Garden Centres established in 1945.
Gordon Rigg was born in Bacup, Lancashire in 1919, the second eldest of five brothers. His parents has at that time just moved from Walsden to Bacup where his father had a job as foreman in a leather tannery works. After a couple of years the family moved back to Walsden and Gordon was raised in a house just overlooking the present Garden Centre site, and attended the local Walsden Board School. Although not a scholar he was always good at maths and mental arithmetic which was to prove most useful for his business ventures.
Leaving school at fourteen he had several jobs in local mills amongst them Jubilee Mill and Walsden Bleaching & Dyeing Co., as it was then known, at Ramsden Wood. He also helped his father on his allotment growing rhubarb and raising poultry and eggs. For a time he sold poultry and fish from a hand cart, pushing it round the streets and ringing a bell.
However, Gordon’s real ambition was to grow plants and to this end he got himself a job on a market garden in Cheshire which is a much better growing area then Todmorden. He would take his bicycle each day to Manchester on the train and then cycle down the Chester road to Altrincham, returning home each night. These were long hard days but Gordon was learning the trade which he had decided would be his vocation.
In his spare time Gordon did a lot of cycling and he cycled all over England with his brother Malcolm and other friends. They cycled all over the Lake District camping or stayed in Youth Hostels and would think nothing of cycling down to the South Coast for a weeks holiday. Beside the Y H A, Gordon also joined the Trade Union and the Independent Labour Party and started to take a great interest in politics and world affairs.
By the time War came in 1939 Gordon was a confirmed pacifist. He looked back to the first World War and the fact that we were fighting the same people again, just because politics had not worked. He objected to the way that the Country and the world were being run and thought that it was a senseless thing to carry on killing people. As he was engaged in food production he would have been exempt from military service, but he choose to speak out about his political beliefs and as a result spent some time in prison as a conscientious objector.
After the war he returned to working on the land and got a job with J W Shoesmiths Market Gardeners at Halifax planting cabbages, cauliflowers etc. and hoeing the weeds for £6-15-00 a week. He was sacked from Shoesmiths for Trade Union activity and got a job at Conways the florists in Halifax so he could learn floristry work. It was whilst travelling to and from Halifax on the train that he met his future wife Jessie, who was also travelling from Todmorden to work as a secretary at a clothing factory in Hebden Bridge.
The first Smallholding
In August 1945 an opportunity arose to take over a smallholding near to his home in Walsden. This was a quarter acre field adjacent to Bottoms Mill and was rented from the mill for £10 per annum. However the tenant, Mr Jackson wanted £150 for the two tumble down greenhouses, cabins and sheds which he had built on the site. £150 was a fortune to Gordon in those days, and he racked his brains as to where he could borrow such a sum. The only person he could think of who may be able to help was his old boss Mr Shoesmith. Gordon waited for him on his route back from the Piece Hall Market, flagged down his car and explained the situation. Despite the fact that he had just sacked him a few weeks previously he agreed to give Gordon an interest free loan of £150. Willie Shoesmith must have been a good judge of character and he knew that his money was safe. He said “Gordon, if you can’t make the job pay, no-one can”.
Gordon started growing plants on his small holding and would cycle round the district selling plants door to door and offering to plant them free of charge. Gordon continued to work hard at his business even though the Ministry of Agriculture advisor told him that he could never run a successful nursery in Todmorden because of the climate and smoke pollution from the Mills. He took a stall in Todmorden Market Hall selling homegrown produce including lettuce, radish, cress, tomatoes and mushrooms. The first weeks takings was 7 shillings and 6 pence, that is 37p in new money. Throughout these early years Gordon did all the work himself whilst Jessie did the book-keeping.
They were married in 1949 and set up house close to the nursery at Strines Street overlooking Walsden Cricket ground. Gordon did not want to waste time travelling so that he could spend more time working. Gordon and Jessie never move from the house they first purchased on Strines Street, Walsden, Todmorden.
The shop in Todmorden market became very successful and Gordon had to move to a bigger stall. With Gordon’s trading policy of ‘Pile it High and Sell it Cheap’ it became the busiest greengrocers and florists in Todmorden.
A great desire to travel
Gordon still had a great desire to travel and having already seen most parts of England from his bike he started to look to Europe. The family visited Austria for a holiday in 1954 and in 1956 set off to explore Europe in the summer holidays with his family estate car and a home made tent which fitted over the back of the car with the back doors open. This was typical of Gordon’s inventiveness and converted the car to a bedroom with the seats down flat. They got as far as the South of France and Italy but had trouble getting back over a mountain pass from Italy into France as the car’s cooling system was not designed for high altitudes. Gordon went to a local garage and had the fan moved closer to the radiator to improve the cooling efficiency. This worked and they had no more trouble with boiling. From then on every summer holiday was a month in Europe and in 1958 he bought a touring caravan and with that there was no stopping him. He towed the caravan over most of the mountain passes in Europe and visited many countries and places of interest with his family.
