Primroses from Devon hedgerows.
Primroses from Devon hedgerows.

The appearance of primroses adorning Devon hedgerows with their characteristic clusters of soft pale yellow flowers epitomises the arrival of Spring. Indeed its vernacular name, prima rosa, literally means first rose, appearing as they do as early as December during mild winters, but more typically in March and April. They often continue to bloom well into May and even early June. The common primrose is strangely not actually part of the rose family but belongs to the herbaceous and woody flowering primulaceae plant grouping.

Primrose Day

This day is in honour of Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield who twice served as Prime Minister and who died on 19 April 1881.

 

The primrose was Disraeli’s favourite flower. Queen Victoria would often send him bunches of primroses and violets from Windsor and Osborne, the latter being her palatial holiday home on the Isle of Wight. Disraeli, in his acknowledgements would generally single out the primrose, describing it as an ‘ambassador of spring for special admiration.’

 

After his death, the primrose would become the emblem of his modern conservative principles. It was worn by members of the Primrose League formed in 1893 to perpetuate his Conservative values and reach out to new voters.

Primrose Day

This day is in honour of Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield who twice served as Prime Minister and who died on 19 April 1881.

 

The primrose was Disraeli’s favourite flower. Queen Victoria would often send him bunches of primroses and violets from Windsor and Osborne, the latter being her palatial holiday home on the Isle of Wight. Disraeli, in his acknowledgements would generally single out the primrose, describing it as an ‘ambassador of spring for special admiration.’

 

After his death, the primrose would become the emblem of his modern conservative principles. It was worn by members of the Primrose League formed in 1893 to perpetuate his Conservative values and reach out to new voters.

During the 1960s and through to the 1980s, Stowford Paper Mill in Ivybridge, which was then part of the international paper making group Wiggins Teape, began sending bunches of primroses to all of its clients throughout Britain.

 

This annual tradition originated from another paper mill not too far away, Devon Valley Paper Mill at Bradninch, Exeter, which at the time operated under the name of Hele Paper Co Ltd. The Managing Director, a Mr Horsborough had a custom of picking a few early primroses from the hedges around the mill to send to his mother each Spring. Hearing of this, the company secretary, a Mr Passmore suggested that this kind gesture could be something the company should adopt for all its clients. It was documented at the time that this did not constitute a large number.  The pleasant custom caught on and was later adopted by Wiggins Teape who purchased the paper mill in 1920. However, by the 1960s the collection and despatching of primroses had transferred to Stowford Paper Mill, a sister paper mill within the Wiggins Teape group which was better positioned for the task.

Devon Valley Primroses

A breath of spring was brought to the office on Tuesday morning, when a posy of primroses, sweet and fresh from the Devon Valley, was delivered to us. They came from Messrs. Wiggins Teape and Co., Ltd., of Hele, Bradninch, Devon, and with them was a delightfully designed card bearing a drawing of a typical old Devonshire rustic, and the invitation:

“Wen youm tu Demshur plaise tu cum and zee we.”

March 1924

During the 1960s and through to the 1980s, Stowford Paper Mill in Ivybridge, which was then part of the international paper making group Wiggins Teape, began sending bunches of primroses to all of its clients throughout Britain.

 

This annual tradition originated from another paper mill not too far away, Devon Valley Paper Mill at Bradninch, Exeter, which at the time operated under the name of Hele Paper Co Ltd. The Managing Director, a Mr Horsborough had a custom of picking a few early primroses from the hedges around the mill to send to his mother each Spring. Hearing of this, the company secretary, a Mr Passmore suggested that this kind gesture could be something the company should adopt for all its clients. It was documented at the time that this did not constitute a large number.  The pleasant custom caught on and was later adopted by Wiggins Teape who purchased the paper mill in 1920. However, by the 1960s the collection and despatching of primroses had transferred to Stowford Paper Mill, a sister paper mill within the Wiggins Teape group which was better positioned for the task.

Devon Valley Primroses

A breath of spring was brought to the office on Tuesday morning, when a posy of primroses, sweet and fresh from the Devon Valley, was delivered to us. They came from Messrs. Wiggins Teape and Co., Ltd., of Hele, Bradninch, Devon, and with them was a delightfully designed card bearing a drawing of a typical old Devonshire rustic, and the invitation:

“Wen youm tu Demshur plaise tu cum and zee we.”

