“I was in Albrighton Post Office in the 1960s when I saw a little advert saying ‘Driver / child minder required. Car provided.’ Mr Austin interviewed me and I got the job, so that was when I first got to know the family. I drove the three children, David, James and Claire to their schools and did babysitting from time to time. Sometimes I couldn’t get out to go home because they kept geese and they were quite fierce, but they were lovely children.
Then I left to have my own baby. When Jonathon was still quite young, I met Mr Austin again by chance. He wanted to send some catalogues out to customers and wondered if I’d help. So, later that week he brought some addresses round to my house. They were on postcards in a little file, and I sent some of the first David Austin Roses catalogues out from my house. They weren’t anything like the 100-page colour catalogues you send out now. He hadn’t got many varieties at the time, it was more like a leaflet - just a few small pieces of paper folded over, in black and white without any pictures.
After that, Dad came to live with us and I had less room at my house, so I used to work from the kitchen or the little dining room of Mr Austin’s house. He would dictate letters and give me more addresses to send catalogues to, but he spent most of the time breeding the roses. You never saw him - he was just lost. I mean, that’s his life, isn’t it? – his roses and his family. Mrs Austin is a sculptress and she used to be working on her sculptures most days. Many of them are in the rose gardens now.
The 1970 catalogue had about nine of the new repeatflowering English Roses in it and had grown to well over thirty pages. By then, Mrs Austin was doing beautiful line drawings of roses to show people what they looked like. She drew the David Austin house and roses logo which is still used on all the pots to this day.
At the time it was really just Mr Austin looking after the roses, with me posting out the letters, but it wasn’t long before he branched out and in 1972 there were around six of us including Ann who is working here now. She worked outside and helped with the plants and the watering.
It got too much for me with the baby, so the lady who lived three doors down from me took over, called Doreen Pike. She threw herself into the business and she was very thrifty, which she needed to be as there was never any spare money. She did everything herself on the office side at first, then gradually she got other staff in to help. In time she became the office manager. Before she retired, she had a fragrant, pink rugosa rose named after her.
People started to realise that the English Roses were better than other roses and it started to get busier and the phones kept ringing. My sister had been over to stay and I was feeling really sad because she’d just gone back to America. My phone rang and it was Doreen. She needed to send a lot of letters out and she wanted me to help for a couple of days. That was 1978 – well, I never left, did I?
Although it was getting busier, things were still tight money-wise. Doreen used to save Christmas cards and we’d use the backs of the cards as notepaper. All the time Mr Austin was out breeding his roses.
Each time he did a new catalogue, he would launch a few more varieties, until gradually we had a much better catalogue with more varieties and lots more information. At that time, I was answering the phones to people who rang up
asking for catalogues or wanting advice on roses. At first when customers asked me a question I had to go and find the answer out, but I remembered the answers and I learned more and more about roses until I was able to answer most questions.
We were working in Mr Austin’s outhouse by then, but it started to get more successful and eventually we got too big for the house and we moved into a portacabin. Mr Austin’s oldest son, also called David, joined us at that time. We did love him. He was very open, just very nice, and you could always talk to him about anything. I remember Michael Marriott joining and we liked him too. He knew about roses when he first came, but I think he has learned a lot more while he’s been here. That is the beauty of the place – it was like a family and we all blended in.
David the son didn’t stay long the first time, then he left, but after a few years he came back again. One of his jobs was to work on the Chelsea rose display and that was the first time we won a medal.
When we started doing Chelsea, I was a little unsure about going at first, but Doreen persuaded me. It was a super experience. I got to see the other stands, which I really enjoyed, but ours was always the best. I was able to meet the customers - and to see some celebrities too - and often the same ones came back year after year. Many customers are very knowledgeable and they love seeing the roses. You just feel very proud.
After that first time, we often won medals at Chelsea and every time we used to write Mr Austin a poem on two big sheets of paper and stick it to his window as a congratulations message from us all.
With all the catalogues going out and the Chelsea medals and of course people telling each other about the roses, we grew out of the portacabin and got a second-hand prefabricated building. They called it ‘The Terrapin’. That was lovely because we were overlooking the roses as we worked. Then Mr Austin got a man in and started to make the rose gardens. At first it was quite small but they gradually added to it step by step. I can remember them making the canal garden – that was a big thing at the time. Now it is one of the best rose gardens in the world.
At first it was just the UK, but as the 1990s went on, people started to ask for the English Roses from countries like France and America. David, the son, began to travel the world and the business really grew. Now the roses and the gardens are well known and people travel from all over the world just to visit the famous roses at Albrighton.
I stayed in customer services as I enjoyed talking to the customers. Some of them became like friends and they would call up just to ask me how I was or to tell me how well their roses were doing. In the end I was just doing the mornings and my friend Elaine did the afternoons.
When I came to think about retiring, Elaine didn’t want me to leave and David was grand about it. He said, ‘You’re part of the family and you’ll always have a job here for as long as you need it – you don’t have to leave just because you’re 60’. So, I retired when I was 63. It was a nice time to finish because it was Christmas and I had my leaving do at that year’s Christmas Party. We still get invited back every year.”