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There has been a Horticultural Society in Wolverhampton for many years. The first record of plans to form a Society date as far back as November 1832 and an Exhibition (Show) was run in 1833. The Wolverhampton Literary and Scientific Society lays claim to being the oldest society in the town and does have it’s origins in the 1830’s but the first clear reference to it is not until 1834 so the Horticultural Society has a good chance of actually being the first society in Wolverhampton.
The Current Society – 1952 onwards
However, the Society has had many new beginnings and subsequent closures but was re-started in its current form in 1952 and has been running continuously ever since. Therefore this officially makes 2022 our Platinum Anniversary as well as Queen Elizabeth’s.
It was a very different era then. Many of the foods were still on ration and people had become used to “digging for victory”. Most gardens had a vegetable plot which was a necessity, not just a hobby. The Society started with an informal meeting held on November 5th 1952 at the YMCA, Wolverhampton. The first public meeting enrolled over 90 members, which had increased to nearly 200 by the end of the year. The aims of the Society were to hold fortnightly meetings “of an educational nature” during the winter and to arrange visits to gardens in the summer. Annual membership was five shilling (25p) and within a year there were 200 members.
Four Society Exhibitions/Shows 1953-1963
The newly formed society clearly had major ambitions as within months of forming the first exhibition was held in the YMCA in Stafford Street, Wolverhampton on 22nd August 1953. The programme was very comprehensive with 66 classes for exhibits. The entrance fee was 6d (2 1/2 pence) per exhibit, payable by postal order and there were cash prizes of 5/-, 3/- and 2/- for 1st, 2nd and 3rd places in almost all classes. The average weekly wage for manual workers in 1953 was just over £5.00 so the prizes were on the quite generous . The target membership for 1954 was to recruit 500 members at an annual subscription of 5/-. The full programme can be viewed below (click on images to enlarge and click back arrow to return to this page after viewing).
By the start of 1954 the Society had become even more ambitious and had decided to devise a programme of four events, including moving the main Annual Exhibition to the Wulfrun Hall. The Early Summer Exhibition included 20 classes for Sweet Peas, Roses, Delphiniums and Carnations. The main prize was the National Sweet Pea Society’s Bronze medal.
Although the Society was still only just over a year old they were able to persuade the BBC to cover the Show during Children’s Hour when some of the prize winners were to be interviewed. There were 9 Children’s classes in a total of 77 classes. The show had nearly 600 entries and received some sponsorship and prizes from National magazines including The Smallholder, Amateur Gardening, Popular Gardening and Woman’s Own.
The Programme with four exhibitions a year continued until the 1960’s and programmes were printed and sold at the beginning of each year. The Rose and Sweet pea Show generally took place on the first Saturday in July. It is slightly surprising that there was no show for early bulbs such as daffodils or tulips. Earlier versions of the Society back in the early 1830’s had many exhibitions for tulips (but very few for Sweet peas ) and the Society has re-instated the Spring Show for bulbs so perhaps just a sign of changing preferences and fashions.
Another sign of changing “fashions” was that there were both Early Flowering and Late Flowering Chrysanthemum Shows. This split continued even up to the last show in 1962 when there were 17 different classes for Early Flowering Chrystanths (plus 6 Dahlia classes) and a further 12 classes in the Late Flowering show. The Late Flowering Show had also incorporated the “Ladies classes”, which had first appeared in the 1957 Show. These included a very limited range of Home Produce and Crafts with an even more limited Floral arrangement section (just one class).
The Annual Show of Flowers, Fruit and Vegetables took place on the 3rd Saturday in August, the Early Flowering Chrystanthemum Show on the 3rd Saturday in September and the Late Flowering Chrystanthemum Show on the 2nd Saturday in November. These were usually held in the YMCA small hall in Westbury Street or the Percy Thomas Hall in Thornley Street.
