The florists at the 1895 New Year Ball in the Exeter Guildhall were Messrs Veitch of the Veitch Nurseries, based in Exeter and Chelsea in London. The largest group of family-run plant nurseries in Europe before the First World War, the business was begun by John Veitch in around 1800 and employed the famous plant hunters Thomas and William Lobb from Bodmin and David Bowman from Edinburgh to stock their orchid, fern and shrub collections, including some of the earliest monkey puzzle and Wellingtonia redwood trees in England. By 1914, they had introduced 1,281 new plants into cultivation, particularly orchids. One pitcher plant species, N. veitchii, is named after them.
John Veitch is one of the many people who were not born in Exeter, but had great influence in the city. He walked to London from Jedburgh in the Scottish borders in order to find work with Mr James Lee of Hammersmith (a noted plantsman who set up business in 1760 after an apprenticeship at the estates of Syon and Whitton House outside London, and whose nursery was said to be ‘deservedly the best in the world’). While with Lee, Veitch caught the attention of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, owner of Killerton House in Broadclyst near Exeter, one of Devon’s greatest estates, which under John (and his son and grandson) became a trial ground for rearing seeds and specimens brought back to England through the port at Topsham, particularly fuchsias and orchids. As well as working as a landscape consultant and tree contractor – he bought £1,212 worth of trees for Humphrey Repton, who was landscaping Luscombe Castle in Dawlish – John established a nursery at Budlake near Killerton, and then at Mount Radford in St Leonard’s in Exeter, and opened a seed shop in Exeter High Street. After Acland’s death, he became established as a nurseryman, and many of the outstanding specimen trees still growing in Exeter were planted by the firm. Veitch’s also laid out the Heavitree Pleasure Ground that opened in 1906, and planted many new trees in 1911, while Charles James Vlieland was mayor, to mark the coronation of George V and Queen Mary.
Thanks are due to Exeter Memories and Sue Shephard, Seeds of Fortune: A Gardening Dynasty, Bloomsbury, 2003, for some material in this post and to Barbara!