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History of the Friends

Logo GentianThe Society was established on 19 September 1962 by the Ness Gardens Management Committee (NGMC) following a visit by the then Director of the Gardens, Ken Hulme, to the Bavarian State Botanic Garden at Munich, which had a Friends organisation to support the work of the gardens.

Membership of the newly named "The Friends of Ness Gardens" would entail the following:

  • A subscription of 25/- (£1.25) a year.
  • The subscription money collected should be "devoted to the supply of features and equipment in the Gardens of direct value to the general public.
  • A newsletter issued six to eight times a year.

Friends of Ness Gardens should be invited to visit the Gardens on one or two Open Days each year as long as "arrangements for such open days in no way interfered with the free access to the Gardens by members of the public".

A letter inviting interested people to join the newly-established Society was sent out and between September 1962 and by 21 February 1963 114 'Friends' had been recruited with £175 income received; this had risen to 165 Friends and £256 of income by the meeting of 24 May 1963. The current list of Friends shows that we still have two subscriptions with a joining date of 1 January 1963 - an amazing unbroken record of continuous membership of the Society since its establishment.

For the first few years the work of the Friends was discussed as a agenda item of the NGMC with many members involved in both, including the Society's first Chairman Arthur F Behrend (until 1973) and long-standing Honorary Treasurer, Humphrey F Jackson (until 1987), with Ken Hulme assuming the role of Secretary, which he held until 1989. Ronnie V F Crooks was instrumental in drawing up the Society's first Constitution and was Chairman 1973 - 1981. The inaugural meeting of the Committee of the Friends of Ness Gardens is recorded as having taken place in the Senate House of the University of Liverpool on 23 June 1965.

The first projects

The first substantial project funded by the Friends took place in 1964-65 with the building of the main Terrace walls which was made possible with the demolition of local properties Ivy Farm and Lloyds Cottages. It is fitting in the 50th anniversary year (2012), that a  grant of £22,000 from the Friends has contributed to the redevelopment of the Terraces.

Although entry to Bulley's Gardens was initially free to the public, a parking fee of 1/- was introduced on Sunday 4 August 1963 for all cars during weekends and "particularly when an Attendant needs to be employed". At the NGMC meeting of 10 June 1964 it was agreed that Membership cards for Friends were to be produced to enable free car parking at the Gardens, which could perhaps be classed as the first 'benefit' of being a Friend of the Gardens.

The next significant development took place in 1967-68 when 'permission' was given by the University Council for the Friends to erect a Reading Room, which duly arrived in the spring of 1968. The Reading Room was used for the Open Days and to hold the newly-established lecture series; the first was in May 1972 when Mr H H Davidian from the Royal
Botanic Garden Edinburgh was invited to be our first outside speaker. The Reading Room was doubled in size in 1974, opening on 27 April with a lecture attended by 160 Friends. By 1989 the Reading Room was seldom used, it was given over to the Gardens to use as they saw fit and was finally removed in 2003.

In 1969, the Friends paid a significant sum towards the new experimental glasshouse (income from the Friends had exceeded £1,000 in February), to make available to the public two-thirds of an existing structure. A regular amount of £350 was paid over a number of years for its upkeep; Friends had been entitled to access to the glasshouses since November 1965 through approaching "the garden staff and arrange to view the plant houses.

The first lady

The Minutes of the Committee meeting on 1 March 1974 notes "It was agreed to widen the membership of the committee, especially if younger people were available. The value of Lady members of the committee was recognised". The first lady member of the Committee, Mrs J Lawrie, was recorded at the meeting of 12 March 1976!

During 1976-77, the Friends purchased the materials to set out the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Garden. Since consumed within the later development of the Visitor Centre in 2004-6, this area proved to be a popular feature and was, perhaps, the first instance of supporting a major garden feature, a practice which continues to this day. The popularity of the Gardens and the ever-growing Friends meant that visitor facilities of the Gardens needed to be developed. In October 1979 the first formal fundraising appeal was made to the Friends for donations towards an Audio Visual Centre; by December contributions totalled £14,000. This supplemented the reserve fund which the Honorary Treasurer, Humphrey Jackson, had been developing over the past two years, with a view to funding a significant building project for the Gardens.