March 1924

Devon Valley Mill

This paper mill had operated since 1765 and like Stowford Paper Mill in Ivybridge, it occupied the site of a former corn mill.

 

Devon Valley Mill once made all the paper for postcards and newspaper wrappers which were both a monopoly of the Post Office at one time. Postcards were introduced in Britain in 1870 and were simple plain cards with a pre-printed stamp. Newspaper wrappers were a form of postal stationery which paid the cost of the delivery and was large enough to wrap around a folded or rolled newspaper. Like pre-printed postcards, wrappers carried an imprinted stamp to pay the cost of postage.

Devon Valley Mill

This paper mill had operated since 1765 and like Stowford Paper Mill in Ivybridge, it occupied the site of a former corn mill.

 

Devon Valley Mill once made all the paper for postcards and newspaper wrappers which were both a monopoly of the Post Office at one time. Postcards were introduced in Britain in 1870 and were simple plain cards with a pre-printed stamp. Newspaper wrappers were a form of postal stationery which paid the cost of the delivery and was large enough to wrap around a folded or rolled newspaper. Like pre-printed postcards, wrappers carried an imprinted stamp to pay the cost of postage.

Primrose picking in Ivybridge

Each April, the local people of Ivybridge were able to bring along bunches of primroses to the Congregational Hall on Exeter Road. Each bunch had to comprise of 50 flowers with 5 leaves wrapped around the posy. At the hall, temporary staff (the majority being mill pensioners and their husbands and wives) would pack two of the bunches of primroses into waterproof lined boxes ready for distribution to all Wiggins Teape clients in the UK.

 

Work started between 8 and 8.30 with the arrival of the flowers, mainly picked by school children who were paid around 4d. a bunch in the 1960s. Pre-decimalisation, there were 12 pence (d) in every shilling (s) and 20 shillings (s) in every pound (£), meaning 4d. was less than 2p per bunch.

Image: packaging the bunches of primroses for collection by the Post Office.

Image: packaging the bunches of primroses for collection by the Post Office.

Primrose picking in Ivybridge

Each April, the local people of Ivybridge were able to bring along bunches of primroses to the Congregational Hall on Exeter Road. Each bunch had to comprise of 50 flowers with 5 leaves wrapped around the posy. At the hall, temporary staff (the majority being mill pensioners and their husbands and wives) would pack two of the bunches of primroses into waterproof lined boxes ready for distribution to all Wiggins Teape clients in the UK.

 

Work started between 8 and 8.30 with the arrival of the flowers, mainly picked by school children who were paid around 4d. a bunch in the 1960s. Pre-decimalisation, there were 12 pence (d) in every shilling (s) and 20 shillings (s) in every pound (£), meaning 4d. was less than 2p per bunch.

Once packaged, attractively designed pre-printed labels supplied by Wiggins Teape were applied to the boxes ready for the Post Office to collect. Members of staff at the mill were permitted to send boxes of primroses to family and friends which was always a much appreciated gesture.

 

Work had to be completed by lunchtime Monday to Thursday to ensure the Post Office could deliver the freshly picked flowers to Wiggins Teape’s clients during office opening hours the following day.

 

Bunches that were not used on the day were put in shallow trays of water to keep them fresh. Monday was always a busy day at the hall as the children had spent the weekend collecting the primroses. There are many stories of families filling their baths with water to store the bunches overnight and prevent them from going limp.

 

Over the course of the entire operation literally thousands of bunches were despatched to all parts the British Isles as the articles mentioned below demonstrate.

Once packaged, attractively designed pre-printed labels supplied by Wiggins Teape were applied to the boxes ready for the Post Office to collect. Members of staff at the mill were permitted to send boxes of primroses to family and friends which was always a much appreciated gesture.

 

Work had to be completed by lunchtime Monday to Thursday to ensure the Post Office could deliver the freshly picked flowers to Wiggins Teape’s clients during office opening hours the following day.

 

Bunches that were not used on the day were put in shallow trays of water to keep them fresh. Monday was always a busy day at the hall as the children had spent the weekend collecting the primroses. There are many stories of families filling their baths with water to store the bunches overnight and prevent them from going limp.

