The life and times of Ralph Hancock, the horticultural visionary from Penarth whose designs conquered the United States and who created some of the world’s most spectacular gardens.

Garden Genius

Despite the best efforts of the teachers at Penarth County Grammar
I left school with no qualifications, so at the age of sixteen I started
on a career in horticulture maintaining gardens in and around Penarth.
At that time I could not have imagined that thirty years later, now working as a lecturer in horticulture for Neath Port Talbot College,
my work would take me back to those same streets, this time in search of Wales’ undiscovered gardening genius.

The college’s department of horticulture is based at Twyn yr Hydd House, Margam. When I first saw the gardens in 2002, I was struck by the high quality of the workmanship that was involved in their construction. While visiting a library in Bridgend I asked if they had any books about Twyn -yr Hydd House. They only had one book, which amazingly had a picture of the garden in it and identified the garden’s designer as Ralph Hancock. An initial search identified that he had also designed the roof gardens
at the Rockefeller Center in NewYork. Apart from that, there was no other information.

With the help of the Royal Horticulture Society I found an article which was published in a 1993 edition of the society’s magazine. The article identified that as well as building the gardens at the Rockefeller, Hancock had also built the roof gardens at Derry and Toms department store in Kensington, London.

How could so little be known about a man who had built such well known and charismatic gardens? A few people had tried to find out more about Hancock and had failed miserably. At this point no one had even identified his nationality. In 2006 I set the Garden History group I was teaching at Neath Port Talbot College a simple task; find out all you can about Ralph Hancock. This article is the result of their work.

Clarence Henry Ralph Hancock (Ralph) was born in Keppoch Street, Cardiff in 1893. Sadly we know very little about Ralph’s early life. In 1917 Ralph married Hilda Ellis at All Saints Church in Penarth. Hilda was from Letchworth, Hertfordshire and the exact reason why she came to Cardiff to get married is not clear. Although coming from England, Hilda’s family did have roots in Newport. Family tradition has it that her family thought that she was too young and disapproved of their relationship, so she eloped to marry Ralph. Her age on their wedding certificate is stated as older than her real age, which seems to confirm the rumour.

At the time of their wedding Ralph and Hilda are shown as living in Westbourne Road, Penarth. A year later they had moved to Augusta Road, Penarth where both of their sons, Clarence Neville Bramley (Bramley) and Denys, were born. At the time of Denys’birth, records
show Ralph’s occupation as being a Marine and General Insurance
Broker working from James Street, Cardiff.

What prompted Ralph’s change of career is unknown but in 1926 he paid his membership fees and became a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society.

The following year the family moved to Surrey. It was from here in 1927 that Ralph undertook the first of his more famous garden projects designing and constructing a rock and water garden and also an Iris garden for H. R. H Princess Victoria, (Edward the Seventh’s daughter)
at her home, in Buckinghamshire. The garden was something that Ralph was immensely proud of and one that HRH also seems to have appreciated. Hancock refers to “a little diamond and sapphire tie pin” presented to him by HRH which he describes as one of his most treasured possessions. There is also a testimonial from one of HRH’s staff who wrote to Hancock in1930 commenting that, “you will be glad to hear that the gardens you designed for Princess Victoria continue to give every satisfaction and are sources of great pleasure to Her Royal Highness.” Photographs of the garden show a naturalistic style with the use of huge rock outcrops.

This fondness for the use of rock combined with the influence of the
‘arts and crafts’movement is not surprising given the time that Hancock was constructing gardens. On 31st of May 1930 Ralph set sail for NewYork. In order to promote his work in the US, he published an illustrated booklet entitled ‘English Gardens in America’and described himself as being ‘Landscape Gardener to H. R. H, the Princess Victoria
of England’.

The gardens show some of Hancock’s trends, the use of low Cotswold stone walls combined with wrought iron used to construct the gates.
He comments that “Cotswold stone harmonises perfectly and is difficult
to beat for this purpose”.

The promotional booklet must have worked, as Hancock went on to design an exhibition garden at Erie Station in New Jersey. He also staged exhibits at the Massachusetts Horticulture Show where he won several awards including in 1933 the President’s Cup. He was one of the designers of the Lydia Duff Gray Hubbard garden in New Jersey,
which now forms part of the Garden Club of America Collection.

Between 1933 and 1935 Hancock was to embark on the construction
of one of his most ambitious projects, a series of roof gardens called the ‘Gardens of Nations’on the eleventh floor of the Rockefeller Center in NewYork. Hancock’s ‘Gardens of the Nations’ were a staggeringly ambitious project designed to reflect the cultural styles of gardens from Holland, France, Spain, Italy, Japan and England. Each of these gardens was to also have its own hostess dressed in themed costume.

The logistics in constructing this kind of garden are breathtaking. First there was the application of waterproofing material to the roof. Then there was a mile of subsurface drainage tiles to prevent water sinking into the roof space. 3, 000 tons of earth, 500 tons of brick, 100 tons of natural stone had to be hauled up via the service elevator. Some of the 2, 000 trees and shrubs were also delivered by this method. However some of the trees were over 30 foot in height and proved to be too tall
to fit in the elevator. These were hauled up the side of the building to the eleventh floor using a block and tackle. The garden also required 96, 000 gallons of water which was lifted to the highest point in the garden by
an electric pump.

The positioning of heavy features such as walls and rockeries had to be planned to coincide with the location of the roofs’supporting steelwork. Hancock was confident that what he had created would allow numerous opportunities for other similar gardens in the US. He comments that “the days of penthouse gardening are over and miles and miles of roof space in every metropolis in this country remain to be reclaimed by landscape gardening. ”Throughout the project Ralph was in regular correspondence with both John D and Nelson Rockefeller. In just nine months Ralph Hancock had created what was regarded by many in1935 as being one
of New York’s principal tourist attractions.

For more information contact
Bob Priddle
Lecturer in Horticulture
Neath Port Talbot College,
Tel 01639 648261

Ralph Hancock’s amazing story continues in the Autumn issue.

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