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History of the Orchid Society of Great Britain

70 Years of devotion to orchids

In The Beginning 1951 - 1954

The Amateur Orchid Growers’ Society came into existence on the 10th October 1951, following a meeting at the Royal Horticultural Society in London. John Blowers had been campaigning for such a society for many years.


In 2001 We are very fortunate to have John still playing an active role in the Society. He tells us how it all began...


John Blowers’ account of our founding

The seeds for the founding of the organisation, which was to become the Orchid Society of Great Britain, were first sown in 1937. At that time I was aged 17 and the fourth-in-line journeyman gardener in the greenhouses of His Grace the Duke of Sutherland at Sutton Place, Guildford, Surrey. I lived in a bothy with eight other gardeners who every Friday vied to be first to read the Gardeners’ Chronicle, which, since its first publication in 1845, had become the most informative weekly publication for professional gardeners, My attention always focused on weekly calendar notes about orchids contributed by Ben Hills, orchid grower to the Rothschild family at Exbury near Southampton, After being invalided out of the Royal Air Force I heeded good advice and studied for the Kew Diploma of Horticulture. Among my charges at Kew was the intermediate orchid pit-house where I became enthralled by the lovely oriental orchid, Pleione. Towards the end of my two year term in 1945 I felt sufficiently experienced to write my first article ‘Pleiones Indian Crocuses’. I dispatched it to Charles H. Curtis, the then editor of the Gardeners’ Chronicle and The Orchid Review. It was returned with a short note of thanks and comment: “Pleiones are not considered a subject for The Orchid Review, they are alpine”. I was disappointed and thought it the end of my journalistic career, imagine my astonishment in 1950 when as head gardener and orchid grower at Buxted Park, Uckfield, Sussex, I received a letter from Mr Curtis stating that Ben Hills was retiring and that he would be pleased if I would contribute the weekly orchid notes for the Gardeners’ Chronicle. 1 did this for 16 years along with orchid calendar notes for The Orchid Review. I was also asked to do articles for the Amateur Gardener and Popular Gardening weekly magazines.

I soon began to realise that an organisation was needed to foster the growing interest of an increasing number of amateur growers. With support from editors and from their vast readership, and by personally circulating details to a large number of my correspondents, from whom I received 167 enthusiastic letters of support, I began to perceive that I might have succeeded in forming an amateur orchid society.

In March 1951 the editor, C.J. Curtis wrote in The Orchid Review:

"It is a curious coincidence that Mr Blowers’ attempt to form an orchid society is followed by a reference to a similar attempt by the late Mr de Barri Crawshay 50 years ago. Perhaps Mr Blowers will succeed in a project that failed under the initiative of the dynamic Mr de Barri Crawshay."


Some of my strongest support for an amateur orchid society came from Mr Curtis and together we arranged for a foundation meeting to take place on the 10th October 1951 in the Orchid Room at RHS, Westminster. Twenty-seven people attended and, under the Chairmanship of Mr Curtis, it was resolved to form the Amateur Orchid Growers’ Society.

The minutes of the Foundation Meeting read as follows:

"By correspondence and through the horticultural press Mr Blowers had aroused a great deal of enthusiasm among amateur orchid growers most of whom agreed to support a society. A preliminary meeting was held in the Orchid Committee Room at the RHS, Halls, Westminster, London, on October 10th 1951 at 2:30 pm. Mr C. H. Curtis was elected Chairman and opened the meeting by stating he wanted everyone present to give their opinions as to whether a society should be started. Mr Blowers confirmed a considerable number of people had written to him asking for advice on the culture of orchids. A discussion followed which resulted in a proposal to form “The Amateur Orchid Growers’ Society” After an election for the Officers and a Committee it was proposed that everyone attending this first meeting and paying a minimum fee of half a guinea (10/6) for that distinction shall be known as the Founder Members of the Society."

