Fred Whitsey Posted on August 26, 2009

I was sad to read the obituary in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday for Fred Whitsey, the paper’s gardening correspondent for 45 years, who died at the age of 90.

It brought back memories of when the R.H.S. had a Publications Committee and Fred and I were both members. Those were the days before the Society went professional, as it were. Decisions were taken by committees of members, which meant in general committed amateurs, and their implementation left to the Society’s employees. We had, for example, issue-by-issue post mortems on The Garden (which was still described as The Society’s Journal). In fact the Society was just that, rather than describing itself as Britain’s leading Gardening Charity.

Fred Whitsey and I were, I suppose, the only two professional writers (he a newspaper journalist, I more of a magazine man) on the committee. We were also the awkward squad, although in my memory we were usually querying different things. Fred was a winning mixture of smile and resolve, courteous, patient and fundamentally unbudgeable. I remember (they are hard to imagine today) the discussions about advertising in the Journal: how much to allow on what subjects. I argued (goodness, I was the pushy liberal) that non-horticultural ads could do no harm. The majority seemed to think that a bank, a car maker or a jeweller would corrupt members’ morals, however much we could have spent the money on photography and writers. Fred was firm on what was relevant, tested and authoritative in pure horticulture – though if this makes him sound strait-laced and humourless it gives quite the wrong impression.

As the obituary says, no professional colleagues ever seem to have seen his own garden in Surrey. I wish I had, because a visit with him would have been an education. The departure of people like him underlines the change of the R.H.S. from a learned Society to a members’ organization almost analogous to the A.A. It is a parable of our times.

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