A plantsman remembered
The following tribute to the late Ken Beckett of Stanhoe was first published in the May 2018 edition of The Norfolk Natterjack, the quarterly bulletin of the Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the N&NNS.
Kenneth Albert Beckett
Ken Beckett, who died on 21st February 2018, was a knowledgeable and talented botanist. In addition, he was a well respected writer of many books on garden plants, trees and horticulture. This combination made him outstanding as a field botanist in his ability to recognise and identify the minutest weedling. If he couldn’t work it out immediately, he would grow it on until he could identify it. He and his wife Gillian, who died in late 2016, were BSBI Vice-County co-Recorders for West Norfolk, (v.c.28) for 23 years.
Ken was born in Brighton on 12th January 1929, and was an only child. From an early age he had a keen interest in natural history, and left school at 14. His first job was to barrow coal at a nursery near the South Downs, up to the greenhouses. It was hard graft but he stuck at it and was rewarded with work in the greenhouses. He also worked at Highdown Garden, Worthing. This was the start of a 75-year career, which he loved. According to his son, Keith, Ken was one of those lucky people whose work was his passion in life.
photo: Keith Beckett
He spent the first 20 years in practical horticulture gaining experience in nurseries, public parks, research institutes and botanic gardens. He moved around often as a young man and would soon leave a job if he wasn’t happy there. He obtained a diploma (1951–53) at RHS Wisley. He worked at John Innes in Bayfordbury, Herts., then in the USA at Reef Point garden, Maine, and subsequently as Curator at Missouri Botanical Gardens. Later he returned to John Innes to work on the national potato collection and around this time he began to write. In 1965 he resigned as Assistant Curator at Glasgow Botanical Gardens, to become technical editor for the Gardeners’ Chronicle.
Ken wrote numerous books, articles and monographs about plants and horticulture; as an author, co-author or an editor, he was involved in some 124 works in his lifetime. One of the earliest was the spiral-bound, initial edition of ‘Growing under Glass’, in 1960, in association with RHS. Other books were, ‘The Love of Trees’ and, with Gillian as co-author, ‘The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Indoor Plants’, and also ‘Planting Native Trees and Shrubs’. He was technical editor for the Hardy Plant Society for 14 years, and was on various RHS committees, including the RHS Joint Rock Garden and the Scientific committees. He was also a judge at the Chelsea Flower Show in the 80’s and 90’s.
He joined the BSBI in 1958 and met Gillian for the first time at a field meeting in Yugoslavia, where she was leading her first foreign field meeting in April 1973. They were married soon after and went to live in Essex for a few years, where their son Keith was born. Not long after, they returned to Norfolk to live in Bramley Cottage in Stanhoe, where Gillian had lived with her parents.
In the 80’s, work on ‘A Flora of Norfolk’ was begun, and Ken attended the meetings which Gillian organised in West Norfolk. According to a local naturalist, ‘He just hovered quietly in the background, occasionally contributing the correct name for something under discussion’. In 1987 he was awarded the prestigious Veitch Memorial Medal, an international prize issued annually by the Royal Horticultural Society, to “persons of any nationality who have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement and improvement of the science and practice of horticulture.”
He was modest about his knowledge which extended beyond vascular plants into many other aspects of general natural history, but his main interest was in plants and especially trees, and following this love he travelled widely abroad, especially in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, North and South America, Austria, Hawaii and China.
In later years his eyesight failed him and he became registered as blind. He also had severe arthritis, but remained cheerful and always interested in talking about the world of plants. Those who knew Ken were frequently amazed by the breadth of his knowledge and interest in botany and horticulture. He was extremely generous and always interested in “new” species and unusual varieties, propagating seemingly tirelessly and distributing widely. A true plantsman.
After Gillian died he moved to live in a smaller house in Docking, near his son, Keith, and had a large greenhouse erected in his garden, in order to pursue his passion. He became ill and went in to King’s Lynn hospital and whilst there he contracted pneumonia and sadly died. He leaves his son Keith and daughter-in-law Kathy, granddaughters Chelsea and Sophie and grandson Chris.
Our thanks go to Keith for his help in writing this tribute to his father Ken Beckett.