Hairnets and Harry Wheatcroft – The Chelsea Flower Show in 1973

Reading time 11 minutes

The Beau is a thoughtful chap. For my birthday earlier this week he managed to track down a copy of the Chelsea Flower Show catalogue from the year of my birth, 1973. Whilst the cover design leaves much to be desired, the contents allow me to draw some fascinating comparisons with the modern-day. Most striking is the hike in cost to visit Chelsea. A member’s day ticket, if indeed you can get your hands on one, will now set you back £94.75 – yes, you read that correctly – rather than £1.65 in 1973. Back then, members of the RHS were referred to as ‘Fellows’ and paid £7 per annum for the privilege: an individual membership in 2021 will cost you £65. A show guide will cost you £10 in 2021, rather than 25 pence. For membership, a ticket and a show catalogue, you are looking at spending £169.75 versus £8.90, 19 times the price my parents might have paid to push me around in a pram, had children under five been admitted (heaven forbid!).

Page one of the catalogue features a bold advertisement for the National Westminster Bank proclaiming, very simply, ‘3,300 branches’. Fast forward half a century and the bank we now know as ‘Nat West’ is still going strong, but with fewer than 1,000 branches thanks to cost-cutting and the rise of online banking.

A plan of the show grounds illustrates how much Chelsea has developed. The central marquee, covering 3.5 acres, is roughly the same size as it is now, but the area set aside for show gardens, catering and trade stands is very much smaller.

And so we come to the list of exhibitors. The names Blackmore and Langdon, Edrom, Fibrex, Hillier, Kelway, Lockyer, McBean’s and Suttons are as familiar to keen gardeners now as they were then, but gone are Bees (seeds), Black and Flory (orchids), Englemann (carnations and pansies), Slocock (rhododendrons and azaleas) and, of course, the royal nurserymen, Veitch & Son. (I wonder if anyone reading this post has any recollection of these once mighty bastions of horticulture?) On the whole British rose growers seem to have stood the test of time with Cants, Peter Beales, Harkness and Mattock all still in existence, but sadly minus the eponymous business run by the colourful character that was Harry Wheatcroft, pictured below. I well recall the red and yellow striped rose named in his honour which sits astride this article. This particular aesthetic is no longer de rigueur, but one can still appreciate the bloom’s show-stopping qualities.

Musical entertainment was evidently an important part of any visit to the Chelsea Flower Show in 1973, with the catalogue providing detailed programmes day-by-day and hour-by-hour. On Tuesday 22nd May one might have enjoyed Boieldieu’s ‘Caliph of Baghdad’ followed by music from ‘My Fair Lady’ and Gounod’s ‘Entry of the Queen of Sheba’. Each day’s performance was rounded off at 7pm with a rendition of the National Anthem.

Page 56 of the catalogue outlines the remaining shows of the year, to be held at the Royal Horticultural Society’s new and old halls in Westminster. Throughout the summer and autumn there would be shows and competitions dedicated to irises, pelargoniums, delphiniums, roses, fuchsias, dahlias, heathers and chrysanthemums. The season ended in November with an event dedicated to apples, pears and orchids. Sadly these London shows, which I enjoyed for many years whilst working in the area, have all but fizzled out, replaced by larger regional shows. (The good thing is that these have made the RHS more accessible to the amateur and leisure gardener nationwide.)

A list of ‘Patrons, Council and Officers’ suggests elitism and sexism were alive and well in 1973. Their Most Gracious Majesties The Queen and Queen Mother presided over the Royal Horticultural Society as Patrons, with Lord Aberconway as their President. The list of Vice Presidents includes a Vicomte, a Count, an Earl and two Sirs, albeit with immaculate horticultural pedigrees. The Society’s Treasurer was a Viscount. There was only one woman on a council that numbered sixteen and even that appointment had been hard-won, as here recounted in the book ‘Gardening Women’:

“By the late 1960s, despite the fact that women were now being awarded many of the prestigious RHS medals, there was still no female representation on the society’s council. At the Annual General Meeting of the RHS in 1967 a question was raised as to why this was so. Because, came the answer, there had never been ladies on the council and there were none ‘at present’ who had ‘as useful experience as the men available’. Within days. Enid Bagnold, the writer famous for National Velvet and The Chalk Garden had a letter published in The Times quoting this and suggesting that Gertrude Jekyll must be rolling in her grave…

