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A history of the Chelsea Flower Show


Words by Jake Russell

How two centuries of horticultural exhibitions have created the world’s most famous flower show

Every May, crowds of people gather in the grounds of the Royal Chelsea Hospital. The crowds include members of the royal family, renowned landscape designers, a scattering of celebrities and many thousands of garden enthusiasts. They are here for the Chelsea Flower show, arguably the most well-known gardening event in the world.

Great Spring Show

Gardening is England’s national pastime, and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) was founded over two centuries ago. In the late Georgian Era, the society began holding flower shows at Chiswick. Then, in 1862, they moved to Kensington to host their first Great Spring Show, which is still the official title of the event.

Two decades later they moved again, this time to Temple Gardens near Embankment. Here the now-familiar format was established: an annual three-day event, with large marquees hosting plant and seed merchants (some of which exhibit to this day), and an international range of garden styles on display.

Regularly Attended By Royalty

The first show in the grounds of the Royal Chelsea Hospital took place on 20th May 1913. It included 84 exhibition tables, a marquee covering two acres, and 17 outdoor gardens. That show was opened by Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII, and since then members of the royal family have always attended the opening. The event was hugely popular – only half the applicants were able to exhibit – and the riverside setting so picturesque that it was decided to make Chelsea the show’s permanent home.

However, within a few years, war was declared and the future of the show was in doubt. In 1915 the eight-year-old Viscount Dalrymple even toured round the showground with a Shetland pony, dressed in a military uniform and collecting money in a bucket. The ongoing conflict brought conscription and shortages, meaning it could not reopen until 1919.

The Show's Obstacles

Then, in 1926, a General Strike planned for early May brought another threat to Chelsea’s future. In the end, the strike lasted just nine days, and the event went ahead with just a one-week delay. In fact, it was so popular that the following year Chelsea was extended to four days.

At the start of the Second World War, the flower show had to be suspended again. Air raid shelters and gun emplacements were built in the gardens of the Royal Hospital, which was bombed several times during the Blitz. Meanwhile, the RHS encouraged everyone to turn their gardens over to the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. This, combined with strict rationing, meant the show could not be revived until 1947. However, by 1951 things were back on course, and the floral marquee at the centre of the show was so large it covered 3.5 acres, making it the world’s biggest tent (a record it held for many years).

RHS Dig For Victory

The Most Well-Known Gardening Event In The World

These are not the only obstacles that Chelsea has overcome.

Even during peacetime, the weather can be a challenge. In 1932, the rain was so severe that a summerhouse fell to pieces, while in 1995 the weight of rainwater caused the RHS bookshop to collapse. The other challenge is the crowds: in 1979 the show was so popular that the turnstiles had to be closed and the opening hours extended.

Today, the show attracts about 160,000 visitors a year. In addition, the BBC coverage of the event – which began in 1958 – now extends across an entire week. The result is one of the neighbourhood’s most prestigious events, and the start of London’s summer social calendar. Guests still visit to see new varieties of plant and horticultural trends, as well as guess the winner of the best in show award, among the most-sought after prizes in gardening. Then, at 4pm on the last day, a bell rings to mark the close of the event, at which point there is polite chaos as exhibitors sell off their leftover plants and eager gardeners try to grab as many bargains as possible.


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