change was started by Dorset nurseryman, Edward Stewart, who is credited with introducing the practice of growing plants in containers, which left their roots undisturbed and enabled them to be sold all year round. He needed to do something with his plant nursery business as sales had been poor since the war. Stewart visited the States and Canada where he saw the practice of containerisation for the first time. He came back to England to put this new concept into practice. He opened his first ‘garden centre’ in Ferndown, Dorset in 1955 but when he opened his second shop in Christchurch in 1961 he added a coffee shop and the modern ‘garden centre’ was born.
Even though containerisation transformed the horticulture industry, customers still buy plants mostly in the four months from March to June, and again in September. One of the reason why in recent years, garden centres have evolved to become a leisure destination with play centres for children, restaurants and other activities designed to improve the shopping experience and increase the time spent at the centre. They also needed to compete with rise of DIY stores in the 80’s and 90’s, the main competitors to the traditional garden centres.
Moorfields Garden Centre was originally started by William Moore who ran the Centre with his sons Norman and Milton in 1960. He got the idea from travelling around the region selling car insurance and purchased the land shortly after the second world war.
An interesting quirk is the Garden Centre’s name, Moorfield. Generally it is assumed the centre was named after the family name but this may not be the truth. Richard Moore goes on to explain: “Although the land was purchased originally after the war. My father used to cycle from Moorfield Road (my grand fathers ‘William’ home located behind the old hospital) everyday to Eye. I think that’s where the name came from, but I am not 100 per cent sure, but I was always puzzled why the ‘e’ was left off the name ‘Moore’.”
Before the Garden Centre was built the main crop grown was Chrysanthemums. These used to be transported to Eye Railway station and sent to all different parts of the country. However, after one year when they had a cold spring, frost affected the harvest a decision was made to move away from this type of horticulture and into retail. With the increase use of the car and and Peterborough being designated a new town in the 1960’s it was an excellent foresight to open the shop.
Due to the success of the business the the garden centre was featured in a commercial publication in 1964:
Messrs. W. Moore and Sons Ltd, of Eye, near Peterborough, undoubtedly took quite a risk when they decided to go ahead with the garden centre project. Apart from cost and management, the idea had several points in its favour: a main road running right past the holding with a convenient corner and a speed limit to slow the traffic down, and a handy strip of land right adjacent to the road.
While a main road is considered essential (plus adequate off-road parking space), today most of the customers are regulars, either from the immediate area or from as far as 50 miles away motorists who pass the centre many times during their work, yet who make a special trip out when they want to buy something. The centre makes a point of selling everything for the garden, including furniture, fish ponds, bags of fertiliser and of course home-produced bedding plants, trees and shrubs. Pot and house plants, mostly homegrown, are a very popular line, and also fresh-cut chrysanthemums and, when available, tomato plants. Yet fresh-picked tomatoes, direct from the glasshouses, are only an indifferent seller, the public now linking the garden centre with flowers, but not fruit or vegetables!
The success of the centre has enabled forward expansion of the commercial growing side to be done with greater confidence, and a trend towards specialisation in the production of pot and house plants to continue, with an eventual output target of some 75,000 plants per year, with something to sell every month.
Already well over half of the 11,000 square feet of heated glass is devoted to these two lines-with special emphasis on house plants and 1,500 Moneymaker tomatoes in the remainder of the glass. The tomatoes are grown as a catch crop, and will, it is hoped, eventually be replaced entirely by pot and house plants.
However, the propagation of tomato plants for retail sale will continue, sales of these from the garden centre totalling some 5,000 a year.
As Mr. Milton Moore, who looks after the growing side put it: “You can fill a house with 10 shillings worth of seed, so the temptation to sell the plants cheaply is great and generally the market competition for the same varieties is very keen. Yet with the expensive cuttings-only varieties, the same house may cost £50 or more to fill, and you just can’t afford to give them away! You then have to wait for the right prices, both to cover your outlay, growing costs and a profit.”
Outside crops include 50,000 early chrysanthemums of the main disbudding varieties. Earlier in the year a substantial chrysanthemum cutting trade is done, chiefly of early varieties.
Reasons for the success of this venture are many, but perhaps the main one is that it is essentially a family concern headed by Mr. William Moore, who chiefly looks after the shop assisted by his wife, with the glasshouses and flowers under the control of his son, Mr. Milton Moore, while the other son, Mr. Norman Moore, has charge of a separate rose nursery not far away.
The centre is open six days a week and sometimes for part of Sundays, staffed chiefly by the family who give a personal and friendly service.
There can be few horticultural enterprises that run so smoothly, both as a family team and as an economic unit, with an excellent balance between the local retail trade and the much larger wholesale outlets. Both the growing department and the garden centre seem complementary to each other, and there can be little doubt that the Moore family enterprise plays quite a big part in linking town and country a little closer together.
The original building was around 50 sq feet but by the end of the 1960’s the main building had doubled in size. A glasshouse was also added to the east side. But even this wasn’t enough space to contain the business. In 1975 planning permission to build a new glass house on the rear of the building was applied for which again doubled the main premises to over 400 sq feet.
An aquatic centre opened in 1981 and a landscape business took over some of the land at the bottom of the premises. As the site editor I still remember walking through the aquatic centre as a youngster fascinated by the bubbling fish tanks.
Milton left the business around 1983 and from then on the garden centre carried on under Norman’s ex-wife. Planning application for 96 houses was granted to Persimmon for the site in 1994 and the houses built soon after. And that may have been the end of a garden centre in Eye except Van Hague opened on the £20 million Peterborough Garden Park development in spring 2010.
The good news is horticulture still runs in the family, Norman’s son David still operates a successful landscaping business.
Thank you to Richard Moore for the photos and information.