History of Thrive

The Rev'd Dr Geoffrey Udall
Thrive would not be the charity it is today without a great deal of help from the late Reverend Dr Geoffrey Udall (pictured).

Geoff, as he was known by friends, would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Monday January 16th 2017 and here we pay tribute to this kind and generous man for enabling Thrive to help thousands of people over the years by bequeathing his Trunkwell estate.

Kathryn Rossiter, Chief Executive of Thrive, said: "This generous gift put the charity on a sound, solid footing during the 1990s and enabled us to create a series of wonderful gardens in which to work and help people.

"Hundreds of client gardeners now come to Thrive, working with our horticultural therapists in order to feel better both physically and mentally.

"The estate he bequeathed is home to our head office, known as The Geoffrey Udall Centre, where therapists work alongside office staff, fundraisers and our training team. And it’s where we provide administrative support to our regional centres in Battersea Park, London and Kings Heath Park, Birmingham.

"We lead the way with our training programmes in horticultural therapy and run courses in garden design for people with disabilities."


Thrive began as the Society for Horticultural Therapy and Rural Training in Frome (HT) in 1978 and was initially set up by Chris Underhill MBE, a young agriculturist and horticulturist who was inspired after seeing the benefits brought to people who had blindness and learning disabilities by working with plants and on the land during his voluntary service in Africa.

After completing his degree in Rural Environmental Science, Chris took up a post at Bath University with Peter Thoday, a senior lecturer in Horticulture who developed a special interest in the therapeutic role of plants and horticulture and led a programme of research and published work to raise awareness and inspire professional application.

Chris wanted to set up an organisation that would use plants to help people with disabilities and Thrive, or HT as it was then known, was born. Married to Giselle and with three young children, it was his father-in-law Theo who helped Chris establish what would become Thrive by becoming a founding trustee and introducing him to his childhood friend, Geoffrey Udall.

Chris Underhill
Chris said: "I went to meet Geoff when he was working as a consultant in children’s oncology at St Barts Hospital in London.

"Everyone adored Geoff; that was clear to see. He was a warm man and an amazing doctor. He had an extraordinary ability and all the time in the world when it came to children.

"When I spoke to him about the organisation I wanted to set up, he immediately understood what we were all about. So at 28-years-old I became the founder of HT and Geoff became the founding chairman.

"He was very particular and literally taught me how to run the governance side of things. It came naturally to him, but for me, I had to learn everything. Geoff never got cross and we became great friends."

Geoff then put Chris in touch with another school friend of his and Theo’s with connections to The Rowntree Foundation. Chris wrote his first 'grant application’ and was given a donation of £69,000, which was in fact £5,000 more than he’d asked for!

So HT was established, with an office in Frome, Somerset where Chris and his family lived, a small number of staff, supportive and generous trustees and a mission to use plants and the outdoors to help people with disabilities or ill health.

Chris would travel to day centres, secure units and hospitals, often working with the occupational therapy departments, to establish a horticultural unit and introduce horticultural therapy.

"Some of these rather large mental hospitals, as they were then known, all came with lots of land that people didn’t use, or rather were unclear how to use in order to help their patients," he said.

"I wanted to introduce a new way of gardening and horticulture with a more disciplined approach and a will to do things properly – like wearing the correct clothes and shoes, using the correct tool and creating an understanding about what they grow they will harvest and then cook.

"People at day centres would show me a small patch of land and ask if they could do something – the answer was always yes and I’d help them. It was inspiring to see."

Chris left in 1985 when HT was a well-funded organisation with a modest staff and supportive trustees – this was also the year it took over the gardening service from the Disabled Living Foundation and a public garden in Battersea Park which was the first public demonstration garden in the UK created specifically for people with a disability.

Walled garden which has many different areas to work in
The Reverend Dr Geoffrey Udall believed in the charity’s work so much that in 1986 he bequeathed his family estate in Beech Hill, Berkshire to Thrive (or HT as it was known then) enabling the gardens to be restored and adapted by an army of willing volunteers so it could become a flagship garden.

