This wasn’t a name I was familiar with until recently. Under patriarch Micheal Rochford, they became houseplant pioneers in the late 1800s and 1900s. This great article from Parks and Gardens UK explains their rise to dominate the market as nurserymen and salesmen. In the late 1870s, Michael took advantage of fashions at the time and the greater profitability of houseplants, to reduce the edible produce on his Covent Garden market stall and increase the offer of houseplants – Indian Rubber plants, Selaginella, Solanums and ferns.
It seems the business was a truly family affair. The oldest son Thomas set up on his own and continued the focus on houseplants (alongside grapes) with ferns, especially maidenhairs, and also Kentia palms that had only recently been in introduced.
Thomas had his nursery in the Lea Valley, which by the 1930s had a higher concentration of greenhouses than anywhere else in the world (I wish I could have seen that). His was one of the largest nurseries in the area and the family became world leaders in the production of houseplants.
In her fantastic book, Potted History, Catherine Horwood describes Thomas Rochford having 100 greenhouses containing palms. The family successfully navigated the tricky years around the First World War (including import restrictions and demand for fruit and vegetables) and then World War Two.
In the difficult period after WW2, and in line with changing tastes in interior decor, including a demand for more flowers, Thomas cut back his houseplant production to those he believed would be profitable. By the mid-1950s business was flourishing once again: Rochford’s were growing more than 1 million plants of 117 different varieties. Their slogan was ‘No home is complete without living plants’ accompanied by images of the hugely popular Ficus elastica decora.
By 1970, another high point for houseplants (not just in homes, but offices and public buildings too), Rochford’s were growing 400 species of foliage and flowering houseplants. However, soon after, flowering plants began to dominate, domestic businesses gave way to foreign imports and the popularity of indoor plants began to wane once more. It wasn’t long before Rochford’s closed its doors.
In the Lea Valley green houses started to be replaced with housing by the late 1960s. There is, at least, a Thomas Rochford Way to remember the family’s legacy.