Century spent in growth

Founding fathers of the north of England Horticultural Society paved the way for it 100 years ago this week. It has come a long way since then, as Olwen Dudgeon reports

Suffragettes were on the march for the vote and the First World War was a horror still in the future when a group of interested growers got together 100 years ago this week to found the North of England Horticultural Society.

That centenary will be celebrated throughout 2011, including special events at the Society's popular Harrogate Spring and Autumn Flower Shows, but one wonders what those early pioneers would make of today's gardeners – giant onions and all.

But to begin at the beginning.

After months of discussion in the letter pages of the Yorkshire Post during 1910 about the need for a northern based horticultural society because of difficulties exhibiting and attending meetings at the Royal Horticultural Society in London a provisional committee was set up.

A story then appeared in the paper's December 30 edition inviting those interested to a public meeting on January 6 at Leeds Town Hall to form a society "to promote and encourage every branch of horticulture in the North of England."

"It is hoped that the interest of all concerned in horticulture, including nurserymen, professional gardeners and amateurs will be enlisted" ran the article.

The meeting was duly held, presided over by Mr J. Hastings Duncan MP, and reported in the following day's newspaper, complete with quaint asides marking applause or shouts of "hear, hear."

The Society was officially formed with an area of influence "from the Trent to the Tweed" and based on the rules of the RHS.

The original plan to form only a Yorkshire Horticulture Society had been abandoned following requests from the National Provincial Rose Growers ' Association, the Northern Coun ties Fruit Growers' Association, the Newcastle Chrysanthemum Society and others for the Society to have a wider base.

The Rev. J. Bernard Hall of Dalston, Cumberland, was appointed the first secretary and 10 "gentlemen" were elected to the Council. Oh how those suffragettes must have felt, no ladies even being considered.

In its early days the society held monthly meetings with a lecture and show, the first staged that March, varying in location from Newcastle to Manchester, Bradford, Leeds and Harrogate.

When in Leeds Town Hall, an organ recital was included in the price of admission, which was one shilling, reduced after 5pm to sixpence.

The Society flourished in the pre-war years before 1914 but with the onset of the First World War its activities were suspended and it was not until 1921 that events were revived. Then, with the backing of Harrogate Chamber of Trade, a successful show was held in the Old Winter Gardens, later the site of the Lounge Hall and from that time all meetings and shows were held only in Harrogate.

From 1927 the Society concentrated its efforts on staging one major show each year which were frequently visited by Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, a keen supporter who became the Society's Patron in 1950.

The Society currently has another Royal link with keen gardener, Prince Charles being the present Patron.

The first time the Society staged a show in the Valley Gardens, Harrogate, was in 1934 when, in collaboration with Harrogate Corporation, a larger-than-usual show was staged for the Jubilee of the Incorporation of the Borough, beginning a long term close association with the local council.

But once again during the Second World War the Society's activities were virtually suspended although it did compile and publish a "Dig for Victory" pamphlet with thousands of copies being distributed.

The early post war years were a time of austerity and restrictions so it was not until April 1947 that the Society staged its first post-war Spring Flower show in the Sun Pavilion in the Valley Gardens where some of the firms exhibiting included nurseries still seen at current shows generations down the line.

Until the 1950s the shows staged were still comparatively small in scale but from then on it was decided to expand.

A Flower Academy was introduced in 1953 – the forerunner of the magnificent floral art and floristry section of the present shows, among the largest staged anywhere in the country.

Gradually the Spring Flower Show, as it became known, increased in size using more and more of the Valley Gardens including the Sun Pavilion and Colonnades.

As its reputation spread exhibitors and visitors began travelling from further afield and the Alpine Garden Society's Northern branch show was incorporated together with a daffodil and tulip show.

Local authorities and stately homes also began to stage displays highlighting their own attractions. Many of the counties families enjoying a link over the years to the Society with past presidents including Sir William Ingilby from 1948 to 1953, the Earl of Halifax in 1968, Lady Worsley from 1992 to 1995.

In 1976 the society organised a new show which brought together more than 13 societies including the National Dahlia Society and the National Chrysanthemum Society holding their own shows under the title of the Great Autumn Flower Show.

Ten years later Robin Herbert was the first RHS president to venture north to the Harrogate show which he described as "marvellous."

Increasingly spectacular exhibits drew more and more visitors but that brought its own difficulties as the autumn show spread filling all the exhibition halls in Harrogate forcing a need to look for more space.

There was some controversy over the Society's decision to move the Autumn Show to the Great Yorkshire Showground in 1995 followed by the Spring Show leaving the Valley Gardens in 1997 but it has given both room for expansion.

Attendance at the four day Spring Show is regularly now around 58,000 with the record standing at 61,000 while over 35,000 visit the three day autumn show, reflecting the country's passion for gardening..

But there have been times when it was not plain sailing for the organisers thanks to the vagaries of the British weather at show time.

In 1980 gales caused havoc at the Great Autumn Flower show damaging marquees and forcing them to take down one tent, while snow caused major disruption to the following Spring show.

In 1992 flooding at the old show site caused floorboards to float, while even at the Great Yorkshire showground, where most of the show is under cover, there have been occasions when portable heaters are needed to prevent overnight frost damage and a sudden downpour has had people reaching for the mops.

Most visitors are probably not aware of the dramas as they admire the colourful entries in the plant society marquee or buy from growers and suppliers.

In addition to the traditional horticultural elements at the show it has also expanded to take in Fine Country Foods and Arts and Crafts.

Each year the NEHS strives to make the show more interesting, so what has it in line for their centenary celebrations.

The show gardens previously staged inside by local colleges and designers at the early show will join together in one competition but this year outside, so keep your fingers crossed for some fine spring weather between 14-17 April.

A new area Working with Nature will also be unveiled at the same show which will celebrate life on earth, wildlife gardening and have a children's discovery zone.

"We want to do more on the educational side with children," said show director Martin Fish. "After all they are the next generation of gardeners."

At the Autumn show it hopes to have fruit and vegetable displays from some of Yorkshire's biggest stately homes as well as expanding the Heaviest Onion Competition to other giant vegetables.

It is one of the most popular moments as the tension builds with everyone watching the scales to see if any exhibitor has beaten the late John Sifford's 16lbs 8.37oz record set in 2005. Perhaps the centenary year will finally see that new world record.

Fashions may have changed but judging by the enthusiasm of exhibitors and visitors, the interest in old varieties and tasty home grown food, the British love of gardening continues.

One thing for sure as the Society celebrates its centenary those suffragettes would be feeling proud – the current NEHS President is a woman, Marian Foster.

YP MAG 1/1/11