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Funeral of Harry Dodson, The Victorian Kitchen Garden

More than a decade after his death, the ashes of Harry Dodson have returned to his home in Blackmoor, Hampshire.

On Monday, June 19, at 2pm, Reverend Dom Clarke hosted a service at St Matthew’s Church, Blackmoor, to mark the interment of Mr Dodson’s remains.

Mr Dodson, who died aged 85 on July 25, 2005, became a household name in 1987 when the 13-part series The Victorian Kitchen Garden was first shown on BBC2.

His father died when he was six, which led to his move, with his mother and brother, from Surrey to Blackmoor where his grandparents lived and where his uncle, Fred Norris, was head gardener to the then Earl of Selborne.

The then Earl of Selborne was Roundell Cecil Palmer, 3rd Earl of Selborne – the grandfather of the present Lord Selborne, 4th Earl of Selborne. Lord Selborne told the Bordon Herald newspaper that when Mr Dodson left Blackmoor school he began work for his uncle as “a garden boy”, earning 7s 9d (39p) a week.

By the age of 27 he was one of the youngest head gardeners in the country, working for the Ward family at Chilton Foliat in Berkshire. By the 1980s Chilton was no longer viable as a traditional kitchen garden but the owners allowed Mr Dodson to use the walled garden, rent free, as a commercial nursery.

Following his death, The Telegraph reported that Mr Dodson’s life changed in 1984 when Jennifer Davies, a researcher for BBC Bristol who was planning a television series on Victorian gardening, found both the walled garden and “the gardener she wanted to talk about it”.

Mr Dodson’s enthusiasm for the project was said to be “immediate” and, with the blessing of the Wards, the gardens were restored and planted with period cultivars, a student apprentice was provided and filming began.

The Victorian Kitchen Garden was followed by The Victorian Kitchen in which Mr Dodson joined forces with cook Ruth Mott to bring food from the garden to the dinner table.

On his death his ashes remained with the undertaker who had no instructions on where they were to be buried. Only recently has it been established that he wished for his ashes to be buried in his mother’s grave at St Matthew’s Church.

“We are now hoping to trace as many people as possible who knew Harry, or who were related to him, to invite them to attend the short service at Blackmoor Church on June 19 at 2pm,” Lord Selborne added.

Many thanks to St. Matthew’s Church in Blackmoor for allowing me to film. Here is a transcript read out by Jennifer Davies at the church service:

Members of the cast and crew attended the service

My name is Jennifer Davies, I was lucky enough to be part of the BBC team which made The Victorian Kitchen Garden television programmes and the follow-on series. These were all produced by Keith Sheather, helped by Janet Ogilvie and with Alison McKenzie being filmed as Harry’s apprentice in the garden – are all here today.

As you know Harry’s Uncle Fred Norris was Lord Selborne’s head gardener and Fred’s uncle before him had been head gardener. I think we have some members of the Norris family here, ably tracked down by the present Lord Selborne. I’m looking forward to meeting you.

With such a good gardening start it was inevitable that Harry should choose it as his own profession. To get on, he had to leave Blackmoor and became a journeyman and then a foreman in other gardens and also when World War II broke out do his wartime service in the Royal Sussex Regiment. In fact V.E. Day celebrations brought an unexpected bonus for Harry. One of his mates got slightly burnt by a Victory celebration bonfire. He called at this man’s house the next day to see how he was and a girl answered the door, she was the niece of the injured man. Her name was Kathleen and Harry was very smitten. They got engaged and for some reason the name Kathleen went out of the window and forever after Harry always called her his “Little Jane”.

Jennifer Davies (Creator/Associate Producer) with Keith Sheather, Executive Producer of The Victorian Kitchen Garden series

During the engagement Harry advertised for a head gardener’s post which as well as being the top job in the gardening world, would he hoped, also give him and Jane a head gardener’s house in which to live. With this mind he put in his advert a phrase which was well known at the time – “To be married when suited”. He and 26 other hopefuls were interviewed for the headgardenership at Chilton Gardens in Berkshire. It was 1947 and Harry was 27. He got the job, it was working for Colonel John Ward. The Colonel and his son Captain Gerald Ward are now sadly deceased but Captain Ward’s daughter Sarah, is here today with her husband Adrian Scroope.

