Category Archives: history

Chelsea and its Flower Show

Mary Poppins arriving with open umbrella and Gladstone bag constructed of dark blue flower heads, with a bush of pale orange and cream flowers filling the bag and almost the same size.Chelsea in Bloom 2023

Mary Poppins, Royal Avenue, Chelsea

Last week was the Chelsea Flower Show. I aIways beam at the enthusiastic visitors who pour down the King’s Road on their way to the Show. (Love a good enthusiast!) But somehow this year the excitement has seemed a bit muted.

Normally the Flower Show People — you can tell them by the floral outfits, exciting hats and sensible shoes for hours of walking — are a pretty cheery bunch, even in the pouring rain. This time, the worst excess of the weather has been no more than overcast. But too many of the visitors have looked harassed.

It made me really grateful for the display at the end of Royal Avenue: a Mary Poppins of indigo flowers, Gladstone bag in hand, flying in to save the Mr Banks in all of us. Her author, P L Travers (her blue plaque currently obscured by builder’s fencing), lived two streets away in Smith Street,

Chelsea in Bloom

Carousel ponies among flowers in the Mary Poppins floral display, Chelsea 2023Mary Poppins, together with her accompanying carousel ponies, are entries in a floral street art competition, supported by the Cadogan Estate, in conjunction with the Royal Horticultural Society. Since 2006, it has become a traditional companion celebration to the Chelsea Flower Show itself.

This year’s theme is Flowers on Film. The organisers say it “promises stunning floral installations celebrating movie icons and all genres of film, creating a magical experience for visitors and locals alike.” Saving Mr Banks certainly inspires some hope for these uncertain times.

The Lion King, Chelsea in Bloom, 2023But though most of the displays are lovely and some are very good fun, I couldn’t find much magic as I walked along the King’s Road photographing them.

Admittedly there is a spectacular Little Mermaid arrangement, though our heroine to me looked more like a tough barmaid than the ethereal Ariel of the original Disney film. Maybe she’s closer to the version about to premiere, of which I have heard much.

And the substantial grouping of Lion King dramatis personae in Duke of York Square makes the incumbent statue of Sir Hans Sloane, looking away from the show-off animals, appear positively austere. “You are lesser things. I am not of your element.”

Gave me a good laugh, though. Which is as good as magic and sometimes more necessary.

A Bit of History of Chelsea…

the Queen, white haired and dressed in yellow jacket and yellow broad brimmed hat decorated with pink roses smiling in the sunshine

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

These days the Chelsea Flower Show is thought to be a key event in the London social and cultural season. There will be smart clothes, champagne and royal patronage.

It was not always so. (Hint to Writers of Regency romance: beware of anachronism here!)

As all readers of Georgette Heyer know, the Season evolved over the 18th century as the period during which the aristocracy and gentry left their country estates and came to Town to catch up with the gossip, engage in politics and cultural activities and, incidentally, introduce daughters of marriageable age to suitable young men.

Would any one of Heyer’s characters have gone to the first meeting of the Horticultural Society of London, forerunner of the RHS, in 1804? (Mr Beaumaris, possibly? Arabella’s father was impressed by his intellect, after all.)

The instigator was John, son of Josiah Wedgwood, and he wanted to do what the Lunar Men had done – exchange ideas, publish papers and discuss them.

There were seven men at that first meeting on 7th March at Hatchards, the Picadilly bookshop. The polymath Sir Joseph Banks, now President of the Royal Society, was in the chair.

Three of the others were working horticulturalists – the Superintendent of Kew Gardens, the Superintendent of the gardens of St James’s and Kensington Palaces and nurseryman James Dickson, a founder member of the Linnean Society and a protegé of Banks’s. None of them was a dilettante.

Sadly, I’m not sure whether any of the above, with the possible exception of Banks, I suppose, would have got vouchers for Almacks.

And it was that hard-working man of vision, Prince Albert, not the Queen, who gave them their royal patent in 1864, so they became the Royal Horticultural Society.

