THE death of Arthur Robinson at the age of 91 marks the passing of a very special man who touched the hearts of all those fortunate enough to know him.
For 25 years, until his retirement in 2010, he was secretary to the Ancient Society of York Florists (ASYF) a position he cherished.
Now, the society, which was established in 1768, is recognised as the oldest extant horticultural society in the world. There is no doubt that its survival is due to his tireless endeavours.
Born in 1920, he was educated at Haughton’s School in York, founded in 1773. When war broke out in 1939, he had hopes of joining the infantry. He said: “I’ll do anything except with tanks.”
Yet, to his dismay, it was in the tank division that he ended up, serving with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment in Burma and India. As with most of his generation, he spoke little of his experiences except about the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers. After the War, he returned home to marry the love of his life, Eileen Baker, whom he had known since primary school.
Her war-time job involved riveting aeroplane wings and her husband often joked that he would not have liked like to fly in any plane that she had worked on. Their marriage was a happy one blessed with a son Philip and three grandsons. Mr Robinson’s interests, apart from gardening, were cricket and ballroom dancing with his wife.
He chose the police as a career. His beat took in the site of the famous Backhouse Nurseries at Holgate, now West Bank Park, where he would slow his pace to admire the exotic flower beds and glasshouses brimming with horticultural gems.
He already understood the craft of horticulture having helped in his father’s allotment as a child and then later creating his own delightful garden in Acomb, but it was perhaps here that his passion for exquisite flowers reasserted itself.
He became ASYF secretary in 1985 when membership had plummeted and its future looked perilously insecure. Single-handedly, he promoted the society extolling its virtues to entice new members. He reintroduced the spring show and so florist auriculas took centre stage just as they had once done in the 18th and 19th centuries.
He forged links with other societies including the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society. He had a way with exhibitors understanding their passions and idiosyncrasies.
He also had a keen interest in the society’s history which was important to York not only for its horticultural importance, but also for its social aspect. The society was formed by an elite group of city gentleman whose happiness was centred on florist flowers which they grew to perfection and for prize money. At that time there were just eight classic florist flowers, auricula, tulip and carnation being the most popular. These were shown at “florists’ feasts” which often ended in drunken brawls.
Over time, other fashionable species were introduced – such as pelargonia, dahlias and chrysanthemums.
In 2010, he unveiled a York Civic Trust plaque in Colliergate to commemorate the site where the first ASYF florists’ feast was held in 1768 and also to see the society’s archive safely deposited at the Borthwick Institute, University of York.
Arthur Robinson was a man of principles, a staunch conservative and royalist who deeply valued tradition. His services to horticulture were acknowledged a few years ago when he and Eileen were invited to tea at Buckingham Palace.