 

Over the course of the entire operation literally thousands of bunches were despatched to all parts the British Isles as the articles mentioned below demonstrate.

Each year a different insert card accompanied the bunches of primroses.

Often very colourful, they were treasured by recipients, eventually becoming collectors’ items.

The pale yellow card celebrates the bicentenary of Stowford Paper Mill – 200 years of continuous paper making.

Young Ivybridge Primrose pickers

``Break the Bank``

The mild weather which has brought on the primroses a fortnight earlier than usual had an odd repercussion yesterday. It caused a large paper mill at Ivybridge to run out of petty cash.

The mill had been paying 4d. a bunch for primroses to send to customers and friends and yesterday the gatherers took in a record 18,000 bunches.

Eventually the clerks had to make out chits-promissory notes cashable at lunch-time, which the children at least, eyed with suspicion.

The chits were duly honoured of course as befits a mill that makes for the Post Office a large amount of “security paper” so valuable that its end products cannot be specified.

News clipping from the 1960s taken from a mill scrapbook.

Young Ivybridge Primrose pickers

``Break the Bank``

The mild weather which has brought on the primroses a fortnight earlier than usual had an odd repercussion yesterday. It caused a large paper mill at Ivybridge to run out of petty cash.

The mill had been paying 4d. a bunch for primroses to send to customers and friends and yesterday the gatherers took in a record 18,000 bunches.

Eventually the clerks had to make out chits-promissory notes cashable at lunch-time, which the children at least, eyed with suspicion.

The chits were duly honoured of course as befits a mill that makes for the Post Office a large amount of “security paper” so valuable that its end products cannot be specified.

News clipping from the 1960s taken from a mill scrapbook.

OPERATION PRIMROSE

Fourth April, D-Day for primroses dawned bright and fair, and brought with it a record inrush of primrose gathers. No less than 18,500 bunches were poured into broke baskets between eight and ten-thirty a.m. and by the evening they were all en route to all parts of England’s suburban and industrial areas. It might be thought that such a vast number of primroses gathered in one day represents the commercialisation of what is meant to be a goodwill and cheery gesture and is therefore to be deplored. The fact is that the vast majority of primrose pickers are school children ranging from tiny tots with their four or five bunches to teenagers with anything from 50 to 100, and what is more these children are well enough versed in nature law not to strip the plants and damage their growth.

 

What is remarkable is, that a project that starts with crowds of scrambling noisy youngsters resolves itself into a major feat of organisation and administration resulting, we hope, in bringing a touch of Devon’s Spring to many people who do not have the opportunity of visiting us at this, the most exciting time of the year.

This description of the practice was taken from Gateway, an internal magazine of Wiggins Teape from 1965. It illustrates how so many local people participated in the annual event. Whilst the article considered that the children appreciated some principles of conservation the practice was soon to come under environmental scrutiny.

Mar21.35

In 1962, ‘Operation Primrose’ had been the subject of a short television documentary. The organisers commenting “such a pity that colour television is still in the future, because it would have revealed that, not only is the water hereabouts good for papers, it is also good for Devonshire cream and roses complexions.”

 

At the beginning of the 1950s, television was only enjoyed by people with money to spare. By the 1970s virtually every home in Britain had one! The first colour broadcast was aired on BBC2 on 1 July 1967.

POE

Environmental pressures on picking natural flowers steadily grow

The high backed hedgerows of Devon are an integral part of the countryside and define the county’s farming landscape, along with the rolling hills and wooded valleys. Hedges also have an important environmental role to play in terms of biodiversity, providing a habitat for a wealth of plant and wildlife species. They therefore warrant protection.

During the 1960s, public attitude towards an activity which, historically, was an accepted part of local community life began to shift. Environmental concerns and the general displeasure of picking naturally growing flowers started to gain momentum. Wiggins Teape were faced with a paradox, the decades-long practice of sending primroses was considered a valuable and generally accepted customer-relations exercise yet it was creating damaging publicity, which by now, had reached a national level. Indeed, it was only the major oil spill caused by the super tanker, SS Torrey Canyon, which hit rocks off the coast of Cornwall in March 1967, releasing more than 100,00 tonnes of crude oil into the English Channel, which kept an article on primrose picking from hitting the front page of the tabloids.