…and Geography

In 1821 the young Society acquired some land in Chiswick from the Duke of Devonshire’s estate and, briefly, employed the brilliant Joseph Paxton – at least they did until the Duke pinched him to be (at the age of 20) Head Gardener at Chatsworth. (Paxton’s arrival there is a cracking story and even romantic – well worth reading. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction.)

From 1828 the Society began to hold fêtes in their Chiswick Garden. They added shows with competitions for flowers and vegetables from 1833, a clear forerunner of what occurs at the Chelsea Flower Show today. At the same time, they continued to run experiments on their own account.

In 1861 the Society developed a new garden on land south of Hyde Park which they leased from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.

The next year they held the Society’s first Great Spring Show. That continued until the Kensington site closed in 1882 when it moved to the gardens of the Inner Temple on the Victoria Embankment. Development and experiment continued at the Chiswick garden, however, and was maintained until 1904, when it moved out of London to Surrey, on the gift of Wisley from Sir Thomas Hanbury.

Remembrance Day, Chelsea Pensioner in uniformBut then the Inner Temple Show was cancelled in 1912.

Harry Veitch had for many years run the successful and innovative James Veitch & Sons nurseries in the King’s Road. He did a deal with the Royal Hospital for use of their extensive grounds to host the Great Spring Show as a one-off experiment. He was knighted that year, too..

It was so successful, that in 1913, the RHS returned and the present Chelsea Flower Show began to take shape, including the royal patronage. The widowed Queen Alexandra attended with two of her children.

When I Went to the Chelsea Show

I’ve only been to the Chelsea Flower Show twice, in spite of living so close. It’s very crowded.(What can I say?  I’m too short for crowds.)

Image by Alicja from Pixabay

The first time I was invited by a serious gardener who knew the ropes and guided me expertly. The following year, my mother said wistfully she’d really like to go, just once. My expert got me the tickets and gave me the best advice. Pick three things you really want to see. Pick your route. Go home before you’re too tired. “Oh,” he added, looking at my by now elderly mum, “watch out for the Duchesses. They come armed, especially on the last day when plants are given away. Umbrellas,  you know.”

Fortunately we weren’t there on the last day. But we did encounter an umbrella or two, raised to clear the path of beady-eyed persons (mostly with cut glass accents Celia Johnson would envy) on a mission to get to the front of the crowd round a show garden.

Helpless with laughter, we threw in the towel and left before, as my mother said, we lost a knee cap.

Affective Gardens

Chris Beardshaw, winning garden designer, Chelsea 2023

Photo with thanks to

The BBC does the Chelsea Flower Show proud, every year, both on television and, even more atmospherically, on radio.

This year Gardeners’ Question Time stopped me dead in my tracks, with a really moving piece about the garden created by Chris Beardshaw for Myeloma UK and funded by Project Giving Back.

The garden has been designed to offer tranquility and, in particular, to quiet the inner chatter. You can hear Beardshaw’s description at the link staring around 14.28 minutes. And it’s lovely.

STOP PRESS: After I’d written this, Libertà’s Joanna told me that this garden had won the BBC People’s Choice Award. See the Life Worth Living garden here

Chelsea Flower Show and Me

Apple orchard in sunlight

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

It moved me particularly because my mother, who loved her garden but was, at best, an erratic gardener, told me, after we’d been to the show, why it had been  so important to her.

In 1940 her brother, a dispatch rider with the British Expeditionary Force in France, went missing during the chaos of retreat. She didn’t tell anyone. But all that summer she would come home from work and go straight out into the garden and work until the moon came up.

Image by Kerstin Riemer from Pixabay


“Eventually, the Salvation Army found him. He’d been overtaken by the German advance and was a prisoner of war. Not good, of course, but at least he was safe and we could write.

“The garden never looked so good. It was a riot of colour. I’d weeded and pruned and dead-headed and mowed as if his life depended on it. Gardening kept me sane.”

Solace 2023

I’ve gardened like that. And I think in 2023 a lot of us need get our hands in the hearth, or to step under a canopy of trees, and just let nature quieten that anxious inner monologue.

