The greatest horticulturist and seedsman ever to come out of Birmingham and indeed all of the UK, is a story of possibility borne out of an impossible climate, of a business built with matchless integrity and unflinching zeal.
Sydenham Place was, once upon a time, the spacious corner block of warehouses and offices built on the land adjoining the premises on Tenby Street where Robert Sydenham worked in the jewellery firm and where the jewellery warehouse was located and which he later converted into his headquarters for his seed and bulb trade.
Hardly can the irradiant commercial history of Birmingham be told without the story of Robert Sydenham. Indeed there are records of self-made men contained in Birmingham’s history books, but none so striking as the example laid out for generations to come by the man Mr. Robert Sydenham, a contemporary horticulturist and seedsman who built up his business steadily from small beginnings
It is in honour of this fine gentleman, Robert Sydenham, a man of wonderful energy, perseverance and industry, that we have named this building Sydenham Place, as a testament to his pertinacity and business acumen among other enviable qualities.
It is our hope in sharing this brief but trailblazing history of Robert Sydenham that these same qualities will again be astir in the generation of today.
We wish to encourage our esteemed clients to seek not just pleasure and comfort in the pursuit of business but also excellence and integrity, to love to share, to daringly unlock impossibilities, and to leave behind the fragrance of a lasting legacy for the next generation.
Mr Robert Sydenham was born in Salisbury in 1848. He had his early education at the Salisbury Cathedral School. Later on, he studied at Christchurch near Bournemouth for four years.
In 1862, by then a teenager aged 14 years, he moved to Birmingham and made it his home until his passing.
He took up apprenticeship at a firm of general merchants. For a while, his duties were numerous and varied. He did random small jobs at the firm such as delivering goods, passing out goods coming from the manufacturers, lighting the office fires, and he also helped around in the packing and forwarding department.
In an era where there were no eight-hour days, no bank holidays and no half-Saturday holidays, Robert Sydenham worked rigourously and spiritedly for long hours every day of the week, from nine in the morning until nine or ten at night.
Before long, of course, his tenacity and devotion were noticed, and he was considered worthy of being entrusted with greater responsibilities at the firm. Still a teenager going on 20 years old, he was entrusted with the management of exports at the shipping department of the general merchants firm at which he apprenticed. Their merchandise included general English and other hardware like guns, wall papers, paints, powder and shot, and clothing.
His responsibilities were to ensure the safe and accurate despatch and shipment of consignments to their respective destinations in every part of the world. And during his tenure, not a single packet went unaccounted for or incorrectly despatched.
His accountability made him a ripe candidate for another promotion yet again, and he was now to represent his firm overseas in the US in order to extend the business. This involved a lot of travelling. This he did with great enthusiasm and was always well received in the United States.
As a testimonial of his high work ethics and integrity and business skills, the firm offered Robert Sydenham and his elder brother George a partnership to open another arm of their business in the wholesale jewellery department.
In 1872, persuaded by parents and friends, he returned from United States and joined his elder brother, George. Few years down the line, his younger brother William joined the partnership.
Although a novice in the field, he determined to learn all he could, and in 5 years he was already had a greater mastery in that trade than all his predecessors put together, increasing his turnover by fivefold.
At age 24 he had acquired another wholesale jewellery business, and travelled all over the country for 12-16 weeks at a stretch. Together the Sydenham brothers enforced integrity as a sterling emblem of their business, making the process of hallmarking a general practice in order to put an end to many questionable practices which some unscrupulous members of the trade were known to indulge in and breaking down the system of long credit which prevailed in the jewellery industry much to its detriment.
All the Sydenham brothers are keen lovers of flowers. It was a habit of Robert’s to wake up very early in the morning, sometimes earlier than 5 AM and still not be tired at the end of a long day. Then he would spend some time in his garden amongst his flowers before breakfast.
In 1883 the nucleus of what was to be the largest of the horticulture business was involuntarily formed when Robert Sydenham disposed of a few surplus bulbs amongst his friends. By 1885, his hobby had grown so enormously into a business that made double or triple the number of sales per year.
In 1886 his annual sales totalled about eight tons in weight. In 1887 the quantity was almost doubled, and in 1896 Mr. Sydenham was sending out no less than 5,000 packages, containing more than 1.5 million bulbs. In the season of 1897-8 he executed over 33,000 orders, and in 1910 between September and October, over 40,000 orders were successfully dealt with, outputting a daily average of about four tons weight.
The business expanded so astronomically that until it became necessary to erect a spacious corner block of warehouses and offices built on the land adjoining the premises on Tenby Street where he worked in the jewellery firm and where the jewellery warehouse was located. This is the block of offices now known as Sydenham Place.
Robert’s Sydenham’s stock were from the choicest produce of the best growers in the world. His selections came from flower farms in England, Holland, France, Bermuda, Asia Minor, Japan, California, and other countries. His acumen was sharp and his judgment faultless in knowing what will thrive best in the English climate and in the kind of spring which is usual in a great manufacturing centre such as was the Jewellery Quarter, and his knowledge kept on increasing year by year as a result of constant experimenting in his own garden.
Not only was he keen to prosper on the business side of the trade, but his passion was such that he also fostered an ardent love of flowers in others. He wrote pamphlets which were much anticipated amongst countless many. One of those pamphlets was named, “How I Came To Grow Bulbs”, which is an acknowledged guide to the best bulb varieties and how to grow them. Others were his seeds list which he sent out every January, and his bulbs list which he sent out every August.
Daffodils, tulips, carnations, sweet peas, chrysanthemums, hyacinths were among the varieties that Robert Sydenham experimented with. However, the three flowers which chiefly claimed his interest were the Daffodil, the Carnation, and the Sweet Pea. The daffodils were by far his favourite.
It isn’t quite the trade itself that has brought so much acknowledgment to the development of gardening and the culture of the best seeds and bulbs as it is the enthusiasm of Robert Sydenham.
Robert Sydenham has won numerous prizes in London, Manchester, and at all the big shows. In Birmingham, he won the first Challenge Cup offered by the Midland Carnation and Picotee Society, and for seven years in succession he had consistently taken home the Champion Medal for the highest points in the Exhibition Classes.
In1891, he was actively involved in the foundation of the Midland Carnation and Picotee Society, and was its chairman and treasurer until his passing. The society held shows at the Edgbaston Botanical Gardens with a record attendance each year.
When the Botanical Gardens experienced financial difficulties a few years later and couldn’t hold any shows, Robert Sydenham stepped in. First he held his own private show there, and afterwards helped in the establishment of the Midland Daffodil Society, of which he became both honorary treasurer and a most energetic supporter, to the effect that they would be able to continue to hold that highly attractive annual exhibition which took place every April. At the time of his death he was Chairman of the society.
Robert Sydenham was involved in the activities of many other horticultural societies, and was, at one time, President of the National Sweet Pea Society.
Robert Sydenham always gave both time and money freely towards the support and extension of the Botanical Gardens. Of his generosity, a fellow seedsman named W. Cuthbertson is known to have said, “He was one of the most generous of men; no appeal on behalf of a deserving case was made in vain”.
Robert Sydenham took no part in public or local affairs. However, he was ever superfluous in his generosity whenever charitable institutions or individuals needed temporary assistance.
He was a very loyal friend to both the Early Morning Adult School Movement and the Birmingham Hurst Street Christian Mission. He is known to have given plenteous gifts of bulbs to the City Parks of Birmingham.
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