Virtual Chelsea Flower Show – rare pictures of UK’s biggest garden centre

On the eve of what would have been this year’s Chelsea Flower Show – which will take place in an online format instead – these rare pictures from the archive capture the pick of more than a century of elaborate horticulture in the very heart of London.

Gardeners carry flowers into the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, in preparation for the Chelsea Flower Show, 23rd May 1955. (Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Gardeners carry flowers into the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, in preparation for the Chelsea Flower Show, 23rd May 1955. (Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

It was in 1913 that the Great Spring Show, as it was first known, made its debut, in a single tent. The King and Queen didn’t attend, but the King’s mother, Queen Alexandra, established a tradition of Royal patronage that continues today.

That first show also set the enduring pattern for award-winning gardens from Yorkshire, with a gold medal for a rock garden created by John Wood of Boston Spa, near Wetherby. It was the only such medal to be awarded that year or the next.

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It was rock gardens which became in the interwar years the show’s most popular feature, with large crowds picking their way between the plots.

Portrait of actress Britt Ekland, wearing a white mini dress and knee socks, holding a bouquet of Red Planet 'Rose of the Year', at the Chelsea Flower Show, London, May 18th 1970. (Photo by Leonard Burt/Central Press/Getty Images)

But the marquee layout that is still familiar was not established until after the Second World War, when a giant structure supported by 278 tent posts and covering nearly four acres was erected. For years it was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest tent.

The show grew exponentially from the 1950s, as rock gardens gave way first to shrubs, then bonsai trees and houseplants. The Queen made her first visit as Sovereign in 1955 and in her wake came bright lights from across the celebrity spectrum, for whom Chelsea was now part of the social season. In 1979 the show was so crowded that people had to be turned away.

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19th May 1914: Mrs Colton Jodrell and Mrs Bamsden inspect an exhibit at the Horticultural Flower Show at Chelsea, London. Phillips 7934 (Photo by Phillips/Getty Images)

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English rose grower Harry Wheatcroft (1898 - 1977) with his rose Queen Fabiola at the Chelsea Flower Show, London, 21st May 1962. (Photo by Edward Miller/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

James Mitchinson, Editor

Patricia Martina arrives with a tray of hydrangeas at the press view for the Chelsea Flower Show, London, 23rd May 1955. (Photo by Ron Case/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II viewing a rose bed, exhibited by 'Popular Gardening' magazine, during a tour of the Chelsea Flower Show, London, 22nd May 1962. (Photo by George Freston/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
16th May 1935: Schizanthus blooms at the James Carter Nurseries at Forest Hill, London, being prepared for display at the Chelsea Flower Show. (Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)