Admission fees and a new visitor centre

A general admission charge to the Gardens was introduced from Easter 1980 (50p Adults, 30p Pensioners & Children aged 8 to16 years). The £1.25 new member subscription increased in 1979 to £2.50 with those on the original tariff requested to consider making additional donations or changing established covenants. From 1980 this rate increased for all new members to £5 per year and married couples set at £7.50. Later that year a family rate was also introduced for the first time with £1 added to the joint category.

The Visitor Centre opened on 26 May 1981 at a cost of £85,000 which was achieved through using the Friends as a vehicle to obtain additional grants. The Visitor Centre also saw the installation of The Four Seasons ceramic panel by artist Maggie Humphry which has recently been re-displayed in a purpose-built case.  Phase II of the Visitor Centre continued in 1984 with the opening of the Conservatory on 12 May and the Hulme Restaurant on 22 April 1989. The Friends contributed significantly to the costs of both these additions, helping to take the Gardens into a new era with regards to providing appropriate facilities for its visitors.

The Society's Silver Jubilee in 1987 was a milestone but the Committee faced challenges following the retirement of Humphrey Jackson in 1987 and Ken Hulme in 1989 - both long-term and influential original members who had contributed substantially to the development of the Gardens over the past 25+ years.

Support of the Gardens deepens

The financial challenges of the Gardens continued and from 1984 to 1993 the Friends gave grants to support the wages of a number of garden and administration staff. This decade also saw the Friends purchasing a wide range of equipment both to maintain the Gardens as well as to support the administration operation - especially with the purchase of the ever-necessary computer equipment. In 1993, £15,000 was given for the installation of the borehole and pipe work to the Rock Garden, part of the major Irrigation Project which helped to ensure that all areas of the Gardens could be supplied with watering points. The Society was at this time Chaired by Pat Crooks (1983 - 1993), following in the footsteps of her father and continuing many years of invaluable support by members of the family.

Prior to 1993, the AGM rather than the Committee set annual subscription rates and when the proposal to increase these failed to be supported at that year's meeting, the Gardens introduced on 1 January 1994 a separate payment for a Season Ticket. The main reason for implementing this was that the Gardens needed to be confident of its expected income rather than relying on the varying grants allocated by the Committee. With the Society's administration now to be undertaken in-house, new office space was needed and funds were provided for the refurbishment of Bulley's former garage into the Friends Office.

Alan Bromidge took over as Chairman in 1993 and oversaw what was going to be a changing, and at time challenging, time for both the Gardens (the academic and public functions having separated) and the Society. The introduction of the Season Ticket in 1994 substantially affected the membership of the Society and it was difficult to recruit new members with, technically, two subscription schemes in operation.

Closer ties with the University of Liverpool

Geoff Spillane was elected as Chairman following the 1999 AGM and during 2000 intense discussions took place between the University and the Society to consider how best to develop the role of the Friends for the support of the Gardens in a way which was mutually beneficial for both organisations. On 3 March 2001 a new Constitution was approved at a Special General Meeting resulting in the University being more closely linked in the administrative management of the Society including a number of key positions - the Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer positions - becoming their nominees. Tony Mould was appointed Chairman with the Secretary role undertaken by Ray Buss, Director of Administrative Services, who had been instrumental over the preceding months in taking forward the new
relationship discussions. The adoption of the new Constitution also saw the restoration of 'free' admission to members of the Society.

A major financial change was the automatic 80% transfer of subscription income (general support) with the remaining 20% to cover administration costs plus allowing the Committee opportunities to offer funding for a wide range of projects requested by the Management of the Gardens. In financial year 2001-02 income to the Gardens through the 80% 'general support' was £65,000; at 31 July 2012 this had substantially increased to £124,000. In addition the projects supported have ranged from garden equipment, mobility scooters, landscaping around the Visitor Centre, radio systems, picnic tables, IllumiNESS, events and education, the Pingo waterfall, student bursaries...

The list is vast, and everything supported since 1962 is available for anyone interested to view.

And where are we now?

Jon Saunders took over as Chairman in June 2011 and as the Society moved towards its 50th Anniversary funding of additional projects looked towards the future of the Friends of Ness Gardens. The support of the Gardens' new website, with a Friends-only section, is an important move towards this goal. We have also stepped out of the boundaries of the Gardens through supporting the Taste of Ness garden at the 2012 RHS Tatton Park Flower Show, winning a Silver-Gilt medal on the way as part of our Golden Anniversary celebrations.