Novice classes were introduced very early on as a means of encouraging entries. The novice class was for exhibitors who had not previously made an entry in that class. Entries had to be submitted on the appropriate entry form by the Thursday before each Show. The Shows all seem to have run at slight losses, the cost of printing the programmes and relatively high prize money would have been contributing factors. The 1958 Annual Show made a loss of £33 which was felt to be because admission fees for public viewing were too low. The committee decided it was necessary to increase admission fees.
After many years of loss making and disappointing visitor numbers it was decided to merge the Early Show with the Annual Show in 1962. However, this led to so many complaints from the (few) exhibitor members that it was re-instated the following year. The 1963 Shows were especially disappointing as there were only7 exhibitors at the Sweet Pea and Rose Show, only 26 exhibitors at the Annual Show and just 17 exhibitors at both Chrystanthemum Shows. All Shows made a loss of £19 in total. Consequently it was decided to cancel the Shows from 1964 onwards.
Talks and Visits
By the late 1950’s the fortnightly talks had been reduced to monthly lectures. There was a good variety of lectures provided but “Dahlia’s” seemed to manage to get included in most years. There were also various outings each year, with 5 coach trips to different gardens in 1956 alone. Typical venues were Hodnett Hall, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Walsall Arboretum, Hatton Grange, Powis Castle and Wombourne Experimental Station.
Membership had fallen to just 75 by 1965 but the Society still had great ambitions and managed to organise a talk from Harry Wheatcroft (the Chris Beardshaw of the 1960’s). It also started to produce a monthly newsletter known as the Grapevine. Other Societies were obviously struggling at the time as Lower Penn Horticultural Society made an approach suggesting a merger between the two Societies. As Wolverhampton subscription fees were 10/- and Lower Penn’s were only 2/-6d it was viewed as a non-starter. Lower Penn offered far fewer talks and trips.
Bob Price, TV personality from ATV’s Gardening Today programme (with Cyril Fletcher) gave a talk in March 1981. Although Bob was one of the most well-known gardeners of the 1970’s attracting him as a speaker wasn’t considered a major “coup” as Bob was a local man who had started his nursery off Bhylls Lane,Wolverhampton before moving to what is now Gardenland at Shipley.
In 2013 the committee managed to arrange for a session of the radio programme, Gardeners Question Time, to be hosted at Beckminster and in 2017 had a very popular and well supported talk by Chris Beardshaw.
An alternative form of competition offered to members in place of the four Shows was to hold a monthly Show Table. There would be various small competitions with a different class each month including pot plants, fruit, vegetables, cut flowers, etc. Points would be awarded each month by an impartial judge and cups would be awarded at the end of the year to members accumulating most points. The awards for points were later designated as 4 points for rarity , 4 points for difficulty of cultivation, 8 points for general standard and 4 points for presentation. Visiting lecturers were initially asked to act as the impartial judge but as some did not feel expert enough to make assessment this was formally amended in 1973 to judges appointed from the membership.
The monthly Show table continued until 1977 when it effectively morphed into a resurrection of the Annual Show. The Show Table was already attracting a good number of entries each month. The process of setting up and judging must have greatly reduced the time available for the evening’s talk or other activities. Entries for the Show Table in August and September were becoming too numerous to manage as part of a talk/lecture meeting so it was decided in 1977 that the September meeting be devoted entirely to the Show Table.
It was also agreed that the October meeting be a Show table meeting as well. The September Show table would include fruit, herbs, pot plants, cut flowers, vegetables and honey whilst the October meeting would have classes for chutneys, pickles, cakes, biscuits, preserves, wines, jams and jellies. Entry fees were set at 2p with 1st prizes paid a “generous” 25p. The September meeting alone attracted over 100 entries. Exhibitors were asked to allow produce to be auctioned at the end of the night. This September Show Table session proved so popular with members that in the following year the hall was opened from 4.00pm to allow exhibitors more time to set up their exhibits. As the event became ever more popular it was necessary to move it to a Saturday as there was insufficient time to manage it effectively in just an evening and so eventually it became a resurrection of the Annual Show.
