Samuel Ryder (1858 - 1936)
Samuel Ryder led an extraordinary life of success and engagement with his business ventures, community, family and pastimes.
He played a key role in the civic, commercial and community activities of St Albans, England, where he lived from his mid thirties.
Ultimately he is most associated with the famous sporting trophy he commissioned, however here is a snapshot of the richness of his life.
Education and the Family Business
Samuel Ryder was born on 24th March 1858 in Walton-le-Dale, a small village outside Preston in the north of England – one of eight children of Samuel (a gardener) and Elizabeth (a dressmaker). The family later moved to Sale, near Manchester, and Samuel Senior’s gardening business expanded considerably. This was, however, a period of industrial unrest and poverty. In a time well before the era of the welfare state, it seems that this, had a profound effect on his namesake son. Samuel determined that, if he were ever to employ people, they would never be penniless and hungry because they could not work through illness. Samuel’s philanthropic values, which he demonstrated throughout his life, had deep roots.
Originally intending to become a teacher, Samuel enrolled at what is now Manchester University but his constitution was not strong enough for the long periods of intensive study that this required. He took a position at a local firm of shipping agents, before joining his father’s market garden business, and his father was soon to be honoured with membership of the Royal Horticultural Society.
Seedsman and Innovator
Seed catalogue from 1931
After a few years in his father’s business, Samuel came up with a novel idea in horticulture. He noticed that the general public were being priced out of taking an interest in gardening. He thought that by selling penny packets of seed through mail order, he could make it affordable for ordinary people to take a pride in sprucing up their gardens. At the same time this could provide a profitable business for his family - how right he was! From humble beginnings he set up his company in St Albans, because of its excellent railway connection, and this city would be his adopted home for the rest of his life. Ryder and Son with its brand Ryders Seeds became a business of global proportions and, like his father before him, Samuel became a member of the Royal Horticultural Society.
It was, however, time for even further expansion and, with his brother James, he founded the new company Heath & Heather, building on James’ extensive knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs. The proud claim of the company was that it could alleviate all manner of ills – from asthma to whooping cough, and from influenza to kidney stones.
Trinity Church, St Albans
The Ryder children were brought up as Wesleyan Methodists, and this upbringing resulted in Samuel becoming a Sunday school teacher whilst still in his teenage years. Throughout his life he was a pillar of Nonconformity taking on roles as church warden, Sunday school superintendent and prime mover for a new church now known as Trinity Church, located at Beaconsfield Road in St Albans. He was also a contributor to the Salvation Army Citadel in the city centre.
Samuel was dedicated to the community of St Albans, especially assisting the less well-off. He supported city charities for the poor, the elderly and charities linked to the war effort. He was generous in staging fund-raising events at his home Marlborough House, which included garden fetes and concerts.
Town Hall St Albans
Samuel’s expertise in business and dedicated charity work did not go unnoticed. After just two years on the city council, fellow councillors selected him to be the Mayor of St Albans. Samuel accepted more out of a sense of duty to his fellow citizens than his political stance in representing the Liberal Party. His years on the council resulted in his serving a period on the magistrate’s bench and becoming an alderman of the city.
Taking up Golf
Although being interested in sport from an early age – and particularly cricket and rugby - Samuel’s health had never been good, and his spell as city mayor tired him considerably. To reinvigorate him, his church minister persuaded him to get out into the fresh air and - at the age of 49 - enjoy a round of golf. Samuel took to the game like a duck to water! So much so that he often practiced in his large garden at home and called in a local professional to give him lessons. Through his assiduous practice he rapidly improved and joined the nearby Verulam Golf Club. Within two years, he was club captain.
Heath & Heather catalogue
Samuel became well-known for his outstanding contributions to the game. Initially as a committee man and captain of the Verulam club but later as probably the most generous sponsor of British professional golf in the 1920s.
As a means of advertising their Heath & Heather business, and to support golf professionals at the same time, Samuel and his brother James staged a series of professional competitions. Their first tournament in 1923 using the title of their firm ‘Heath & Heather’ attracted the cream of British golf including six Open Champions. The pioneering feature of the event was that for the first time in golf anywhere all the players were paid their expenses for appearing. This was the start of a long and mutually advantageous relationship between Ryder brothers and the world of golf. Around this time Samuel developed a special friendship with top player Abe Mitchell and provided him with a guaranteed salary, not so much for his services as a golf coach, but in order to let Mitchell devote time to practice without financial constraints. Samuel saw Mitchell as the man to repel the American invaders who usually won the Open Championship. Unfortunately all this good intent did not result in seeing Mitchell carry off the claret jug!
Founder of the Ryder Cup
Samuel presenting the Ryder Cup in 1929
Gradually another idea was developing in this man of great vision. His eldest daughter Marjorie takes up the story in her 1979 booklet entitled ‘The Ryder Family’. She wrote that whilst Samuel was playing holiday golf at Came Down Golf Club in Dorset with club professional Ernest Whitcombe, Ernest said to Samuel, “The Americans come over here smartly dressed and backed by wealthy supporters, the Britisher has a poor chance compared to that.” The comment touched a raw nerve with Samuel. He considered that something special was required to rouse the golfing community into taking a real interest in encouraging young professionals of talent like the three Whitcombe brothers – Ernest, Charles and Reg. Additionally an article in the Herts Advertiser during June 1924 quoted Samuel Ryder as saying the firm of “Heath and Heather were contemplating challenging the Americans to a match”.
Samuel’s innovative efforts were finally rewarded when he donated a gold cup for the first official Ryder Cup match in 1927 between teams representing Great Britain and America. A sports event of world-wide significance had been launched.