History of the Chelsea Flower Show

Britain magazine
A painting by A Bright believed to show part of the marquee for the International Horticultural Exhibition of 1866 (c) RHS Lindley Library

Each May the Chelsea Flower Show delights visitors with its colourful displays. We take a look at the history of the show.

Britain magazine
Painting by A Bright, believed to show the marquee for the International Horticultural Exhibition of 1866. Credit: RHS Lindley Library

The Chelsea Flower Show, although not the largest, is the most famous event of its type. Situated within the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea – home to the Chelsea Pensioners – the flower show celebrated its centenary in 2013 and is run by the Royal Horticultural Society.

The Royal Horticultural Society of London held its first show in 1827 in Chiswick. In later years as rival flower shows started to spring up in Regent’s Park and Crystal Palace, visitor numbers dropped as Chiswick was not yet accessible by railway. The Chiswick shows ended in 1857 but by 1861 the RHS shows had begun again, this time held at Kensington Gardens on the former site of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

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Three Chelsea Pensioners at the show in 1935. Credit: RHS Lindley Library

It was in the following year at the new site that the dates of the show were changed to ensure it took place in spring instead of summer, however the spring show was such a success that it was followed by a summer show anyway. For several years both shows were held and they quickly became engrained in the British social season.

In 1866 both shows were cancelled and in 1888 the Kensington site was abandoned.  The Great Spring Show, however, restarted at Temple Gardens, between Embankment and Fleet Street, in the same year.

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Ranelagh Gardens, part of the Chelsea Flower Show,  in 1937. Credit: RHS Lindley Library

The central London location for the Great Spring Show proved a huge success and it grew from 48 exhibitors to 120. However, as much as the show was a big hit in the London social season, it turned out to be a pain for local lawyers who worked around Temple.

The show was again cancelled in 1912 and a new location was sought by the great nurseryman Sir Harry Veitch. A much larger site was found at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in between Sloane Square and the River Thames and the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition was held there in May 1912. It was a competitive show, earning over £25,000 in profit, which was divided between three charities, and its success was enough to convince the RHS that the Great Spring Show, or the Chelsea Flower Show as it was now known, should be held there.

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The Daily Telegraph Garden designed by Tom Stuart-Smith at the 2006 Chelsea Flower Show. Credit: Visit Britain

With a permanent home, the show was fit to flourish as it has done over the past century, although it was partially suspended during both WWI and WWII.

The show has spearheaded horticultural trends and provided a veritable showcase for garden designs. The Japanese and topiary gardens were a big hit in the early days – it was at the show in 1913 that the Japanese dwarf trees, more commonly known as Bonsais were first displayed. The war years saw the popularity of rock gardens, while in the 1980s the fashion was for paved yards and cottage gardens. Today the contemporary sculptural garden dominates.

During the five days of the show the whole of the upmarket  area of Chelsea descends into a veritable festival with tea parties, and more recently the Chelsea in Bloom campaign, launched in 2006, which sees the local shops dress up their stores. Attracting an enormous amount of media attention and a waiting list for exhibitors almost as long as its history, the Chelsea Flower Show is viewed as one of the most important events in the horticultural calendar.

Britain magazine
Andy Sturgeon’s 2012 garden. Credit: RHS Lindley Library

 

The 2017 RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from 23 May to 27 May. To purchase tickets visit RHS Chelsea Flower Show

To read more about the history of the show you can purchase: RHS Chelsea Flower Show: The First 100 Years: 1913-2013 by Brent Elliott.

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