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27 September 2014

Samuel Ryder

Tag(s): People, Sport, Business
This weekend marks the 40th staging of the Ryder Cup, the biennial golf competition between Europe and the USA which has become one of the most popular of all international sports events.  Probably a number of those watching know that it was named after one Samuel Ryder but perhaps little more than that. Earlier this year the Master of my Livery Company, the Worshipful Company of Marketors, organised a visit to the historic city of St Albans where he and his wife had lived for 46 years.[i] That history includes its development as Verulamium by the Romans, the first major town on Watling Street going north from Londinium, and the beheading of St Alban, the first British Christian martyr. The first draft of Magna Carta was drawn up there and while the world will mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta next year, St Albans has already celebrated its 800th anniversary of the drafting of Magna Carta in 1213. St Albans was also the place where Samuel Ryder located his business and later took up golf.

As part of our weekend we heard a fascinating lecture on Samuel Ryder delivered in his own office, now part of a hotel. He was born in Preston, Lancashire in 1858, the fourth of eight children. His father, also called Samuel, was a gardener, his mother, Elizabeth,  a dress maker. When young Samuel was three the family moved to Sale, outside Manchester. The family were brought up as staunch Wesleyan Methodists and Sam senior was a preacher in the local chapel. Sam junior’s early memories were of giving help to the poor and at the age of 17 he became a Sunday school teacher. He enjoyed music and attended concerts by the famous Hallé Orchestra in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester[ii]. He was keen on rugby and cricket but was not blessed with good health. He joined his father in the family horticulture business. Aged 32 he married Helen, known as ‘Nellie’ in the family, and then in 1895 he left his father to set up his own business.

He travelled widely and discovered that there were only two companies which sold seeds by post but their products were expensive. Samuel Ryder invented the penny packet of seeds and decided to start his business in St Albans as it then boasted three railway stations and so was an excellent centre for distribution. He developed a seeds catalogue which he sent out widely. Orders were fulfilled initially from a shed but the business grew rapidly and he moved several times to larger premises.

Samuel also took to local politics as a member of the Liberal Party, at that time the only party of the left. He stood as a progressive candidate for the City Council on which he served from 1903 – 1916 and quickly made his mark as a gifted speaker and a decisive organiser. Unusually he was asked to be Mayor after just two years on the Council. The current Mayor, Councillor Annie Brewster, showed us his name on the mayoral chain of office.

He also served the community as a magistrate and in 1906 his wife came up before him in the dock. He fined her 10 shillings for non-payment of the poor rate. Our lecturer described this as an example of Ryder’s fair mindedness. No doubt it is but I think I would prefer it if he had stood down from that case owing to a conflict of interest.

He was regarded as an excellent employer, primarily of women. There were 20 applications for every job opening and he provided a package of welfare including sick pay which was far ahead of his time. He insisted on breaks for community singing and prayers and very much followed the Quaker tradition of firms like Barclays and Lloyds, Cadburys and Rowntree and many more businesses that were run with the idea that business and religion were not separate parts of life but fully integrated in one whole.

He was clearly a brilliant marketer. He named seeds after family members, there was the Nellie Ryder sweet pea for example, and made a considerable fortune from his businesses. The main business was called Ryder and Son but he had no son, just three daughters. He was the ‘son’ and the business was named in honour of his father. It was later sold to Cuthbert Seeds which in turn was sold to Sutton Seeds so in a sense it lives on. With his brother James he started a business called Heath and Heather which sold herbs for health. These were also sold by catalogue and with the slogan “Nothing but the Best” became the largest herbal business in Europe. It too was eventually acquired by Associated Health Foods which in turn was bought by Holland and Barrett, still the leader in that market.

Sam took up golf for fresh air and exercise and became a founding member of Verulam Golf Club, whose course was designed by James Braid, 5-time British Open Champion. Braid also designed the King’s and Queen’s courses at Gleneagles where this year’s Ryder Cup is taking place, though it is being played on a later addition, the PGA Centenary Course, formerly the Monarch’s Course.[iii] Sam became a useful player off a handicap of six and was elected captain of Verulam on three occasions. At that time the top American professionals were typically sponsored by a rich enthusiast allowing them time to play in a variety of tournaments and so dominate the game. Top British players were all club professionals as well and their clubs limited the time they could get away to compete. Travelling would be at their own expense and so few took up the challenge. Sam Ryder changed that by taking on the best British prospect, Abe Mitchell, as his personal professional for the handsome salary of £500 pa. Unfortunately Mitchell, while coming close on several occasions, never actually won the Open, but many believe he was the best never to do so. He was to become immortalised in a different way as we shall see.

Sam and James sponsored a number of golf tournaments to advertise their herbal products and Sam would follow the professional game with great interest. There had been two unofficial matches between professionals from Great Britain and the United States, the first in 1921, coincidentally at Gleneagles and then again in 1926 at Wentworth in a match badly affected by the General Strike. Sam was a spectator at the latter and thought it enthralling, particularly delighted that his man Abe Mitchell had teamed up with George Duncan to defeat the defending Open Champion Jim Barnes and the great Walter Hagen. “We must do this again”, said Ryder in the bar afterwards and The Ryder Cup was born.  Ryder donated a small but striking gold cup that today epitomises all that is good in sporting competition. It cost £250 and the small golfing figure atop the cup as requested by the donor, stands as a lasting memorial to Abe Mitchell.

The first 22 Ryder Cup matches pitched Great Britain and Ireland against the United States, with the US winning 18, GB and Ireland three and one match, the famous 1969 contest tied, when the great Jack Nicklaus sportingly conceded Tony Jacklin's putt on the 18th to tie both their game and the match as a whole. In 1979 Europe entered the fray which has evened things up. In the subsequent 16 matches Europe has won eight, the United States seven, with one match tied. [iv]

Samuel Ryder saw two of the matches, those played in Leeds in 1929 and Southport in 1933, both won by the home side. He died in January 1936 of a massive haemorrhage. His mashie was buried with him and Verulam Golf Club tends his grave.  

[i] We also live close by.
[ii] As did I growing up a few miles from Sale in Cheshire.
[iii] In 1997 I was asked to host the annual Sony European Management Conference. The requirement was for a Five Star Hotel with enough accommodation for 75 managers and their partners. There are several in London but it was felt that everyone knew London well and a more distinctive venue was sought. Only Gleneagles at that time fitted the bill. The golf was an added attraction for many, especially the Japanese.
[iv] The next Ryder Cup in 2016 will be played at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. That was the course where Tony Jacklin famously became the first British player for 84 years to win the US Open in 1970. Two years before I had my first ever golf lesson there as it was the club to which my American host family belonged. I went round the course in something like 30 more shots than Jacklin.

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