Pandemic, war, economic uncertainty, worldwide failure to address climate change… There’s a lot going on and none of it good. I sympathise with the Just Stop Oil protesters who threw orange paint over the RBC Brewin Dolphin Garden on Thursday. But how I wish they’d found a way to protest that didn’t just add to negative load.

I couldn’t help noticing how many closed businesses there are in the King’s Road. People need help, not threats.

Chelsea can be uplifting, though…

Lloyd's Bank Chelsea in Bloom displaySo I want to end with two things that I have found genuinely uplifting while I’ve been writing this blog. The first is another Chelsea in Bloom entry. Lloyds Bank in the Kings Road turned their famously rearing black horse logo into a dear little black pony, among simple garden and meadow flowers.

He is looking wistfully into their window. Ironic and gentle at the same time, this is a horse looking for company. I laughed but I also said, “Ah, bless.”

And the other is a 23-year-old British movie. It is similarly gentle, kind and ironic, but with a gritty edge that makes it all the sweeter. Also, it is inspired by a true story from the Chelsea Flower Show, when a group of prisoners entered their garden for a prize.

Helen Mirren is note perfect as the hyper-confident garden expert who is brilliant at what she wants but needs a quick kick up the arse in the relationship department. (She gets it and redeems herself. Very satisfying. Very, very funny.) Clive Owen is louche and lovely as a man who turns self-discovery into a mission to change the world and has a very decent crack at it. In fact the entire dramatis personae are total fruitcakes and every one a star performance.

And, of course, the flowers are beautiful.

You can watch it on Amazon now. Greenfingers. Enjoy!

Sophie Weston Author


Scottish myth, history and engineering

Falkirk Wheel. Marsupium photography via Wikimedia Commons

Those of you who dropped into the Liberta Blog over Easter might have noticed I was a tad slow with my replies to the comments…

That’s because I was busy exploring a little more of Scotland. The Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies, to be exact.

Most of you will know that my main interest lies in the history of the 18th and early 19th century, but although the Falkirk Wheel did not open until 2002, its heritage and engineering dates back way beyond the Industrial Revolution.

As far as Archimedes, in fact.

Let’s go back a bit for more engineering

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How the Union Flag has evolved

When I wrote about coronations a few weeks ago, I didn’t mention flags. But for the 2023 coronation, they were everywhere, weren’t they? Strings of bunting featuring the Union Jack (or Union Flag, if you prefer). So I thought I might blog about the origins and evolution of the flag we all recognise and take for granted.

Many, perhaps most, national flags are fairly simple, perhaps just three coloured stripes, like the French and German ones. The Union Jack is much more complicated, as is the flag of the USA. That’s another flag that has evolved and may continue to do so, like the differences in our languages. Dame Isadora has blogged about that, more than once 😉

Amercian and English spoken

Two Nations divided by a common language  Rawf8

The Union Jack is the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to use the full title. And so the flag should represent the constituent parts. But does it? Where is Wales, for example? Continue reading

Coronation excess: Napoleon, George IV, William IV

St Edward's Crown used in British coronation

St Edward’s crown used in coronation

You may already be fed up with coronation information and PR. However, my blog this week is not about next Saturday’s coronation of Charles III. It’s about earlier ones, specifically about the outrageously extravagant coronation of George IV on 19 July 1821.

Well, the long Regency is my period, isn’t it?

And although the Regency ended on the death of George III on 29th January 1820, the coronation had to be delayed from August 1820 because the new king wanted to deal with the “problem” of Caroline of Brunswick.

He didn’t succeed in divorcing her, but he did succeed in keeping her out of his coronation.
She died two weeks later, still Queen Consort, but never crowned.

Why was George IV’s coronation so extravagant?

Two basic reasons. First, the new king’s love of excess. Second, Napoleon. Continue reading

Not Mrs Beaton: Sarah Mallory tries Regency cooking

Fellow authors will understandWoman businesswoman working, files, clock this foray into Regency cooking.

I was having a very busy time, planning a holiday, sorting out the family, finishing one book, starting another, looking at the dust highlighted by the spring sunshine…

So what to do first?

