A re-remembrance of Margaret Riley
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

July 29, 2018


Margaret Riley along with another old friend, Louise Hawkins, on their way into the horticultural greenhouses operated by the Belgian government at Meise, Belgium in 1982. Author photo.





She was truly an amazing person, and while she and I had spent considerable time talking about her life over the 30 years that I knew her, the special tribute from her son John given at her Thornhill United Church on Friday, July 16 proved even more fascinating to me. I will quote generously from that tribute here.

Margaret Riley was the wife of Leonard Riley who was a graduate of one of the first two classes (1940) of The Niagara Parks Commission, School of Horticulture. Very unfortunately he passed away early in life in 1956, but I’ll make further mention of that later.

* * *

I was reminded of Margaret on July 23rd when I had an email from Mr. John P.M. Court at the University of Toronto. John wanted to know if I had any idea of how he could get in touch with Margaret’s son John. Unfortunately I did and do not and I wrote and advised him that perhaps he might check with the United Church in Thornhill as the family were closely involved there. Since that response of mine I again heard from Mr. Court inquiring as to whether Mr. Howard Grubb and I had ever discussed the landscaping plans for the U of T’s Glendon Hall campus.

Again unfortunately (for Mr. Court) the answer to that question too was negative. However, I was able to tell him that relatively recently, (in 2007 I believe) I spent a couple of half days at Glendon discussing a possible grant to the campus from the Dunington Grubb Foundation for a specific project. My discussions were with Marie-Thérese Chaput. Unfortunately Glendon had already named their rose garden after Bruce Bryden, a member of Glendon’s inaugural class of students in 1960 and the school’s board chairman for ten years until his death in 1992.

* * *

“She was born Margaret Reed, one of the Reedsmen of the ancient English fen district. On her father’s side of the family, as far back as records extend, to the 1770s, were five generations of professional estate gardeners, grounds-keepers, gardeners and independent seamstresses and shoemakers. As a child, her grandfather Ingry took her around his garden, distinguishing the weeds for her with his cane, ‘Now pull that one out, Margaret.’ She was born and raised in London. When she was not walking by 18 months, the Sick Children’s Hospital diagnosed her with congenital hip dislocations, and she spent the next 12 months in body casts, and her first 16 years under hospital supervision. Her periodic x-rays were used by her doctor in his teaching. She recovered full mobility and health, and loved her young adult hiking and bicycling far and wide, visiting Cornwall and Wales, and climbing Mount Snowden on an Easter Sunday. The 1930s were difficult depression years in England, starting with the great General Strike of 1926. They were a time of lost empire and class struggle, of much expanded education and opportunity for youth, and of great change and excitement.

“At age sixteen, she wrote the Civil Service Exams, and took a clerical position in the tax department in Soho, for 28 shillings a week. Of this, she gave 20 shillings to her mother, and saved one shilling a week. Not enamoured with collecting taxes, she wrote a further exam, for which she always recalled her cramming for French, which let her join the Ministry of Works just off Whitehall, as a contracting clerk setting up ordnance factories in preparation for the war. When World War II began, she was issued her gas mask and, like her Royal Family, stayed in London through-out the war, working on contracts during the day and, at night, serving rations as a Ranger and doing night-sky Air Raid Patrol during and after the blitz. She also managed to fit in night classes at the London School of Economic Science. During the blitz, twenty-two thousand Londoners were killed in 76 consecutive nights of bombing. Her office was bombed, and the roof of her family home was blown off. The world was a very different place for 20-year olds in those days.

“During the war she renewed her acquaintance with a childhood friend Len Riley, who had settled in Niagara Falls Ontario. He taught and worked at The Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture, and enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941. There ensued a remarkable daily airmail correspondence between them, which culminated in a long distance proposal and an air flight across the Atlantic in 1946. The next spring they bought an acre of land under the Veteran’s Land Act, on Elgin Street in the little village of Thornhill, now just north of Toronto. They drilled a well, built their home, and set their extraordinary gardens. She liked to say that was her $600 of savings from her London war years that they used for that acre. The story in our family is that my father planted a thousand trees on that acre, and a dog and three children soon followed. Thornhill was a police village of about 500, and Elgin Street was on the outskirts of the old village. It was little more than a dead-end trail and when she went into labour in April 1950, it was impassable, so she walked out to Yonge Street and was driven to Women’s College Hospital in downtown Toronto.

