The Henry Doubleday Research Association is a UK charity that promotes organic gardening. The charity was established in 1954 by a man named Lawrence D Hills because of his fascination with one particular plant, namely Russian Comfrey (Symphytum uplandicum).
But what was so special about this plant, and why did Lawrence Hills find it so interesting, and what was the connection with Henry Doubleday? These are some of the questions that this article willl attempt to answer.
Henry Doubleday who was born in 1813, was a member of the family whose ancestors sailed with William Penn to Pennsylvania and founded Doubleday & Company Inc. Henry was a great experimenter but not much of a business man. He patented a glue that was used on the first postage stamps, and it was the possibility that comfrey might provide a gum that first drew his attention to the plant.
Henry ordered some plants from Russia and the seedlings he received were a rare cross between the common white-flowered comfrey and the Caucasian variety which has sky-blue flowers. This strain proved to be very vigorous and he achieved the then unheard of yield of 100 tons an acre. Comfrey was promoted as a forage crop and Henry spent the last thirty years of his life engaged in research on the plant that it was his dream would feed a hungry world.
After Henry’s death in 1902 his relations disposed of his belongings and all his records were destroyed. Following changes in farming practices, comfrey fell out of favour and was only grown by a few enthusiasts.
It was in the autumn of 1948 that Lawrence Hills claims to have seen his first comfrey plant. There followed a lifelong love affair with the plant and its use both for organic gardeners and as a high protein crop for feeding stock. In one of his many books on the subject he confessed “From that day to this I have never lived further away from a comfrey plant than a hundred feet and, more than any woman has, this crop has changed my life”.
At that time Lawrence was working for his uncle on an estate in Norfolk, and it was here that his first experiments with the crop were carried out. Following a breakdown in his health, he left the estate and developed his career as a freelance writer for farming and gardening magazines.
The publicity gained from his writing prompted a request from a Canadian seed company for 5000 plants which he was unable to supply as he had none. However he was able to persuade a friend to fulfill the order, and he helped with the digging and packing of the plants. The goodwill generated by this transaction provided Lawrence with sufficient funds to acquire some land to start his trials.
In December 1954 Lawrence moved to Bocking in Essex and leased three-quarters of an acre of land which was to become his first trial ground. He needed a name for the informal organisation that was growing out of the fan-mail from his book and articles on comfrey, and so the Henry Doubleday Research Association was born.