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Apple Stories Part 2: The National Apple Congress of 1883

Updated: Feb 15

‘Exhibition of apples in the Great Vinery of the Royal Horticultural Society, Chiswick, October 4 to 25, 1883’.  From ‘The Gardeners Magazine’, 20 October, 1883


Introduction


This post is the second part of my Apple Stories, so I suggest you read Part 1: The Herefordshire Pomona first, as this will then (hopefully) make more sense! This time, I'm looking at an important apple exhibition held by the Royal Horticultural Society following the publication of The Herefordshire Pomona – a publication I first came across at the exhibition, An Apple Gathering, held at the National Trust's Croft Castle last September not far from where I now live in the county.


The success of the regular Hereford apple shows organised by The Woolhope Naturalists Field Club, and their publication of The Herefordshire Pomona: British Apples and Pears between 1876-1885, did not go unnoticed by the rest of the country.  The RHS had already begun to realise that in the face of a farming crisis, and high-quality apples coming into the country from abroad, something needed to be done to ‘professionalise’ the UK’s apple industry.  And, as in Herefordshire, “this required a clearer understanding of the best apple varieties” and so, taking advantage of a bumper apple crop in 1883, the RHS hastily organised its own apple show. 


It was only in the September of that year, at a meeting convened with fruit growers by the RHS’s Fruit Committee, that the decision was taken to hold “a conference on Apples” the following month. It would be held at their Chiswick garden in London, and somewhat grandly titled the National Apple Congress. After the event, the RHS considered it “an astounding success”, although the horticultural press had some misgivings [see Reaction in the Horticultural Press below].


Interestingly, one of the men on the RHS committee tasked with arranging the Congress [see The Congress 'Committee' below] was none other than the estimable Robert Hogg (1818-1897), one of the most important pomologists in the country at the time, and jointly responsible for The Herefordshire Pomona with local man, Dr. Henry Graves Bull (1818-1885).  Hogg had served on the RHS’s Fruit Committee, acted as Secretary of the Society from 1875-1884, and continued as a member of the RHS Council for some years after that.  So it’s perhaps no surprise that both the RHS and the wider horticultural world were aware of what was going on in 'the apple world' of rural Herefordshire.


The National Apple Congress: October 4th - 25th, 1883


In 1883, the RHS issued a circular stating their intentions for a forthcoming Apple Congress to be held from October 4th to18th “in the Great Conservatory... at Chiswick”. The unusually abundant apple crop for the year, as they stated in their subsequent report, being “of such an exceptional and remarkable character as to attract the notice and command the special attention of all those interested in the cultivation of this, the most important of our national fruits”. This afforded them the ideal opportunity to examine numerous varieties of apples at close quarters, with a view to correcting their nomenclature and comparing their merits – while also securing "as perfect a display of Apples as possible"


Unusually for an RHS exhibition, there were to be no competitive elements and therefore no prizes.  Admission to the public was set at 1s for entry on the first day of the Congress and 6d on the other days.  


Advert for the RHS National Apple Congress, from 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', Saturday October 13, 1883 – its closing date was later extended from October 18th to the 25th


Fruit growers around the country were invited to send in apple exhibits, together with information as to their local growing conditions – as, in addition to the RHS's stated objectives noted above, they also wished the exhibition to be both instructive and educational for visitors. To aid in this effort, each exhibitor was expected to complete the form shown below.


Exhibitor form. From the RHS's report on the Congress published in 1884



The main exhibits, which included 270 varieties “all legibly and correctly named” grown in the RHS's own gardens, were lined up in the Great Conservatory (by then having been converted into a vinery) on 2 central tables, with a side bench running all around the building.  Two additional glasshouses were also used – one completely filled with Scottish apples.  In total there were 236 exhibitors with 10,150 separate lots of apples to exhibit.


As well as nursery firms, collections from private gardens were also represented.  For example, 150 varieties were on show from the Royal Gardens at Frogmore [which supplied the nearby Windsor estate], as well as famous gardens of the day such as Gunnersbury Park, Holland Park, Leonardslee, Trentham, Burghley and Killerton.  Just after the Congress opened, The Gardeners' Chronicle published an article by Killerton's Head Gardener, John Garland, titled ‘Apple Gathering for the Congress’, in which he described their endeavours in preparing various varieties of fruit for the exhibition [see below].


Excerpt from the article ‘Apple Gathering for the Congress’ by John Garland, Killerton, Exeter, published in 'The Garden', October 6, 1883


The Congress 'Committee'


As detailed in an article, ‘Apples in congress in 1883’ [see References], 50 ‘fruit’ men from all across the UK were gathered together into one RHS committee with “the duty of stirring up support and enthusiasm for the Congress, as well as to encourage anyone and everyone to send in their varieties”.  Flyers were sent out to head gardeners, nurserymen and "anyone else who might be of help”. And The Gardeners' Chronicle subsequently reported on the variety of exhibitors who had signed up, which included the famed Veitch Nursery of Chelsea, as well as local Hereford firm, The Cranston Nursery Company.


