Flower And Produce... Show Business

Flower And Produce… Show Business

by Flo Whitaker

Flower and Produce Shows have a rich and fascinating history, as Flo Whitaker tells us – and there’s one happening near you!

Almost every Sussex town or village seems to have a horticultural society – an echo of its market gardening history, perhaps? Away from polluted industrial cities, Sussex was renowned for quality produce. The railway boom also benefitted market gardens and plant nurseries – their highly perishable goods could be quickly sent around the country.

The Victorian age saw the evolution of the ‘middle classes’. Leisure-style gardening was an exciting new activity. The far-reaching British Empire meant that thousands of new, rare plants found their way to the British Isles. As more plants became available, prices dropped, putting them within reach of ordinary folk. Horticultural clubs, once the exclusive domain of the wealthy, became the unlikely stage for amateur gardeners to demonstrate their skills. Seed that once sold for ‘a guinea a pinch’ could be had for sixpence and a new plant variety was just as likely to be found on a municipal allotment as it was in the gardens of a stately home. Competition at shows could be fierce, with reputations and significant prize money at stake. Imagine how it must have been for a Victorian labourer to win ten guineas or a solid silver trophy. These were potentially life-changing amounts; akin to a lottery win nowadays.

Founded in 1822, Ditchling claims the prize for being the oldest Horticultural Society in Sussex. In 1859, the Sussex Advertiser reported a “Horticultural Show and Fancy Fair” in Rodmell – the society is still going strong! The first mention of a flower show in Burgess Hill can be traced to 1874. Ten years later, the “newly-formed” Burgess Hill Horticultural Society held a show in the grounds of St John’s House. Hurstpierpoint’s Village Produce Association was noted in an early edition of Charles Clarke’s Directory, (circa 1879.). By 1886 they were holding shows in the Chinese Gardens in Western Road. In 1889, a horticultural show took place in Haywards Heath on “Mr Pannett’s Meadow”, (now Victoria Park) to great acclaim.

In 1904, the impressively-titled Crawley and District Gardeners Mutual Improvement Association was formed. The Beeding and Bramber Horticultural Society appeared in 1905; Steyning in 1928. Clubs with falling membership were, ironically, rejuvenated by the WWII Dig For Victory campaign, when the notion of ‘Grow Your Own’ became an imperative and not merely a lifestyle choice. Lindfield is a relative newcomer to our list. Formed in 1945, it remains a thriving society with approximately 350 members.

Horticultural shows can trace their origins back to medieval festivals and livestock fairs; they are part of our collective social weave. If you’ve never visited your local show before, do go along. You don’t require any gardening knowledge at all – just enjoy the sensation of being surrounded by a riot of scents, colours, and living history.