Headley Horticultural Society

In these strange and uncertain times when we are unable to hold our normal meetings, exhibit at shows or enjoy outings to other peoples’ gardens it was suggested that I write a piece about the history of Headley Horticultural Society.

This was easier said than done – if there were minutes for the first meetings, they are not accessible to me now. I contacted Jo Smith and was directed to Mr Laverty’s notebooks (thank you Jo for giving me the exact book and page) but in fact it was only a small reference, so my next port of call was our Chairman Christine who managed to find an article she wrote a number of years ago and it is from this that I found the information regarding the start of our Society.

In April 1885 the then Rector, Mr Laverty announced that he planned to hold a Cottagers’ show on Tuesday 􏰁th July in the Schoolroom; this was to be part of the annual fete held by The Ancient Order of Foresters, one of the many Friendly Societies that existed before the creation of the Welfare State to assist its members in time of sickness, unemployment or other distress. This first show was open to all cottagers in the Parish (a cottager being an agricultural labourer who lived in a tied cottage) and there were prizes for the best kept cottage and garden and for fruit, vegetables, and flowers. This first show attracted ten competitors. In the 1886 show schedule there were six sections with over one hundred classes including an Industrial Section (I believe this refers to what we now call Domestic Classes and Craft Classes) and the number of competitors increased to sixty-seven. It was then known as the Headley and District Horticultural Association and included Kingsley and Blackmoor.

It is interesting to understand the reasons behind this surge of interest in domestic gardening. Certainly during the Victorian age the creation of large and impressive gardens was generally accepted but gradually it became, for ordinary folk, a pleasure rather than a necessity to grow flowers and prize winning vegetables. The early nineteenth century saw enormous changes in the way we gardened; the plant hunters travelled the world and brought back all kinds of exotic plants particularly from southern Europe and other warmer continents.

With the repeal of the Glass tax and advances in iron and glass production “Glass houses” were introduced so that these new species could be grown, and the ubiquitous bedding plants raised inside soon became a feature of Victorian parks and gardens. Of course our cottagers could not afford such luxuries but gardeners working at the “big house” would have seen these new developments and worked in the large glasshouses of their employers and gradually the working man would devise ways to emulate the right conditions to grow some of these new plants for his own garden. We have all heard of “cottage gardens” where the vegetables were grown amongst the flowers rather than in a separate section, perhaps showing the desire to make a garden beautiful rather than just functional.

In our own village the fete continued to flourish and become ever more ambitious and attracted people from miles around. It took place on the Rectory Field and in addition to seats in the enclosure there was free seating for 1,000 people. The entertainment was often provided by troops from Aldershot, in 1900 Dr Parsons organised a Pony Gymkhana and in 1902 there was a performance by The Lizette Troupe of Trick Cyclists. In 1903 Mr Laverty wrote that he did not propose to arrange a Flower Show for 1904 and it was sixteen years before Mr Laverty again announced in 1920 that there would be a Flower Show and Fête on August Bank Holiday; with the First World War intervening no doubt he felt the local people would appreciate a chance to enjoy themselves again.

As far as we know the Flower Show and the Fete continued in tandem on the August Bank Holiday as usual. However, throughout the 1930s there were many other Bank Holiday attractions on offer and gradually the emphasis was more on the flower show and less on the fete. Then came WW2 and everything came to a halt.

During the war years gardening was still of great importance to everyone, albeit with the need to grow food and not flowers."Dig for Victory" was the slogan and dig they did. Not only were back gardens turned over to vegetable patches, but football pitches and parks were turned into allotments. What a difference it made to have your own garden or allotment during this time; the ability to produce fresh produce for the family must have been of great comfort to many, together with eggs provided by your own hens and in some cases bacon from a pig or two.

After the war It was thanks to the determination of Mr and Mrs Snow, in 1946, that the society was reformed, and the shows reinstated, although on a much less ambitious scale than previously. From a child Mrs Snow (then Miss Tuckey), who was born in Headley, was very fond of flowers and loved to pick and arrange the wildflowers she found locally. Her first show entry was recorded in 1896 and she continued to show until 1976, winning many prizes for her flower arranging. When a cup was presented to the society in her memory it was felt appropriate to award it to a flower arranging class and the committee instituted the inter village competition,"The Snow Cup".

In the wider world, and despite rationing continuing into the 1950s, the need to grow food became less Important and gardeners turned their back on austerity and started to grow flowers again. The fashion was for well- tended borders and manicured lawns aided by the newly available weed killers, insecticides and lawn mowers. This was also the decade when the first garden centre opened in the UK, what a novelty that must have been. There was a massive interest in rose breeding too, with growers trying to produce new and exotic colours. Even to this day there cannot be many gardens that do not have a least one rose.

In the 1960s we see a rise in the variety of plants grown, due no doubt to their availability in the garden centres. Mini conifers and heathers were popular and the rockery, which was the height of fashion in the 1920s, made a comeback. Bright bedding became popular too and front gardens were full of the gaudy colours of African marigolds, petunias and ageratum and who can forget the combination of white alyssum, red salvia and blue lobelia.

The following decades saw many changes in gardening but throughout this time Headley Horticultural Society continued to thrive and the three annual shows are still some of the best in the district. The range of speakers who entertain and inform throughout the winter months come from near and far and the audiences enjoy them all, good and bad! The outings organised for the summer months are always well supported, with an interesting array of gardens to visit and always something new to see. Let us hope that 2021 will see us all able to enjoy everything the Society has to offer, and its long history will carry on for future generations.

Jennifer Mitchell