“Lord Aberconway, then president of the RHS and scion of Bodnant, retorted that this was a ‘little storm in ladies’ teacups’ and that he had been misquoted. ‘We have nothing against the ladies,’ he blustered. ‘As soon as a lady comes to our minds or is suggested informally . . . who can contribute in our view as much as to our multifarious activities as any man available, we shall support her appointment.’ A year later a suitable candidate was elected unopposed: Mrs Frances Perry. When asked to join the council, Perry famously replied: ‘If you want me because I’m a woman, the answer is no, but if you want me because of anything I have done in horticulture, the answer is yes.’

The Queen has famously enjoyed the Chelsea Flower Show throughout her reign. She is pictured here in 1973 with one of her treasured Launer London handbags and surely the most glamorous hairnet ever created, a little black number adorned with black bows. The Queen wore it again and again through the ’70s and ’80s, retiring it briefly before rediscovering its demure attractions in 2011 and again in 2012. 

Naturally, half of the catalogue is devoted to advertisements of the kind you’d expect today, imploring the reader to purchase a new greenhouse, shed, set of garden furniture or lawnmower. Halls’ ‘New Wing’, billed as a ‘home extension’, suggests that our struggle with finding enough space to work and play is not such a contemporary problem. Their solution looks as smart and stylish as anything on the market now. Meanwhile, the ‘Beatrice All Electric Barbecue’ with 24ft heavy duty cable makes the mind boggle, and if that’s not dangerous enough the ‘Revyvor’ chair in its ‘recuperating’ position is likely to send a fatal rush of blood to your head. Several nurseries proclaim the golden Leyland cypress, Cupressocyparis leylandii ‘Castlewellan Gold’, ‘Plant of the Year’. Indeed this conifer went on to be widely planted as hedging in the 70s and 80s, often to be found looking dazzling at the top and brown at the bottom.

In some ways the Chelsea Flower Show has changed greatly – for example, show gardens seem to have received very little fanfare back in 1973 – in other ways the descriptions in the catalogue feel comfortingly familiar. Whether we shall get to enjoy the show in 2021 remains to be seen. Our tickets have been rolled over from 2020’s cancelled event, so if it’s on, I expect we shall be there. If I sew a handful of black bows onto my face mask I might even start a new trend. TFG.

Image of Rosa ‘Harry Wheatcroft’ from The National Gardening Association website.

Two showgoers in 1973 demonstrating the need to dress for every weather when visiting Chelsea! (source unknown)

Categories: Book Reviews, Chelsea flower show, Flower Shows, Flowers, history, RHS London Shows

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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21 comments On "Hairnets and Harry Wheatcroft – The Chelsea Flower Show in 1973"

  1. OMG the best birthday present ever! Well done John to find such a treasure! How fabulous to be able to get here today with yesteryear. I had so had my heart set on being there in 2021 with you, but it’s looking very grim at the moment anyway onwards and upwards let’s plan for a fabulous

  2. I remember Harry Wheatcroft so well. When I was about 10 my dad planted a rose garden, consisting of 4 beds each with one be rose variety. Unfortunately one variety did not arrive and my dad sent a letter suggesting that Mr Wheatcroft should stop wearing his spectacles round his neck and look at his order book with them on. We did get the roses!

  3. My god that’s so interesting! I love old catalogues, programmes, etc – a snapshot of the time! I wonder how many people used to go then? Less that the 170k that go now I bet! So sad that we have lost so many of those nurseries that used to go now! Despite tickets still being on sale, I really can’t see it happening this year sadly

    1. Thank you so much Maxine. It’s one of those posts I enjoyed writing but was not certain if anyone would enjoy reading! According to the catalogue, admissions in 1972 were 150,000 ‘including many visitors from overseas’, so not dissimilar to now and without the Saturday.

      I have to agree that this year’s show seems doomed, unless numbers are cut back to a bare minimum. At least one would be able to get a decent look at everything with social distancing in place!

