This is one of the reasons why I love collecting rose books and memorabilia. While sorting through my catalogues and annuals, in prepararation for a possible further intake, I nearly discarded a nondescript pamphlet covered with a bulb advertisement. By chance I looked inside; to find the programme for the 1909 National Rose Society (NRS) Summer Rose Show. Not only is there a plan of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Regents Park showing the siting of the marquees etc but also the list of entrants and judges. To cap it all there is an article written by ‘The Late Rev. H. Honeywood D’Ombrain VMH’ entitled ‘The Life History of the National Rose Society’. I think perhaps I am missing the cover of the programme, unless of course, they wanted it to exist incognito, but I doubt it!
Having recently bought a ticket for the Chelsea Flower Show I began to wonder about the history of the NRS national rose shows and what had happened to them. I knew the very first national show had been organised in 1858 by a group of rosarians, including the Rev. Samuel Reynolds Hole, Thomas Rivers, Charles Turner and William Paul. It had taken place in St James Hall, Westminster. The show continued annually at various locations under the auspices of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) until the late 1870s.
At this time it was considered that the rose was at a low ebb and the shows were not flourishing. One rosarian, namely the Rev. Henry Honywood D’Ombrain decided that it was time to act. He had a vision of a National Rose Society which could promote the rose, its popularity and exhibition. He called a meeting of all the rosarians he knew and, on the day, waited with trepidation to see who would respond to his invitation. He could not have been more pleased at the turnout and “when Canon Hole came in most of those present felt the day was won.” (A quote from the article mentioned above. He continues by listing all those present at the meeting.) The society was formed to encourage the cultivation of the rose and to promote national exhibitions of the rose in London and the provinces.
In the Rosartians Yearbook of 1886 the Rev. Honywood D’Ombrain reported on the success of the first rose show ” . . . as it was, every available space in the large conservatory at South Kensington was filled with roses and crowds of visitors thronged around the stands all day.” The NRS shows continued to flourish in both London and the provinces. Queen Alexandra became Patroness of the Society and attended the London Show Annually. Thousands of blooms were exhibited both growing and as cut roses.
At the turn of the century the shows were still flourishing. A description of the 1907 London show appeared in the September issue of ‘Journal des Roses’ of that year. (It was translated from the French for the 1908 edition of the NRS annual).
“Several large tents, 5 or 6 measuring perhaps 50 to 80 metres long and 20 to 30 metres wide are entirely decorated with cut roses and rose trees. All these tents (except the groups of roses in pots and the accompanying stands of cut flowers in vases, hidden with moss, and placed on the ground itself) are arranged with tables either set against the sides of the tents or placed by themselves down the whole length of them. There are also generally in each tent three large central tables, as well as tables running round each side of the tent. Many nurserymen and innumerable amateurs show each year at this great competition in separate classes.”
The author, Ms Turbat, then goes on to explain how the English way of doing things encourages amateur rose growers to become involved which allows for greater popularity of the rose among the people.
For many years the summer annual rose show flourished in the botanical gardens, Regents Park. It was only in the 1970s that it was held at the gardens of the Royal National Rose Society (RNRS) as a rose festival where it continued for a number of years. In the intervening years the shows travelled via the Royal Hospital Grounds, Chelsea and the RHS halls in Westminster. Currently the nearest event we have to a National Rose Show is the Rose Festival which is incorporated into the Hampton Court Flower Show.
The Chelsea Flower Show, the Hampton Court Flower Show and the other shows presented by the RHS have abundant roses on display. The rose is still a popular flower in Britain but the dreams of those rose pioneers in the late 19th century have come to an end. There is no national show dedicated to the rose.
This is a sketchy and unsatisfactory history of the rose shows and needs more thorough research to be done. The information needed should be in the Rose Yearbooks and Annuals, a full set off which are in the Rosarian Library. A report of each show is usually included in each edition.
To think that one little tatty but invaluable find could spark such interest but this is one reason I collect.