How it all started
The North of England Horticultural Society (NEHS) was inaugurated in the Lord Mayor's Rooms, Leeds, on 6 January 1911.
The purpose of the new society was to promote horticulture in the north of England, providing a top class showcase for plants and produce grown in the colder northern climate.
Help and encouragement was provided in these early stages by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), whose London-based events were then regarded as too far away for northern growers to attend.
The newly formed NEHS held monthly meetings, which included a show and lecture, in Leeds, Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and Harrogate. When the meeting was held in Leeds Town Hall an organ recital was included in the admission price of one shilling, reduced after 5pm to sixpence!
The society flourished in the early years but, with the onset of the First World War in 1914, its activities were suspended. It was revived in 1920 and, with the backing of the Harrogate Chamber of Trade, staged a successful show in the town’s Old Winter Gardens in Harrogate (the present day site of the Lounge Hall). From then on, all meetings and shows were held in Harrogate and the NEHS quickly became associated with the town.
From 1927, the society concentrated its efforts on staging spring and autumn shows each year, staging its first show in Harrogate’s famous Valley Gardens in 1934.
Dig for Victory
During the Second World War, the society’s activities were again suspended, though it did compile and publish a free "Dig for Victory" pamphlet. The shows resumed in April 1947 but, due to post war austerity and restrictions, remained comparatively small. A regular visitor during this period was HRH the Princess Mary, Princess Royal, who took a keen interest in the work of the society and became its Patron in 1950.
The NEHS held its first ‘Flower Academy’ in 1953. Three years later the event was incorporated into the spring show and became the forerunner for what is now the biggest exhibition of flower arranging and floristry in Britain.
In 1976, the society introduced an entirely new concept. The National Dahlia Society and the National Chrysanthemum Society, along with seven other gardening societies and the North East Area of the National Society of Flower Arrangement Societies (NAFAS), came together to hold ‘shows within a show’, under the title of the Great Autumn Flower Show.
Show within a show
Today the Harrogate Autumn Flower Show still hosts a range of ‘shows within a show’ and features displays by nearly 20 different specialist gardening groups, including the Northern Branch of the National Vegetable Society. Indeed, it was the need to expand the autumn show that prompted its relocation, in 1995, from the Exhibition Halls in Harrogate to the Great Yorkshire Showground. The show now attracts nearly 40,000 people each year and is widely regarded as Europe’s premier autumn gardening event. The success of the move paved the way for the spring show to follow two years later.
The new venue enabled the rapid expansion of both shows and the introduction of many popular new features. Crafts, gifts and specialist foods were added to the list of attractions, along with live talks and demonstrations in the Plot to Pot Cookery Theatre, Dig It Garden Theatre and Kitchen Garden Live.
The NEHS celebrated its centenary in 2011 with the launch of its first outdoor spring show gardens and a new giant vegetable competition in the autumn. Since then, the Society has also celebrated its 40th autumn flower show and continues to develop the events with new features, such as Inspiration Street autumn show gardens and new How2 practical gardening demonstrations. It also continues to forge further community links with the launch of a new grant scheme supporting over 40 projects across the north of England.
Since their early days as small provincial produce shows, the NEHS Harrogate Flower Shows have grown to become major national events in the gardening calendar. Testament to the shows’ success and popularity is their recent rating among Britain’s top gardening events by readers of Which?Gardening, who ranked the Harrogate Spring Flower Show number one in the country, and the Autumn Flower Show number three.