‘It was landed gentry now it’s people with patios’ – garden society marks 175 years
- Credit: Graham Pettitt
A Norfolk horticultural society whose members have ranged from landed gentry with great estates to working folk with tiny back gardens has celebrated its 175th anniversary, making it one of the oldest in the country.
Diss & District Horticultural Society, which dates back to the 19th century, marked the landmark in suitable style with a special garden party hosted by its longest serving member Ken Jolly and his wife Olive at Heath Farm in Winfarthing.
The first record of the society is in the Norwich Mercury on 7 May 1831, when the first meeting took place at The King's Head Hotel.
The success of the Norfolk & Norwich Horticultural Society, which is even older having formed in 1829, prompted Diss dignitaries and gentry to form their own society.
Its early meetings read like a who's who of the nobility and gentry around Diss, but 'Cottagers' were also allowed a show table but only if their rent did not exceed £7 per annum or they worked as a gardener.
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They had to produce a certificate from their employer, the parish clergyman or similar person of standing proving they were eligible to enter.
Current society membership secretary Graham Pettitt said: "I have a members list from those early days and it is Lord this and Sir that, Reverend this and Right Reverend that, there aren't too many Mr and Mrs amongst them.
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"Back when it formed it really was the people with big houses and big gardens who were showing off to each other really."
In 1844 the society loosened its members-only policy, and opened its doors to the public with its first flower show. Besides horticultural displays there were entertainments of brass band music and side shows making it a small country show event.
Entry fees ranged from a shilling to a sixpence or threepence, which was expensive considering that a labourer would only be earning a few shillings a week at best.
"I do wonder if the entry fees also surreptitiously provided a class divide, as a labourer would not have that sort of money to spend merely for an entry fee to a show," said Mr Pettitt.
On July 12, 1881 the society held its 37th annual show in the grounds of Hall Hills, and has held public events ever since.
Now with 80 members it hosts two annual shows of flowers, vegetables, floral artistry and handicrafts as well as talks and trips.
Mr Pettitt said: "We don't have quite so many notable people as they did when it first started.
"Today you are not required to have a large garden or employ gardeners as the founders did, merely to enjoy growing plants or gardening. Be it a large plot or a few tubs on a patio."