Shaky start: The launch of the first national rose show

Shaky start: The launch of the first national rose show

On the eve of the London Rose Show I thought I would share an amusing (by Victorian standards) account of the first national rose exhibition, which took place in the capital in July 1858.


It was the brainchild of the rosarian cleric Dean Reynolds Hole, who was upset that other flowers had exhibitions dedicated purely to them, but not the rose.

“There deepened in my heart an indignant conviction that the flower of flowers did not receive its due share of public honours,” he wrote later in A book about Roses.

Samuel Reynolds Hole, from Vanity Fair 1895

In April 1857 he suggested in The Florist magazine the idea of a GRAND NATIONAL ROSE SHOW – “a feast of Roses, at which the whole brotherhood might meet in love and unity, to drink, out of cups of silver, success to the Queen of Flowers”.

He waited with bated breath for a response. “I felt confident that the world would be pleased… Should I be chaired at the London flower-shows? Perhaps I should be made a baronet. For some days after the publication of the magazine I waited anxiously at home. I opened my letters nervously, but the public made no sign. Had it gone wild with joy? Or were its emotions too deep for words? Weeks passed and it was still mute.”

So he wrote to the country’s leading rosarians – Rivers, Paul and Turner – to ask if they would help him organise the event. To Hole’s delight, all three wrote back quickly in assent. “I remember that in the exuberance of my joy I attempted foolishly a perilous experiment, which quickly ended in bloodshed – I began to whistle in the act of shaving.”

The four met in Piccaddilly to organise the event. Each put forward £5 and then others joined till there was £200 in the kitty – £156 of prize money was proposed, 36 silver cups ordered and 30 guineas splashed out on booking St James’s Hall. On the day of the exhibition carpenters and labourers invaded the hall in the early hours to set up long tables covered in baize ready for the exhibitors to set up.

“Half the nurseries of England poured their treasures into St James’s Hall” – Dr Lindley wrote in the Gardener’s Chronicle afterwards. All was set.

Lawrence Hall, home of this year’s London Rose Show

As he stepped forward to open the doors, Hole was understandably nervous. Clearly, he was also worried that they had spent more than was perhaps prudent.

“Would the public endorse our experiment? Would the public appreciate our Show? There was a deficiency of £100 in our funds for the expenses of the exhibition were £300; and as a matter both of feeling and finance I stood by the entrance as the clock struck two, anxiously to watch the issue. No long solicitude. More than fifty shillings – I humbly apologise – more than fifty intelligent and good-looking individuals were waiting for admission; and these were followed by continous comers until the Hall was full. A gentleman who earnestly asked my pardon for having placed his foot on mine, seemed perplexed to hear how much I liked it, and evidently thought that my friends were culpable in allowing me to be at large. Great indeed was my gladness in seeing those visitors – more than 2,000 in number – but far greater in hearing their hearty words of surprise and admiration.”

The roses exhibited even “defied and defeated with their delicious perfume the foul smell which at that time invaded London from the Thames.”

In this sister blog you can read the story of how a group of gardening framework knitters in Nottingham converted Hole into a rose lover.

How Reynolds Hole fell in love with roses

How Reynolds Hole fell in love with roses

Rose competitions take place across the world each year – the World Federation of Rose Societies has 39 member countries. It may be tenuous to suggest they all owe their existence to an event that happened above a small pub in Nottingham over 150 years ago, but it is a good story, so forgive a little exaggeration.


Samuel Reynolds Hole was the vicar of Caunton, a small parish near Newark in Nottinghamshire in the 1850s. One day in early April he received a note from a mechanic in Nottingham, inviting him to assist in judging an Easter Monday rose exhibition by local working men.

Samuel Reynolds Hole, later Dean of Rochester, pictured in his book of memoirs, 1892.

Though he had a large garden, Hole did not own a single rose and knew little about them. His first assumption was that he was the victim of an April’s Fool hoax. He wrote back somewhat sarcastically asking what roses bloomed in April in Nottingham and no-where else. “By return of post, I was informed, with much more courtesy than I had any claim to, that the Roses in question were grown under glass – where and how, the growers would be delighted to show me, if I would oblige them by my company.”

On a “raw and gusty day” he stepped on to the train to Nottingham, wrapped in a rug and nursing a foot-warmer against the cold. At the station he jumped into a hansom cab and asked to be taken to the General Cathcart Inn – a street corner pub in St Ann’s (one of about 50 demolished during the slum clearances of the 1960s and 1970s) – where he was warmly welcomed by the landlord, who was wearing a glowing red Senateur Vaisse rose pinned to his coat. Others similarly clamoured round to extend greetings. He was told the roses were ready and invited upstairs to judge – while the exhibitors waited downstairs anxiously.

What followed was to be a road to Damascus experience for Hole.

