Elephant at Chelsea flower show. May 1912

Chelsea Flower Show: The history of Chelsea

Rockeries, royalty and revelry: a look at the highs (and occasional lows) of the history of Chelsea Flower Show. Words Ambra Edwards

On 20 May 1913, the Royal Horticultural Society held its Great Spring Show in the grounds of Chelsea Hospital for the very first time. It was a roaring success. So many exhibitors applied to join the show that only half could be accommodated, but of the 244 who made the cut, Kelways, Blackmore & Langdon and McBeans Orchids are still exhibiting over a century later.
Close-up of flowers of Streptocarpus 'Harlequin Blue'. Chelsea Plant of the Year 2010.
© RHS

The show, pronounced the Gardeners’ Chronicle on 29 May, ‘exceeded all expectations’, ‘so large and numerous were the groups, and so magnificent the quality of the varied exhibits’. A massive single tent extended over two acres, enclosing 84 ‘large groups of flowers, plants and shrubs’ and 95 exhibition tables. Out in the open, there was a chance to indulge the huge popular appetite for rock gardening. The first Gold Medal for a garden went to J Wood of Boston Spa, with a rocky scene that might ‘easily be imagined to be a bit of the Yorkshire Fells bodily transported South’.

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The Society’s experience of shows had not always been so glorious. Its very first exhibit appears to have been a potato, proudly displayed by a Mr Minier in 1805. But there was no thought of involving the public until 1827, when the Council, desperate for cash (the Secretary having embezzled the funds and hot-footed it to France), decided to hold a fête at the Society’s garden in Chiswick. It proved such a money-spinner that it was repeated the following year, despite fears of the ‘dissipation’ such merrymaking might engender among gardeners. In 1829, however, disaster struck, in the form of torrential rain. Visitors, it was reported, stood ‘ankle deep in water oozing from the gravel; shrieks were dreadful and the loss of shoes particularly annoying.’ This experience, of course, is perfectly familiar from subsequent Chelseas, including 1971 and 1995.

King George V and Queen Mary pay a visit to the annual spring flower show at Chelsea, London, 1926-1927.
King George V and Queen Mary pay a visit to the annual spring flower show at Chelsea, London, 1926-1927.
© Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

More sober shows continued to be held at Chiswick over the next two decades, but petered out in 1857, as the Society ran out of money. But it was during this time that a non-competitive system of medals was introduced very similar to that employed today. A great new garden at Kensington, backed by Prince Albert, and intended as a more accessible show venue, hosted the first Great Spring Show in 1862, but proved a  financial disaster. In 1888, Kensington was abandoned, and the Show moved to Inner Temple. The Benchers, however, became increasingly disenchanted with the noisy and malodorous proceedings, and by 1911, the RHS was looking round for another site.

A colourful print showing part of the rockery in the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society at Chiswick. Dated 19th century.
A colourful print showing part of the rockery in the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society at Chiswick. Dated 19th century.
© Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Tea in a tent

In 1912 there was no show at all, as the RHS lent its support to an international horticultural extravaganza staged in the grounds of Chelsea Hospital. This, however, served to demonstrate the suitability of the site on the Chelsea Embankment, with its easy access and commodious lawns. Though the RHS leased only ten acres (the 1912 exhibition took 28), there was still room for 17 outdoor show gardens. The Royal Artillery Band provided music. Tea could be taken in the tent for 1 shilling or on the lawn for 1/3d. There was also an area presciently labelled ‘Second Class Refreshments.’ There was royalty in the shape of Princess Alexandra and horticultural royalty in Waterers of Bagshot, tree supremo RC Notcutt and Allwood Carnations. All the key Chelsea ingredients were in place.

A second successful show was staged the following May, but in August, war was declared. 1915 and 1916 saw low-key shows, but no more followed for the remainder of the war. When Chelsea resumed in May 1919, the gardening landscape had changed beyond all recognition. Yet the aristos still turned up on the first day to tour the show with their head gardeners. The Hon Vicary Gibbs, or rather his gardener Edwin Beckett, continued to sweep the board with his mammoth vegetables right up until 1930.

Garden theatre

In 1929 came the first hint of how Chelsea would develop, with a dazzlingly theatrical triptych of gardens from California, representing a redwood grove, Death Valley and the Mojave Desert. In fact, many aspects of present-day Chelsea were already familiar in the 1930s. Judges deliberated and royalty admired before the show opened to the public. Overcrowding was already a problem, leading to timed tickets and reduced-price evening admission. Even the moans were similar – in 1931 the Daily Express was already calling for Chelsea gardens to be more down-to-earth.

May 1950: Crowds looking at the rock gardens during a private view at the Chelsea Flower Show in London.
May 1950: Crowds looking at the rock gardens during a private view at the Chelsea Flower Show in London.
© Photo by Monty Meth/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

When war broke out, the Flower Show was cancelled for the duration, but an austerity Chelsea was staged, with tremendous effort, in 1947. The Coronation in 1951 was celebrated, as in 1937, with a great extravanganza of plants from around the Commonwealth. By the 1960s, the great rock gardens had fallen from fashion, and the nurserymen who had dominated the show were about to give way to a new elite, the garden designers.

Two women wearing large, floppy brimmed, straw hats have a chat during a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show in 1963.
Two women wearing large, floppy brimmed, straw hats have a chat during a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show in 1963.
© Photo by Cleland Rimmer/Getty Images

In the years that have followed, Chelsea has continued to hold a mirror up to our gardening preoccupations. The 1960s espoused gardening for the masses. The first garden for the disabled appeared in 1967; wildlife gardens became increasingly popular from the late 1980s; the 90s were all about lifestyle and design.

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Chelsea has always been strong on nostalgia. But every few years comes a garden that breaks the mould – Christopher Bradley-Hole’s minimalist Latin Garden in 1997, or the haunting DMZ Forbidden Garden in 2012, that proved that even show gardens can have seriousness and meaning. Always belatedly, Chelsea has taken up ecological and social concerns – banning limestone, peat and rainforest timber, and encouraging children, prisoners and community gardeners to show their skills.

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