Our History

How our story began

Hadlow College’s history can be traced back over 100 years, having been formed from a merger of the Kent Farm Institute at Sittingbourne and the Kent Horticulture Institute at Swanley. Both Institutes boasted a long and successful tradition of training outstanding practitioners in the land-based sector, with the former being an important training centre during the Second World War and the latter boasting some notable alumni - renowned landscape architects and garden designers such as Dame Sylvia Crowe, Frances Perry and Brenda Colvin. 

The Kent Farm Institute (KFI)

In 1919, a scheme of Agricultural Education for the County, which included the provision of a Farm Institute, was approved at a meeting of the Kent Education Committee. The grounds and Victorian buildings of Borden Grammar School were for sale and were earmarked as the perfect site for this new venture. However, it was a condition of the sale that the school be relocated into new buildings on an alternative site before the Farm Institute could be established. Thus, a stop-gap site was required - and the 250-acre Grove End Farm in Tunstall was purchased for this purpose in July 1919 for £14,000. The farm institute would be run from there until the new school buildings were constructed. It was not foreseen that this would take 10 years!

1929 saw the school occupied and its building adapted for Farm Institute purposes. It began providing practical instruction for a variety of agricultural workers, including farmers, bailiffs and fruit growers, under the guidance of Honorary Head, Mr. Elgar. 

The official opening, attended by some 300 guests, including civic dignitaries and Parliamentarians, took place on the 5th May, 1930.

The institute ran a scheme to retrain officers from the First World War, known as the Officers Agricultural Training Scheme and it was also an important training centre for the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War. 

In order to replace young farm workers drafted for the Second World War, the Kent Education Committee and the War Agricultural Committee drew up an agricultural course for young men and boys leaving school. This constituted eight intensive weeks on the farm learning basic farm husbandry and duties, enabling them to take the place of those drafted into the services. 

The Kent Horticultural Institute (KHI)

Early photographs record the Horticultural College as being in Hextable House, near Swanley, since 1889, but the college was always known as the Swanley Horticultural College, since Hextable was a small hamlet within Swanley Council’s boundaries. Arthur Bond, founder of The Horticultural College & Produce Company, established the college as a private venture, with thirteen male students enrolled in its first year. When Bond began to experience financial difficulties, he approached the Agricultural Department of the Privy Council and Kent County Council seeking assistance.  In 1891, the founding Company was wound up and a new Swanley Horticultural College, a non-profit making organisation, was formed and licensed by the Board of Trade. 

As two notable women, Miss Emma Cons (founder of the Old Vic theatre in London) and Miss Everest had been appointed to the Board of Governors in 1890, five women students were admitted in 1891 and, by 1898, women outnumbered the men by 35 to 20.  In 1899, when there were 85 students in residence, it was decided that the college should be exclusively for women, the first in the country. No further male students were enrolled and by 1902 the college had become ‘The Swanley Horticultural College for Women’.

From 1902 to 1944, the College continued as a horticultural training centre for women, where the aspiration was to ‘maintain beyond the seas the best traditions of English home life’. Between 1903 and 1916, 250 women were trained with this purpose in mind, with a large number trained at Swanley to work on the land during the First World War.

In 1918, the college principal was Miss Georgina Sanders, who had come from a school of landscape design in the United States. A new course in landscape gardening was introduced and taught by the landscape architect Madeline Agar, herself an ex-Swanley student. Madeline Agar is perhaps best known as the landscape designer for the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association. 

It was also in 1918 that Brenda Colvin, an influential figure in 20th century landscape design, enrolled on the new course at Swanley. She was to be the first female president of the Institute of Landscape Architects in 1951.  In 1920, Sylvia Crowe, who was the second outstanding female landscape architect of the 1900s, also began at Swanley and in 1957 she too became president of the same institute.

In July 1932, W.E. Shewell-Cooper joined the staff of the college as Horticultural Superintendent and was placed in charge of the gardens, (market garden, 10 acres) orchards (20 acres) and glasshouses, but later relinquished this work to devote himself to lecturing and literary work. He became well known in later years as a pioneer of ‘no-dig gardening’, going on to write over twenty books on horticulture and owned Arkley Manor, where he put his no-dig theories to the practical test.

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 coincided with the Golden Jubilee of the college,  but there was a short break in activities at Swanley when,  in 1940,  staff and students were transferred to the Midlands Agricultural College at Sutton Bonington. The evacuees returned in September 1942. Sadly, the site’s sizeable greenhouses proved too great a temptation for the Luftwaffe and on the night of the 1st March, 1944, four bombs fell on Hextable House, causing extensive damage and killing one student and badly injuring another. 

In 1945, the decision was taken to unite the Swanley College with the South Eastern Agricultural College at Wye and the remains of Hextable House were demolished.

After the Second World War, 60 acres in Hextable were purchased by the Kent Education Committee to form the basis of the Kent Horticultural Institute, though until 1949 it was used as a training centre for ex-service personnel under the control of the Ministry of Agriculture. The Kent Education Committee resumed control in September 1949 and the Horticultural Institute began to be developed in parallel with the Kent Farm Institute at Grove End Farm, Tunstall.

