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Wednesday, Oct 23, 2019

South African sisters’ quest to trace familylegacy in India takes them to Lucknow, Delhi

cities Updated: Oct 10, 2019 17:47 IST


PERCY-LANCASTERS Finding about the four generations of eminent botanists, three of whom worked in India

LUCKNOW: Two South African sisters from the family of Alick Percy-Lancaster, the last British horticulturist in India, who revived the Sunder Nursery in Delhi and landscaped Mahatma Gandhi’s Samadhi at Rajghat (Delhi), are hoping to find their ancestral roots in India where three of the four generations of their botanist family lived and flourished.

The sisters — Annabel Percy-Lancaster (49) and Elayne Percy-Lancaster (53) are now planning to head to Delhi where their grandfather Alick Percy-Lancaster spent the most productive years of his life.

The duo recently visited Botanical Garden, Lucknow that had been the workplace of their great grandfather Sydney Percy-Lancaster.

“I am sure our trip to Delhi will be fruitful. 26 Tughlaq Crescent Road, Delhi, the place where my grandfather lived would be our first destination,” said Elayne during her emotional trip to Lucknow.

The two have been studying their family’s history for almost three decades and now they hope to find links that will further help them in compilation of a book on their ‘family tree’.

Speaking to HT, Elayne said the little she knows about her grandfather Alick was that he was the last British horticulturist to be posted with Central Public Works Department, Delhi before he moved to Kolkata where he breathed his last.

“During his posting in Delhi, my grandfather, who was a passionate horticulturist, turned almost the entire national capital green by carrying out extensive plantation drives. The revival of the famous Sunder Nursery and arranging flowers and decoration during the Mahatma’s funeral procession were the most important tasks he and his team undertook,” she said.

She said she gathered some information regarding her family tree from her father Alan Percy-Lancaster, from books and by exchanging letters with various departments where her ancestors served India’s post-Independence.

Chronica Horticulturae (Volume 54, 2014), a publication of the International Society for Horticultural Science, too, has a mention of the contributions of the Lancasters under the heading —Percy-Lancasters -- the last three generations of British horticulturists; the renaissance of India’s horticulture.

According to the publication, Alick Percy-Lancaster, son of Sydney (third generation), was another great horticulturist and maintained the family’s tradition by serving India in different capacities.

Sydney joined the historical Royal Garden of Nawabs, the ‘Sikander Bagh’ in Lucknow that was later named National Botanical Gardens and then to National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI) in 1953.

Sydney worked as senior technical assistant until January 1959. But owing to constant pressure from his son (Alick), Sydney moved back to Salisbury (England) to join his wife and other family members. But following the early demise of his wife in 1960, the father-son duo returned to India in 1961 to spend the rest of their life in India and served the nation throughout their life.

Alick’s contribution to the horticultural development in Delhi was unparalleled. “He laid out the Sunder Nursery in Delhi, with Humayun’s Tomb in the backdrop. Apart from seeds and saplings, the nursery delivered flowers, fresh fruits and vegetables on order during that period. At present, this nursery is also a major source of ornamental plants for the entire city’,” the publication reads highlighting Alick’s contribution to Sunder Nursery, Delhi.

Not only this, he also contributed in adding greenery to Delhi. “After completion of the planning of New Delhi with broad roads and avenues by Lutyens and Baker, the task of avenue plantation was taken up under the guidance of Alick Percy-Lancaster. He completed huge task by selecting and planting an estimated 15,000 trees and simultaneously developing about 250 km of hedges along the roads,” the publication further reads.

He also carried extensive plantation drives in the areas like refugee colonies of Rajender Nagar, Lajpat Nagar, Patel Nagar, avenue plantation and others.

Of all the landscaping, work at Gandhi’s Samadhi at Rajghat, New Delhi topped the list of achievements, says the publication.

The publication also has a letter from the first prime minister of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru, appreciating Alick Percy-Lancaster and his team for making floral arrangements during Gandhi’s funeral procession.

