With the current lockdown, the Chelsea Flower Show has been cancelled and for the first time in its history, the event has gone virtual. There’ll be tours of gardens and demonstrations online with different themes each day from wildlife gardening to growing plants in small spaces. Katherine Potsides of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) says that their aim this year is ‘about sharing that gardening knowledge’. To find out more, click on the link: https://www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/virtual-chelsea
But when did this annual event begin? Amateur growers of flowers – or florists as they were known – have been competing against each other for years. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these competitions took place at pubs with the awards being given at dinners – or florists’ feasts – with winners receiving silverware or kitchen utensils. It was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century that the prizes became monetary.
The Horticultural Society of London was founded in 1804 and in 1831 held a series of competitions from their rooms in Regent Street. These proved so popular that the Society moved the events to Chiswick Gardens. But after ‘chaotic’ crowds and criticisms over the standard of judging and the role of tradesmen, the Society changed the venue to more fashionable premises in Kensington.
Every May, the Great Spring Show was held here but it wasn’t long before the site at Kensington was also under attack – this time by horticulturists. An article written in the The Gardener magazine of 1870 gives us an insight of how horticulturists felt they were being used – like a pet – by RHS (the Society had changed its name in 1861):
‘Horticulture at South Kensington has become fashionable – the gardens are a fashionable lounging-place, the exhibitions a means for drawing a company together, to see each other, and be seen in return…The practical horticulturist is a being regarded as capable of affording an attractive show for the fashionables to gaze at when not absorbed in the contemplation of each other; he is encouraged, and petted, and in a certain way rewarded…’
With poor design and running costs mounting, the RHS decided to move from Kensington in 1888 although they didn’t find a permanent site until 1913 – this time at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea.
The Great Spring Show took place over three days and was attended by Queen Alexandra, mother of the King George V. The event was held for the following two years but after compulsory conscription was introduced in 1916, the RHS decided to cancel the show for the duration of the World War I.
It was relaunched in 1919 but after the outbreak of World War II, the Show was again cancelled with the RHS focusing on their ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. In 1947, the RHS decided it was important for the public’s moral to reopen the doors of the Great Spring Show. Although there were few exhibitors, the Show was well attended.
Since then, the Chelsea Flower Show has continued to grow and has witnessed the rise of the celebrity garden designer. Discussions were held in the 1980s of the Spring Show moving to Battersea or Wisley but after the RHS expanded its events to other venues – like the Hampton Court Flower Show – criticism of the venue has diminished. Chelsea is here to stay.
I look forward to 2021!
All photographs are my own and are not from previous Chelsea Flower Shows