Friends and colleagues of Biddulph legend Hilda Sheldon have reflected on the legacy she will leave in the town.
The 80-year-old founder of Biddulph in Bloom died last week after more than three decades of work to put it on the map, earning “the garden town of Staffordshire” nickname.
Mrs Sheldon inspired a culture of volunteering in Biddulph as she led her team to pick up countless awards from the Royal Horticultural Society. The long-serving councillor, who encouraged similar movements in towns like Congleton and Leek, was honoured with an MBE in 2000.
On Wednesday (8th), emergency services were called to reports of a person in the water in a “critical condition” at Knypersley Reservoir. Despite the best efforts of ambulance staff, the service said that nothing more could be done to save her. Staffordshire Police said that her death was not being treated as suspicious.
The flag at the town hall was lowered as councillors and staff at Biddulph Town Council struggled to “convey the grief” that they felt at the loss. A book of condolence has been opened in the building.
Similarly, a minute’s silence was held at the start of a meeting of Staffordshire Moorlands District Council on Monday (13th), an authority on which Mrs Sheldon also served.
Her colleague Coun Tony Hall was the chair of the town council’s Civic and Services Committee in 1991, when Mrs Sheldon first presented her idea to get Biddulph blooming.
The Chronicle reported at the time that she had noticed the town centre starting to look “a bit drab and shabby” and that she wanted to do something about it. Starting off simply with some hanging baskets, there was an “incredible response” from businesses.
Remembering the inception of In Bloom at a meeting of Biddulph Town Council on Tuesday (14th), Coun Hall said: “Usually, such meetings pass by and little emerges, but this time Hilda decided to do something.
“People noticed that it made a difference, and many volunteers came to join her. The bloomers grew and grew, bringing together like-minded people from all areas and of all persuasions to improve our environment.
“Hilda was the guiding force. She led from the front, getting stuck in and dirty, no matter what time of day. When I was driving through Biddulph, sometimes at 5am, I could find her working on a flowerbed or a roundabout.”
Coun Hall added: “She was kind and caring, persuasive and persistent. She always recognised and responded generously to the help she received. Biddulph was very near and dear to Hilda’s heart. I will miss you, the council will miss you, the bloomers will miss you and the town will miss you.”
Less than 10 years after having started, Mrs Sheldon was awarded an MBE for her services to Biddulph in Bloom in the New Year’s Honours list. In a characteristically selfless quote, she said she wished it could have been “awarded to the community” as a whole.
Jean Nixon, who has been with the In Bloom team from the start, said: “I remember when we first went to the In Bloom awards, Biddulph came up on the screen and people were asking, where is Biddulph? But they soon got to know when we started to win.”
The group competed in the Heart of England region many times and was frequently successful in the large town category over the years, accumulating an impressive number of gold awards which required top marks from the judges.
Mrs Nixon, who knew Mrs Sheldon for 22 years, continued: “She put everyone else before herself and had time for anyone, no matter who they were. People are all saying the same thing: Hilda is Biddulph and Biddulph is Hilda. You can’t have one without the other.
“If I had to describe her, I’d say she was like a stick of rock because she had Biddulph written all the way through her. We shall always miss her.
“We are going to carry on with Biddulph in Bloom. We all feel that if we don’t, then all the years of hard work will have been for nothing.”
On Wednesday (8th), a meeting of the group was called off when news broke that Mrs Sheldon had died. The town hall remained open for those who the group was unable to contact, and they were able to stay for a drink and a chat.
Many people in the town knew Mrs Sheldon as the proprietor of Brammers, the shoe shop on Station Road that she had run with her husband David for more than 50 years. It is one of the oldest shops in Biddulph, having been in existence for almost a century.
Coun Wayne Rogers is a town centre trader and one of the town council’s In Bloom representatives. He said: “There are not words to say how sorry I feel.
“No matter how busy she was, she always had time for you. You could see that she was often up to her eyes in work, but she would always stop in the high street to talk.
“You couldn’t go to Biddulph and not find her at work. She even said when she went to Buckingham Palace to be awarded the MBE that she had missed a day’s weeding in the town!”
Another of her colleagues, Coun Kevin Jackson, said at Tuesday’s meeting: “Many towns including Congleton, Leek and Cheadle followed Hilda’s example with In Bloom. This is going to be one of the toughest council meetings that we will attend. I don’t think we have ever lost a councillor that has done as much for this town as Hilda.”
Others in the town knew her through projects outside of In Bloom. Jacky Nevill, the chair of both Biddulph Festival and Biddulph Twinning Association, said: “She was a truly inspirational, driven and dedicated lady at the heart of the town. Hilda was a friend to everyone; such a selfless, lovely lady who put others before herself. Her kindness showed no boundaries.”
Antony Capostagno, the manager of Biddulph Youth and Community Zone on Church Road, remembered her attitude to young people.
“She always enjoyed spending time with us, building lovely relationships with the young people through planting,” he said.
“Hilda was part of the young person’s working group and was very supportive of what was going on in the community for them. She played an active role in making sure they were heard.”