“I mounted and entered one of those long narrow rooms in which market-ordinaries are wont to be held, wherein the Odd-Fellows, the Foresters and the Druids meet in mysterious conclave, and where during the race-week and the pleasure-fair there is a sound of the viol and the mazy dance. What a contrast now! The chamber, whose normal purpose was clamour and chorus from crowded men, we found empty, hushed and still; the air on other public occasions hot with cooked meats and steaming tumblers, heavy with the smoke and smell of tobacco, was cool and perfumed; and the table – you could not see its homely surface of plain deal … for it was covered from end to end with beautiful and fragrant Roses! … A prettier sight, a more complete surprise of beauty, could not have presented itself on that cold and cloudy morning.”

Hole describes his first encounter in “A book about Roses”, first published in 1869. This is an 1877 revised sixth edition.

He recounted how despite many years spent subsequently judging and exhibiting roses, including launching the first National Rose Show, he never saw better specimens of some roses than were exhibited that morning by these workmen, many of them impoverished framework knitters.

Hole always had a mischievous sense of humour and later became a hugely popular writer. His prose still has the power to amuse today and it is worth looking out for a copy of his Book about Roses.

Even in his state of euphoria he noted wryly that some exhibits did not quite match their illustrious company. “I cannot forget a small and sickly exposition of Paul Ricaut, who, by some happy coincidence, which warmed my whole body with laughter, was appropriately placed in a large medicine-bottle, with a label, requesting that the wretched invalid might be well rubbed every night and morning. Poor Paul! a gentle touch would have sent him to pot-pourri!”

The Reynolds Hole rose – rare to find today.

Afterwards, when the judging was over and the men had rushed to see who had won, several invited him back to their gardens. Many of them had allotments on the edge of town and were growing roses in greenhouses to sell in Manchester and Liverpool. But the rest of the story can wait till another day.

Suffice to say that he was sent home clutching a bouquet. Within a week he had placed his first order of a dozen roses and before long … well, let’s leave it to Hole himself to tell us:

“Year by year my enthusiasm increased. … my Roses multiplied from a dozen to a score, from a score to a hundred from a hundred to a thousand, from one to five thousand trees. They came into my garden a very small band of settlers, and speedily, after the example of other colonists, they civilised all the former inhabitants from off the face of the earth… They routed the rhubarb, they carried the asparagus with resistless force, they cut down the raspberries to a cane. They annexed that vegetable kingdom, and they retain it still.”


Banner image – Hungerhill Gardens, St Ann’s Nottingham, c 1860’s – Nottingham City Council (photo credit Picture the past)

Weigela – plant hunting in China

Weigela – plant hunting in China

Scottish botanist Robert Fortune (1812-1880) was perhaps the most successful of the 19th century plant hunters. In three trips to China between 1843 and 1847 he sent back as many as 200 plants, including weigela.

Robert Fortune – it has been estimated that he smuggled 20,000 plants out of China.

For centuries China was closed to Western travellers. The Opium Wars resulted in it being forced to open several ports to British merchants. In 1842 Fortune was commissioned by the Horticultural Society (the forerunner of the Royal Horticultural Society) to take advantage of this to go and seek exotic plants to send back to Britain.

Even given China’s submission to the gunship diplomacy of the British Empire, this was no easy task. As a Westerner he often attracted large crowds (and tells of having his pockets picked). With Imperial hauteur, he described his technique for escape: “I walked on towards the hills and began to ascend them – a plan which I always adopted when I wanted to get away from the Chinese, as they are generally too lazy to follow far, where much exertion is required.” (Some might say the observation equally applies to the British today, as anyone will testify who has fled the crowds swamping Bakewell on a Bank Holiday by the simple expedient of heading out to the hills and away from the pie shops.)

Often Fortune found himself on the wrong end of more than just curious jostling. At one point he was violently robbed, escaping narrowly with his life. On another, a junk he was travelling on came under fire from pirates. He escaped only by threatening to kill his cowering Chinese crew to force them to make good their flight and then shooting dead a number of the pirates as their boats closed in.

The East India Company iron steam ship Nemesis, with boats from the Sulphur, Calliope, Larne and Starling, destroying Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay, 7 January 1841.

Several voyages almost ended in disaster because of incredible storms, and his journeys to the interior had to be done in disguise, with him pretending to be a traditional Chinese man – complete with shaved head and ponytail – as no Westerner was allowed more than a day’s walk from the treaty ports.

His most famous accomplishment was smuggling tea plants out of China to India – and the knowledge of how to process the crop – making possible the Indian tea industry.

Fortune, who also travelled to Japan, was responsible for discovering many plants found in gardens today, including forsythias, lilacs, winter jasmine, skimmia japonica, several varieties of rhododendron, honeysuckle, clematis and paeonies. He also introduced at least half a dozen roses – it will be interesting to see how important they were in the development of our modern varieties.

