Before ‘Chelsea’: The Royal International Horticultural Exhibition of May 1912

Most gardeners are usually agog for a few days each year at the wonderful spectacle of the world-renowned ‘RHS Chelsea Flower Show’ – watching on tv, or, if they’re lucky, braving the crowds to enjoy the world-class designer gardens and other floral delights.  The RHS’s May show has been held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea more or less annually since 1913 – and, with this year’s ‘Chelsea’ just around the corner, 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. 

London Underground Poster, 1912.

London Underground Poster, 1912.

Before 1912, 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 the same year, the RHS agreed to cancel its 1912 show.  The last such horticultural exhibition held in Britain had been back in 1866, albeit on a much smaller scale, and the British horticultural elite agreed it was high time to stage another such event. 


The directors of this grand Exhibition to-be, led by the great nurseryman Harry Veitch, 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”. 


In the months leading up to the Exhibition large quantities of information was published, with the horticultural press full of reports, articles and photographs, while special ‘Exhibition Supplements’ were 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’, reported that “vast numbers of people, both at home and abroad, are 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 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, owHthey added, the admission charges were generally thought to be “very high”, and had “given rise to a good deal of adverse comment.” 


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). 


Commissioned ‘Exhibition Cups’, Gardeners’ Chronicle.

Commissioned ‘Exhibition Cups’, Gardeners’ Chronicle.

The press helpfully published a ‘General Plan of the Grounds’, together with a map of the Underground and how to travel to the Exhibition site, while the Supplements 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 full ‘Exhibition Programme’ and the ‘General Plan of the Exhibition’ published in the Gardeners’ Magazine is here

while its ‘Illustrated and Descriptive Account’ of the Exhibition is here

The Exhibition was held over 8 days, and the press agreed there had never been a horticultural show quite like it.  The specially commissioned main marquee was 660ft long and 45ft high (for a photograph of the new marquee in construction see here , with a further 3 smaller tents for exhibits from Belgium, Holland and France.  There was also a specially heated tent for orchids, a cut-flower marquee, and another tent for fruits and vegetables.  There were also 2 big refreshment tents, and the lime avenue was lined with “kiosks for horticultural publications and groups of choice hardy trees and shrubs” (presumably for sale).   And, just like Chelsea today, the Exhibition also had a sundries section with exhibits of garden implements, glasshouses, heating appliances, garden furniture, summer houses, “and the thousand and one other appurtenances which find a use in horticulture”.  Advertisements for some of these fascinating implements can be seen in the Supplements, and I particularly like the advert for ‘Rhinohide’ – purportedly the best garden hose “in the world”, together with the image of a Rhinoceros (see ‘Illustrated and Descriptive Account’ of the Exhibition – link above).

The scope of the exhibitors’ schedule was huge: over 1,000 exhibitors had applied for space, and over 400 separate classes of plant exhibits were listed in the Gardeners’ Magazine; the biggest group, with 104 classes, being for “Azaleas, Begonias and Pelargoniums, etc.”.  Many ‘new plants’ were also shown, with details and photographs published in the Gardeners’ Magazine’s ‘Third Illustrated Supplement of New Plants and Flowers of Exceptional Merit’ – here

After it was all over, the Exhibition was hailed a great success both financially and horticulturally – nearly 200,000 visitors having flocked to see it, and the Gardeners’ Chronicle reporting that it had presented “the most artistic display of flowers that has ever been seen in this country”.  A later Gardeners’ Chronicle editorial commented “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. 

It 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. 

If you are interested in the history of the Chelsea Flower Show itself, see Brent Elliott’s book, ‘RHS Chelsea Flower Show: The First 100 Years 1913-2013, or the RHS’s own publication, ‘Chelsea Flower Show – A Centenary Celebration’.