Dobbies history

This year we mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of James Dobbie, the founder of Dobbies Garden Centres. Born in 1817, James Dobbie grew up in a time when the industrial revolution in Britain put gardening in reach of ordinary people, giving them a wonderful new hobby.

The first seed

This was the ‘hot bed’ of interest in which the young James Dobbie grew up and by the age of 23 James was exhibiting flowers in local shows, going on to win prizes at the Highland Agricultural Show ten years later.

A career move at 38 saw him become Chief Constable at Renfrew in the West of Scotland, but far from curtailing his hobby, James carried on winning prizes with his beautiful pansies, phloxes and marigolds, as well as leeks and onions.

A flourishing business

In 1865, James Dobbie packeted seeds from a leek which yielded an incredible 16oz of seeds and sold out in two days.  James resigned as Chief Constable in 1866 and devoted himself entirely to J. Dobbie ‘Choice Seeds & Flowers’ of Renfrew.  The business thrived and in 1887 James Dobbie elected to sell it on to his chief assistant of many years, William Cuthbertson, who took on a partner, Robert Fife, a well-known horticulturalist, though it continued to trade under the name of Dobbie & Co.

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In 1894, land was bought at Orpington in Kent for seed growing and the company was granted a royal warrant.

In 1900, Dobbie & Co launched their mail order catalogue, sending seeds across the country – so by 1905, when the grand old seedsman died, James Dobbie’s name was known by gardeners all across Scotland and England.

Sales from Dobbies’ impressive catalogue continued to grow and by 1910, demand for seed prompted the firm to move to much larger premises in Portobello, Edinburgh.

Recent times

The move to the 70-acre site at Melville, on the outskirts of Edinburgh happened in 1934 where the company headquarters remain to this day.

Dobbies was acquired in 1969 by Waterers – another distinguished horticultural business based in Surrey – and the amalgamation allowed business to flourish both north and south.

David Barnes, the managing director of Waterers, then acquired Dobbies in 1984 and the business continued to develop, when David Barnes’ son, James, joined the Board.

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By 1992 Dobbies was focused on expanding its garden centre operations, and with the addition of visitor attractions it quickly became known as a leisure destination for all the family. In 1994 Dobbies underwent a management buyout before allowing additional capital to be raised.

Today Dobbies is owned by Midlothian Capital Partners and Hattington Capital who have appointed Nicholas Marshall as Chief Executive. Nicholas' roots in gardening run very deep as his great, great Grandfather was William Hooker who was Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University before becoming the first director of Kew Gardens in 1841.

William Hooker's son, Joseph Hooker, who was educated at Glasgow University, took over from his father at Kew in 1865. Joseph Hooker was a close friend of Charles Darwin and he helped his friend translate his theory of the origin of species.

Nicholas has spent his entire career in horticulture and believes passionately that garden centres should be about plants sourced from the UK.