The Founder Members were listed as: Mr C.H. Curtis, Mr L.S. Murphy, Mr H. Abbott, Mr S.F. Dovey, Mr A.E. Catton, Mr 0. Eigeldinger, Mr E.R.J. Lampard, Mr R.A. Sibley, Mr P. Christian, Mr WJ. Leeming, Mr E.P. Mulvary, Mr J.W. Blowers, Mr Marshall-Harvey, Mr G.G. Geyman, Mr G.A. Dennis, Miss S. McKeinain, Mr and Mrs F. Titchener. (Not all the people present could have paid their half guinea as the vice-President and several members of the inaugural Committee are not listed as Founder Members. Ed.)

Those present elected the following Officers and Committee members:

President: Charles H. Curtis MBE, FLS, VMH

Vice-President: Hon. Mrs N. Ionides

Chairman: John Blowers

Hon. Secretary and Treasurer: E.R.J. Lampard

Advisory Expert: John Blowers

Committee: H. Abbott, S.F. Dovey, G.A. Dennis, W.J. Leeming, L.S. Murphy, R.A. Sibley

Plant Secretary: P. Christian


The annual subscription was fixed at 10 shillings and 6 pence (about 52p).


I made a strong plea for arrangements to maintain contact with enthusiasts too far distant to attend meetings. This led to the Society publishing Bulletin number 1, our first newsletter, which consisted of two A4 sheets, in 1952.


The first meeting of the Society was held in the Floral A Committee Room of the RHS. Mr C.H. Curtis presided and explained the rules of the Society. Several members brought orchids in flower, which were judged by Mr David Sander and myself. Prizes were awarded to Mr G. G. Geyman of Woodford Green for Oncidium crispum and to Mr Lampard of Peckham for Cypripedium (Paphiopedilum) Maudiae. Following the preliminary proceedings Mr David Sander gave the first lecture, the subject being "Orchids and Orchid Culture". This interesting and educational lecture was well received with many questions being asked. In addition to regular meetings it soon became evident that outings by coach to visit commercial nurseries and important private collections would be high on the agenda. The choice was enormous, there being at least 20 prominent professional nurseries and a similar number of large private collections where wealthy owners employed skilled orchid growers, but were much involved and very knowledgeable themselves. In our 50 Anniversary year the Society’s old Bulletins have become an important source of information about these establishments the majority of them have disappeared and become part of the history of the shrinking orchid world in this country.


At the first meeting arrangements were made to visit the orchid nurseries of Messrs Black and Flory at Langley, Slough on Saturday 26 January 1952. The response was very gratifying as more than 40 members went. Peter and Norman Black welcomed the members and acted as guides through the houses. The sowing of seeds and the raising of seedlings in flasks created great interest as did the thousands of seedlings in community pots and up to flowering size. A large batch of Cattleya Bow Bells, a famous white hybrid raised here, was much admired. Paphiopedilums, then called cypripediums, created the greatest interest; there were many Slough-raised hybrids in flower.


The second nursery visit was on 1 April 1952 when thirty members spent an exciting afternoon at the nursery of Stuart Low & Co., Crowborough, Sussex, where there were 29 commercial houses. Three of the largest glasshouses were entirely devoted to orchid species. The company had moved to Crowborough in 1910 to escape the dense smog of London. In the same year they had purchased the pure white Cattleya gigas var. alba ‘Firmin Lambeau’ (now Cattleya warscewiczii var. alba) from the USA, for 2000 guineas. This may have been the reason for Mr S. Henry Low becoming the first Englishman to be invited to judge orchids in the USA. His daughter Eileen Low took control of the nursery in 1924. Eileen became a good friend to the Society and accepted an invitation to write for the Bulletin, her first article being on odontoglossums and odontiodas and was most informative. Bulletin number 2, 1952 was enlarged to 6 pages, and a very popular contributor, "SEM" (the alias for Mr L.S. Murphy), wrote his first article entitled "Some Mistakes I Have Made".


This proved to be a very good start for the Society.


The first Annual General Meeting was held at the RHS Hall on Saturday, 8 March 1953. There was an excellent attendance; reports and statement of accounts for the previous year were accepted. Officers were elected for the coming year with unanimous approval being given to Mr C.H. Curtis being re-elected as President. All other Officers and the Committee were re-elected with the addition of Mr Burrows and Mr R. Grubb.