The committee ended up with 1,545 individual varieties of apple – an overwhelming amount. So much so that, before the day of the show, a group worked through the night to “remove all repeats, decide which fruit were interesting enough to be on display whether because of economic practicality to British growers or just because they were exciting, and then organise and lay out all the apples in an appealing manner”.


In addition to Robert Hogg, other members of this committee included a variety of nurserymen as well as the head gardeners from Killerton, Frogmore, Gunnersbury Park and Sion House.  Famed horticulturist and garden writer/editor, Shirley Hibberd, also served.


Reaction in the Horticultural Press


Just 2 days after the Apple Congress opened its doors, the front page article in The Gardeners’ Chronicle noted that this was the first exhibition to be held at the RHS’s Chiswick garden for many years, as such activities had been moved to their new garden in South Kensington.  The article's author thought it was good to see the gardens at Chiswick again “entering upon a career of popular usefulness”, although rather than attracting “the fashionable flutterers around our summer floral exhibitions… it should bring together numbers of the practical gardeners and horticultural workers of the kingdom”.


However, while giving credit to the RHS for holding the exhibition, The Gardeners' Chronicle were unsure as to whether using the word ‘Congress’ was a good idea as it implied something more than just a display of apples – and that this was “not all that is expected of a body which represents the horticulture of the country”.  They certainly had misgivings about the whole event – feeling that it was a somewhat half-hearted affair “as though the [RHS] Council felt ill assured as to whether it was or was not departing from its dignity in allying itself with an exhibition of Apples, even in its own gardens”.


‘The Royal Horticultural Gardens, Chiswick’.  Photograph from 'The Queen's London', 1896 [see Note 1].  The Great Conservatory (by then converted into a vinery) can be seen in the background


However, they were impressed with the “decided success” of a display of the country’s chief hardy fruit. Plates of fruit, “as fine as have ever been seen”, were on display from growers from around the country, and the collection was considered "a truly grand one”. Although being initially somewhat dismissive of the exhibition, the author seems to warm to it as the article goes on writing, somewhat loftily, that “Strangers entering the splendid glass structure in the gardens known as the old conservatory, and in which the larger portion of the Apples is displayed, will for the moment feel that they stand within the portals of a real temple of Pomona”


The London Illustrated News reported on the most popular varieties of apples – in terms of numbers shown, with the Blenheim Pippin heading the list. According to its entry in The Herefordshire Pomona, the Blenheim Pippin [or Blenheim Orange] was “first discovered at Woodstock in Oxfordshire and received its name from Blenheim, the seat of the Duke of Marlborough, which is in the immediate neighbourhood.  The exact date of its origin is unknown.  It is not noticed in any of the nursery catalogues of the last century [i.e. the 18th], nor was it cultivated in the London nurseries until about the year 1818”


'The Blenheim Orange' [syn. Blenheim Pippin], Plate no. VII from 'The Herefordshire Pomona', vol.1, 1876-1885, together with a note of its synonyms 



The article also included the illustration below, the paper reporting that ‘the artist in residence’ at the exhibition “in his playful treatment” and “from a jocular point of view” had chosen to illustrate some of the more “minor features and incidents of the Apple Congress, which may be amusing to the general reader”.

 

‘Sketches from a jocular point of view’, The RHS Apple Congress of 20 October, 1883 in Chiswick Gardens.  A somewhat satirical look at the Congress from 'The Illustrated London News'


Some of the ‘Hereford’ apples on show at the Apple Congress. From the RHS's report on the Congress published in 1884



The Garden’s coverage of the Apple Congress provides us with more facts and figures than The Gardeners' Chronicle – and thought more highly of the RHS's ambitions for its exhibition.  With 7,000 dishes of apples, most containing 2 different sorts, and exhibitors from “every quarter of England, Scotland and Wales” (with a few from Ireland and a “goodly display” from the Channel Islands), The Garden was of the opinion that it was the greatest gathering of "Apples of British growth” ever seen in the country.   All the more impressive of course in that it was a hastily organised affair. The Garden was also impressed with the labelling of the fruit and the information provided. It also pointed out that apple trees were also on show – and encouraged gardeners and fruit growers to attend as “they will see some wonderful produce from trees of every shape and form”.


The Herefordshire Pearmain [one of the Herefordshire-named apples on show] can be seen in this Plate, no. XIV from The Herefordshire Pomona, vol. 1, 1876-1885


An Advertising Opportunity


The horticultural press may have had mixed feelings about the Congress, but it gave nurseries an opportunity to advertise their wares – as these notices show.


From 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', October 27, 1883


Today, the Bramley cooking apple may be one of our best known apples, but it owes its fame to the Congress.  Previously only known locally around Nottingham – as advertised above by a Nottinghamshire nursery, it was showcased at the exhibition and was quickly recognised by growers for its superior qualities.  It rapidly began to be cultivated around the UK, eventually becoming a household name. Meanwhile, local Hereford boys, Cranston’s Nursery, advertised their new apple the ‘Herefordshire Beefing’ in The Gardeners’ Chronicle that November.


