The history of the Chelsea Flower Show

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show may no longer be Britain’s largest flower show (this title is now held by Hampton Court), but it’s an integral part of British culture, with its roots extending back to the 1800s. Once considered to be a great social leveller, The Chelsea Flower Show is now one of the most famous and prestigious horticultural shows in not just the UK, but the entire world.


Each year, the Chelsea Flower Show attracts visitors and exhibitors from across the globe thanks to its spectacular planting displays and celebratory atmosphere. This includes the Royal Family,  who attend the open day each year, and have been doing so since Queen Alexandra first opened the show in 1913. In fact, Her Majesty The Queen has only missed two of the shows since being crowned.


One thing you may not know about the Chelsea Flower Show is that it has had a number of names and locations since its inception. However, the show as we know it today has been held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea since 1913, with this excluding gaps during the two World Wars.

crowd of people visiting the chelsea flower show


Interested to learn more about the history of the Chelsea Flower Show? Join phs Greenleaf as we look back on its interesting past…


1827: Before the Chelsea Flower Show became the event that we know today, this year marks the first flower show hosted by The Royal Horticultural Society of London (RHS) in the West London district of Chiswick. This horticultural fete, which highlighted what had been cultivated in gardens in the district, quickly became a regular occurrence.


1829: The horticultural fete had to be abandoned for the first time due to adverse weather conditions, with visitors struggling to walk through thick and deep mud. Bad weather also caused the show to be cancelled in 1932, when it was later known as the Chelsea Flower Show.


1857: The RHS stopped holding the Chiswick flower shows due to waning interest from the public. This is largely said to be due to the competition from rival flower shows, which began being held in Regent’s Park and Crystal Palace in the 1840s. The railway also experienced a growth in popularity, and Chiswick wasn’t accessible by railway at this time.


1861: The RHS flower shows appeared after a new hiatus, though they had a new location; Kensington Gardens. This is where the Great Exhibition of 1851 (the first international exhibition of manufactured products), was also held.


1862: The date of the show was changed to ensure it would now be held in spring (instead of summer). However, a summer show also took place shortly after this change, leading to two annual shows being held for the next several years. These became known as the ‘Royal Horticultural Society’s Great Spring Show’ and the ‘Summer Show’, and they were later cancelled in 1866.


1888: Two years after their cancellation, the site at Kensington Gardens was abandoned, and the Great Spring Show restarted in Temple Gardens. Thanks to its new central London location, members of the public regained interest, and the exhibitor count grew from 48 to 120.


1907:  During this year’s Great Spring Show, a kiwi bush was exhibited for the very first time in Britain.


1912: Due to noise, litter, and the disruption it brought to lawyers working near the Temple, The Great Spring Show was cancelled again, leading to great nurseryman, Sir Harry Veich, seeking a new location. That same year, the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition was successfully held at Royal Hospital Chelsea, which convinced the RHS to make it the new site of the Great Spring Show.

1913: The Great Spring Show was held for the first time in Royal Hospital Chelsea, and it was attended by Queen Alexandra, and two of her daughters. Royal patronage has continued since their attendance. This year, the show’s programme first referred to the event as the ‘Chelsea Show’.


1917: Although the Chelsea Flower Show went ahead in the previous year despite the First World War, this year’s show was cancelled as many men were lost from estate gardens to complete war service.


1918: With World War I still not at an end, the show was cancelled for a second year.


1932: At this point, the event had been running for a number of years after its short hiatus during the war. This year, a private view was first introduced to the show.


1937: Due to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth both celebrating their Coronation Year, a spectacular Empire Exhibition was staged at this year’s show. The exhibition featured wattles from Australia, pines from Canada, gladioli from East Africa, and a big prickly pear from Palestine.


1938: The Second World War had begun, and the Chelsea Flower Show was cancelled for the duration of the war. This was due to the War Office needing the land to create an anti-aircraft site.


1947: Despite concerns for plant stocks being low and the fuel for greenhouses being depleted due to World War II, the show resumed and was a resounding success.


1980: Due to overcrowding (particularly in the mornings), it was decided that the show would open at 8am this year, and close at 8:30pm. Reduced price tickets for entry after 4pm were also introduced to reduce crowding during the morning.


1988: Due to visitor numbers steadily increasing, a limit of 40,000 visitors per day was imposed for the show. This was a reduction of 90,000 from the previous year. Members were also charged for a ticket for the first time.


1997: Prestigious fashion house Yves Saint Laurent commissioned a garden to coincide with the launch of their new fragrance. This spearheaded a trend for other luxury brands, such as Manolo Blahnik and Chanel, to create displays and products for the Chelsea Flower Show in later years.


2000: the show’s original Great Marquee (which was first used in 1951) was replaced with the current modular structure. The remains of this marquee were used to produce 7,000 bags, aprons, and jackets.


2003: The Chelsea Flower Show celebrated turning 100!


2018: Today, the Chelsea Flower Show remains one of the most prestigious horticultural shows in the UK and the wider world, and it welcomes 157,000 visitors each year.