About 30 plants in flower were brought and judged and 2 awards were given to Cypripedium (Paphiopedilum) Saraband owned by Mr O. Eigeldinger and Cymbidium Pauwelsii owned by Mr E. Burton. A plant exchange was started which later turned into a sales table. Notes for a cultural calendar were introduced in the Bulletin, each written by a member expert in that particular section of the orchid world.


The Bulletin in 1953 reported that the organisers of the Chiswick Horticultural Society had contacted the Society with a request for a display of orchids suitable for beginners, to be staged at their show. This prompted an entry in the Brentford and Chiswick Times as follows:

"One other feature which attracted visitors were the orchids shown by the Amateur Orchid Growers Society. As this is not really the season for orchids, only one -a Cypripedium (Paphiopedilum) Ledouxiae was in bloom, but interested visitors were given every opportunity to examine the many plants and ask questions regarding orchid culture. Those who previously had considered it an expensive hobby learned that although some plants on the stand cost 15 guineas, other specimens could be bought for a few shillings each."


At this time the majority of sales people priced their plants in guineas (1 pound and 1 shilling or £1.05p). I thought this was for the prestige of the orchid but I later found out that there was another reason. The odd shilling (5p) from each guinea was a gratuity for the orchid grower that was traditionally paid to him at Chelsea Flower Show. A few years later when large private collections became commercialised due to heavy taxes and expenses, the bonus disappeared.


It was from these small beginnings, and the early meetings of the Amateur Orchid Growers’ Society, that the Orchid Society of Great Britain came into being. It is strange to think of Britain without a national orchid society, but this was the situation before 1951. Britain was recovering from World War II, food rationing had just come to an end, the Festival of Britain was being held on the South Bank - a greater success than the Millennium Dome and there was an air of optimism and enthusiasm in our lives. It was a fitting year to start a new enterprise, one which has given so much pleasure to so many.


Two long-standing and very hardworking members of the society, Mr Ernie Self (who died in May 2000) and Mr R.W. Payne (Dick) tell the story of the next 5 years.

Ernie Self and Dick Payne 1954 - 1960

Ernie Self

By Bulletin No 9 (1954) the Society was publishing a proper newsletter and there was enough information to fill nine foolscap sheets, which were then folded and stapled. The Editor was John Blowers. By Bulletin No 12 a proper printed cover had appeared but the main body was still duplicated. Advertisements including Charlesworth’s, Armstrong and Brown, Dorset Orchids of Plush, Harry Dixon and Sons can you remember the Dixon brothers complete with bowler hats at Chelsea? Stuart Low, McBean’s and Burnham’s.


Onwards and upwards to 1955, volume 3, number 12, when the first coloured plate appeared. This was of Promenaea citrina ‘Orchidhurst’, donated by Mr & Mrs Grubb. The cost of this plate was greater than the cost of producing the whole issue so the editor doubted if colour would be possible in the future. In volume 4, no. 14 the first black and white photograph appears of the Amateur Orchid Growers’ Society exhibit at the British Orchid Show (it looks as if it is at the Royal Horticultural Society Old Hall). The exhibit consists of a half section of an Orchid House, specially constructed for the Society by C.H. Whitehouse Ltd., with orchids on the bench and under the staging. (C.H. Whitehouse will be producing another half greenhouse for us for our exhibit at London Orchid Show in 2001 Ed.). Articles by leading orchid experts appeared in most issues and many inches of print space were taken up with problems such as red spider mite and scale, all ably edited by John Blowers.


1958 saw major changes in the name, layout and size when the Journal, volume 7, number 1, was born. For the first time it was professionally printed. (Immediately preceding this all the volumes up to volume 6 no. 23. had been called the Bulletin, although internally numbers 12-23 had been called the Magazine - Ed.). Two issues later Mr G.T. Hutton became Editor, Charles Curtis died, and John Blowers took over as President of the Society, giving up the editorship of the Journal in order to edit The Orchid Review. This was a year of expansion with many new sections of the Society being formed. In November 1957 the Midland section appeared. The following Journal published details of the Devon, Cornwall and District Section and in the Spring of 1959 Scotland reported the formation of a Scottish section. A month or so later Bournemouth and Cambridge gave details of their sections.