From 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', November 3 1883


Although Cranston’s advertised the Herefordshire Beefing as a ‘new’ apple, the history of this apple and its name (like so many) is rather murky – and therefore a great example of just what the RHS hoped to sort out by holding the Congress.  As it’s entry in The Herefordshire Pomona states: “Nothing is known of the origin of this Apple”, although it's now thought that the earliest mention of it was in the early 1800's in the correspondence of William Forsyth, gardener to King George II.  Hogg himself first saw the apple at one of the apple shows held by The Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club in 1876 under the name ‘Beefing’. He subsequently called it the ‘Herefordshire Beefing’, to distinguish it from the ‘Norfolk Beefing’, a name which was adopted by the Club’s pomological committee.  For an in-depth read about this particular apple see Darren Turpin’s article ‘On the Trail of the Hereford Beefing’ [see References].


The Herefordshire Beefing can be seen at the bottom of this Plate, no. XXXV from The Herefordshire Pomona, vol. 2, 1876-1885


After the Apple Congress


While the horticultural press – and their readers (through their published letters), expressed some disappointment of the exhibition, the RHS themselves thought it a great success. And it certainly was in terms of numbers.  On October 20th, The London Illustrated News reported that each day “about five hundred persons from all parts of the country” were visiting the exhibition and, due to public demand, the exhibition's opening was extended by a week to October 25th. Railway companies even offered cheap tickets so that working class people could attend.


From 'The Garden', October 20 1883

The RHS's somewhat ambitious idea for the Congress was that by gathering together most of the apples grown in the UK to be examined by gardeners, fruit growers and horticulturists, they could unravel the various different names used for some apples and arrive at some consensus, while also deciding which fruits were the best.  After the event, it was estimated that some 10,000 people attended the show in total and, from the amazing amount on show sent in by head gardeners, nurserymen and amateurs, some 1,500 apple cultivars were identified [see Note 2].


This success in terms of numbers – often people with knowledge of apples, enabled the RHS Fruit Committee to gather valuable information about much of the fruit on show. Just a year later, in 1884, the RHS published its report on the Congress.  Titled British Apples: Report of the Committee of the National Apple Congress held in the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens, Chiswick, October 5th to 25th, 1883, it contains details of the apples shown by the various exhibitors, such as the entry shown here for Hereford’s Cranston Nursery – which includes the new Herefordshire Beefing.


As mentioned at the beginning, commercial fruit growers in the UK were under threat at this period from floods of imports from Europe and the US, as well as from “the furthest reaches of the Empire – South Africa and Australasia". Events such as the Apple Congress [and a subsequent Pear Conference held in 1885, which incidentally introduced a new pear still with us today, the 'Conference Pear’, taking its name from the event] was the beginning of a long tradition of such horticultural shows that continued for decades.  These shows being important steps in the modernisation of the UK's fruit industry – as commercial fruit growing moved away from the influence of nurserymen and head gardeners on grand estates. By the early 1900’s, a more scientific approach to fruit growing was established with institutes such as the National Institute for Cider Research and fruit experimental research stations leading the way.


Local Cider-making


Only a couple of weeks after my visit to Croft Castle and their apple exhibition – which first sparked my interest in this subject, another of my local towns, Tenbury Wells [named by Queen Victoria "the little town in the orchard"], just over the border in Worcestershire, hosted their annual Applefest – again a celebration of all things apple. A wonderful display of local and heritage apples was on show, as can be seen below. Not perhaps as extensive a collection as that on show in the Great Conservatory at Chiswick in 1883, but still impressive!


Frank P. Matthews apple (and pear) exhibit at 'Applefest', Tenbury Wells, including 250 varieties of apple. My photo, October 2023



Notes:


1.Full title of this book: The Queen’s London: A Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis in the 59th year of the reign of her Majesty Queen Victoria, published by Cassell & Company Limited, 1896


2.From Studies in the History of British Fruit Part 2, The RHS Lindley Library’s Occasional Paper of March 2012


References:


Robert Hogg’s Fruit Manual: 150th Anniversary issue, The RHS Lindley Library’s Occasional Paper of October 2010

 

‘Apples in congress in 1883’ from College of the Atlantic, ‘Apples to Apples’ blog, May 2010


‘On the Trail of the ‘Herefordshire Beefing’’ from Orchard Notes blog by Darren Turpin, February 2021 On The Trail of the 'Hereford Beefing' | Orchard Notes















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2 Comments


Guest
Jul 12

A great article. I also attend the Tenbury Show and do I recognise Mr Matthews in the picture?

I am on a quest to discover apple varieties specific to my home county of Staffordshire and was interested to see the mention of Trentham in the article.

Do you know of any varieties specific to Staffordshire?

Kind Regards

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Guest
Mar 24

I look at all your photos of yummy looking apples and get wistful. I found out last year in 2023 that I’m allergic to apples. Sigh!

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