RHS Chelsea Flower Show: 101 Years of British Eccentricity

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is celebrating its 101st anniversary this year, and from what we explored in our previous blog post on the biggest gardening event in Britain, it’s set to be a pretty impressive one!  In 1913, the Chelsea Flower Show in its current form evolved from the Royal Horticultural Society’s Great Spring Show, when the event was moved from the RHS Gardens in Kensington, down the road into the grounds of Chelsea Hospital, where it’s been held since.


Over the years, the Chelsea Flower Show has perked interest far outside of its special-interest sphere of horticultural influence, courting the attention of the general public with its wonderful natural displays of artistic beauty, and has become a televised annual tradition that heralds in the Great British summertime.  And as you know, here at Cuckooland we’re very much “into” anything that’s a bit quirky, abstract and unusual, and the Chelsea Flower Show is where British quirkiness and eccentricity accumulates, and blossoms like a beautiful flower.  So to celebrate the Chelsea Flower Show’s rich history (and because we missed our chance last year on the centennial), here’s a look back into the event’s history, and some of its most interesting and controversial moments!

Chelsea flower show cactus garden

Let’s start with 1929, when the first of one of Chelsea’s most famous gardens was born.  Here, Sherman Hoyt from the United States impressed judges with a desert-themed cacti garden.  Now this may not sound too impressive nowadays, but remember that this was 1929, when people wouldn’t have had such exposure to foreign lands as we do today through the media; cacti would have been alien to the British Isles.  So impressed was Britain by the American’s strange, prickly plants that Hoyt donated her exhibition to Kew Gardens, where it remained in-tact for fifty years!

Coronation Empire Exhibition

In 1937, the British Empire was at its most powerful – it truly was a time when the sun would never set upon it.  Centring the world’s attention on the British Isles even more this year, however, was the fact that 1937 was the Coronation year of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (who’d later be more popularly-known as the Queen Mother).  To celebrate, the Chelsea Flower Show hosted one of its grandest and most famous exhibitions to date: the Coronation Empire Exhibition; a show of power just as much as it was of beauty.  The exhibition celebrated the Empire with horticultural gifts from all of its corners; pines from Canada, wattles from Australia, a whole host of plant-life from Britain’s dependencies in Africa and Polynesia, and the jewel in the crown (geddit?), a giant “prickly pear” cactus from Palestine.

Despite the grandiose display of the Empire Exhibition which established the Chelsea Flower at the very heart of British tradition with such an elaborate appeal to the Royal Family, the great horticultural tradition that we all know and love today and look forward to each year very nearly met its end less than a decade later at the outbreak of the Second World War, as the site needed to be used for air defence units.  Plants and fuel were low due to wartime sanctions, there was a shortage of staff because they were all working in the factories, and there was a general gloomy wartime atmosphere across Britain which marginalised such a thing as a Flower Show as trivial; it seemed like the Chelsea Flower Show was about to be brought to an unceremonious end.  However, RHS President Lord Aberconway worked hard to ensure that the tradition lived on and, despite a wartime hiatus, the Chelsea Flower Show continued as normal in 1947!

queen elizabeth the the RHS flower show

Only six years after its very near conclusion, the Chelsea Flower Show tore out of the undergrowth in celebration of its second coronation!  This, of course, was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, taking place a year after her ascension to the throne the previous year, upon the tragic death of her father.  With Britain in peacetime and a new queen on the throne, Britain had every reason to celebrate, and the Chelsea Flower Show put on a display as grand as it did for its previous coronation celebration!  So much of a spectacle was it, in fact, that for the only time in the Flower Show’s history, every member of the Royal Family attended!

…Except the Queen herself.  She was busy.

cool & sexy garden

And to finish off, with two grandiose horticultural displays that salute the very root of everything British fresh in mind, it’s time to turn the dial down so far that it breaks off; let’s really lower the tone, shall we?  Paul Cooper’s 1994 entry, the “Cool and Sexy” exhibition, on top of having a name that courted controversy about as subtly as a sunflower in a field of dandelions, hosted charming installations which would blow jets of air up the skirts of unsuspecting, passing women.  Stay classy, Paul.

And that just about brings us into the modern era of the Chelsea Flower Show!  Sure, we’ve only scratched the surface, but these are definitely the highlights of 101 years’ worth of botanical history!  We hope that all this talk of the Chelsea Flower Show is inspiring you to stretch your green fingers!  If so, why not check out our range of garden furniture and accessories, as well as our other blog posts for a few ideas for your garden this summer!

Enjoy the weather!

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