God, gardening and golf: the story of Samuel Ryder

A portrait of Samuel Ryder as Mayor of St Albans.

A portrait of Samuel Ryder as Mayor of St Albans. - Credit: Kind permission of St Albans Museums

Whilst many people in St Albans will follow the action of the Ryder Cup golf competition being played in Wisconsin this weekend, how many will realise how closely it’s linked to our city? 

Samuel Ryder and his brother James had a lot of sympathy for professional golfers. At that time, a hundred years ago, their status was low – unbelievably, they were often not allowed into the clubhouse and their pay was very basic.

Many of the best did not compete in the competitions of the day because they could not afford to lose earnings or pay their travelling costs. Samuel and James came to the rescue by sponsoring golf competitions. 

To start with, they set up tournaments at the club where they played – Verulam Golf Club in London Road.  Golfers taking part got £5 ‘appearance money’, free meals and travel expenses. The sponsor was Heath and Heather, James’s herb company in Ridgmont Road, which Samuel had helped to set up.

The seeds of the international Ryder Cup were sown, with the first contest for the famous gold trophy taking place in 1927.

One of Samuel Ryder's seed packets with the Ryder Cup in the corner.

One of Samuel Ryder's seed packets with the Ryder Cup in the corner. - Credit: Kind permission of St Albans Museums

So, professional golfers owed a debt of gratitude to the two brothers, but the influence of Samuel spread much wider than golf. Before becoming a keen amateur golfer himself (with a handicap of 4), Samuel Ryder was a successful businessman, churchman, magistrate and politician.   

Samuel came to St Albans at the age of 37 in 1895 and started his business from a shed in his back garden (long before working from home became a norm). He sold seeds in penny packets by mail order, making gardening an affordable and popular hobby for ordinary working people. He moved around several times as his business grew.

Samuel Ryder is buried in Hatfield Road Cemetery in St Albans.

Samuel Ryder is buried in Hatfield Road Cemetery in St Albans. - Credit: St Albans Tour Guides

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He started in Folly Lane and finished by commissioning his friend and neighbour, the architect Percival Blow, to build him new premises on Holywell Hill, now the Clarion Collection Hotel.

A few years later, he asked the same man to design an exhibition hall for the plants he collected from all over the world, and the building now housing Café Rouge was built. 

A benevolent employer, he made sure working conditions for his staff were good, paid them sick pay long before it was compulsory to do so, and was rewarded in return with a very loyal workforce and many applicants for every job vacancy. 

When his brother James retired early through ill health, Samuel helped him to set up Heath and Heather, the company that became the biggest retailer of medicinal herbs in its time and eventually became part of Holland and Barratt.

Some of the advice given was a bit dodgy by today’s terms though – including ‘non addictive’ herbal cigarettes! 

He was an active member of his church and worked to support many good causes and charities. Generous with his wealth, he supported the building of Trinity Church in Beaconsfield Road and the Salvation Army Citadel in Victoria Street (his name appears on one of the foundation stones). 

Samuel became a liberal councillor and served as Mayor of St Albans, famous for speaking his mind. Without his skilled leadership we would probably have ugly telegraph poles all down St Peter's Street. Instead he insisted that the phone company lay the wires underground. 

He was also a magistrate with a reputation for fairness – happy to dismiss the case against an old woman for being drunk and disorderly, but fining his own wife and others for not paying their rates. 

By late middle age, unsurprisingly, this man was exhausted and a friend advised him to get more exercise and fresh air, so he took up golf!  The rest, as they say, is history. 

John, one of the St Albans Tour Guides, said: “I always look forward to sharing the story of this generous and principled man who did so much for our city, but also became an internationally famous name.” 

Lin Keen for stalbanstourguides.co.uk