1862 was a very eventful year in North America, with the country ravaged by the civil war. The mood in Britain, however, was considerably more peaceful – it is chiefly remembered as the year Charles Dodgson (‘Lewis Carroll’) takes Alice Liddell and her sisters on a rowing trip and first tells the story that becomes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Ironically it is also the year in which another wonderland was created – the first Royal Horticultural Society Great Spring Show was staged at the RHS garden in Kensington…and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Great Spring Show was held at Kensington for twenty-six years but in 1888 the RHS decided to move the show to the heart of London. The site chosen was the Temple Gardens, situated between the Embankment and Fleet Street, which had a recorded history dating back to 1307 and which were said to date from the time of the Knights Templar. The roses for which these Temple Gardens were famous were alluded to in Shakespeare‘s Henry VI Part 1. By 1897 five marquees were being used with many of the best known plant and seed merchants being attracted to the event.
In 1912, the Temple Show was cancelled to make way for the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition. Sir Harry Veitch, the great nurseryman, secured the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, for this one-off event. It proved such a good site for an exhibition that the Great Spring Show was moved there in 1913, where it has taken place almost every year since.
In 1917 and 1918, at the height of the First World War, the show was cancelled. By the roaring 1920s, the Chelsea Flower Show was back in full swing, the famous Chelsea tea parties were established and Royal visits resumed. In 1926, however, the show was held a week late due to the General Strike.
The show was cancelled during the Second World War, as the land was required by the War Office for an anti-aircraft site. Some doubt arose as to whether the show would resume in 1947. The majority of exhibitors wanted a postponement, as stocks of plants were low, staff much depleted and fuel for greenhouses was obtainable only with special permits, but Lord Aberconway (then RHS President) and the RHS Council felt strongly that the show should resume as soon as possible. As it turned out, the show went ahead in 1947 and it was a great success.
The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was sufficient cause for a flower show that reflected the celebratory mood of the country – most members of the Royal family attended that year (apart from the Queen herself – her hectic schedule called her away). During the second half of the century the show’s increasing popularity became a major headache – in the 1970’s up to 6,000 people would visit in a single day and by 1988 a limit of 40,000 a day was imposed.
Despite these growing pains the show has continued to thrive. Major highlights this year include:
- More than 30 gardens that present the greatest in cutting edge design, with plenty of inspiration for all
- The Great Pavilion is the place to see all the latest new plants, as well as all your old favourites.
- A new feature this year is the RHS Experience – an interactive display to show visitors their garden can transform the urban area.
- Inspiration for smaller gardens – masses of ideas will be unveiled.
With so much to see and do at the show it makes sense to plan your trip well in advance – and going up to town and back in a single day is not a good idea. That’s why a small number of those “in the know” always stay at The Milestone Hotel. We’re conveniently close to the show and provide the atmosphere of peace and calm that’s so welcome after a hectic day of horticultural over- indulgence – nothing will restore you more swiftly than our sumptuous afternoon tea and a night in one of our splendidly luxurious rooms or suites!