Annabel and Elayne said they would visit Sunder Nursery and Gandhi Samadhi to see the work of their grandfather. They will also visit to CPWD office, Delhi (where he was posted) and Kolkata to collect more information about their grandfather.

“I am eager to visit all the places connected to our grandfather in order to connect the dots and co-relate the pictures and places which he mentioned in his letters to the family. I am sure we will get all the answers to the questions that were so far a mystery for the entire Lancaster family,” said Annabel.


Prior to leaving for Delhi and Kolkata, the duo visited National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI) that has been a workplace of their great grandfather Sydney Percy-Lancaster, another renowned horticulturist credited for evolving several species of plants through hybridization namely Bougainvillea Mary Palmer, Acalypha Lancasteri, Antignon Lancasteri, Bougainvillea ‘Alick Lancaster’ and Hibiscus ‘Percy-Lancaster’ etc. Sydney worked as senior technical assistant at NBRI.

On their visit to NBRI, the sisters also met Dr SC Sharma, former director of NBRI, who was a student of Sydney.

“I shared a great bonding with Mr S Percy-Lancaster. I joined NBRI, which then was known as National Botanical Garden in September 1964. Then Mr Lancaster was technical adviser to the then director professor KN Kaul. He was 77 years old and I was just 27,” recollected Sharma during a brief, but emotional, meet that was organised at NBRI to give a warm welcome to great grand-daughters of the famous horticulturist.

Sharma said he still remembers the sight of Lancaster working in the garden area, with his suit and hat on. “It used to be a pleasant sight, seeing such a dedicated horticulturist. He was very passionate about collecting Sansevieria (snake plant ) varieties. He used to have a good collection that exists even today at the garden,” he said.

Highlighting Sydney’s popular finding, Bougainvillea Mary Palmer, Sharma said this flower was his greatest contribution. “It (the finding) happened when he was secretary to Agriculture Society of Kolkata that used to run on donations from garden lovers. There was a lady Mary Palmer who handed over her garden to S. Lancaster as she was going on a long vacation. In her garden was a big hedge of Bougainvillea on which another horticulturist SC Buck did drastic pruning and left it. But it was S. Lancaster who notice a shoot with a two colours -- white and maroon. He vegetated, propagated and prepared it into a full-fledged variety of a plant that is world famous today. In those times that variety of plant was a sensation,” Sharma added.

Sharma said he remembered him (Sydney) shifting to Dehradun and then he returned one day and stayed with them for 10 days. “We were together for almost three years. One fine morning I received a packet with a note that these ashes belonged to Sydney whose last wish was to scatter his ashes at the place he worked. I did the same. I haven’t seen a mentor and such a dedicated horticulturist in my life,” he further added. As a mark or respect, NBRI has built a cactus and succulent plant home at the place Sydney lived in NBRI.

The NBRI gave a special gift to the sisters. It was a portrait of their great grandfather made of Amaranthus and Celosia seeds. The portrait was made by OP Gautam, a technician at NBRI. After the warm welcome, they also planted a sapling of Scarlet Queen Bougainvillea, a flower variety developed by their great grandfather.

The sisters visit to NBRI was facilitated by Lucknow-based educationist Amrita Dass. “It has been an immense pleasure for my sister Kavita and me to play a role in Elayne and Annabel’s pilgrimage to India in their quest to discover more about their rich family legacy -- four generations of eminent botanists, three of whom worked in India,” said Dr Dass.

Dass said the genesis of this visit was an email I received from the renowned historian Dr Rosie L Jones on August 15, 2018 with the subject, An English Gardner in Lucknow. “She requested me to find out some details regarding Percy Lancaster who worked in Lucknow at the Botanical Gardens,” she said.

She said a scientist with NBRI introduced her to Dr SC Sharma. He provided many interesting insights, which so far were unknown to the world.

“Meanwhile, I found Annabel’s email on a blog and wrote to her. A series of emails followed wherein I also connected them with Rosie, Dr Sharma and others. Annabel wrote that she and her sister Elayne were planning a trip to India and that’s how they found their roots.

First Published: Oct 10, 2019 17:47 IST

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