Every spring, London erupts in a riot of colour and fragrance as the city’s most prestigious flower show gets underway. Spanning five days and attended by an illustrious guestlist that includes the British Royal Family, Chelsea Flower Show has been flying the flag for florals for more than a millennium. From its against-all-odds resilience to its most memorable exhibits, here we explore Chelsea Flower Show’s fascinating history.
Chelsea Flower Show’s inauguration was in 1862 as the Royal Horticultural Society Great Spring Show in Kensington. The three-day event was staged in a single marquee, and its guest of honour was the king’s mother, Queen Alexandra. Over the 26 years that the show was hosted in the palace grounds, its popularity increased, and one marquee gradually became two.
In 1888, the show was moved to Temple Gardens, a verdant chain of green spaces on the banks of the Thames. The new more central location proved a roaring success. Two marquees bloomed into five, with the Great Spring Show attracting some of the most prestigious seed merchants and plant nurseries in England and beyond. The number of exhibitors nearly tripled from 48 to 120.
Despite its popularity, the event was cancelled in 1912 to make way for a one-off botanical event, the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition, to be held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. It was so successful that a decision was made to permanently relocate the Great Spring Show to its Chelsea home the following year, initiating the flower show’s renowned history in Chelsea.
The Chelsea Flower Show has since run every spring, apart from brief hiatuses during the First and Second World War, when the Royal Hospital’s grounds were required for use as an anti-aircraft base. The show eventually resumed in 1947, however the ravages of war had decimated output from England’s nurseries and there was not much in the way of seedlings and plants to display. The shortfall was integral to Chelsea Flower Show’s history, as this was the year that flower arrangements were introduced to make up for the dearth.
In 1927, a campaign was launched to favour indigenous plants and British nurseries – and ban foreign exhibits. The Royal Horticultural Society rejected the appeal, stating: ‘Horticulture knows nothing of nationality.’ A decade later, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth celebrated their coronation. To mark the occasion, the Great Spring Show put on an epic Empire Exhibition; a cosmopolitan collection that included Australian mimosa, Kenyan gladioli, Canadian pines and Palestinian prickly pears.
Weather has been a contentious issue in the history of Chelsea Flower Show, with the English spring notoriously unpredictable. In 1928, a ferocious storm flooded the marquees on the night before the opening. A dedicated team of staff worked through the night to rescue the site, which was beautifully restored to receive its first visitors by the morning. Four years later, the rain was so severe that a summer house display collapsed in ruin. Greater weatherproofing was put in place to prevent future calamities.
The show’s popularity increased exponentially after 1953, the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. By then, the UK’s nurseries had recovered enough to put on a colourful show that paid tribute to the country’s celebratory mood. Over the next half of the century, Chelsea Flower Show established itself as the spring event, attended by the ‘who’s who’ of polite society, including the Royal Family. Her Majesty The Queen has only ever missed two Chelsea Flower Shows since her coronation.
It wasn’t long before crowding at the show became a major issue. Even with extra marquees, the event was overwhelmed with thousands of keen gardeners and interested onlookers. By 1979, visitor numbers had peaked at 6,000, with overcrowding forcing the turnstiles to be temporarily locked off in an effort to regulate the inflow of visitors. A decision was made to extend the show’s opening hours, with discounted tickets available after 4pm to discourage the morning crowds. The one-way system that had been rejected as impractical 20 years previously was put in place with great success, and the previous limit of 90,000 visitors was reduced to 40,000.
Continuing to grow every year, in 2000, the 2.90-acre Great Pavilion replaced the immense marquee that had housed the show since 1951. The dismantled marquee was upcycled into 7,000 handbags, jackets and aprons. The Chelsea Flower Show is now attended by nearly 160,000 attendees every year, with tickets secured in advance to ensure comfortable visitor numbers.
After impressing judges with her cacti garden in 1929, American Sherman Hoyt donated the display, set against a painted Mojave backdrop, to Kew. It was displayed in a dedicated glasshouse in the botanical gardens for more than 50 years before being moved into the Princess of Wales Conservatory.
British Television presenter James May made history at Chelsea Flower Show with his 2009 Paradise in Plasticine. The vivid garden of spring blooms, roses, a fruit tree and a lawn laid with a picnic was created entirely from plasticine. He received an unofficial award for his ingenuity with a plasticine gold medal. Little did the judges know that May had hidden a garden gnome in his display. Garden gnomes are banned, as they fall under the verboten category of ‘brightly-coloured mythical creatures’, which are not in keeping with Chelsea Flower Show’s tasteful aesthetic.
Luxury fashion house Yves Saint Laurent commissioned a garden to coincide with the launch of its iconic fragrance Opium in 1997. This kickstarted the trend for high-end brands such as Chanel and Laurent Perrier creating beautiful gardens and displays at Chelsea Flower Show every year.
In 2011, Irish designer Diarmuid Gavin exhibited the Irish Sky Garden, redolent of the sci-fi animated Hollywood blockbuster Avatar. The pod was suspended by a crane, and occasionally lowered into the garden below, where, its roof covered by turf, it resembled a hillock in the Irish landscape.