The monthly Show Table did continue in the other months but there were less exhibitors and generally just two winners each month, Mrs Berry and Mrs Reese. It was decided to discontinue it in 1991 but then re-started in 1992 in a non-competitive format until it seems to have just discontinued due to lack of entries.
As described above, it appears that the interest in the monthly Show Table was waning by the late 1970’s, possibly because so few members were making any entries. In contrast, the September Show Table proved to be extremely popular in 1978 and by 1979 it was felt necessary to appoint external judges for some of the classes to ensure judging was to a proper RHS standard.
Unfortunately the enthusiasm for a more comprehensive September Show table was short-lived and entries for the years between 1979 and 1982 were disappointing and losses were made in most years. The1982 Show in the Town Hall only had 8 exhibitors but the committee decided to persevere with the Show and promoted it by publishing the Show Schedule in the Grapevine newsletter at the beginning of the year so that members could better prepare for the different classes. This proved to be a sensible move and the 1985 Show was recorded as being extremely successful. It was also decided that it would be possible to have a Spring Show in the following year although this appears to have been just an additional topic for the monthly Show Table.
In 1998 it was decided that the Annual Show was too big to conduct in an evening so it was planned to hold it on a Saturday. Unfortunately this first attempt to return to a full day event had to be cancelled as it clashed with Princess Diana’s funeral. However the following year resulted in a full day show with members putting up their exhibits on a Saturday morning and judging taking place in the afternoon. This first show at the Cedars had just 14 exhibitors but 161 entries. The following year, 2000, recorded 30 exhibitors and 306 entries – figures which have remained at that level more or less each year since then.
The more organised version of the Spring Show started in 2004 and was run in conjunction with the Society’s AGM. The Spring Show now had its own specification agreed by the Show Committee and published some months before the event. Independent judges were used for the event which was open to members only (partly because the AGM was members only). This event is still well supported by members and has consistently had over 100 exhibits with most members entering at least one class.
Members and Committee
Previous societies operating under the name of Wolverhampton Horticultural Society generally seem to have ceased to exist for similar reasons, right back to the 1830’s. Namely, either insufficient members or lack of volunteers for committee members, or a combination of the two factors.
It seems unlikely that the 1953 target for 500 members was ever achieved but there were 270 paid up members in 1954. This number declined slowly and by 1961 the Society was so concerned that they were down to 117 members, from 142 the year before, that it took out an advertisement in the Wolverhampton Chronicle and Express & Star asking for new members.
There is no record of whether the advertisement was an initial success but membership continued to fall to 75 in 1965 and just 57 by 1972.
As membership numbers had fallen and finances were so tight it was decided in 1969 to replace membership cards with receipts. Subscription fees would also be increased to 15/-. The Society made a loss of £20 in the year.
The Membership card shown belonged to Harold Lee who was a founder member of the society.
In 1976, Harold Lee, one of the few founding members who had remained active in the society since 1952 passed away in the same year that the Society minutes recorded the difficulties in getting committee members. The situation had not improved by 1979 as the Society was having to share out the role of Secretary as no members were willing to take on the role.
By 1985 the committee members almost outnumbered other members as membership had reached a low point of just 26 paid up members, although this had increased to 31 by the end of the year. Numbers did increase during the 1990’s and averaged approximately 57 with a peak of 92 in 1998. Despite various suggestions that the Society should be wound up or merge with other Societies it did manage to continue and has had over 80 members in most years since 2000. Although it is currently in a similar position to 1979 as the committee have been sharing out the role of Chairperson for a couple of years now as no volunteers have come forward to take on the role.
As the society was started at the YMCA in Thornley Street it was obviously logical that the meetings would also be held there. This building was named after it’s benefactor, Percy Thomas. Whilst it is common practice nowadays for sporting arena to name some stands after previous owners/players it would have been very unusual in the 1950’s to name a venue after a still living benefactor. The YMCA offered lots of different activities, including dancing. It is presumed that the crowd of youngsters are queueing for a dance not a Horticultural Society meeting.