 

Due to the increasing concern over the situation, Wiggins Teape sought to establish whether the picking of primroses was in fact detrimental to the plant species within the South Hams. Alongside this study it was also to investigate the viability of sourcing blooms commercially. In 1977, the then, Plymouth Polytechnic were invited to research the project along several fronts, including a study of the distribution of the species within the South Hams, the history and current practice of picking wild primroses and its social implications, the attitude of conservationists and the biological effects of picking these natural blooms.

 

Having supported the Devon Trust for Nature Conservation, Wiggins Teape certainly did not wish to see the demise of primula vulgaris. They took some fairly prompt measures by restricting the picking to consenting farmers’ fields and to only local people who had permission to pick the flowers (having a bright green badge which read “I am an authorised primrose picker”). This action removed the problem of uncontrolled picking which was deemed much more likely to damage the plants and their ecosystems.

 

Field investigations by the Polytechnic commenced with visits to participating farms, observing no evidence of mass picking or the removal of entire plants but rather the picking of just a few blooms from each plant. It was also apparent just how much everyone involved in the task, from the farmers and pickers to the packers and organisers at the hall, enjoyed being part of this annual event, which could last for up to three weeks. It was customary for the company to hold a social evening each year for all participants where letters from appreciative recipients from around the country were displayed.

 

Further set backs were to follow in 1981 when the threat of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease caused the entire distribution of primroses to be halted, Wiggins Teape having followed the advice of the National Farmers Union. In that year clients were sent a pot-pourri instead, which seemed to be equally well received.

The primroses we miss we must admit

Their arrival is always a pleasure

We realise the problem and because of it

Your pot-pourri we’ll certainly treasure

The pressure from environmental groups and the adverse public opinion surrounding the practice of picking wild flowers continued to gather pace throughout the 1980s. In 1989, Wiggins Teape perhaps with a degree of reluctance, decided that this year would be the last for the picking and distribution of primroses to its client base. Whilst studies at an experimental site into commercial propagation of primroses were undertaken, the land area required and the cost of the poly tunnels and labour would render the project cost prohibitive. The long standing tradition of receiving freshly picked primroses from Devon had come to an end.

 

Primroses are found in abundance in the hedgerows and verges throughout South Devon. Their pale yellow blooms heralding the arrival of spring and warmer days ahead, so always a welcome sight to all.

POE

Environmental pressures on picking natural flowers steadily grow

The high backed hedgerows of Devon are an integral part of the countryside and define the county’s farming landscape, along with the rolling hills and wooded valleys. Hedges also have an important environmental role to play in terms of biodiversity, providing a habitat for a wealth of plant and wildlife species. They therefore warrant protection.

 

During the 1960s, public attitude towards an activity which, historically, was an accepted part of local community life began to shift. Environmental concerns and the general displeasure of picking naturally growing flowers started to gain momentum. Wiggins Teape were faced with a paradox, the decades-long practice of sending primroses was considered a valuable and generally accepted customer-relations exercise yet it was creating damaging publicity, which by now, had reached a national level. Indeed, it was only the major oil spill caused by the supertanker, SS Torrey Canyon, which hit rocks off the coast of Cornwall in March 1967, releasing more than 100,00 tonnes of crude oil into the English Channel, which kept an article on primrose picking from hitting the front page of the tabloids.

 

Due to the increasing concern over the situation, Wiggins Teape sought to establish whether the picking of primroses was in fact detrimental to the plant species within the South Hams. Alongside this study it was also to investigate the viability of sourcing blooms commercially. In 1977, the then, Plymouth Polytechnic were invited to research the project along several fronts, including a study of the distribution of the species within the South Hams, the history and current practice of picking wild primroses and its social implications, the attitude of conservationists and the biological effects of picking these natural blooms.

 

Having supported the Devon Trust for Nature Conservation, Wiggins Teape certainly did not wish to see the demise of primula vulgaris. They took some fairly prompt measures by restricting the picking to consenting farmers’ fields and to only local people who had permission to pick the flowers (having a bright green badge which read “I am an authorised primrose picker”). This action removed the problem of uncontrolled picking which was deemed much more likely to damage the plants and their ecosystems.

