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The 'first' Chelsea Flower Show: the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition of May 1912

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

London Underground poster for the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition of May 1912

Most gardeners are usually agog for a few days every year at the wonderful spectacle of the world-renowned RHS Chelsea Flower Show. I go most years but, this May, rather than braving the crowds to enjoy the world-class designer gardens, the floral delights of the marquee, and the general wonderful atmosphere, I had to settle for watching it on TV along with the rest of the world.

The RHS’s May show has been held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea more or less annually since 1913 – but this blog considers its forerunner – the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition, a lavish one-off show held in May 1912, and how it was reported in the horticultural press of the time. The Exhibition opened on a Wednesday in, according to The Gardeners' Chronicle, "the cool greyness of a typically-English spring morning" although, they added confidently, "from the moment of opening its success was assured."

Previously, the RHS’s popular Great Spring Show had been held for some years in the Temple Gardens in London, but when an international exhibition was suggested for 1912, the RHS agreed to cancel its own 1912 show (although they would, of course, be much involved in the Exhibition). The last such horticultural exhibition held in Britain had been back in 1866, albeit on a much smaller scale, and the country's horticultural elite agreed it was high time to stage another such event.

The Directors of the grand Exhibition to-be (typically for the time, an all male affair, as can be seen below), were led by the great nurseryman, Harry Veitch, who decided upon the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea as being a large enough site for such a prestigious event. The overall plan and scope of the Exhibition being, according to The Gardeners’ Magazine, ”to demonstrate the high position horticulture has attained” in Britain, and to “display the finest products of the gardening art from many countries”.

‘Directors of the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition’. From The Gardeners’ Magazine Supplement, May 18, 1912. Harry Veitch, with the impressive beard, is pictured in the front row.

In the months leading up to the Exhibition, large quantities of information were published with the horticultural press full of reports, articles and photographs, with special Exhibition Supplements published in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, The Garden and The Gardeners’ Magazine. A Gardeners’ Chronicle article in May 1912, entitled On the Eve of the Exhibition, summed up the excitement generated by reporting that “vast numbers of people, both at home and abroad [were] looking forward to the Exhibition with increasing interest and expectation – happy people, whose only care is the purchase of a ticket which will entitle them to a unique opportunity for enjoyment and admiration.”

The Exhibition, held over 8 days, covered 11 hectares and there had never been a horticultural show quite like it with over 1,000 exhibitors applying for space with large displays of topiary, orchids, exotic gardens, and rockeries amongst many others.

Advertisement for the Exhibition in the horticultural press

The Gardeners’ Magazine duly reported that daily tickets were available at prices from one shilling to one guinea (depending on the day and time of entry), with a discount available on shilling tickets for members of bone fide gardening societies. However, they added, the admission charges were generally thought to be “very high”, and had “given rise to a good deal of adverse comment.”

The press published a General Plan of the Grounds (below), together with a map of the Underground and how to travel to the Exhibition site. It was also reported that train companies in Britain and Belgium had agreed to issue cheap tickets for visitors, while steam ships would connect to special ‘boat trains’ for those arriving from the continent. (On a somewhat sad note, in March 1912, The Gardeners’ Chronicle reported that “a large party of American visitors”, under the auspices of a US floral society, proposed to travel to England for the Exhibition “by the White Star liner ‘Titanic’…” with its departure from New York fixed for May 11. As we know, the Titanic, which departed on its maiden voyage in April 1912, never reached New York – so I wonder if they were able to make alternate travel plans?)

Below: Exhibition Programme and General Plan of the International Exhibition.

From The Gardeners' Magazine Supplement, May 18, 1912

A specially commissioned main marquee (the 'Big Tent'), 660ft long and 45ft high, was arranged in “five spans and well ventilated” and lit by electricity supplied by generators. There were a further 3 tents, each 140ft by 85ft, for exhibits from Belgium, Holland and France, as well as a specially heated tent for orchids, a cut-flower marquee, and fruits and vegetables housed in another tent 140ft by 70ft. In addition, there were 2 big refreshment tents, and the lime avenue was used for “kiosks for horticultural publications and groups of choice hardy trees and shrubs”.