By the 1950s, the Kent Horticultural Institute boasted unrivalled facilities for the training of young people in the craft and science of horticulture.

Merging of the Two Institutes

In 1958, the two Institutes were combined and the search began for a site which was suitable to bring the two colleges under one roof. 

Prior to this amalgamation, the Minister for Agriculture, Derick Heathcoat-Amory, was asked in Parliament whether he was aware “that these two establishments have built up a reputation that goes far beyond the County of Kent, and when he is considering the decision in this matter, will he bear that fact in mind as well as cost.” Mr Heathcoat-Amory replied: “Yes, I most certainly will.   We certainly would not want to change, unless it were a change to something still better.”

In 1960, a 600-acre site was purchased from Bourne Grange Estate, Hadlow, selected for its ability to grow the diverse range of crops needed to service both the agricultural and horticultural departments. Work quickly began on developing the buildings and amalgamating the equipment, machinery, livestock and supplies from the two colleges into the new base.

Both colleges moved from Borden and Hextable in 1966 and 1967 respectively to Hadlow. The first students arrived in 1967 and the new Hadlow College of Agriculture and Horticulture was officially opened by His Royal Highness Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh on 22nd March, 1968. 

1970s to the present day

The 1970s saw Hadlow begin to make its mark as a pioneering institution, offering the country’s first Ordinary National Diploma in agriculture (OND), with this new syllabus including study tours to educate students about continental farming. The inaugural continental study tour departed from Hadlow on the 17th May 1972 with 13 students and two lecturers, Joe Lister and James Edwards. 

The tours saw groups visiting France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands to view mixed farms, dairy farms, experimental farms, livestock markets, hop farms, slaughterhouses and institutes of agricultural engineering, animal husbandry and plant breeding. Students were tasked with finding out the costs of things such as milk, animal feed and diesel compared to the UK, which was timely, since, at this point, the government was thinking about joining Europe. The tours evolved over the years to incorporate an annual trip to the Paris International Agricultural Show and encompass other areas such as vineyard tours, wine tastings and flower markets. 

Today, Hadlow prides itself on 50 years of educational excellence and was graded Ofsted Outstanding at its last inspection in 2010. An article in the Kent and Sussex Courier dated 27th July 1979, records the student population at Hadlow in the early years at around 180 students. Today, across all campuses, which now include sites at Canterbury and South East London at Mottingham and Greenwich, Hadlow has just over 1,200 full time students studying up to Level 3 (Extended Diploma) and over 600 Higher Education Students studying up to Level 6 with focused research engagement. In addition, 2000 part time students enrol every year across all campuses, on a range of part time options, from apprenticeships, to Saturday workshops. The College’s Garden Design BA and HND programmes hold ‘Society of Garden Designers Educator Status’, with the BA also carrying Landscape Institute accreditation and are internationally-recognised as the best in their field.

Hadlow continues its passion for the land-based sector and key involvement with the county’s rural community, being a major sponsor of the Kent County Show and co-partner in Produced In Kent. It continues its long tradition of training outstanding practitioners in the land-based sector, such as multi-award winning garden designers James Basson, Bethany Williams and Stuart Charles Towner, RHS Victoria Medal of Honour winner Nick Dunn and progressive farm managers such as Garth Clark, who oversaw organic conversions of both the Daylesford Estate and Yeo Valley’s Holt Farm.

Hadlow’s students have recently won major prizes in such prestigious national events as the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (awarded Floristry College of the year 2015) and Hampton Court Flower Shows, Toro Young Student Greenkeeper of the Year Awards, the Sixth Alltech-Hartpury Equine Student Conference, The Mammal Society Student Conference, the NSA’s ‘Shepherd of the Future’ competition, the British Florist Association Industry Awards - where the College was named 2016 Training Provider of the Year –  as well as regional student prizes from the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers and the South of England Agricultural Society Autumn Show. 

Members of Hadlow’s alumni have been very successful at RHS Chelsea - winning gold, silver gilt and Best Show Garden – with others being the recipients of a prestigious international award for wildlife conservation.

Vision 50 and the future

Hadlow College has travelled a memorable road since its creation in 1968, and it continues to be a forward-thinking, innovative organisation that is driving change in the rural sector. In 2018, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the College launched its Vision50 concept, to explore the technology needed within the sector – the precision agriculture of robotics, air technology and autonomous vehicles - and to examine the skills that the next generation of farmers and growers will need to work with. 

The launch of Vision 50 saw the unveiling of Hadlow’s prototype agri-rural simulation environment – a system based on computer gaming software, which will encompass real-life robotics and simulations, enabling students to work interactively and collaboratively, learning a range of techniques in a unique immersive environment for the learning of the future.



Credits: Many thanks to John Medhurst for providing the KHI history text and to Ken Turner for additional historical information.