 

Field investigations by the Polytechnic commenced with visits to participating farms, observing no evidence of mass picking or the removal of entire plants but rather the picking of just a few blooms from each plant. It was also apparent just how much everyone involved in the task, from the farmers and pickers to the packers and organisers at the hall, enjoyed being part of this annual event, which could last for up to three weeks. It was customary for the company to hold a social evening each year for all participants where letters from appreciative recipients from around the country were displayed.

 

Further set backs were to follow in 1981 when the threat of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease caused the entire distribution of primroses to be halted, Wiggins Teape having followed the advice of the National Farmers Union. In that year clients were sent a pot-pourri instead, which seemed to be equally well received.

The primroses we miss we must admit

Their arrival is always a pleasure

We realise the problem and because of it

Your pot-pourri we’ll certainly treasure

The pressure from environmental groups and the adverse public opinion surrounding the practice of picking wild flowers continued to gather pace throughout the 1980s. In 1989, Wiggins Teape perhaps with a degree of reluctance, decided that this year would be the last for the picking and distribution of primroses to its client base. Whilst studies at an experimental site into commercial propagation of primroses were undertaken, the land area required and the cost of the poly tunnels and labour would render the project cost prohibitive. The long standing tradition of receiving freshly picked primroses from Devon had come to an end.

 

Primroses are found in abundance in the hedgerows and verges throughout South Devon. Their pale yellow blooms heralding the arrival of spring and warmer days ahead, so always a welcome sight to all.

Primula

The Primula family

This is the botanical name for primroses and other wild flowers such as cowslip and oxlip as well as the gardeners favourite, the polyanthus.

 

The botanical name for the common primrose is Primula vulgaris. Cowslip is Primula veris and Oxlip, Primula elatior. The latter has paler yellow flowers than cowslip and open out further.

 

Polyanthus look very much like primroses but instead of having individual flowers polyanthus have a thick stem that carry a bunch of blooms well above the leaves.

Primula family

This is the botanical name for primroses and other wild flowers such as cowslip and oxlip as well as the gardeners favourite, the polyanthus.

The botanical name for the common primrose is Primula vulgaris. Cowslip is Primula veris and Oxlip, Primula elatior. The latter has paler yellow flowers than cowslip and open out further.

 

Polyanthus look very much like primroses but instead of having individual flowers polyanthus have a thick stem that carry a bunch of blooms well above the leaves.

null

Primroses from Ivybridge

The appearance of primroses adorning Devon hedgerows with their characteristic clusters of soft pale yellow flowers epitomises the arrival of Spring. Indeed its vernacular name, prima rosa, literally means first rose, appearing as they do as early as December during mild winters, but more typically in March and April. They often continue to bloom well into May and even early June. The common primrose is strangely not actually part of the rose family but belongs to the herbaceous and woody flowering primulaceae plant grouping.
During the 1960s and through to the 1980s, Stowford Paper Mill in Ivybridge, which was then part of the international paper making group Wiggins Teape, began sending bunches of primroses to all of its clients throughout Britain.

 

This annual tradition originated from another paper mill not too far away, Devon Valley Paper Mill at Bradninch, Exeter, which at the time operated under the name of Hele Paper Co Ltd. The Managing Director, a Mr Horsborough had a custom of picking a few early primroses from the hedges around the mill to send to his mother each Spring. Hearing of this, the company secretary, a Mr Passmore suggested that this kind gesture could be something the company should adopt for all its clients. It was documented at the time that this did not constitute a large number.  The pleasant custom caught on and was later adopted by Wiggins Teape who purchased the paper mill in 1920. However, by the 1960s the collection and despatching of primroses had transferred to Stowford Paper Mill, a sister paper mill within the Wiggins Teape group which was better positioned for the task.

 

Each April, the local people of Ivybridge were able to bring along bunches of primroses to the Congregational Hall on Exeter Road. Each bunch had to comprise of 50 flowers with 5 leaves wrapped around the posy. At the hall, temporary staff (the majority being mill pensioners and their husbands and wives) would pack two of the bunches of primroses into waterproof lined boxes ready for distribution to all Wiggins Teape clients in the UK.
Work started between 8 and 8.30 with the arrival of the flowers, mainly picked by school children who were paid around 4d. a bunch in the 1960s. Pre-decimalisation, there were 12 pence (d) in every shilling (s) and 20 shillings (s) in every pound (£), meaning 4d. was less than 2p per bunch.

