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Leo Pemberton

1928 - 2022
Profoundly influenced many horticultural careers
Leo Pemberton in typically flambuoyant attire Family picture.

Leo Pemberton was widely respected and significant in both arboricultural and horticultural education, chairing the Arboricultural Association (AA) from 1992 to 1993. During his long career he was a principal examiner for the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), the Royal Forestry Society (RFS), the AA, and City & Guilds. Leo was awarded a Veitch Memorial Medal by the RHS in 1988, given to “persons of any nationality who have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement and improvement of the science and practice of horticulture”. In 1998, he was presented with the Institute of Horticulture award for his contribution to horticultural and arboricultural education at Kew School of Horticulture.

He worked at Reading University, Pershore College and Swanley College before taking the post of Supervisor of Studies at Kew between 1963 and 1989. For those 25 years he was responsible for shaping the careers of many horticulturists and arboriculturists on the world-renowned Kew diploma, including Peter Bridgeman, John ‘Log’ Whitehead, Alan Titchmarsh, Peter Thurman, and Tony Kirkham. Tony, vice president of the AA, said: “Regardless of whether they had the right qualifications or not Leo would be prepared to give them a chance on the course. He was a listener and never wanted to hear about problems, only solutions.”

When you applied to study at Kew, what mattered to Leo was not gender, race or even age: it was that you could apply the appropriate skills in order to benefit to what Kew had to offer. You had to be clever, hard-working, and you had to have good aspirations at your core. Then - just like a plant that needs the appropriate conditions to thrive - you were given space in which you could learn, certainly, while also developing your own roots as a foundation for an ongoing career.

Students were exposed to cleverly designed lectures on topics ranging from the structure and life of plants to the application of that knowledge in the horticultural industry or in landscaping. Regular identification tests led to the development of a mindset that meant, as a student, everywhere you looked and saw plants you tried to apply the correct nomenclature. You had access to lecturers’ knowledge, but were allowed to have your say and to learn how to speak in public.

When Leo looked at my CV and saw I had no special experience with cacti and succulents, my first three months were with Mr MacDonald in cacti and succulents. I therefore not only had access to expert knowledge on those plants but also a life-changing link to Mac, who was an Egyptologist. Leo gave far more than could be expected when accepting somebody to learn at Kew.

Chris Kidd, Kew Guild Chairman 2022, agrees: "Leo was regarded almost as a supernatural being, such was his authority. He was important in the industry and so many people owe him their careers. Whether or not he liked them, they did well. Even after retirement Leo maintained the kudos that meant a word from him ensured a student a good interview for a place at Kew."

Leo’s children, Veronica, Paul and Claire, describe the background that made the man: Dad was born on Trafalgar Day in 1928, in Thames Ditton, Surrey, to parents who met one another as next door neighbours. Aged 11, he was sent as an evacuee to live with an elderly aunt in Australia, on a farm. He had to chop logs in the winter and blocks of ice in the summer to sell as substitute fridges, making him self reliant. Making the best of any opportunity was a strategy he encouraged in others.

Although, aged 17 he would have liked to stay in Australia after the war, he felt duty bound to return to his parents. The interruption in his education meant he just failed to matriculate, which ruled out university. Living in Kent, he found work with fruit farmers. His clear aptitude in supervising the pickers and learning about the trees meant he was encouraged to attend classes at the Kent Institute of Horticulture: he was awarded a Ministry of Agriculture scholarship. Progressing to take the two-year Kew Certificate, he then applied to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for training. After a spell with Ealing Parks, his application was successful.

Under Bill Campbell, he became interested in horticultural education, and was employed as a reader at the University of Reading, studying for the National Diploma in Horticulture. He then returned to the Kent Horticultural Institute. There he met and married ‘the girl next door’, Melda, a physiotherapist, in 1958. After a year lecturing in Worcester, Leo and Melda returned to the Kent Horticultural Institute where Leo was appointed as a senior lecturer, and the family grew to three children, Veronica, Paul and Claire. They then moved to Sunbury, which was home for the rest of Leo’s life.

He was Apprentice Master for the Royal Parks before, in 1964, becoming Director of Studies at Kew. He developed the newly inaugurated three-year Diploma, still considered the foremost qualification in horticulture.

Leo retired in 1988 as Melda was seriously limited by MS. As their children married and grandchildren arrived Leo helped Melda to continue her interests and helped to care for their first grandchild so their daughter could study. They were very active in the local community, particularly in the local church, as their strong Christian faith profoundly affected their whole lives.

Following Melda’s death in 2004 Leo threw himself into yet more activities, including a new marriage and the acquisition of two adult stepchildren with whom he developed warm relationships. His style of dress, always singular, became ever more distinctive with bright colours and multiple patterns. In later years he often prevailed upon his friends to drive him round Sunbury with flowers from Kempton Market to give a little treat to all his lady friends.

He loved visiting people and gardens, he had an enquiring mind taking especial interest in the lives of his three children and nine grandchildren. In his retirement he continued to inspire others and took pleasure in the successes of his family, his

students and his colleagues. People mattered to him: and he provided wise counsel and opportunities to many. He will be remembered with gratitude.

By Graham Burgess, Kew Guild Obituaries Editor.