Harry Smith, Horticulturalist and Photographer

Harry Smith was the longest serving Chairman in the history of Leigh Horticultural Society: 22 years, until his sudden death in 1974. He taught science at Westcliff High School for Boys, where he was irreverently known as ‘Black Harry’, a nickname whose origin appears to have been lost in time. In the late 1930s, he set up a gardening club at the school and encouraged the students in all aspects of horticulture, creating a flower and vegetable garden alongside the boundary of the school sports field. So successful were the boys, that under Harry’s guidance they staged an exhibit of vegetables and soft fruit at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show.

Harry was a much-travelled and highly-gifted plantsman, and an expert photographer, and over the years the Society profited greatly from his wide circle of horticultural friends and contacts. A committee member since the 1940s, he was elected Chairman in 1952, at a time when the LHS was undergoing major changes following the end of rationing and the austerity of the war years. Events such as coach outings and evening lectures resumed, and Harry was instrumental in organising many of these popular activities, often with assistance from his many horticultural associates. His unbounded enthusiasm spurred on many an LHS members to have a go at exhibiting at the Society’s flower shows.

Harry’s wife, Susan, always known as Susie, was also a keen gardener, and many of the visitors to their garden at Merilies Close, Westcliff-on-Sea, remarked at her extensive plant knowledge. Behind the house Harry and Susie created a beautiful and interesting garden, with beds of shrubs, herbaceous plants and bulbs, many of a rare and unusual nature, collected on their travels in this country and abroad. Susie would call herself ‘the plumber’s mate’; Harry took the photographs and Susie could always come up with the names. And, in due course, the photographs were to become Harry’s greatest legacy.

In the 1950s, Harry took over the photography business of Ernest Crowson, a renowned horticultural photographer, whose work appeared in many gardening books and journals of the early 20th century. Harry was one of the pioneers of horticultural photographers working in colour, and over the years added to the library of horticultural images, which became known as the Harry Smith Horticultural Photographic Collection.

Harry had close ties with many local gardeners, including Dick and Helen Robinson who, in the 1950s, created one of the country’s most outstanding gardens of the 20th century, at Hyde Hall, Rettendon, which they gifted to the Royal Horticultural Society in 1992. Beth Chatto was another good friend and Harry and Susie were regular visitors to her marvellous garden at Elmstead Market. Harry was a regular customer at Bob Mansfield’s rock plant nursery at Eastwood Rise, Leigh-on-Sea, where he and Bob would discuss the merits of rare alpine plants and exchange specimens. This was, of course, in the days before garden centres, and Harry and Susie would travel the country seeking out nurseries that specialised in rare and interesting plants, and inevitably making new friends.

Also great chums of the Smiths’ were Roderick and Joy Cameron, who created in the late 1950s the magnificent garden at Great Comp near Sevenoaks, in the heart of the Kent countryside. Roderick declared that Harry and Susie were their most frequent visitors, and he and Joy were most impressed with Harry’s photographs, considering them to be the most professional images of their garden. Over the years their friendship grew, and in May each year, under his expert guidance, Harry would arrange for a group of Dutch horticultural students to visit Great Comp and other outstanding English gardens.

Harry Smith on the right in the doorway at Great Comp with Susie in front of him. They are photographed in 1972 with Roderick and Joy Cameron and a group of Dutch horticultural students

Other good friends included Fred Whitsey, then editor of Popular Gardening magazine, Roland Jackson, who ran Jackman’s Nurseries at Woking, and Ralph Gould of Hurst’s Seeds, Witham.

It therefore came as a great shock to his many friends and colleagues when his unexpected passing was announced in February 1974. Members of Leigh Horticultural Society were especially saddened to learn of Harry’s death. He had been a stalwart of the Society over many years and his outstanding stewardship left a great void to fill. In recognition of his enormous contribution to the wellbeing of the Society the Harry Smith Memorial Fund was launched, and from the proceeds a public address system was purchased. Susie continued to support the Society, and was a regular visitor to the flower shows until her passing in the 1990s.

On Harry’s death, his good friend Dick Robinson became custodian of the Harry Smith Horticultural Photograph Collection, and today this celebrated picture library is in the safekeeping of the Royal Horticultural Society, for the enjoyment of future generations of gardeners.

Jim Sanctuary