 

Once packaged, attractively designed pre-printed labels supplied by Wiggins Teape were applied to the boxes ready for the Post Office to collect. Members of staff at the mill were permitted to send boxes of primroses to family and friends which was always a much appreciated gesture.

 

Work had to be completed by lunchtime Monday to Thursday to ensure the Post Office could deliver the freshly picked flowers to Wiggins Teape’s clients during office opening hours the following day.

 

Bunches that were not used on the day were put in shallow trays of water to keep them fresh. Monday was always a busy day at the hall as the children had spent the weekend collecting the primroses. There are many stories of families filling their baths with water to store the bunches overnight and prevent them from going limp.

 

Over the course of the entire operation literally thousands of bunches were despatched to all parts the British Isles.

Environmental pressures steadily grow ...

Protect our environment
The high backed hedgerows of Devon are an integral part of the countryside and define the county’s farming landscape, along with the rolling hills and wooded valleys. Hedges also have an important environmental role to play in terms of biodiversity, providing a habitat for a wealth of plant and wildlife species. They therefore warrant protection.

 

During the 1960s, public attitude towards an activity which, historically, was an accepted part of local community life began to shift. Environmental concerns and the general displeasure of picking naturally growing flowers started to gain momentum. Wiggins Teape were faced with a paradox, the decades-long practice of sending primroses was considered a valuable and generally accepted customer-relations exercise yet it was creating damaging publicity, which by now, had reached a national level. Indeed, it was only the major oil spill caused by the super tanker, SS Torrey Canyon, which hit rocks off the coast of Cornwall in March 1967, releasing more than 100,00 tonnes of crude oil into the English Channel, which kept an article on primrose picking from hitting the front page of the tabloids.

 

Due to the increasing concern over the situation, Wiggins Teape sought to establish whether the picking of primroses was in fact detrimental to the plant species within the South Hams. Alongside this study it was also to investigate the viability of sourcing blooms commercially. In 1977, the then, Plymouth Polytechnic were invited to research the project along several fronts, including a study of the distribution of the species within the South Hams, the history and current practice of picking wild primroses and its social implications, the attitude of conservationists and the biological effects of picking these natural blooms.

 

Having supported the Devon Trust for Nature Conservation, Wiggins Teape certainly did not wish to see the demise of primula vulgaris. They took some fairly prompt measures by restricting the picking to consenting farmers’ fields and to only local people who had permission to pick the flowers (having a bright green badge which read “I am an authorised primrose picker”). This action removed the problem of uncontrolled picking which was deemed much more likely to damage the plants and their ecosystems.

 

Field investigations by the Polytechnic commenced with visits to participating farms, observing no evidence of mass picking or the removal of entire plants but rather the picking of just a few blooms from each plant. It was also apparent just how much everyone involved in the task, from the farmers and pickers to the packers and organisers at the hall, enjoyed being part of this annual event, which could last for up to three weeks. It was customary for the company to hold a social evening each year for all participants where letters from appreciative recipients from around the country were displayed.

 

Further set backs were to follow in 1981 when the threat of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease caused the entire distribution of primroses to be halted, Wiggins Teape having followed the advice of the National Farmers Union. In that year clients were sent a pot-pourri instead, which seemed to be equally well received.
The primroses we miss we must admit
Their arrival is always a pleasure
We realise the problem and because of it
Your pot-pourri we’ll certainly treasure

 

The pressure from environmental groups and the adverse public opinion surrounding the practice of picking wild flowers continued to gather pace throughout the 1980s. In 1989, Wiggins Teape perhaps with a degree of reluctance, decided that this year would be the last for the picking and distribution of primroses to its client base. Whilst studies at an experimental site into commercial propagation of primroses were undertaken, the land area required and the cost of the poly tunnels and labour would render the project cost prohibitive. The long standing tradition of receiving freshly picked primroses from Devon had come to an end.

 

Primroses are found in abundance in the hedgerows and verges throughout South Devon. Their pale yellow blooms heralding the arrival of spring and warmer days ahead, so always a welcome sight to all.