“In 1950 they joined the United Church, at the old Church on Centre Street, where they both served as Sunday School teachers, and later took charge of the flowers. The same year they joined the Horticultural Society, of which my mother was soon Secretary (and later President). She also helped edit the newsletter of the Men of the Trees Society, which took us all to tree plantings across the region.

“My mother’s Peace was again broken by the death of her Len on Christmas Day 1956, when she was 36. Neighbours and friends helped her tremendously through the difficult times as she struggled as a single-mom in an era when it was not socially acceptable to be a single mom. Her children became her gardeners, and she took in boarders to make ends meet--school teachers, mining engineers, an aspiring Québecois pancake chef, and one inveterate drunk, come to mind! Also, some of the construction workers at the new High School next door here stayed with us and, like us kids, could hop the fence right into her back yard. When daughter Mari was old enough for school, Margaret started her 26-year career with the University of Toronto, Forest and Botany Departments, at the Glendon Hall Campus in central Toronto. There she made her mark supporting professors and student researchers from far and wide, running an international seed exchange through which she met colleagues around the world, and helping edit a Canadian research journal, to which she brought her critical high standards. She retired to her home and gardens at the age of 65, having raised three children through the tumultuous 1960s and 70s, with none of them being incarcerated in the process, a distinct mark of honour.

“She made her own family. With no family this side of the Atlantic, she was the one who maintained the English family connections, on both sides of the family, flying there many, many times, and taking responsibility for her mother there in her final years. ‘Making her own family’ included putting an ad in the paper to set up a local War Bride group, and being an active member of the Society for the Preservation of Historic Thornhill, the Richmond Hill Naturalists, the Royal Canadian Institute, and the Women’s Institute. In her home is a wall of tributes from her community and from many organizations, for her long service. Very special to her was her honorary membership in the Alumni Association of The Niagara Parks School of Horticulture, and getting a therapeutic pool built in her neighbourhood after a decade of hard lobbying.

“Her politics were the politics of the working man, and the underdog, and she believed in the commonwealth of man--and the British Commonwealth in particular. Even when she had very little, she always saved into a travel fund, which took her back to England, and to the Caribbean, the Holy Land, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the former Rhodesia, Europe, and all the Canadian provinces and territories.”

One of her trips to Europe was in 1982 when she joined a group of mine that toured Holland and Belgium from a horticultural and history point-of-view. The first photo that accompanies this item was taken as she was entering (she is on the right with another old friend of mine, Louise Hawkins) the Royal Greenhouses in Meise, Belgium. The smile was permanently on her face! She also travelled with me in 1977 to South Africa as part of an international group of parks-orientated people attending the World Parks and Recreation Congress in Durban. It was on that trip that we also visited Rhodesia just before it became Zimbabwe.

“The world was her school, and she never stopped asking and never stopped learning. Margaret had the finest mind of anyone I have ever known, for clarity of recall, people, places, dates and relationships, and she saw the positive side of the most grievous of circumstance.

“She was tough. She was a single mother who made her way in a man’s world. Still I remember only a few rare occasions when she broke into tears and complained of her fate. I only recall one instance of her driving us by the Loyal True Blue and Orange orphanage in Richmond Hill, and threatening to drop us off. I only recall one occasion when she uttered a profanity, once when we couldn’t get the garden rototiller to start. She cursed, and it started. Spontaneously. We were impressed.

“Margaret was an independent woman hard at work by the time she was a teenager, and she never gave up her independence. She stood proud for as long as her legs allowed, and she played the William Tell Overture on her piano at birthday parties just to show she could do it. She was a medical miracle from her earliest days and, from the waist down, was largely prosthetic. Her ashes will be interred in the cemetery, to which her spirit has already sped, just across the field from her home, to the plot just opposite Paul Street, beside the grey granite tree trunk she designed and built there, on which her name and that of her husband Len are already engraved.

“Our mother had her 90th birthday a week or so ago, in her garden, with family and friends. It was a beautiful and moving occasion, clear to all that it was her last. She requested a final, formal wheelchair circumambulation of her horticultural estate, all the way down to the stream and back, and was toasted, and fêted with a birthday cake, and photographed bright and smiling. Six days later, she passed, in her own home, in her New Jerusalem, as was her wish.”

Farewell gallant spirit, Margaret!


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