Before his death in 1994 he bequeathed that many of his assets be used to form The Udall Charitable Trust and directed that HT should be the beneficiary of its support. The money enabled The Geoffrey Udall Centre to be built in his memory which is his lasting legacy.

During the 1990s the charity found itself inundated with enquiries about how gardening can help people and, as a result, launched an information and advice service and two websites, as well as continuing to physically help people and train others to do the same.

The charity re-branded as Thrive in 1998 and has worked in various locations throughout the UK. It was Geoff’s wishes that one day the The Udall Charitable Trust trustees pass over the fund to Thrive and that happened in 2003 and the Trust was closed.

Thrive allotments
In 2017 Thrive extended The Geoffrey Udall Centre bringing together all the gardeners, volunteers, therapists and staff in one modern building with a fully accessible kitchen for people in a wheelchair so they can cook the produce they have grown.

Thrive remains a national charity with gardens in London, Birmingham and Reading and leads the way in training people in Social and Therapeutic Horticulture. The charity celebrates its 40th anniversary next year.

The Udalls

Friends of Geoff and his wife Eleanore say they were a wonderful couple. Kind, caring, and committed Christians who were sadly unable to have children but were blessed with many friends and would donate time and money to all sorts of causes.

Sadly Eleanore pre-deceased Geoff and following her death (in 1982) and his subsequent retirement, he took holy orders and was ordained. Throughout his life, as well as being a Consultant Paediatrician, he served on various boards, was one of the founders of the Bart’s Children’s Hearing Clinic and took an active part in village life. He was in constant demand as a preacher, spiritual adviser, counsellor and friend to many of his colleagues and parishioners. His life really was a 'life of service’.

Trunkwell House with its large estate, had been Geoff’s family home having lived there with his parents. He bequeathed the estate to the charity in 1989 preferring to live in a cottage on the grounds.

Stained glass window in memory of Eleanore Udall
From 1990 onwards Geoff and enthusiastic volunteers worked in its walled gardens to clear them of brambles and make them both welcoming and productive. Stables were turned into classrooms, offices and a kitchen. Geoff passed away in 1994 and had made provision in his will for a new centre to be built – now home to Thrive’s head office and know as The Geoffrey Udall Centre.

Another villager, Fiona Foote, said: "My mother, the late Mrs Hilda Foa who lived at The Old Vicarage, in Beech Hill, was very involved in the start of this amazing charity, together with many other hard working people.

"There will be very few people around now who remember the couple as I do from my childhood, but I think it is marvellous to mark’s Geoff’s centenary and I believe Eleanore would have loved the idea that a sweet pea was named after her."

Gardeners from Thrive look after the Udall graves at the church showing the people who are benefitting from coming to the charity respect the person who made it all possible.

The rise of social and therapeutic horticulture

With growing pressures on the NHS budget, healthcare professionals are now taking more of an interest in the proven benefits of gardening.

Writing in the BBC Gardeners’ World magazine in January 2017, Dr Michael Dixon, a GP and Chair of the College of Medicine, said: "GPs see so many patients that don’t necessarily need pills and potions, but instead require something that gets them active, socialising, or in touch with nature. What better activity is there than gardening?"

In 2016 The King’s Fund report Gardens And Health: Implications for policy and practice, commissioned by the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), was published.

The report calls for greater recognition and integration of gardens in NHS and public health policy and makes several recommendations.

These include calling on CCGs (Clinical Commissioning Groups) to consider social prescribing of gardening as part of a range of approaches to improving health and looking to local authorities and their partners to explore innovative approaches to sustaining public gardens.

It is suggested that gardens can play a role in promoting good health and preventing ill-health, with potential long-term implications for healthcare costs. In a wide-ranging review, it shows how access to gardens has been linked to:

•    Reduced depression, loneliness, anxiety and stress
•    Benefits for various conditions including heart disease, cancer and obesity
•    Better balance which can help to prevent falls in older people (a cause of major NHS costs)
•    Alleviating symptoms of dementia
•    Improving sense of personal achievement among children

It is something that Chris Underhill, Geoff Udall and many others believed in back in 1978….