  4. The membership and admission prices are frightening. The RHS was once recognised for its excellence in all matters horticultural and now leads the way in its commercialisation.

    The director of Wisley gave a talk to a local club here in Ireland two years ago which was almost entirely on the commercial management of the gardens, on the ushering of visitors to ensure the greatest retail intake, with very little on the horticultural development of the garden.

    We visited Rosemoor last year, an RHS establishment, and it was clear that, by design, it greatest attraction was the feeding trough they called a restaurant. The gardens certainly did not receive any comparable attention.

    Having said all that, I have always truly enjoyed the Chelsea Flower Show and feel no other show is remotely as good as it.

    I must go now and quietly prune the hydrangeas!

    And, Happy Birthday, young fellow – I hail from 1953!

    1. Another vintage year!

      I am afraid this is the way of the world Paddy. Everything seems to rung dry in order to make profit these days. It’s much the same in retail. I guess what powered the RHS originally was donations from those titled gentlemen. Nowadays it’s the hoi polloi that must foot the bill through admission fees, teas and plant sales.

      I have very mixed feelings about the RHS myself, but it’s a sink-or-swim world out there and I think they are swimming pretty strongly. I’d rather they made a fast buck out of an educated public rather than disappear altogether.

      I hope your hydrangeas are now perfectly groomed and ready for the year ahead. Dan.

      1. There’s was always the feeling about the RHS that it was there for the members; that the members could avail of various services and benefits. Nowadays, it seems to me that the RHS is there to make profit from the members while providing little by way of service other than eating opportunities at their various gardens! The horticulture is slipping.

        The hydrangeas have been finished, job done for this year!

  5. It is actually £8.90 versus £169.75 and if you put £8.90 in an inflation calculator it should be £108.35
    Lovely post, my surname is very close to Harkness and has in fact been that version in the past. My dear departed mum had a forename very close to one of their roses and my dad always planted it in all of our gardens every time we moved house. I should really get one for my garden now

  6. What a fab birthday present and a great post about then and now. At those prices you’ll not get me to Chelsea, too crowded anyway. I prefer to look at gardens without masses of people. 1973 was a good year for me – I worked in Norway for 6 months then travelled overland to India and over to South Africa. As you can tell from that info I am slightly older than you are!

  7. What is with the obsession with the Queen? Why are people in countries that are not even British, such as Canada and Australia, so obsessed with her too? It would be nice if more Americans could figure it out, instead of being so interested in the likes of Kim Kardashian (YUCK!). I mean, the Queen really is pretty and seems to know how to behave herself, . . . and did automotive work during World War II! Of course, back then, people were generally more stylish and gracious, and appreciated such qualities in others. Mr. Wheatcroft’s imperial beard was not so very rare like mine is now. (Mine is actually more like friendly mutton chops than a Viennese imperial beard.) A hoody from Los Angeles (YUCK!) was not something to wear for a photograph like Mr. Beau did.
    Is the map oriented with South toward the top, or are the streets named as they are to compensate for driving on the wrong side of the road, . . . or is The Marquee not the center from which such directions refer to?

  8. The Beau is the best gifter. He outdid himself this year. I love to look back at events that are ongoing especially when your birth date is represented. Amazing how the prices just keep going up and up. It makes me wonder about the way money keeps losing it’s worth as time goes on. Where will it stop?? I wonder if you get your money’s worth at Chelsea. I want to see it some time. I think you certainly should sew black bows on your mask. It would be such a statement. Happy happy…

  9. Love your blogs. Particularly this one about Chelsea and the costs. Chelsea was always on my bucket list and 2020 was the year! So I in January last year I purchased a membership to the RHS, tickets to a members day (Thursday), including the catalogue. There was four nights accommodation in Chelsea, airfares from Australia, (business class – we were going to treat ourselves), I could go on. I’m not game to add it up . . . We were even going to visit Broadstairs.
    Maybe another year. Happy Birthday and take care.

  10. This is the most detailed horticultural historical piece I’ve ever read! It really speaks to your knowledge and experience to be able to write something like this.
    Have you ever thought about how you would run the show if you were in charge?

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