Images of the 'Big Tent’. From The Gardeners’ Magazine Supplement, May 18, 1912

The Gardeners’ Magazine Kiosk in the Lime Avenue, from The Gardeners’ Magazine Supplement, June 1, 1912

The Gardeners’ Chronicle reported that prizes would consist of silver or silver-gilt cups, medals, and money, together with a Diploma. Additionally, a great number of special cups commissioned by individuals, counties, institutions, etc., were to be awarded, and The Gardeners’ Magazine published photographs of the various cups, including the ‘Exhibition cups’. These were all of the same design, but in three different sizes. The most prestigious prize of the entire Exhibition was, however, His Majesty’s ‘The King’s Cup’, offered “for the most meritorious exhibit in the show” (later awarded to Sir George Holford of Westonbirt for his exhibit of orchids).

The Exhibition's prestigious prize,

The King's Cup

The Supplements in the horticultural press covered all aspects of the Exhibition including the various exhibits, photographs of award-winning plants and flowers, as well as associated gardening conferences, and entertainments for the judges, pressmen and foreign dignitaries - such as visits to nearby gardens, and “lavish” receptions, lunches and dinners.

The scope of the exhibitors’ schedule was huge, with over 400 separate classes of plant exhibits listed in The Gardeners’ Magazine, together with a miscellaneous section for non-competitive displays:

52 classes: Stove and greenhouse plants

11 classes: Palms and Cycads

30 classes: Orchids

24 classes: Ferns

73 classes: Azaleas, Begonias and Pelargoniums, etc.

26 classes: Roses

15 classes: Pinks and Carnations

104 classes: Hardy Plants inc. rock and alpine gardens

16 classes: New Plants

45 classes: Fruits

35 classes: Vegetables

Below: 'A Comprehensive and Remarkably Fine Collection of Exotic Ferns. Exhibited by Messrs H B May and Sons, Edmonton.' From The Gardeners’ Magazine Supplement, May 25, 1912

Below: 'Examples of the Topiary Art. Exhibited by Messrs Piper, Bayswater.' From The Gardeners’ Magazine Supplement, May 25 1912

The famous Yokohama Nursery Company was the chief exhibitor in a special tent for Japan, reported as being “bright with flowering Japanese lilies and wistarias”. This tent attracted many admiring visitors for whom “the weird little dwarfed trees have a fascination” – bonsai being referred to as 'dwarf' trees at this time. And, just like Chelsea today, the Exhibition also had a sundries section which included exhibits of garden implements, glasshouses, heating appliances, garden furniture, summer houses, “and the thousand and one other appurtenances which find a use in horticulture”.

Below: ‘Dwarf Japanese Trees. Exhibited by Messrs Barr and Sons.' From The Gardeners’ Magazine Supplement, May 25, 1912

By the time it was all over, the Exhibition was considered to have been a great success – both financially and horticulturally. Nearly 200,000 visitors had flocked to see it producing, as The Gardeners' Magazine reported, an amount exceeding £10,000 taken on the turnstiles, with a profit of around £4,000.

The Gardeners' Chronicle, in the somewhat over-enthusiastic language of the day, reported that it presented “the most artistic display of flowers that has ever been seen in this country”, adding that it was "a veritable triumph of horticulture". The magazine additionally reported, on behalf of British horticulturists, the pleasure felt “in welcoming so many distinguished horticulturists from abroad… [while recognising] with deep appreciation and gratitude, the magnanimity which led them to bestow unstinted praise on our exhibition…”.

The Chelsea hospital venue proved to be an excellent and popular site for such a large exhibition, and the ever-expanding RHS Great Spring Show was moved there permanently from May 1913. This second ‘flower show’ at Chelsea was even more successful than the first – the weather was perfect and the ‘garden party’ atmosphere of the Opening Day continues to be a day for royalty and celebrities. The RHS ‘Chelsea’ tradition was born.

The Chelsea Flower Show has now taken place at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea every year (except for a few breaks during the world wars), and is today described as the most famous and prestigious horticultural show in the world.

Dates for Chelsea 2021 have recently been announced - with an extra day and limited numbers. I've booked my ticket - have you?

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4 comentários

Kathy Gatenby
Kathy Gatenby
08 de mar. de 2023

Oh, this is wonderful to read about. I have an original copy of the Exhibition Catalogue (title: Royal International Horticultural Exhibition London 1912) that I picked up in a second hand bookshop some years ago, and it is so beautiful: gold embossed cover, colour inserts, and in surprisingly good condition.I wondered if it was a precursor to the Chelsea Flower Show, and now I know! Thank you.

08 de mar. de 2023
Respondendo a

How lovely! It never ceases to amaze me that these things are still around. Glad you enjoyed the blog. Thank you.


05 de nov. de 2020

A fascinating account, Paula. I presume they moved from Temple gardens because they weren't big enough?

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