The Ralph Hancock Green Plaque

On Sunday 29 January 2012, in the roof gardens that were created and opened in May 1938, members of the Hancock family, the Roof Gardens Gardening Club and The Roof Gardens Head Gardener, David Lewis gathered to unveil a plaque commemorating the life and work of Clarence Henry Ralph Hancock f.r.h.s.

The Green Plaque, similar to the English Heritage Blue Plaques, is of a simple design. A dark green background with white lettering and a white border. Made of aluminium, the plaque will act as a lasting memorial and tribute to the man who not only created the Roof Gardens in Kensington. He was a multiple Gold Medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show and the designer and builder of elaborate roof gardens on the 11th floor roof of the Rockefeller Center in New York. As well as hundreds of beautiful gardens both here in the United Kingdom and in the United States of America.

Above all else, Ralph Hancock was a loving husband to Muriel. A devoted father to Bramley, Denys and Sheila and a true gardening genius who lived his tempestuous life to the full.

The Idea

When Ralph Hancock passed away in August 1950, his widow Muriel placed a small plaque in the rose garden that her late husband had designed and built at Knightsbridge Green. A small island of land donated by Tattersalls, the bloodstock company.

The wording of the plaque was simple. It stated that the garden was the last commission that Ralph had undertaken. For just a short while it was the only physical reminder of the incredible life that Ralph had lead and once it was removed Muriel felt that there was no longer a permanent mark to him or his work.

Fast forward to the summer of 2007. Brothers Andrew and Robin Hull (Andrew is married to Ralph's granddaughter Belinda) approached Sir Richard Branson, the owner of The Roof Gardens in London with a proposal. Simply, it was to seek his endorsement of their plan to lobby English Heritage to have installed, at 99 Kensington High Street one of their famous historic Blue Plaques. The response from Sir Richard was overwhelmingly positive.

The following spring (2008) saw the proposal, along with Sir Richard's supporting statement sent to the Blue Plaques Panel at English Heritage. The selection criteria has a number of caveats which must be met even before the panel consider the proposal. These include; Twenty years passing since the candidate's death; at least one building associated with the figure surviving; the building must survive in a form that the commemorated person would have recognised and the building must have no more than two plaques already.

Nominations are subject to thorough historical research and discussion, and English Heritage’s Blue Plaques Panel of experts meets three times a year to decide the shortlist.

After an agonising wait a letter from English Heritage was received by Andrew and Robin. Sadly the news which it contained was not good. It said that despite the merits of the candidate and that although he had met all of the caveats, they felt that it was not appropriate to recognise a Landscape Architect with one of their Blue Plaques. The letter went on to say that they (English Heritage) hoped to be able to recognise Lancelot 'Capability' Brown with a plaque in the near future. It took them a further three years to do so. 

The news from English Heritage did not deter either of the brothers with their endeavour. Now they turned their attention to an alternative proposal. If a Blue Plaque wasn't an option, how about a Green Plaque?

With the help of David Lewis, the Roof Gardens Head Gardener and with the continued support of Sir Richard and Virgin Limited Editions, Andrew and Robin's alternative plan was simple. To approach the Heritage and Conservation team at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's Planning Department with a design for a Green Plaque to be installed within the roof gardens. The Heritage and Conservation team are responsible for all building work associated with the Grade II* listed roof gardens.

After much negotiation and many meetings it was agreed that the plaque could be installed in the gardens that Ralph Hancock designed some 74 years earlier.


The Unveiling and Dedication 

During the dedication ceremony, which included talks from David Lewis and Hancock grandchildren, Simon Dure-Smith and Angela Buck, a message from Sir Richard Branson, in which he paid tribute to Ralph and his creation was read to those gathered: “Ralph Hancock was a true visionary. I’m sure his family will agree that he probably had no idea back in 1936 that he was about to create such an iconic garden and I’m sure if he was here today he’d be very proud to see it still standing strong and looking so beautiful.”

Simon read a few words from his mother, Sheila Dure-Smith (nee Hancock): "My husband Peter and I much appreciate this chance to be a part of the dedication of a plaque to the memory of my father Ralph Hancock, who designed and built these gardens in 1936 to '37.  We are also glad to be able to thank The Roof Gardens and Richard Branson, along with David Lewis, for offering a permanent home for the plaque.  As a byproduct of their making the gardens an established and familiar feature of Kensington, they have also created a showplace for my father's work.   
If neglected a garden quickly crumbles and dies; these gardens are lovingly and skilfully tended.

My father's vision of using his professional knowledge to put gardens on city rooftops, providing green oases which lift the spirits of city dwellers, has even more significance today with new concerns for the health of the environment. That he did so in two of the world's largest metropolises, London and New York, and met the challenges involved, is a measure of his talent and ingenuity.

I would like to say a little about my mother also. When she first met Ralph he was a dashing young artillery officer; she was strictly brought up but high-spirited, one of the first group of educated young women to be employed by the Bank of England as wartime replacements for their young clerks. She eloped with him when she was 19, and steadfastly remained at the centre not only of their eventual family of five, but constantly as the focus of his sometimes tempestuous life.  

We understand that some of my father's younger descendants will be here today to represent us all - we only hope the weather will defer to the occasion!   
The plaque, supported by Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Limited Editions and David Lewis and financially supported by Sheila and Peter Dure-Smith (Ralph's daughter and son-in-law), sits in a quiet spot in the Woodland Garden on a wall of red brick. And is just a few feet away from the plaque featuring Trevor Bowen, the man who gave inspiration for the 'Garden in the Sky'.  

The Hancock family: Ralph's grandchildren - Angela Buck (right centre); Miranda Rota (left centre) and Simon Dure-Smith (centre) and their children, Ralph's Great-grandchildren. Also in this photo are; Christine (Simon's wife) and Bob Priddle . Bob has been instrumental in raising the profile of Ralph Hancock.

David Lewis, Head Gardener, The Roof Gardens and Angela Buck, Ralph's Granddaughter and co-organiser of the unveiling of the plaque.