Chris was supported by, amongst others, Dr Geoffrey Udall a paediatrician. Initially the organisation concentrated on supporting the people who were setting up and running specific outdoor projects and wanted to use the concept of horticultural therapy. It aimed to be a bridge between the world of horticulture and the world of health. In the mid-1980s the organisation widened its scope by offering services to individual disabled gardeners. Before his death, the Reverend Dr Geoffrey Udall made provision for Thrive in his will and bequeathed his family’s estate and walled garden in Beech Hill, Reading, to the charity.
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. Since then we have opened regional centres in Battersea Park, London and Kings Heath Park, Birmingham.
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 so they can cook the produce they have grown.
Thanks to the Udall family bequest and the drive and ambition of Chris Underhill, Thrive continues to be instrumental in bringing the benefits of gardening to increasing numbers of people in need and remains a national charity leading the way in training people in social and therapeutic horticulture.
Thrive would not be the charity it is today without a great deal of help from the late Reverend Dr Geoffrey Udall (pictured above). Geoff, as he was known by friends, would have celebrated his 100th birthday on 16th January 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 in Beech Hill, Reading.
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."
After completing his degree in Rural Environmental Science, Chris Underhill 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 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.
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.