As the society began with a flower show I decided to see what I could find out about Victorian flower shows. As it all began with a clergyman I wondered if organising flower shows was common practice within the church of England. So I searched through the Church Times archives from 1865 to 1895.
There was some interesting correspondence from 1868 criticising the extravagance of women`s attire in church, which would be improper for a woman even at a flower show. There were also numerous advertisements and accounts of flower shows, sometimes in villages, often in poor parishes in the East End of London, usually held in the school room, with an eminent gardener as judge, the vicar saying a few words to suit the occasion and a member of the aristocracy giving the prizes. The reports often expressed surprise about the quality of the exhibits, given the conditions in which they were cultivated. In fact – they were very similar to the reports of the New Springs Floral Society shows in the Wigan Observer.
One piece about St Philips Clerkenwell from 1868 includes a touching story of a geranium exhibited by a child which would have done credit to any suburban garden; “and this instance is deserving of record, for the sun is so rare a visitor to the alley in which the exhibitor exists that the plant had to be moved three times a day in order to secure a share of its beneficent rays.”
In April 1866, J H Hartley from St George`s mission in East London wrote a letter to the Church Times to encourage those interested in church work to organise a flower show. He had introduced the idea at the Local Men`s Club and despite being laughed at initially had put on a lecture about window gardening. He had used several publications: “Window Gardening for the People” by the Rev. S Hadden-Parkes, “The Science of Window Gardening” by W H Bosanquet, and a sheet of “Hints of Window Gardening” published by the Journal of Horticulture. From this they got their rules and information about the kind of flowers and plants likely to survive in the London courts and alleys and directions as to how to proceed. So, it would appear that shows of window plants were quite a tradition in Victorian times.
The writer strongly recommended that all who had anything to do with flower shows should be very careful about the conditions and rules of the show to prevent any quarrelling and disagreement about the prizes. Apparently, even though they had a gardener to judge who had never been in the parish before, they had “failed to give satisfaction to all.” In this too NSHS seems to have followed tradition, when, in 1882, there was a report of an objection made to the committee by one exhibitor against some plants of two other exhibitors. Several gentleman were asked to enquire into the matter, who found that the objections were unfounded, so maybe NSFS had been very careful about the rules and conditions of their show. The writer was sure he “did not need to add one word as to the value and importance of these flower shows amongst the poor of our crowded city, as it must commend itself at once.” He certainly makes the assumption that all readers of the church times would agree that it would be beneficial to organise a flower show in a poor parish.
So the New Springs Floral Society was not an original idea of the Rev. James. Flower shows organised by clergy were common occurrences in Victorian times, and he may have had experience of organising one previously. He is almost certain to have visited one. I imagine that he read the Church Times, and he may have read the publications about window gardening cited by J H Hartley in his letter.