With their intricate patterns and bold colours, the neatly arranged rows of tulips that go on display in a 180-year-old Yorkshire show each Spring are a visual spectacular. But behind their pretty appearance is a remarkable story. Laura Drysdale reports.
It is artisan labourers who should be credited, at least in part, for the long-standing success of the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society.
Their dedication to growing and showing varieties in the West Riding – both at a time when floral societies nationwide were thriving and when many were folding – ensured it survived into the 20th century. Indeed, since 1936, it has been the only one of its kind in the country.
“They (the growers) weren’t wealthy people in general,” explains Teresa Clements, the society’s secretary. “They were generally the butcher, the greengrocer, the miner, the shoemaker.”
Certainly at the time of the society’s establishment in 1836, it was viewed as an attractive hobby away from the daily grind.
“When you think of the environment in the mid and late process of industrialisation, the West Riding was and remained for a long time a black hole, with movement from the rural communities to the industrial centres,” Malcolm Hainsworth, society committee member and vice president reflects.
“The sight of these [tulips] periodically must have been astonishing, even more astonishing in that dark period. I think it would attract anyone, especially if they spent their days down the pit. It’s an astonishing range of colours that they otherwise wouldn’t see.”
Teresa agrees. “The colours are striking now but they must have had more impact then.”
Fruit and vegetables aside, many an allotment of the time featured a small plot with a few tulips, providing not only a burst of colour, but also, at times, a supplementary income.
“A good bloom grown by chance by an ordinary workman that caught the eye of a wealthy fancier, he would be able to sell it for guineas and he would only be earning ten guineas in a year,” says Malcolm, formerly society chairman.
As well as bringing in some much needed extra cash, it was also a hobby that brought with it a social network, as growers met in local pubs to exchange bulbs and horticultural tips.
Still today, at the society’s annual show in the West Yorkshire town of Horbury, the tulips are displayed in brown beer bottles.
It’s a long-standing tradition, though it wasn’t always the case.
“They were originally displayed in little stone jars,” explains Teresa, who lives in Harrogate with her husband Jason, the society’s treasurer.
“They were made specifically for showing and they had a very narrow opening at the top so were quite hard to fill and hard to empty as well. The story goes that someone took a lot of them to a show and bagged them up afterwards to collect and put them in storage until the next show.
“But the bin men came along and took them away before someone had time to collect them.
“I don’t know whether that was the origin of beer bottles as what you would use to show, but the beer bottle was an obvious choice to a group of people who met in a pub and it was cheap, and it was easy to empty and easy to fill, and they look fantastic – They are very much an egalitarian thing to show them in.”
From the wealthy to the ordinary
The popularity of tulips in the UK grew from the 17th century, when there was a shift in the cultivation of plants from medicinal usage to recreational.
Enthusiasts, given the name of florists, formed groups dedicated to particular flowers and aimed to produce blooms to a set standard, showing them against each other in competitions.
Though interest in tulips peaked in the mid 19th century, when there were around 200 annual shows up and down the British Isles, only four societies are believed to have survived into the 1900s.
The pastime was one originally reserved for the rich. In Wakefield, florists’ tulips were grown in the impressive grounds of Woolley Hall and Walton Hall a hundred years prior to the society’s very existence.
But while some wealthy individuals maintained an interest, in the early 1800s, the tulip made its way increasingly into the hands of ordinary people passed on, in some cases, through landowners to their gardeners.
“It was a flower that made the transition from being a very high status, exclusive bloom, which was only accessible to extremely wealthy people on the whole,” Malcolm explains.
“Whilst it was in their hands, few would have had access to them and they were symbols of prestige. But I think as foreign imports came and planters brought exotics from around the world, the tulip was gradually displaced.”
The earliest discovered record of a tulip show in Wakefield dates back to 1829, though a florists society, which held shows for carnations, tulips, auriculas and dahlias, held its first meeting nearly two decades earlier in 1807.
Today, the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society has around 250 members, including some from as far away as Russia, Sweden and the United States.
“I maintain that a vase of our tulips are the finest vase of flowers you can ever see, doesn’t matter whether it’s orchids, roses, whatever,” says Malcolm, who grows varieties from his allotment in York.
The society’s main focus is the English Florists’ Tulip, which has two forms – broken or breeder. The former, also known as ‘rectified’, clearly show the effects of the Tulip Breaking Virus, which causes the colour to split and striking patterns form as a result.
In flowers deemed ‘feathered’, these are confined to the edges of the petals, while with ‘flamed’ blooms, this is accompanied by a beam of colour up the centre of the petal, too.
Breeders are not visibly affected by the virus and come in three colour categories.
Rose is made up of a white base, with rose, scarlet, crimson or red petals. Bybloemen, too, has a white base but with petals a shade of purple, mauve or black, and Bizarre has a yellow base with orange, scarlet, brown or black petals.
A work of art
The visual beauty of these flowers has long attracted painters, including the botanical artist Rory McEwen who was a patron of the society.
In a letter in 1963, sent to then secretary Hubert Calvert, he tells of how an anonymous donor bought one of his paintings, featuring an Old Dutch Bizarre tulip sent by the society, and gifted it “in perpetuity” to the White House in Washington.
“The name of your Society is written on the picture and I had the good fortune to meet the President’s wife, Mrs Kennedy, and told her all about the tulips, in which she was very interested,” he writes.
“So long as the White House stands, the Wakefield Tulip Society’s flowers and the name of the society will be hanging on the wall there.”
The test of time
The society continues to attract interest from artists and photographers and despite a drop-off in the 1960s, it has remained popular, broadening its membership to people from all walks of life.
Just as its varieties have stood the test of time (many that members grow today date back to the 1800s), it has demonstrated longevity and no small amount of endurance. You might even call it a blooming show of resilience.
The society’s 184th show takes place at Primrose Hall in Horbury on Saturday, May 11. It is open to the public from 2.30pm until 4.30pm.