A Brief History Of The Leigh on Sea Horticultural Society

The Leigh on Sea Horticultural Society


The inaugural meeting of Leigh Horticultural Society was held on Thursday, 4th June 1925, at Elm Hall (now Leigh Community Centre) under the chairmanship of Mr Cranley Perry, a keen local gardener who lived in Vernon Road. At the time, Leigh was undergoing rapid expansion, with large housing estates being built on countryside that had hitherto been farmland. New home-owners were eager to grow flowers and vegetables on their virgin plots and many were quick to join the fledgling horticultural society.

An early event was a competition for the best-kept garden, launched in 1926 and proving popular over many years. In the 1930s, summer flower shows were held at Chalkwell Park, featuring marching bands, dance troupes, side shows, and special events for local schools. The show benches were erected under canvas and well supported by members of the flourishing society. By the end of the decade, the LHS Summer Flower Shows had become an important feature in the town’s calendar of major events. However, horticultural exuberance was soon to be dashed by the outbreak of the Second World War. The Dig for Victory campaign was underway and the lawns and flower beds of Chalkwell Park were ploughed up for the production of vegetables, to augment the many allotment sites around the town. Leigh Horticultural Society went through a period of decline as men and women were called up to assist in the war effort. Nevertheless, within a few weeks of VE Day, the dormant society was resurrected under the chairmanship of Mr W. Finch, who lived in Oakleigh Park Drive.

A newcomer to the committee at this time was Harry Smith - or ‘Black Harry’ as he was irreverently known to the pupils at Westcliff High School for Boys, where he taught chemistry. A highly gifted gardener, Harry was to feature prominently in the fortunes of Leigh Horticultural Society for over twenty years. Once again, Chalkwell Park hosted the Society’s summer shows, visitor numbers in 1948 topping 4000. Autumn Shows were held at St. Clement’s Hall, and by the time of the Society’s Silver Jubilee in 1950, membership exceeded 1000. In 1954, Ken McCreadie, Southend’s Parks Superintendent and an active LHS member, booked the flower arranger, Julia Clements, to demonstrate her skill to LHS members. The event proved so successful that it led to the founding of the Leigh Floral Arrangement Group.

In the 50s, the chrysanthemum was a popular flower with many gardeners and the Society held an annual competition dedicated to the showing of these flamboyant blooms, usually held over two days in October at St. Clement’s Hall. The Society was also a regular participant at the Southend Town Shows, winning many trophies for the excellence of their floral displays. LHS shows continued to flourish through the years, the only setback being cancellation of the Autumn Show in 1965, due to a fire at St. Clement’s Hall.

Harry Smith was an outstanding Chairman, serving the Society in this role over 22 years, from 1952 until his unexpected death in 1974. He had many contacts in the world of horticulture and attracted several interesting speakers to the Society’s winter talks, including the well-known Essex gardener, Beth Chatto, and Fred Whitsey, then editor of Popular Gardening magazine.                                                                       

In the 1970s, interest in gardening burgeoned, helped by BBC TV’s popular programme, ‘Gardeners’ World’. With the loss of Harry Smith, Ken Price stepped into the breach, chairing the Society until the mid-1990s.  His wife, Dorothy, was a keen and successful exhibitor at the LHS shows, winning numerous awards over many years. Her father, Harry Proctor, had been an early member of the LHS in the late 1920s. In 1970, radio and stage entertainer, Fred Yule, a member of the LHS who lived in Park Road, was invited to become the Society’s President. He is perhaps best remembered for his role in the successful WWII radio programme, ‘I.T.M.A.’, with Tommy Handley.

A Summer Show in the 1980s, before the doors opened to the public.

The early 1980s saw membership fluctuating between 300 and 350, but was to increase considerably when Southend Council reintroduced the popular Town Shows. The LHS’s superb floral displays attracted much interest, and many new members were signed up over the next few years. By the end of the 80s, membership stood at over 440. Many of the long-serving committee members now felt it was time to retire and hand over management to a younger generation of enthusiasts, who were eager to ensure a prosperous future for the Society.

The new committee introduced many new events, a popular one being the Annual Garden Trail, with members opening their gardens for the enjoyment of other members and their friends. Members were now kept up to date with the affairs of the Society via The Link, the newsletter issued regularly throughout the year. The popularity of the summer outings continued, with regular excursions to places of interest. A history of the Society, The Flowering of a Community, was published in 2000 to mark the Society’s 75th anniversary, and, in 2005, to celebrate the 80th anniversary, the Society hosted an edition of the popular BBC Radio 4 programme,

Gardeners’ Question Time. Much of the success of the Society at this time must be accorded to the stewardship of the hard-working Secretary, Charlie Ablethorpe.

Two local allotment societies affiliated to the LHS - Manchester Drive Allotment Society in 1985 and Leigh Allotment and Leisure Gardeners Association in 2009 - their members eagerly participating in the flower shows and other LHS activities. And

when Leigh Town Council introduced its annual Best Front Garden competition, the LHS were invited to participate in the judging, the awards being presented by the Leader of the Council at the Winter Show.

In recent years, the greatest upheaval to the affairs of the Society was the Church’s decision to sell St. Clement’s Hall to a property developer. Many LHS members were in the forefront of the unsuccessful campaign to save the venue for the local community, which had been the Society’s show base for over sixty years. Fortunately, another church, keen to support the local community, came to the rescue; Leigh Road Baptist Church offered their superb events complex to the LHS for their shows and meetings. 

Today, under the excellent chairmanship of Julia Tetley, the popularity of the Leigh Horticultural Society continues to prosper, with a membership of well over 300 keen gardeners, enjoying a full programme of flower shows, meetings and coach outings. Full details of the Society’s activities and events, together with membership information, can be found on the LHS website www.leighgardening.org.uk

Jim Sanctuary