Norman Bennett
Bennetts Water Gardens
Weymouth, UK

Click images to enlarge

Three years after the war years of 1914-18, Norman was born in southeast London only a few miles from the centre -- nowhere near fields, ponds and streams. Even in those days London was houses, streets and cars for 30 miles (48 kilometres) from north to south and 40 miles (80 kilometres) from east to west. His local river, the Ravensbourne, is a tributary of the Thames.

Before the First World War, Sydenham Gas Works seriously polluted the Ravensbourne, so much so that it killed all the fish in it. Many miles downstream, Deptford Power Station that provides electricity for the electric trains was put out of action. Dead fish, particularly sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) had clogged its cooling water intake.

Norman Bennett
in 1925

Continual pollution resulted in London area rivers being completely devoid of plant and animal life in the 1920s and 1930s. Norman can vouch for this. As a teenager he spent many hours in his local river with a net. All he ever found alive was one large black leech. Fortunately fish are now plentiful again in the Thames thanks to strict anti-pollution regulations. 

It was prophetic that he was christened in a robe, handmade and embroidered with waterlilies by an aunt. His mother was born in the depth of Suffolk on Lord Bristol's 4,000-acre (1,600-hectare) estate at Ickworth near Bury St. Edmunds. The family home was a gamekeeper's cottage, which was a mile from a road. It was at this cottage that Norman spent every summer vacation from an early age, which resulted in his interest being in the country, not London Town.

As a grammar school boy he won his one and only prize, "The Natural History Prize", for establishing three aquaria, each measuring two feet x one foot x one foot (61 centimetres x 30 centimetres x 30 centimetres). His best exhibit was a young six-inch (15-centimetre) pike, Esox lucius, which he caught in a pool in a dried up river, at Ringwood in Hampshire. Next to the pike was an aquarium with a healthy shoal of perhaps 20 three-inch to four-inch (eight-centimetre to ten-centimetre) minnows, Phoxinus phoxinus. They were a splendid sight with their mackerel-like markings. After a few weeks the pike was thriving and actually growing. The minnows were healthy but greatly reduced in number. Norman's classmates demonstrated how the introduction of a large minnow into the pike's tank resulted in a spectacle to remember -- a stalk, a lightning-fast grab and 20 minutes to swallow a prey half its own size.  

Norman was in both the RAF and British Army during the 1939 to 1945 war (World War II).

We now move forward 60 years.

Take eight acres (three hectares) of beautiful Dorset countryside, introduce a couple with a lifetime interest in aquatic plants, and you have the formula for a wonderful tourist attraction combined with thriving business. At Bennetts Water Gardens near Weymouth there's an added bonus of viewing a national collection waterlilies.

Moreover, of course, with shrubs, flowers, undergrowth and water everywhere, the whole place teems with wildlife. It was all started by Norman H. Bennett, born a Londoner, who taught science and gardening for 15 years at Westham Secondary Modern School in Weymouth. 

Norman in 1942 

In 1958, at the age of 37, he retired from teaching and, with his wife Pam, set up a business based on a lifelong interest in aquatic plants. They were already propagating aquatic plants and bunching pondweed for sale from their home in Coombe Avenue when they started to rent disused clay pits from Weymouth Brick & Tile Company in 1957. Norman created many of the ponds from excavations made by the brick makers, who had dug out the good clay and left the stuff they didn't want.

Their selective extraction formed the basic irregular shape of the site - hills from what they could not use and the pits, which are now ponds, where they followed the useful clay as far down as they could. The excavations measured up to 50 feet (15 metres) below the original ground level and way below the water table. The brick makers used pumps to remove the water, which must have made a hard job even more difficult. 

Norman planted expensive waterlilies in what had become by then an inaccessible wilderness. Brambles and thorn bushes overgrew the steep sides of the deeper pits while reeds and rushes occupied the shallow water areas. To get to the other side, workers had to use a boat. The whole area had to be reclaimed from nature by hand or herbicide. Norman reclaimed one totally reed-infested pond by covering it with black polythene for two years.

As Norman needed more and more room for plant-growing, he oversaw the gradual addition of about 60 more small ponds laboriously dug out by hand each winter for the next 15 years or so. Water came out of the ground and flowed from pond to pond by gravity. Water voles were a nuisance as they bored through these dams and let all the water out.  

Norman at work.
Picture taken by his father
Albert Edward Bennett
in 1969

Bennetts pioneered the marketing of polythene sheeting specifically for pond lining in Britain. They were the first to produce a catalogue with true colour pictures of waterlilies, and introduced a floating pellet fish food for domestic garden ponds. All drums of the most popular fish food, Pondpride, for the whole country were packed there for more than 20 years.

They were lucky, for in 1959 there were only 10 growers of waterlilies in England. The advent of pond making with plastic sheet or molded fiberglass led to an upward-spiraling demand for plants for these garden ponds.

Norman bought his waterlily plants directly from the Marliac nursery near Bordeaux in France, where most hardy waterlilies originated in those days. He maintained stocks of these waterlilies and the gardens enjoy the official status of a national collection.

Swans were a problem and protection was attempted by spanning the pond with miles of army surplus green-coated wire with Hessian flags tied along the spans.

Bennetts became a major supplier of waterlilies in Britain and exported thousands of them to Germany, many delivered in a Ford Escort van -- the plants were precious and the lilies inside were worth twice the cost of the van.

