Those of you with an interest in golf will know that the next Ryder Cup tournament will be played at the end of September, 2018, with a French golf course hosting the event for the first time. But did you know that the first, unofficial, Ryder Cup was held at St Albans’ very own Verulam Golf Club on London Road, in 1923?
The Ryder Cup is named after its original sponsor, Samuel Ryder, who lived in St Albans from 1895 until his death in 1936. Ryder was actually born near Preston in 1858, one of 8 children born to a nurseryman and seed merchant, also named Samuel, who employed his son in his expanding business. After falling out with his father, the younger Samuel moved to London to join a rival seed merchant, married Helen Barnard, and in 1895 set up home with his wife and three daughters at 5 Folly Lane, St Albans.
As a keen gardener, Ryder saw that there was business to be had in selling seeds by mail order, particularly low-cost `penny packets’ aimed at the working classes. Assisted by his wife and daughter, Ryder began selling packets of seeds from his home, keeping his stock in his garden shed. He realised that with its excellent rail connections St Albans was ideally placed to distribute his products around the country, and that by posting orders on a Friday his customers would receive their seeds in time for their Saturday afternoon half-day holiday.
Ryder’s Seeds expanded rapidly and a succession of premises around the town centre were quickly outgrown. From his home base in Folly Lane Ryder’s business occupied premises at 6 High Street and then The Old Meeting House on Lower Dagnall Street, before he acquired a building next to the White Hart Hotel on Holywell Hill, in 1903. This was rebuilt in the Arts and Crafts style in 1911 as Ryder Seeds’ Head Office, at a cost of £6000. The building exists today as a hotel belonging to the Comfort Inn chain, and still contains the mahogany staircase leading up to the office used by Samuel Ryder, as well as his monogrammed fireplace.
In 1931 Ryder used the adjoining site on the corner of Albert Street to construct an Exhibition Hall to showcase the company’s products. Built in the Art Deco style, the light and airy building is now home to the Café Rouge.
A devout nonconformist and philanthropist, Samuel Ryder was active in local Sunday Schools before involving himself in politics, becoming a Liberal Councillor from 1903 to 1916, and then being elected Mayor of St Albans in 1905.
As for the Ryder Cup connection, being prone to bouts of illness, at the age of 50 Ryder had taken up golf for its health benefits. He soon became addicted, and in 1909 joined Verulam Golf Club, becoming Club Captain two years later. in 1920 Samuel and his brother James set up a herbal remedies business named Heath and Heather, with one of their first shops located at the top of Waxhouse Gate. As a successful businessman Ryder was always on the lookout for a marketing opportunity (his company by now supplied grass seed to golf clubs in Britain and America), and so the Heath and Heather company sponsored a professionals-only tournament at Verulam Golf Club in 1923, featuring many of the country’s top players.
Although not actually named the Ryder Cup, this tournament sowed the seeds (forgive the pun) in Ryder’s mind. Informal golf matches between British and American professionals had begun in 1921, and Ryder himself had been a spectator at Wentworth for an unofficial contest in 1926. Seeing the potential for such tournaments, the following year Samuel Ryder provided £500 to cover the cost of players’ travel expenses to the USA, as well as ordering the manufacture of a winner’s trophy at a cost of a further £250, for what became the inaugural Ryder Cup tournament. The rest is history, with the biennial contest attracting the best golfers from Europe and America, attracting millions of spectators around the world, and generating huge amounts in sponsorship and TV deals.
By 1935 Ryder ‘s health had deteriorated badly, and he died from a haemorrhage on 2nd January, 1936, at the Langham Hotel in London. He was buried at Hatfield Road Cemetery in St Albans, his favourite 5 iron alongside him.
A leaflet titled the “Samuel Ryder Trail” is available from St Albans Tourist Office, suggesting a short walking route around the city centre visiting many of the buildings associated with Ryder and his businesses.
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