When Nan Rennie used her £80 war grant to set up a plant business she and her fiancé worked day and night to make ends meet. She even sacrificed marriage for seven long years to get the nursery on its feet.
It was undoubtedly a labour of love but the former grocery worker could never have imagined the success their hard graft would reap, culminating in worldwide acclaim as an internationally renowned rose breeder and holder of Royal Warrants from HM The Queen and the Queen Mother.
Together the couple built Cockers Roses, a company whose pedigree stretches back to 1841 and which has introduced more than 100 new varieties of rose, winning dozens of awards at home and as far away as New Zealand.
And when she was suddenly widowed she ran the business with ease, continuing to expand, gather prestigious awards and breed her own popular varieties. Glamorous and always impeccably turned out, she travelled widely and loved fast cars – still happily behind the wheel at 85 – and was working on new blooms until well into her 80s, pacing the trial field daily in search of promise from the young seedlings.
Born Anne Gowans Rennie, in a tenement in Aberdeen’s Linksfield Place, she was the second eldest of four daughters of granite mason and draughtsman John Rennie and his wife Barbara. She attended Old Aberdeen Primary and the Central School, working at George Milne’s licensed grocers in the city’s Orchard Street while still at school before taking a full-time post there when she left education.
During the Second World War she joined the Civil Defence Service, driving an Albion bus as an ambulance and was involved on the heaviest nights of bombing in Aberdeen, always telling her family she had seen things she hoped they would never see.
The service introduced her to her future husband, Alexander Morrison Cocker, known as Alec, who had joined the First Aid section. His great grandfather had founded James Cocker and Sons in 1841, shortly after a leaving his post as gardener at Castle Fraser following a disagreement with his employer who, contrary to Cocker’s beliefs, had wanted him to pick fruit on a Sunday.
The business originally provided forest trees and herbaceous plants but expanded and diversified into rose breeding in the 1890s. After the death of the founder’s grandson, trustees appointed to attend to the affairs of his children, Alexander Morrison Cocker and his sister, wound up the business in 1923.
But in 1936 young Alec revived the family trade, renting a field to grow roses, chrysanthemums and polyanthus. When he and Nan met he was growing vegetables for the war effort. He had been involved in a near-fatal motorbike accident in 1931, and his injuries left him with a limp, so he was ineligible for active service.
During the war Nan was also involved in Air Raid Precautions (ARP), during which time she took up and excelled in table tennis. She became the North of Scotland and the East of Scotland champion and she and her future husband would take younger players to tournaments all over Scotland.
Once the war was finally over, armed with her grant but no previous horticulture experience before meeting Alec, Nan was instrumental in setting up James Cocker and Sons afresh.
But the couple, by now engaged, did not marry until 1952, determined to secure the future of their business first. As it continued to grow they decided to specialise in breeding new rose varieties – a move prompted by previous generations’ success with roses and the simple fact that they loved them.
By 1959 it had outgrown its original site and the couple bought a farm, on the edge of Aberdeen, which included a dilapidated property, Whitemyres House, which they painstakingly rebuilt into their pride and joy.
The prospering business’s early successful roses included Morning Jewel, Rosy Mantle and Gay Gordons but these were eclipsed by Alec’s Red, a cherry red hybrid tea which won the Royal National Rose Society’s (RNRS) President’s International Trophy in 1970. Then in 1975 HM The Queen granted Alec a Royal Warrant for the supply of roses and two years later she gave them permission to name a creamy, peachy pink hybrid rose Silver Jubilee to commemorate her 25 years on the throne.
The bloom, probably Nan’s favourite, became the world’s best-selling rose for several years and won the RNRS president’s International Trophy but Alec did not live to see its success. He died of a heart attack that same year and his 17-year-old son, Alec Jnr, received the award on his behalf.
His widow, already an astute and capable businesswoman, continued to run the enterprise with their son, opening a garden centre in 1984.
The Royal Warrant had passed to her and she served a term as president of the Aberdeen Association of Royal Warrant Holders. Though she had learned her craft from her husband and both were world-renowned, she became an expert breeder in her own right, producing notable varieties including Gordon’s College, Remember Me and Heart of Gold.
Nan, a quiet and dignified woman who was one of the first females to be made a Burgess of the Guild of Aberdeen, in 1983, was awarded the Scottish Horticultural Medal, by the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society, for outstanding services to Scottish horticulture, in 1995. Four years later she was given the RNRS’s highest honour, the Dean Hole Medal.
She was also involved in various societies: the RNRS; the British Rose Growers Association; British Association of Rose Breeders; Zonta International; the Inner Wheel and Aberdeen Businesswomen’s Club.
In 2001 she was awarded HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’s Royal Warrant, believed to be the last one ever granted. Nan’s final award, received in 2009, was the People’s Choice Award, at the Glasgow International Rose Trials, for a vermilion hybrid tea With All My Love.
Today the enterprise she began 70 years ago continues to be run as a family business, from their base at Whitemyres, by her son Alec Jnr who survives her along with three grandchildren and two of her sisters, Pat and Bess.