Dick Payne takes up the story with an emphasis on the Society’s activities in exhibiting.


Dick Payne

In 1954, when the membership had grown to 251, John Blowers wrote in Bulletin number 10 about how a Society promoted to encourage orchid culture should be educating the public. Being handicapped by a lack of capital the only option he said was to continue quietly showing our flowers at every opportunity. He also mentioned that the Society might arrange a small show in conjunction with one of the Royal Horticultural Society’s fortnightly meetings in London.


In March 1955 the Society put up an exhibit at what was to become the annual British Orchid Growers Association Show (then known as the British Orchid Show) at the RHS Halls. It is reported that the exhibit attracted a great deal of admiration and revealed the high standard that the amateurs had attained.


The success of the exhibit was due in part to its fine setting of a half section of an orchid house beautifully constructed in western red cedar, made and loaned by C.J.Whitehouse Ltd., Buckhurst Works, Frant, Sussex. Mr Whitehouse was a member of the Society until his death a few years ago (written in 2001) and his company still support us. Within the frame of the half greenhouse were two rows of staging at different heights. About 50 plants were on these and more hung from the rafters. All were in full bloom.


The first photograph to be published by the Society was of this exhibit and appeared in Bulletin No. 14. In the following Bulletin it was reported that the future of the British Orchid Shows was in doubt unless amateur growers gave their wholehearted support. As a result the Committee of our Society formed a sub-committee to co-operate with the organisers to improve the show and to combine our OSGB Spring Show with this event. The success of the present show, now named the RHS London Orchid Show, with large numbers of visitors and exhibitors proves the efforts way back in 1955 were not in vain.


The half-section orchid house was used for the Society's display at the 1958 BOCA show. It was reported that the members gave a good account of themselves winning twenty awards in the individual classes; Mr Whitehouse gained a Silver Medal. On the 9 March of that year John Blowers gave publicity to orchids by joining the well known horticultural journalist, Percy Thrower, on the Television Gardeners Club to discuss various aspects of orchid culture and to show many fine plants. About the same time the magazine, John Bull, published a picture of the Society's Secretary, Mr Lampard, in his orchid house and gave an account of the number of people growing orchids. Our membership was then 565.

This was also the year the Bulletin became the Journal and in the last issue of that year, Mr L.W. Bennett wrote:

"Our Society has now overcome most of the perils of its early days and I feel certain well on the way as a very real force in the orchid world. One of the ways we can add our quota to its success, is by exhibiting our plants at our local Flower Shows, (...) Great Britain is the home of the leading hybridisers in the world, and in USA, Australia and elsewhere they are quoted as the guarantee of quality and excellence. In 1960 the International Orchid Conference is to be held in London. Shall we therefore, as the leading Amateur Orchid Society, do our utmost to show that not only can our growers produce the best strains, but that we can grow them too? We must prepare at once."


Was this article the spark that lit the enthusiasm for the Society to show at the Chelsea Flower Show, which incorporated the exhibit for the 3rd World Orchid Conference?

In the same issue of the Journal it was reported that the Committee had been in communication with the RHS regarding the 3rd World Orchid Conference and hoped to take as large a part as possible. The newly formed Show sub-committee quickly got down to work and the second issue of the 1959 Journal contained information regarding the rules and classes for members’ competitive displays. In 1959 these were nine classes:

  1. Not more than 6 orchids in bloom

  2. A group of species - not more than 6

  3. 1 Plant of any species

  4. 1 Cymbidium

  5. 1 Cypripedium

  6. 1 Cattleya or allied genera

  7. 1 Dendrobium or allied genera

  8. 1 Odontoglossum or allied genera

  9. Best grown plant in any of the above classes

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