Then in 1962 came a bombshell which almost spelled the end for Gordon Rigg Nurseries. The quarter acre of land was rented from Bottoms Mill and when the mill owner Arthur Cockcroft died, the mill passed to his cousin Peter. The new owner had plans for expansion at the mill and he gave Gordon a notice to quit – lock, stock and barrel. Those were the words he used.
Things did not look too good, and about this time Gordon decided to branch out into the caravan hire business, which could then take over from the nurseries if he had to close down. He formed a new company – Gordon Rigg and Son (Caravans) Ltd, with his wife Jessie and son Peter as directors, which was to continue trading for some thirty years. Initially he had just touring caravans but having visited the French Riviera several times on holidays, he decided to put some static caravans on a site at Frejus in the South of France, and eventually had seventeen caravans on this site. All the caravans were towed down to France by Gordon, family and friends, sometimes calling for winter skiing holidays in the French Alps on the way. There were also caravans at Abersoch in Wales and many thousand of families have enjoyed holidays in Gordon Rigg caravans over the years. Gordon and his family would spend many holidays at the caravans in France with his speed boat, water skiing on the Med. These were working holidays as the weekends were spent cleaning the caravans and preparing them for the new occupants, but still very enjoyable.
In October when the holiday season was over they would travel to France again for another month spent painting and maintaining the caravans. This continued until 1990 when due to expansion of the Garden Centres it became impossible to spend so much time away.
However to return to the nursery and the notice to quit. To cut a long story short, with the help of an old family friend and solicitor Leonard Bird from Hull, Gordon was able to negotiate an agreement with the mill owners to give up half the land and greenhouses in exchange for an option to purchase the other half. This deal secured the future of the nurseries from 1964, and a year later he was able to purchase another five acres of adjoining land on the other side of the river. This was the site of the old canal, or ‘cut’ and had been used for years as a rubbish tip. It required extensive work to level and fill, but before long the first new greenhouse was built, a 30ft x 60ft Dutch light house in 1966. The following year he added another twice the size on a higher level.
His son Peter joined the business in 1968 working closely with Gordon to build up the centre. The first new aluminum greenhouse was built in 1972, three more in 1974 and so on right up to the present day. A new compost department was added in 1980 in order to maintain the supply for growing and potting and also to produce Gordon Riggs own brand of John Innes compost etc. for sale in the garden centre. A new warehouse was built on site in 1981 and in1984 he took over Birks Mill near to Walsden Church for extra storage space.
Gordon and Jessie could now spend more time travelling abroad whilst son Peter looked after the business. Gordon now looked further a field to places like Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia, Barbados and Madeira to name but a few. Whilst away he was always looking for products to sell at the garden centre and bought containers of basket ware in Madeira and silk flowers, Christmas decorations etc. from Hong Kong.
Just too many customers?
By 1988 there was a serious problem due to lack of parking space at weekends (too many customers) and so Gordon took over a small Garden Centre at Kingsway, Rochdale in order to divert customers away from Todmorden. This centre has also gone from strength to strength and with many extensions and alterations it is now almost as big as the Todmorden centre.
In 1989 he was able to purchase the adjacent Winterbutlee Mill and in doing so re-gained the land which he had given up to the mill some twenty five years before. In 1992 he purchased the Jubilee Mill complex at Strines Street, Walsden just across the road from the garden centre. This is now used for packaging for own brands, bird nuts, pet food, fertilizers, polythene etc. and for warehousing and storage of direct import containers and bulk products. By a strange coincidence this is the same mill where Gordon started work as a bobbin runner on leaving school some seventy years ago.
Gordon’s most recent project has been The Bottoms Mill Shop and Cafe which he purchased after The Bottoms Mill Company Ltd. moved to Brighouse. The Mill shop has been extensively re-furbished and extended and was re-opened by Gordon.
Gordon Rigg’s Garden Centre is now well known to most people in the district, indeed keen gardeners from all over the country travel to Todmorden specially to Gordon Riggs. Gordon truly became ‘A legend in his own lifetime’.
The Centres now employ over 180 staff both at Todmorden and Rochdale and are run by his son Peter and wife Pauline. Customers can be assured that nothing will change following Gordon’s death. Gordon died after a short illness aged 84 years in July of 2004 and Jessie died aged 91 in November of 2005.