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Tony Overland

2015 - Today
President of the Kew Guild 2015-16
Tony Overland with the President's regalia 2015.

Tony was brought up in the town of Urmston, near Manchester and his first introduction to gardening was helping his grandfather to save antirrhinum seeds and then sowing these in early spring in a cold frame. He left school with no real idea of what to do for an occupation, although he had always been keen on growing plants and used to spend his newspaper round money on cacti and succulents from Woolworths. The family knew the local park superintendent and he offered work to Tony in the municipal nursery of Urmston Parks Department, and encouraged him to attend night school to gain qualifications.

He later moved to Manchester Parks Department and began working at the central plant nursery that provided the majority of the plant requirements for the whole of the city, street trees, shrubs, bedding plants, decorative plants for municipal buildings and planted containers for the city squares.

Some two hours into his first day he was at a long bench with a number of others potting up geranium cuttings, quite a pleasant start he thought. There was suddenly a call to attention, from behind, by a diminutive man with a Scottish accent. With his hand pointing he said, “You, you and you follow me to do potato picking” where upon they were escorted to a ploughed field through heavy cold drizzle. Out of the mist emerged a grey Ferguson tractor, towing machinery, flicking out potatoes from the rows. Directed to get metal baskets and with backs bent they collected the potatoes and emptied them into hessian sacks. No sooner had the gang of ten just about finished when the same machine loomed once more, so it went on all day. After about an hour the Scotsman appeared, whom Tony had now discovered was the nursery manager. “Do you want to make this your career?” he asked. Hesitantly, thinking of the work at hand, Tony replied “yes” and thus began an association with the man who taught him many of the techniques of propagation and other plant related skills.

Some time later the department’s indentured apprenticeship scheme was launched. Tony was one of the seven selected and for the next few years worked at various venues across the city. His last year was spent working in the landscape design office.

In April 1963 Tony entered Kew as one of ten students on the last two year course. Meeting on the first day in the Garden’s library they were advised that a new three year course would commence in October of that year and all would be given the opportunity to transfer to this new course. This information came, somewhat, as a surprise as none had any inkling that this would be happening. In the event Bryan Howard took up the challenge, the rest opting to remain on the old course.

Tony’s first posting was to the Temperate House. During this time he became chairman of the Student Gardener’s Association and if any issues arose, would usually meet Mr. Ronald King, the Garden’s Secretary. Students had expressed concern about the lack of protective clothing whilst spraying chemicals; new regulations had recently been introduced. After explaining the problem, he discovered that, “The Crown may make these regulations, but the Crown does not have to abide by them”. However after an amicable discussion with Mr. King the protective clothing was provided.

Other highlights were taking part in the Kew - Wisley debate, competing in the Civil Service Sports day at Chiswick, and beer drinking competitions at the Coach and Horses.

He next worked in the grounds behind Kew Palace with Clive Popham and commenced removing a bank of soil immediately adjacent to the rear wall of the Palace. They had been provided with a Chaseside Excavator, this machine had a cable operated front loader and was very effective. It required a fair amount of effort to steer and frequently became stuck in the muddy conditions. The task was completed providing a cleared level area for the layout work and a higher wall of soil to provide the setting for the sunken garden. Adjacent to the boundary wall of the gardens was the end of a long bank of old cinders and clinker. Around the end was carved a ‘serpentine’ path to the top of the mound, an operation that required working to ‘line of sight’ rather than to any precise measurements.

Following on from this he worked in the Orchid houses and then the Tropical pits; both venues providing fascinating experiences, particularly in the tropical pits, undertaking the propagation of Victoria amazonica and some of the Nepenthes species. On completion of the course at Kew, Tony returned to Manchester working in the landscape design office, remaining there for five years and gained the Diploma of the Institute of Park Administration, later becoming a Fellow of the Institute.

At that time in the mid sixties whole areas of the city were the subject of compulsory purchase orders and thousands of slum properties demolished. Areas of rubble stretched as far as the eye could see with only the odd public house left standing. The arterial routes were kept clear but other roads were buried under the advance of the bulldozer. Streets of beautifully laid black, red or grey granite setts and pavements of York stone disappeared beneath the rubble, left, no doubt to future archeologists to rediscover!

It was an exciting but challenging period. Building projects were received almost on a daily basis. Landscape designs and contracts had to be prepared for numerous schools, motorways, housing areas, parks and other infrastructure projects. New techniques were developed, for instance the construction of playing fields on what was essentially a foundation of brick and mortar rubble. So called, ‘Georgian Crescents’ appeared, comprising one of the largest housing developments in Europe. Enclosed within their curtilage were large landscaped areas of open space. However good the landscape design 515 it cannot mask poor building design and construction. It didn’t take long for things to go badly wrong with this development and in less than 20 years the whole complex was demolished.

During this time derelict land grants were introduced. Manchester had a legacy of such areas from its industrial past. River valleys filled with manufacturing waste and heavily polluted rivers and streams. Schemes were prepared and major reclamation work undertaken. Tony remembers seeing a tenement block probably built in the late 1800s by the River Irk; the ground floor regularly flooded by the river and still occupied, a vision that would not be out of place in a Dickensian story. This perhaps illustrates the pressure that was always there to develop and rehouse people.

In 1970 Tony moved to take up the position of Deputy Chief Officer of Parks, and Amenities at the London Borough of Ealing with responsibility for parks, swimming pools, leisure centres and other amenities. In 1975 he was appointed as Deputy Director of Community Services in Knowsley, Merseyside. In 1980 the department was approached with a request to host the 50th English Schools Athletic Championships, one of the largest events of its kind in the world. Tony was appointed chairman of the organising committee responsible for everything from accommodation and equipment needs to the supply of hundreds of packed lunches. Following the success of this event, two years later he chaired the coordinating committee for the first Special Olympics Games in the UK, which was officially opened by HRH Princess Alexandra.

In 1979 Tony prepared Knowsley’s bid for the Urban Fringe Experiment, launched by the Countryside Commission, with the aims of improving the poor quality and derelict landscapes left around urban conurbations. The bid was accepted and Knowsley joined with nearby St Helens. Shortly afterwards there was a change of Government and instead of the scheme being operated by the two councils, as planned, the first Operation Groundwork Trust was created. Others followed, modelled on this pattern and these are now firmly established, throughout England. As a major player in this development Knowsley was able to secure significant grants for the development of country parks and a comprehensive countryside ranger service.

In 1988 the government launched its competitive tendering legislation. Tony was asked to head up the authority’s commercial services functions and took up the role of Director of Contract Services. The terms of his appointment were based upon a three-year rolling contract; failure to secure the tenders would mean the end of his employment. However, Tony commenced the task of setting up a new department and spent the next five years operating a service with 1,700 employees with responsibility for all the services subject to competitive tendering. In order to win the contracts it required numerous negotiations with the work force representatives. However, a time limited contract is a powerful incentive to ensure that working practices are efficient and cost effective.

By this time Tony had been at Knowsley nearly twenty years, with all contracts secured and operating profitably. It seemed the right time to take advantage of the authority’s early retirement scheme. Together with his wife Jan, twin sons and his daughter he decided to develop a plant nursery with gardens open to the public. This has now been operating for many years and has become a popular tourist attraction with tearooms and a variety of special events.

Other activities include membership of the local Parish Council, the Parochial Church Council and acting as project manager for the creation of new bridleways alongside some two miles of a nearby quarry. 516 And now after being active in the Kew Guild for some years Tony and Jan find friendship and enjoyment attending the annual events and visits organised by the Guild. They would certainly encourage others to become involved and make the most of their membership.