I decided to take part in an online course on Regency cooking. What else??? Continue reading

Rabbie Burns and a first Burns Supper

Robert Burns

Robert Burns by Alexander Naysmith

Having lived in The Scottish Highlands now for four years, I thought it was time to celebrate Burns Night in traditional style. A Burns Supper, no less.

Now, I know I am not the first one to write about Burns on this blog. Scotswoman  Joanna  gave the lowdown on Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) and his comic poem Tam O’Shanter in an earlier post, which you can read here. She also gave us her own modern take on it, in a short story.

The first “supper”

This was in fact a memorial dinner. It was held on 21st July 1801 at Burns Cottage (built by Burns’ father and where the bard was born) in Alloway, South Ayrshire. The idea obviously caught on. A Burns Club was formed in Greenock and held a Burns Supper in 1802, and in 1810 London held its very own Burns Supper. Rabbie was doing well!

the first Burns Supper

So, when our local pub, the Badachro Inn, decided to hold a Burns Supper, we had to sign up for it!

For starters, what to wear?

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Underwear: what was worn under Regency gowns?


See-through petticoat with flounced hem

What underwear did ladies have beneath their Regency gowns? Generally, not much. I’ve blogged before about see-through gowns and the Regency petticoat but what else was underneath?

The go-to reference book for underwear is The History of Underclothes by C. Willet and Phillis Cunnington which starts at the medieval period and finishes at 1939. The History of Underclothes by C Willet and Phillis Cunnington



As you can see from the cover, it includes corsets and bustles and much, much more. And it includes underwear for men. That gent in the middle of the cover is wearing a Jaeger nightgown, dating from the early 1880s.

The lady to his right is wearing “cami-knickers in crêpe-de-chine” from 1922. (No, they didn’t look like knickers to me either!) The lady to his left is much earlier, of course. She may look fully dressed, but she isn’t. That’s corset, chemise and underskirt, dating from about 1780. And French!

Regency underwear

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The Devil and the postman

Sarah home after meeting the devilHome again, and celebrating another voyage of discovery, complete with devil and postman. Don’t you just love it when you are driving along and suddenly discover something new?

That is what happened to me when I recently travelled back from my writers’ retreat with the Liberta Hivies (and a few others).

It was a dreich day…

raincloudsDespite the weather, we were taking the scenic route home…

mailcoach print

What I didn’t know at the time was that this was the old coaching road. Mailcoaches used this road in the 19th century to carry the mail between Dumfries and Edinburgh.

We have all seen pictures of the mailcoach dashing through the countryside, horn blaring, but did you know there is a monument? Well, you’ll have to read on to find out more about that. Continue reading

Whisky, Chessmen and Bonnie Prince Charlie

In May this year we booked a holiday. To explore the scenery, landscape and, of course, the history of the Outer Hebrides. It was not intended as a Jacobite tour, but from the very start we kept bumping into Charlie! I knew some of his story, of course, because I researched much of it while writing my Highland Trilogy. Two of the books actually mention Bonnie Prince Charlie.

In the footsteps of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Almost)

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Normans in Sicily : the Golden Age

I left my previous blog on the Normans in Sicily in 1108, at the point where Roger II became Count of Sicily, aged 9. He was an astonishing character and began to rule for himself when only 16. He expanded his rule through conquest and, in 1130, became King of Sicily. This is how John Julius Norwich describes Roger’s Sicily by the 1140s:

Cover of Kingdom-Sun-1130-1194-Normans-SicilySicily, first of all, has grown steadily richer; and as her prosperity has increased, so too has her political stability. In contrast to the endemic confusion of the Italian peninsula, the island has become a paragon of just and enlightened government, peaceable and law-abiding, an amalgam of races and languages which seems to give strength rather than weakness; and, as its reputation grows, more and more churchmen and administrators, scholars and merchants and unashamed adventurers are drawn across the sea from England, France and Italy to settle in what must have seemed to many of them a veritable Eldorado, a Kingdom in the sun.

Sadly, the Kingdom in the sun lasted only until 1194. But it has left wonders behind.

The Normans’ Greek Admiral of Sicily

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