As told by Arthur Robinson. Life member
"Let's start at the very beginning...
The Ancient Society of York Florists is a unique society for several reasons:
· it is the oldest existing horticultural society, predating any other society; its records dating back to 1768 are available for inspection
· it is the only society retaining the word 'florists' in its title, which refers back to the time when only florists' flowers were accepted as exhibits, a florist being a person who grew flowers for their beauty and not a seller of cut flowers as it is today
The Society started life on 20 April 1768 and at this time only six florists' flowers were accepted. However in the nineteenth century other societies were formed and other flowers were introduced into the shows. Dahlias and chrysanthemums were imported and they soon became very popular 'show stoppers'. The Ancient Society included the introductions but did not succumb to becoming a specialist society but instead increased the number of shows to cater for the newcomers. This prevails today and we are therefore entitled to mix with the more traditional plant societies (at the Harrogate Shows), as having exhibited their flowers years before they even existed!
The Society can boast that it still uses the Royal Coat of Arms from the Queen Anne period on its documents etc. Also it had Royal patronage again when King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra were patrons of the Society for many years up to their death.
The Society's heyday
The heyday of the Society was towards the end of the nineteenth century and it may be of interest to quote a few reports of the type of shows the Society staged. A report in the Gardeners' Chronicle dated 29 November 1890:
"The Ancient Society of York Florists' Chrysanthemum show, 19 - 21 November, was arranged in the spacious Exhibition Building. Groups were arranged both in circles and semi-circles affording a pleasing change from the usual style. The list of prize winners showed that the majority of awards went to gardeners of titled and landed gentry from many parts of the country."
A report on 25 November 1896 of the Society's Chrysanthemum Show included:
"The orchestra was tastefully adorned with palms and shrubs and presented a picturesque appearance. There was a dense fog in the evening of Friday and cabs and omnibuses etc were unable to run."
The Society at this period was one of the most prestigious societies in the north of England.
The 1914-18 war had a serious effect on life and the repercussion was a decline in the support shown by the nobility towards horticultural shows. Fortunately for the York Society, the seeds of cultivating chrysanthemums had been sown and members of the working classes were prepared to take over. They were, in the main, allotment holders and chrysanthemum growing became a way of life.
The Chrysanthemum Era
Surprisingly, the majority of the chrysanthemum growers worked allotments in the Bootham Stray area in York. As was the norm, every grower had a greenhouse with a potting shed attached and the usual coke boiler. It is an acknowledged fact that the material for the construction of the buildings was by the courtesy of the North Eastern Railway or Rowntrees, materials being brought out as scrap. The railway crossed the road at the entrance to the allotments and allotment holders replenished their stock of coke etc. from the bunker at the crossing keeper's cabin. This became an accepted practice.
A very good chrysanthemum grower who is not with us now was brought up growing chrysanthemums on these allotments. There were four sons and they all had a job to do. This one had to do the watering. He worked for a local pork butcher and he regularly brought buckets of blood for feeding the plants, His father had grown a superb crop of tomatoes and it had been arranged for the Civic Party to attend and be photographed for the local paper. He decided he would give the tomatoes a 'proper feed' and did without diluting the blood. His father went the next day to open up for the big occasion and was confronted with a sight of all the leaves on his tomatoes hanging limply down. Walter never said what happened to him but he survived to become a first rate chrysanthemum exhibitor.
Another very enthusiastic chrysanthemum grower (who is still growing a few!) relates how he was preparing to show at Sheffield in his early days. He had a bright idea and arranged for a pal who had a motor cycle and box sidecar to take him and his exhibits. The chrysanthemums were placed in the sidecar and off they went to Sheffield. They arrived, looked down and all the buckets were full but with stalks only - all the flower heads had been scattered far afield.
I also recall my biggest mistake. At one of the shows, one of the top exhibitors telephoned to say that he could not get transport. I volunteered and although he was a bit sceptical he accepted my offer. I took two or three of his buckets of blooms to the school. With difficulty I unloaded them and as I was about to close the boot, the wind blew the door which took six of the flower heads off. I have left the exhibitors to deal with their own blooms since. The Society's shows at this period were accepted as one of the best in the north. Membership included names which will still be remembered today ie. Podmore, Hewitson, Bros, Ken Brown and Cyril Barnes.
Back to the present
Fashions change with the times and although the Society still includes chrysanthemums in the September and November shows, they do not dominate the scene as they once did. The four shows cater for all tastes, and after looking around all the colourful exhibits (at the Harrogate Show), the York Society Shows include them all.
...and the future?
With such a history this Society must not be allowed to perish and it is hoped that if you have managed to read these few lines you will be encouraged to support it. Shows are usually held on a Sunday with staging facilities on the Saturday. The Conference Hall at Askham Bryan College is a magnificent venue and everyone visiting sings its praises and remarks how it shows off the exhibits and creates a marvellous spectacle. Our aim is to make everyone feel welcome whether you are a top grade exhibitor, a regular local shower or someone who would like to participate for the first time."