I first met Harry and Jane in 1984. I was a BBC researcher looking for a location which might be turned back to a perfect working Victorian walled garden. I remember that warm, early autumn day thirty-three years ago and count it as being of huge personal significance, for not only was Harry the perfect gardener presenter to show the skills needed for such a television series but with the kind co-operation of the Ward family we had the garden too and into the bargin I had met a couple who would become very dear to me.

The Victorian Kitchen Garden programmes were extraordinarily successful. We were a small unit working from the BBC in Bristol and one of the top television critics wrote with some surprise, that for her: “The Victorian Kitchen Garden” is the strawberry coloured one in a bag of fruit pastils”. As this critic was rather sharp and feared, this was praise indeed!

Harry became a star. He was invited onto both Parkinson and Terry Wogan’s shows and viewers of our programmes loved to watch him and his capable gardener’s hands and even his boots when treading down the soil. They also loved the way he explained the old methods he’d learnt which went back to Victorian times. He was a perfect foil for fellow presenter Peter Thoday who used to take viewers away sometimes from the garden to look at stories behind other aspects of Victorian horticulture.

Inevitable, on filming days we took up all of Harry’s time but his own nursery business still had to go on and he was also supplying some flowers to The Big House.
This was when his Little Jane proved her worth. She had long been working in the gardens for him – quick and deft, able to prick out seedlings and pot on young plants, to keep an eye on his limited work force, and to remind him to ring someone or that an order to be collected still had to be put up. I remember her with tanned legs and sun-faded apron picking pears from the west and east walls and hanging to dry great bunches of statice, the ever-lasting flowers, for selling and for her own home decoration. She worked hard – they were an inseparable team. But she also got some perks, such as staying at the Hilton in London when a new “Victorian Garden” series was launches, say at the Victoria and Albert Museum or for one series, at The War Museum. Or at a book launch where she sat talking to John Nettles also known as Bergerac. She took it all in her stride and was quietly supportive of Harry and proud of him.

The television series spanned about ten years and as a TV team we got to know Harry and Jane very well. May be because I wrote the books which went with the series I spent more time with than than most, often being given a meal at their cottage and helping wipe up the plates afterwards. And when the television series ended,
I still kept in touch by phone and letters.

I have some letters here which Harry sent to me from himself and Jane and will read a few extracts for he should speak for them too, today:

“I went to London last Tuesday – Fruit & Veg meeting in the morning, a Gardener’s Royal Benevolent in the afternoon – met some old gardeners like myself –
makes a good day.”

“I had a letter in the week from a man interested in growing mushroom – How could he find the white strands in mature heaps etc. He wants to come to see me.”

“Had a wonderful crop of potatoes – all the bean family have been a washout. One of the cooking apples planted on top of the Terrace Bank gave apples over a pound in weight each.”

“We had a do at the Big House last week for Sheila, the estate office secretary. It was good up at The House to meet some old hands I one time had at the Gardens.
Also nice to see all the changes and improvements about the estate. The Park from here to Park Farm is very smart.”

But then gradually the letters and phone calls got less…and Harry wrote to say he couldn’t phone because: “I don’t seem to put the numbers down in the right order – I’m so sorry..” It was the first indication, but I missed it – of a mind getting clouded and confused.

And here is the ending of one of his final letters:

“I don’t think I have more to say tonight – was lovely to hear from you Jenny. We hope all goes well for your autumn crops. Take care, we always think of you,
in all weathers. Love from Both, Harry and Jane.”

Flowers from the crew and cast of The Victorian Kitchen Garden series
The flowers on the left have been grown at Chilton Gardens where the series was filmed
Harry Dodson’s last resting place under the trees
St Matthew’s Church in Blackmoor, Hampshire

About Sean James Cameron

Based in London, Sean has been gardening since being a teenager. Although vegetables and fruit is the main passion, there is also room for flowers.

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  • Jan Willetts

    How lovely, that was a wonderful series and Harry seemed such a gentle but capable man.

  • Lynnesgarden1

    This is a beautiful tribute to Harry. Loved by many and never forgotten.