Bennetts Water Gardens

The Imperial Gazebo -
the wedding venue

Monet Bridge with the Imperial Gazebo in the background

Pam Bennett's favorite spot - the seat inside the gazebo dedicated to her

The couple's son, Jonathan L. Bennett, was brought up with pond plants in tins, tubs and all sorts of makeshift containers in the back garden of the family home in Weymouth. He also spent a great deal of his spare time waterweed-bunching at the kitchen sink with his mum, dad, sister, and a neighbour or two. It was hard and messy work extracting bits of plants from their muddy habitat and putting them into plastic bags carefully labeled for posting to the mail order customers. He started working full time at the waterlily farm in 1968 and took over in 1986 when his parents retired.

With an interest in landscape gardening and building, he has supervised the transformation of an aquatic nursery into a unique and beautiful water garden. A museum was created on the site from an idea, and the result of a lot of work, suggested by his wife Angela. 

James Bennett, Norman's grandson, joined the family business in 2002, bringing computer literacy and website design expertise just in time for the boom in internet trading.

Today's visitors are welcomed from around the world to enjoy a woodland walk, view the famous replica "Monet" Japanese bridge, and, of course, the waterlilies. They also enjoy exploring a tropical house, museum, family nature trail, tearooms, shop and plant centre.

In 2008, to celebrate 50 years, Bennetts Water Gardens are opening their new "Café Monet" seating 50 to complete their wedding facilities. Numerous couples asked if they could have their wedding photographs taken in the water gardens. This has resulted in obtaining a wedding license two years ago and actual weddings are now conducted in the gardens. Large gatherings require a Marquee (largest so far for 260) but smaller numbers are now held in the "Café Monet".

From a nursery mass-producing thousands of waterlilies and pond plants wholesale to a beautiful waterlily garden for tourists and weddings is a big change. Waterlilies remain the central attraction on which the whole enterprise is based.

Norman is very proud of the way his son Jonathan, daughter-in-law Angela and grandson James have developed what he started. His daughter Anne, who has lived with her family in the USA for 23 years, helped to produce this article. 

Jonathan, James and Anne
with Norman in Bennett's
Tropical House, 2007

In 1984, Norman went to the USA, met Charles Thomas, and helped him to found the International Water Lily Society. His job was to persuade his waterlily contacts in England to join. The first he asked was Bill Heritage as he was the first person to welcome him into the trade some 30 years previously. They are still friends after another 23 years as are the many others he asked and many others he did not ask in the UK, USA, and Germany.

The old WLS. (now the IWGS) was remarkably successful. All the right people got together at the right time. Many new varieties of waterlilies were produced. Public gardens in the UK were persuaded to upgrade their displays. Real friends were made and knowledge spread. Norman was proud to be associated with this success but a little disappointed the IWGS is not as active now as it was, particularly in his own country.

In 1987 he was flattered to be asked to be the first member from the UK to be President of the IWLS. He was amazed to be elected to its Hall of Fame in 1996. In his opinion he did his best job after he was elected to the Hall of Fame. He got the German Gesellschaft Wassergarten Freunde (German Society of Water Garden Friends) to hold a joint Symposium with the IWGS in Munich in 1991.

The ancestors of Charles Thomas came from Speyer in Germany circa 1730. He suggested that he would like a symposium in Germany so that, among other things, he could look up his ancestors. Both of Charles's wishes came true. The President of the German Society was Karl Wachter who spoke no English. Norman only had his very rusty German learnt at school 50 years previously. The two became very good friends but it took three years and three visits to Germany to finalize the arrangements for the Munich Symposium. After Munich the Germans started attending the USA, British and French symposia in larger numbers and organized a very successful symposium of their own in Kassel in 1999.

The saying goes, "Behind every great man is a great woman," and this is certainly true with Pam and Norman. They met while in their teens and still at school; they lived in the same road. Towards the end of World War II they moved from London to Weymouth, a unique place on the southwest coast of England. They made it their home. 

Pam and Norman's 42nd anniversary, 1985 >

Pam was very supportive when Norman left teaching and started Bennetts' Water Lily Nursery, working with him during the day but still caring for their home and children; a family dinner was always on the table (no take-outs or pizzas). During the infancy of the business Pam and Norman renovated the old farmhouse adjacent to the nursery. Rose Farm became the much-loved family home.

In 1986 it was discovered that Pam was in the early stages of Parkinson's disease; she bore her illness privately and bravely and to her many friends always remained cheerful and uncomplaining. As her illness progressed Pam was still able to run the household but more and more daily tasks around the home became Norman's job. Norman accepted his new role, sadly, but willingly and devoted himself to keeping her happy. 

In July of 2008 Norman turned 87 and has been a widower for eight years. He still enjoys his Rotary Club, having served as its president in 1980. He derives great pleasure from his waterlilies and fish. He devotes countless hours to his National Collection of Water Lilies. He lives in the family home adjoining his beloved water gardens.


Norman grows new and untested or unnamed varieties in large decorative pots by his back door so that he does not have to walk far to keep them under constant surveillance. 

His swimming pool, also by his back door, is now home to a few varieties of waterlilies including 'Pam Bennett', and is home to about 60 golden orfe (Leuciscus idus). He hopes to continue this for many more years, enriched by visits from waterlily friends from all over the world.  

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