For reasons that are not exactly clear the Society decided to move it’s HQ for the fortnightly talks to the Molineux Hotel from the winter of 1954. This initially proved successful with an average of 80 members attending each session. However, the move resulted in a complaint from the Society president, Percy Thomas. He was the only founding member to remain on the committee and seems to have been elected president from day one. He was upset that the Society had moved from the YMCA, a building that he was clearly very involved with as it was named after him. He has been described as its benefactor in various publications and was also President of the YMCA as well as the Horticultural Society. Presumably as a result of his grievance the Society moved back to the YMCA in the following year.
The YMCA building in Thornley Street continued as the HQ of the Society until it was apparently demolished or disused in the 1970’s. The previous building was replaced by YMCA flats which still exist on the site but have now become student accommodation for the university.
The Society moved its base for talks and meetings to either the Study or Committee rooms at the Central Library in 1970 for talks and committee meetings. By 1972 the Society was down to 57 members and a Novice cup was introduced for the Show Table to encourage members who had not previously won a trophy.
The rooms Numbered 1 and 2 at the Town Hall are recorded as being used briefly used for meetings and the September Show table during 1981-1982 but the Society had moved to the Horticultural Unit at Highfields School in January 1983, mostly thanks to the involvement of the Head of Horticulture teacher, Phil Healey. This remained the Society base until 1991 when the Society followed Mr Healey to his new place of work, The Cedars on the Compton Road. The Society remained at the Cedars until Wolverhampton Council made changes to the venue which resulted in the Society losing access to the kitchen, problems with electricity and car parking. The upshot was that the Society felt it necessary to to move to it’s current location at Beckminster Church Hall in 2002.
Seventy years later, the Society still holds regular meetings (monthly now – Covid permitting) and talks at Beckminster Church Hall which are hopefully still of an educational nature. The Annual Show in September continues to thrive, with nearly 400 exhibits in 2019, and after a lapse of several years the Society are now arranging garden visits in the summer. Primarily for administrative ease members voted to amend the Society’s name to Wolverhampton Horticultural Society in 2011 but still welcome members from across the region.
Communication with members seems to have been conducted at the monthly meetings as there is no record of any written communications to members. In 1964 the Society launched a monthly newsletter called the Grapevine. This document provided a resume of each month’s meeting detailing news items, planned visits/activities and a summary of that month’s talk. This newsletter regularly had 3 to 4 pages and was posted to members so must have been quite a financial burden on the Society. The technology used for printing appears to have initially been a Spirit Duplicator as the first years of production were well before the invention of photocopiers.
As membership declined this obviously had an impact on finances so it was decided in July 1982 that the Grapevine would henceforth be published bi-monthly rather than monthly. The newsletter was discontinued in 1992 for reasons that are not clear but seems most likely due to difficulties in getting someone to produce it.
Communication with members from 1992 onwards was mostly conducted by announcements at the start of each month’s meeting, a practice that has been in place since the start of the society. A noticeboard was provided in May 2005 to display other information and allow members to put up notices.
The Society had a stall/table at the Wolverhampton Council organised Town Show from 2004 to 2006 with varying degrees of interest mostly dependent upon where the stall was positioned.
A website for the Society was first set up in 2011and this has been under increased development since then. During the Covid restrictions it has been used to maintain contact with members through monthly online competitions and now regular receives over 100 “hits” each month.
The majority of members now have an email address and a Society email was created as a means of improving communications. Members are notified of upcoming talks and other activities via email.
As the Covid restrictions prevented the Society from holding formal meetings a number of Zoom meetings were held between 2020 and 2022. Some of these were held in conjunction with the Tender Shoots Garden Network and were very helpful in maintaining interest from members during the restrictions. Normal meetings were able to resume in March 2022.
If you have any early photographs or memorabilia relating to the Society we would be pleased to share it.