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- The Society of York Florists, 1768-1804
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The Society of York Florists was founded in 1768 in York, possibly as a re-foundation of the Royal Society of Gardeners of York who were known to have held a ‘florists feast’ in the city as early as 1739 and thereafter exhibited flowers at their annual shows.
At its foundation the society declared that "happiness being the ultimate aim proposed by the Society" this would be obtained through "the cultivation of flowers.’ This was a sentiment in keeping with the contemporary meaning of the word ‘florist’ as someone who cultivated plants to a high standard for their beauty alone, rather than the more modern definition of someone who sells cut flowers and plants. More than 200 people signed its founding rules, including such notable York citizens as the Quaker philanthropist William Tuke, Charles Yarburgh of Heslington Hall, and John and George Telford who ran the celebrated nursery on Tanners Row, York. The rules stipulated that six stewards were to be elected annually, three of whom would then be chosen as judges to judge flowers entered by members at a show held before the annual Florists Feast.
The first annual show and feast was held on 20th April 1768 at the Sand Hill Inn on Colliergate and prizes were awarded in three categories; best hyacinth, polyanthus and auricula. These annual shows continued to be held at the Sand Hill Inn until 1777 when its proprietor Mr Sedgewick, a founder member of the Society, died.
Between 1777 and 1856 meetings were held at Mr Baynes’ Coffee House on Petergate and a number of hotels in the city. During this period the Society underwent a number of changes. Around 1804 the Society acquired the moniker ‘Ancient’, possibly in reaction to the foundation of the Royal Horticultural Society in that same year. There is also evidence of expansion. In the 1820s the records show evidence of vegetable and gooseberry shows being held by the Society as well as an annual show of tulips and geraniums in May and, from 1829, a further late summer show for the showing of dahlias.
There were also changes to the Society’s administration and finance. In 1825 an annual subscription of 5 shillings a year was introduced for members with growers paying an additional guinea for the right to show. Those not paying a subscription were required to pay one shilling per flower when entering the shows. In the same year the Society also introduced a new series of registers in which to record the details of its committee meetings and finances, separating these for the first time from the details of its annual shows, judges and prize giving which had hitherto been recorded in the same volume.
In 1856 the City Council offered the Society the use of the Guild Hall and this became one of the principal venues for the annual shows until 1983. The Society’s activities continued to expand. In 1869 a new class was introduced, ‘Window Gardening for the Working Classes’ with no entry fee and prizes offered for best fuschia, best geranium, best bulbous plant or other of the exhibitor’s choice. In 1872 a summer exhibition was held in the grounds of the Yorkshire Museum by arrangement with the Yorkshire Philosophical Society and from 1879 there was also an annual Chrysanthemum show held in November.
By the turn of the twentieth century the Society had an annual revenue of £1000 and a membership of 800, enjoying the patronage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. The Society proceedings of 1911-1912 show a highly organised body with separate executive, finance, floral and entertainment committees.
The First World War brought a temporary halt to its annual shows (only one show was held 1914-1918) but as allotments were turned over to vegetable production the Society adapted, including vegetable classes in its usual schedule.
Following the war traditional gentry and aristocratic support for horticulture societies declined but in its place came the rise of the amateur gardener. In the interwar period schoolchildren were increasingly encouraged to show and in 1926 a window box competition was introduced to the annual summer shows. The involvement of the ‘allotment gardener’ had the keen support of local businesses such as Terry’s of York and Rowntree; in 1926 Messrs Rowntree donated four gold medals to the Society.
In 1963 the annual subscription charge was raised from 5 shillings a year to 7 shillings and sixpence per year for men, 5 shillings for women, and two shillings and sixpence for schoolchildren. The annual schedule of shows for 1970 shows that in addition to their traditional flower and vegetable classes the Society had by then incorporated classes for pot plants, fruit, floral art and ladies cookery and handicrafts. Shows were held in Museum Rooms or the De Grey Rooms in Exhibition Square until in 1983 when a fire in the De Grey Rooms caused the Society to move its shows permanently from the city centre to Kingsway Junior School. In 1991 Mr K. Bowser raised a gold centred alpine auricula which he named ‘Ancient Society’ in honour of the Society and in 2010 the site of its first show at the Sand Hill Inn was commemorated with a plaque by the York Civic Trust.
Today the Society holds four shows a year. The shows are held in spring, summer and autumn, with an additional late Chrysanthemum show in October, and classes are included for flowers, fruit and vegetables, floral art, baking, handicrafts and photography with competitions for both adults and children.
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The Ancient Society of York Florists, 'Bi-Centenary Souvenir History of the Society' (York, 1968).
Penelope Dawson Brown, ‘The Ancient Society of York Florists’ in Country Life Magazine (July 1997).
A. S. Robinson, 'The Ancient Society of York Florists, A Potted History 1768-1993' (York 1993).