Owner of gardens of worldwide distinction

Sat, Jun 4, 2011, 01:00

AMBROSE CONGREVE:DESPITE HIS great age, Ambrose Congreve, who was 104 when he died, visited the Chelsea flower show every year, so it was perhaps fitting that he passed away in London with this year’s show in full swing. But for a fatal heart attack, he would have been there.

A successful businessman, he ran Humphreys Glasgow, international gasworks manufacturers and petrochemical engineers. However, his abiding passion was gardening, especially at Mount Congreve, near Kilmeaden, Co Waterford, where he planted more than 70 acres of gardens in the woodlands of the 700-acre estate.

Internationally renowned for magnificent displays of flowering woodland plants, its acid soil and mild climate produce acres of camellias, magnolias and one of the largest rhododendron collections in the world.

Inspired as a teenager by the Exbury gardens of banker Lionel de Rothschild in Hampshire, Congreve, rather than dotting individual plants here and there, planted on a large canvas in sheltered spaces within the woodland.

The result is a garden with 300 varieties of magnolias, including a broad walk lined by 200 tree magnolias, 600 varieties of camellias, about 3,000 varieties of rhododendrons, 250 types of acer, plus banks of azaleas, Japanese cherries and half a mile of hostas.

Some plants are so rare that they are targeted by thieves who sell the cuttings to unscrupulous growers. In a range of Georgian glasshouses and four acres of walled garden, grapes, peaches, nectarines, herbaceous plants and vegetables are grown.

Besides an extensive dairy farm, there is a prize-winning wholesale nursery.

Surprise views of the river Suir are afforded by 16 miles of meandering pathways in the woodland gardens which have won numerous awards, including 15 gold medals at the Chelsea flower show.

For his services to horticulture, he was appointed CBE, awarded an honorary doctorate by Trinity College Dublin, the Veitch Memorial Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society, and a gold medal (for a Great Garden of the World) by the Botanic Gardens in Boston, Massachusetts.

Though his sight had deteriorated in recent years, mentally he was as sharp as a razor to the end. Foreseeing the current economic crisis, he sold his entire holding of stocks and shares before the global collapse.

The son of Maj John Congreve and his wife Lady Helena (née Ponsonby), a daughter of the 8th Earl of Bessborough, he entertained lavishly and moved in high society. At Mount Congreve, liveried staff from Kerala in India served at his table.

He employed fine chefs de cuisine, among them Albert Roux, who later co-founded Le Gavroche restaurant in London where Congreve had a house in the courtyard of St James’s Palace, next door to Prince Charles.

His chauffeur had driven the Queen Mother. He was a friend of Winston Churchill, Aristotle Onassis and Lionel de Rothschild.

At Eton, he roomed with Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond 007 stories. Collaborating as schoolboy publishers, their journal carried Fleming’s first writings. Going on to serve as intelligence officers in the second World War, they were lifelong friends.

From Trinity College Cambridge, Congreve joined Unilever, working in England and China from 1927 to 1936.

Following his marriage in 1935 to Marjorie, Arthur Glasgow’s daughter, he joined Humphreys Glasgow which built and installed gas manufacturing plants worldwide.

Running the firm from 1939 to 1983, he expanded into offshore oil and petro-chemicals, increasing the workforce from under 100 to more than 3,000.

Having sold HG to an American group, with much of the proceeds going to charities and literary prizes, he went on to amass a personal fortune as a businessman.

At the celebration of his centenary lunch in 2007, he cited an ancient proverb: “To be happy for an hour, have a glass of wine. To be happy for a day, read a book. To be happy for a week, take a wife. To be happy forever, make a garden.”

From March to September, the gardens at Mount Congreve are open to the public, admission free. In his final legacy, the house and gardens are being given to the State.

Predeceased by his wife Marjorie, he is survived by his companion Geraldine Critchley.


Ambrose Congreve: born April 4th, 1907; died May 24th, 2011.