In 1844 he visited the island of Chusan (between the Chinese mainland and Japan), where he came across weigela in the garden of a Chinese mandarin.

He considered it one of the most beautiful shrubs of Northern China. “It was loaded with its noble rose-coloured flowers, and was the admiration of all who saw it, both English and Chinese.*

More than 170 years later, looking at the two pretty weigela cultivars in my garden – a variegated pink, and a dark crimson – all loaded with flowers, I cannot help feeling admiration too. I have more mixed emotions about Fortune.

Weigela florida ‘variegata’

Arguably racist, by today’s standards, and a horticultural thief and spy on an industrial scale, his fortune was probably the misfortune of many others. However, by destroying the Chinese tea monopoly he created a huge industry in India and encouraged the English passion for the drink that exists today. Our gardens are immeasurably the richer for his efforts too. Hero or villain? I will hold judgement until I have seen more evidence.


*Robert Fortune – Three years’ wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China

When potatoes were illegal

When potatoes were illegal

Introduced from South America by the Spanish in the 16th century, potatoes were considered by the French to cause leprosy. In fact, between 1748 and 1772 it was illegal to grow or eat potatoes in France.


One of the factors behind distrust of the pomme de terre was that it grew underground – in popular culture there was a hierarchy of foods in which the closer to heaven an animal or plant lived the nearer to God it was in the great “chain of being”.

To be fair to the French, the potato is part of the solanaceae family which includes – as well as tomatoes – deadly nightshade. Only its tubers are edible and in the 16th and 17th century potatoes are said to have had much more poisonous solanine content than they do today.

They were also much smaller. The Incas, who were remarkable in their construction of irrigated mountain terrace gardens, are claimed to have always eaten the biggest tubers, leading to progressively smaller potatoes.

So perhaps potatoes were a little unappetising to the sophisticated French palette in the 1700s. But that was all to change.

In 1771, during the Seven Year war with England, a French medical army officer, Antoine-Augustine Parmentier (1737-1813), was captured by the Prussians. He and his fellow prisoners were forced to cultivate and eat potatoes and to their surprise did not catch leprosy. In fact, they rather enjoyed them.

On his return to France, Parmentier campaigned successfully to have the potato law overturned.

As Adam Smith noted in the Wealth of Nations in 1776:

“An acre of potatoes will produce six thousand weight of solid nourishment, three times the quantity produced by the acre of wheat… with less expence…”

Despite its known value as a crop, the potato was still viewed with sceptism and anxiety in France, even after the change in the law. Parmentier, however, was an early PR master.

Legend has it the Shetland Black potato was washed ashore from a sunken Armada warship in 1588. Grown in my garden and washed in the colander, they look stunning.

On one occasion he presented a bouquet of potato flowers to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. On another, he grew a field of potatoes and surrounded it with armed guards, suggesting they were protecting valuable goods.

He then instructed the guards to accept all bribes from civilians and to withdraw at night so the greedy crowd could “steal” the harvest.

His stunts worked. Within 20 years the French were growing potatoes widely and had invented chips.

It should be noted that the French didn’t have the same reticence in embracing chocolate, another import introduced to Europe from South America. In the 1700s it was traditional to fast before morning Mass. A whole host of foods were proscribed but as chocolate was a relatively new introduction it escaped classification, so even priests began to drink it first thing in the morning, perhaps explaining why still today hot chocolate is a popular breakfast drink in France.

From potatoes to sugar beet

Coming back to Parmentier, he went on to became Inspector General of the Health Service in France, establishing the first mandatory smallpox vaccination campaign (under Napoleon in 1805) and pioneering the extraction of sugar from sugar beet – a campaign which had widespread political and social implications.

Voltaire’s Candide and Cacambo meeting a maimed slave near Suriname. The caption says, “It is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe”. The slave that utters the remark has had his hand cut off for getting a finger stuck in a millstone and his leg removed for trying to run away.

In the 18th century the French and British held a monopoly over global sugar supply from their highly profitable cane slave plantations in the West Indies. In 1740 a German chemist, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, had discovered that crystals formed in beetroot syrup were the same as those in sugar cane but it took more research into extraction and development of the White Silesian beet (which had higher sugar content) for beet as a source of sugar to really take off (today it accounts for two fifths of global supply).

During the Napoleonic wars a blockade by the British Navy of the French West Indies led to Napoleon supporting Parmentier’s sugar beet campaign and more farmers growing the crop. With sugar now available from beet and cane the long term result was inevitably oversupply. This weakened the position of the slave owners. Protectionist beet producers happily added to their woes by joining the emancipation movement, helping to secure the end of slavery in the French colonies.

And thus, Parmentier can be credited with contributing towards the fall of slavery and the invention of French fries. Not many can boast such a fruitful life – a true horticultural hero.


Banner image – Portrait of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier by François Dumont