A founder member, former president and Fellow of the Grounds Management Association, Bob Corbin has died aged 101

The celebration of his life will take place at Taunton Deane Crematorium on Tuesday 25 October at 2pm.
Please wear something floral if possible. Donations, if desired, to ‘Perennial’ may be given at the service or sent c/o H Tredwin and Son 15 & 17 North Street Wellington TA21 8LX.

We outline his career since he began life as a garden boy living in a bothy.

Bob Corbin can look back on a lifetime of achievement in groundscare and horticulture. His accreditation as a founder member, Fellow and life member of the Grounds Management Association (GMA) and president for 10 years adds to a long list of professional accolades:

•  Associate of Honour, the Royal Horticultural Society
•  Fellow of the Institute of Horticulture, and Achievement Award 
•  Fellow of the Linnean Society
•  Associate member of the Institute of Park & Recreational Administration.

His lifetime spent as a gardener, traveller, lecturer, photographer, journalist, broadcaster, writer and show judge – including, notably, horticultural manager at the Greater London Council – included salutations as being a member of the International Federation of Parks & Recreational Administration, executive committee member of the National Dahlia Society, member of the board of governors of the Norwood Hall Institute of Horticultural & Agricultural Education, member of the Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society, committee member of the British Standards Institute (dahlias, trees and shrubs, nursery stock, chrysanthemums and ground cover land use), and committee member of the Arboricultural Association. In 1999 he was presented with the Institute of Horticulture Achievement Award and in 2004 was awarded an GMA Lifetime Achievement Award.

Not bad at all for a dyslexic and colour-blind Hampshire lad who started his working life aged 14 “at the bottom of the pile”, working as a garden boy for two elderly spinsters in Hampshire”. It was a job that set in motion a remarkable career in the world of gardening that saw him working at some of the finest country mansions in the UK and completing a studentship at the Royal Horticultural Society School, Wisley, plus more than three decades working in London starting with the ‘reshaping’ of the war-torn capital.

A year after starting work for the spinsters Bob was taken on as a garden boy at a large estate employing 16 gardeners and, after a year or so, he was invited to live in the bothy (formerly the stables) of what he described as “a splendid house” set in 86 acres in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire. The establishment also employed butlers, footmen, maids, cooks, chef and chauffeurs and he shared the bothy’s living accommodation with five others.  

“In those days,” he recalled, “it was systematic to change jobs after every second season and I soon realised that no matter how good a hands-on gardener you were, paper qualifications were needed.” That said Bob firmly believed that, despite qualifications, every successful gardener and groundsman seems to have a natural affinity, a knack, for the job. 

He set his sights on London to enable him to attend evening classes and, as a result, at the age of 25 he was invited to become a student gardener at the Wisley School of Horticulture. World War II interrupted his studies – he was away for nearly six years with the Royal Navy – and upon demob in 1946 he returned to Wisley to complete the Diploma Course and gain the Advanced Agricultural Certificate.

He moved to London as a gardener and groundsman first class, in a local parks department and, after the war, was appointed landscape assistant at London County Council, and subsequently horticultural manager for the Greater London Council, where he was embroiled in repairing bomb-damaged soft landscaping as well as the construction of new developments. With an 800-strong staff, Bob managed the landscape maintenance of 750,000 housing units covering 620 square miles.  Some of the figures he quoted from those days are mind-boggling:

• 250,000 bedding plants each season
• 1,500-acres of lawn – meadowland turf personally selected by Bob
• Rose bushes being ordered in batches of 20,000 at a time
• 50,000 bulbs each year
• 300 miles of hedges to be cut twice a year.

Among Bob’s finest achievements as horticultural manager was the landscaping of the heavily blitzed housing estates in war-torn London – he was responsible for planting two million trees throughout the capital – as well as the refurbishment of the Royal Parks including advising HM The Queen on the ceremonial lawns at Buckingham Palace.

Bob was also a keen photographer and it wouldn’t be amiss to state that he was the pioneer of the ‘how to do it’ picture storyboards of horticultural tasks, with his work being published in most of the weekly garden magazines.

He retired from the Greater London Council in 1980 aged 65 after more than 33 years’ service and he ‘retreated’ to a cottage in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, throwing himself into transforming the garden while also taking up a raft of consultancy opportunities. These saw him travel some 35,000 miles by land, sea and air to visit and advise in 21 cities in eight countries across the globe – from Australia and New Zealand to China and from Japan to Canada, North America and Africa - to speak and advise on all matters horticultural.

Bob spent his latter years in a care home in Somerset, and would often reflect that he knew life might never be a bed or roses. “But when I add up the thousands of roses and hundreds of rose beds I’ve created during my career, I suppose in one way it was,” he said. “Old gardeners never die, they simply bed down,” he added.

•  This article includes extracts courtesy Robert Corbin and Jen Green, authors of ‘Travels of a Bothy Boy’.


Bob Corbin – a personal tribute by Derek Walder

As a young groundsman in the 1970s, I joined what was then the London South West Branch of the National Association of Groundsmen (which subsequently became the GMA) whose chairman was Bob Corbin. Bob was a formidable gentleman, conducting every meeting with a rod of iron, but he was a true gentleman – he always raised his hat to the ladies – and he talked casually of having to deal on a daily basis with the Royal Parks, Buckingham Palace and the Windsor Polo Grounds.

Bob was always there to help any member who wanted to pick his brain for the wealth of horticultural knowledge he had to offer. He played a cornerstone role in formulating the educational policy in the early years of the Association, and was instrumental in the instigation of NDT courses at Norwood Hall College (Ealing) which enabled a greater number of learners to enter the industry with a recognised qualification. Indeed, this success also spurred other educational establishments to introduce NDTs.

He was a member of the National Executive Committee (now the Board of Directors) and later in his role as chairman was responsible for many major decisions that helped ‘form’ the GMA. I was fortunate to follow him into the post of chairman when he became president; filling his shoes was a daunting task but he always offered me advice when needed.

One thing really did come to mind when I heard the sad news of his demise. In the early days of the Windsor show, money was tight and during the show build-up period I, along with the late Dai Rees, would spend the nights on-site in sleeping bags in an old wooden hut. On one occasion it was very cold and raining hard, and we were both feeling very sorry for ourselves. Then, all of a sudden, the hut doors flung open and there was Bob. He told us to “pack up and stay the night at my cottage”. Malt whiskey and cheese on toast has never tasted better!

That was typical of Bob, a man who walked tall in his profession but he never forgot where he came from – a bothy.

Derek Walder is past GMA president and chairman, he was head groundsman at Wimbledon FC training centre for 30 years and has been involved in the SALTEX exhibition since 1970, his current position is operations manager.